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How to build your own AirPlay audio system

I’m a big fan of Apple’s AirPlay technology, which lets you stream audio (and video) from iTunes on your Mac, or from supported apps on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, to AirPlay-enabled devices around your house. In fact, when streaming from iTunes—or from other Mac apps using Airfoil—you can send audio to multiple devices at the same time, making it easy to build a whole-home audio system at a fraction of the cost of similar setups.

Unfortunately, even though AirