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It's Sunday morning. You wake up slowly, look out the window and see that it's raining. You make the decision to stay in bed a bit longer. Later you get up, you go to the kitchen and you enjoy a hearty breakfast. Then the path leads into the bathroom and you take a soothing shower or even a bath. In the afternoon you will complete the things that have been left during the week - a little cleaning up and the laundry. Towards evening the weather clears up and you think inviting a few friends over for a barbecue might be a good idea.
Sounds relaxed? But something is missing!
Wouldn't it be nice if you could listen to your favorite music or your favorite internet radio station during all these activities - no matter what room you are in?
To realize that you have several possibilities
You turn on your sound system so loud that the music can be heard in every room - then also your neighbors know that you're awake ...
You put on headphones to enjoy the music without disturbing anyone - but that is quite uncomfortable ...
You play the music directly on your phone or tablet. It is always within reach anyway - but the sound quality is annoying in the long run...
You have a mobile (Bluetooth) speaker - but its battery is empty and you have to recharge it again...
All not satisfying options?
Ok, there is still another possibility: A multi-room audio system - that means speakers in every (important) room of your home, controlled via one or more devices - your PC/Mac, phone or tablet... Plus the possibility to be able to play the music synchronously in multiple rooms, if necessary. Or different music in different rooms.
You think that it costs several thousand dollars/pounds to realize something like that? Or that an endless amount of cables are needed or even walls need to be hacked to install it properly? Wrong!
This article will show how using cost-effective components such a system can be realized.
There are several solutions on the market for multi-room audio systems - in various price ranges. In this article I will focus on the use of available standard components - namely Wi-Fi and AirPlay(TM)* speakers, as well as iPhone/ iPad/iPod as control devices. Not because of a fixation on a particular brand, but as an answer to the question of the optimum in terms of price and performance/quality. A cheap (or cheap-looking) solution that does not work seamlessly or that needs permanent maintenance is not acceptable. And an expensive solution that offers no significant advantages is a waste of money.
Price wise it starts from around 625 US$ for 3 rooms including wireless network infrastructure and control device (iPod Touch, or iPad Mini).
If you already own an iOS device or have less rooms, it will be even cheaper! And even your existing audio equipment can be integrated of course!
The article is divided into the following topics
- the infrastructure needed for connecting the speakers
- the operation/control of the speakers
- the sources from which music can be played from
- a short summary/conclusion
- further tips and tricks
Without going too deep into the technical stuff, I need to briefly address two terms:
WLAN should now be a quite familiar term for a wireless computer network. Today almost each household that has an internet connection also has a WLAN. It is therefore obvious to use this existing infrastructure for the music transmission. Critics of this approach complain that it can cause dropouts during music playback or disturbance of the normal web browsing due to increased network traffic. This problem can be solved relatively easily (if it really occurs) - by opening a second wireless network exclusively for the music data ...
AirPlay is a quasi-standard of Apple, which enables high-quality (lossless) transfer of music via a (wireless) network. AirPlay and WLAN offer some advantages over the widely used Bluetooth: a WLAN has a longer range and offers higher transfer rate and thus better music quality. In addition, AirPlay offers the possibility to play music on multiple speakers in sync and thus allows to build up a true multi-room system. For this purpose AirPlay provides a synchronization of the speakers in the millisecond range.
Let's first have a look at a basic configuration for a simple multi-room system:
It consists of a wireless base station (router), which is optionally connected to the Internet. The end devices such as PCs, Macs, iPhones, etc. are connected to this WLAN. There are multiple AirPlay compatible speakers which are connected to the router wirelessly or (optionally) via LAN cables. Various manufacturers offer speakers in the price range between 150 and 1000 US$. You can get good speakers from around 150 US$. Integrating the speakers into the network is very easy and is usually done with a vendor-specific app: All you have to do is to tell the speaker to connect to your network. In addition to that, it is possible to give the speaker a meaningful name - like 'living room'.
There are also some AirPlay speakers with a built-in battery - with this you can take them to the garden or the balcony to entertain you and your friends at the barbecue without the need for a power socket to be nearby.
The larger your home is, the larger distances have to be bridged to transmit signals and the more sophisticated the network infrastructure must be. Here you can find an overview of different advanced configuration options.
Common problems like interfering networks, not connecting or not synchronous speakers are discussed here .
Integration of existing audio systems
In the context of the integration of existing audio systems into a "AirPlay multi-room system" I want to mention two devices (again, not because of the brand, but due to the function and quality delivered in relation to price):
- The Apple AirPort Express is a small device that can be used for multiple purposes in the AirPlay multi-room environment.
- Basically, it is a wireless router that allows you to create the already mentioned "second network for music" (in case you experience music dropouts while surfing the web). To do this, connect the Airport Express to the existing router via a network cable and configure it to "Create a new network". The configuration is very easy and the created network is fast enough and very stable to drive up to six AirPlay speakers in sync.
- The Airport Express has a built-in 3.5mm audio jack plus an optical audio output and is also AirPlay compatible. Thus it is possible to make existing music systems or PC speakers AirPlay compatible. For this you have to connect the AirPort Express with the music system and configure it to the mode "Connect to wireless network."
- If there are bigger distances to be bridged between the wireless router and the speakers (but no secondary network is needed), you can also configure an Airport Express to "expand existing network".
- The Apple TV is a device the size of the Airport Express and it also offers several functions.
- It is also AirPlay compatible and has an optical output and an HDMI port. Thus, it can be connected to existing audio systems, AV receivers and televisions.
- It brings support for wireless image transmission via AirPlay - it can be used for presenting the vacation photos as well as entire movies transmitted wirelessly to the TV.
- The Apple TV can be used for accessing the iTunes video and music library as a replacement for the classic video library. Thanks to the supplied remote control it is very easy to use!
Once the infrastructure is in place, the next question arises: How to get the music or favorite audio books to be played on the speakers?
When choosing the right device or software it is not about the "religious" question Apple vs Microsoft vs Android. It is simply a matter of achieving a functioning and preferably easy to use solution!
There are again several ways to do it:
- Use a Mac or a PC to send the music to the speakers.
- There some so-called "remote apps" that allow remote control of the Mac/PC from your smartphone or tablet device.
- With ever more powerful smartphones/tablets there is also the option to send the music directly from your the device to the speakers - without going through an extra computer.
In terms of usability and maintainability, I believe in the third way (direct streaming from your smartphone/tablet) as most suitable.
The advantage of AirPlay is that it is already built into iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Thus the music of any app can be played on (exactly) one speaker. There are several Android apps that offer this feature as well, although not quite as easy as on iOS.
The AirPlay feature in iOS control center
Do you want to (occasionally) listen to music on multiple speakers at the same time - eg at your next party - so the possibilities are somewhat limited. So far, there are few apps that cover this case:
- Apple's Remote App - however, Apple's iTunes must be running on a Mac/PC. And I consider that - as already described - as non-suitable.
- There are several apps that allow to play music on multiple speakers for Android. However, the device has to be "rooted", which requires a lot of technical knowledge and possibly can void the warranty...
- The most elegant solution in my eyes is the iOS app Multiroom Music/Radio Player by WHAALE for AirPlay speakers. It combines an intuitive control of multiple speakers with different music sources and a simple installation - once via the App Store and it runs.
The WHAALE App
The WHAALE App provides - in contrast to other music apps - a location-oriented user interface. This means that the central element of the app is the 'stage' - a graphical representation of your home. The speakers are positioned on the stage - either how they are arranged in reality or the way you like it best... You can even use a floor plan of your home as background image.
The WHAALE App on an iPad Air with a floor plan as background image
Once the stage is set up, you can choose music from one of the available music sources - and this is also positioned on the stage. On a speaker as an exclusive playback in a room. Or directly on the stage to play in multiple rooms. You simply pull the playback from one speaker to another if you want to take the music with you from one room to another ... (see http://playback.whaale.com)
There are also various possibilities to control the volume of each speaker - use the way you like the most (see http://volume.whaale.com ).
This short video shows how the whole thing looks like when in use.
The WHAALE App running on an iPod Touch 5G
What music sources are needed for which requirements will be considered in the next section a bit more in detail.
There are many different ways to store/access music in digital form. We will look a bit more in detail at the options - and you can decide for yourself what you really need...
An editor that selects music of a certain genre or era, a presenter who entertains us with stories and news from around the world. The advantages of a radio station still exist nowadays and have their own unique charm. And the internet offers the possibility to receive your favorite station from all corners of the world...
But the constant DJ talk and frequent commercial breaks are not for everyone ...
Music stored on the smartphone/tablet
You have some music stored on your Mac/PC - purchased from iTunes or ripped from CDs - but you want to listen to it when you are on the way to work?? Then you can copy the music onto your smartphone/tablet. And this music can also be played at home...
The disadvantage of this solution is the limit of the memory size of the mobile device... It can be solved by storing the music in the internet in so-called "cloud" storages.
You have more music in your collection than can be stored on your smartphone? But you do not want that your music is stored in the internet? Then so-called "media servers" are the solution! Basically, they are hard disks that are integrated into your local network infrastructure and you can access at home.
The disadvantage of this solution is the need for additional hardware, which is reflected in increased maintenance costs and power consumption. And data maintenance and backup are not to be underestimated tasks ...
Music-Streaming Service (Music on Demand)
Nowadays, almost all classic video stores are replaced by video-on-demand services such as maxdome, Apple's iTunes or Amazon's "Instant Video". Some of these services offer the ability to watch an endless amount of movies and series for a fix monthly fee.
Modern "music-on-demand" services work exactly according to this scheme: You pay a certain monthly amount and get it access to millions of songs. And as a bonus you'll supplied with additional information such as the current charts or recommendations of an editorial. The management of your own music collections, data backup (or alternatively data loss) are a thing of the past. And the money for the monthly fee you get from buying a device with less memory/storage - you won't need this any more!
Music sources in the WHAALE App
No matter what kind of music sources are the most important for you: in the WHAALE app all options are available.
- The app can play music that is stored on your iOS device - see http://itunes.whaale.com for details.
- The app can play music that is stored on (UPnP compatible) media servers - see http://upnp.whaale.com
- WHAALE database contains several internet radio stations from all around the world. If necessary, these can always be extended by new channels - see http://radio.whaale.com
- The app has integrated support for the Deezer music service - see http://deezer.whaale.com
This article has shown (briefly) that the dream of a multi-room audio system does not have to remain a dream. With the right hardware and software such a system can be realized now and even cheaper than expected. And it's not rocket science to set it up and to control it!
The components you need for a basic setup are
- approx. 90US$ for an AirPort Express (to integrate an existing stereo system of pair of speakers)
- 300 US$ for 2 AirPlay compatible speakers
- 220 US$ for an iPod Touch 5G or 265 US$ for an iPad mini
- 10 US$ for the WHAALE App (requires some in-app-purchases)
The use of standard components has the advantage that the system can be extended over time, or that individual speakers can be exchanged by speakers of a different manufacturer if needed. A (over the long run expensive) binding to a particular manufacturer is not given.
If you acquired a taste for it, then use the next Saturday to prepare yourself for the relaxing, rainy Sundays ;-). Try out for free if you like the presented WHAALE app and/or whether the sources are sufficient for your need. There is a free version of the app available: The AirPlay Speaker Tester App .
Finally, two small "tips" from my personal experiences with my multi-room system.
The simple kitchen radio
Some contemporaries (sometimes correctly) argue that life has not become easier with all theses "electronic gadgets". In grandmothers time the radio was turned on by pressing a single button on the radio and it worked. If you've had enough, you simply pressed the same button again, and it was off!
To handle this scenario - a simple kitchen radio - the WHAALE app can be configured to precisely meet these requirements with the help of a few settings: see here how it works!
Installing a speaker in the bathroom
In many bathrooms power outlets are in short supply. However, many mirror cabinets have power outlets, partly even connected with the light switch, or a separate switch can be used to switch it on and off. Perfect for the installation of an AirPlay speaker on top of the mirror cabinet!
An AirPlay speaker placed on top of a mirror cabinet
And of course you can use a (discarded) iPod as a player specially for the bathroom... In case you have a power socket left, you can use the Bluelounge MiniDock as the perfect place for your iPod.
An iPod Touch on a Bluelounge Minidock
Last modification: 2014-10-09
* AirPlay, AppleTV, AirPort Express, iPod and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc.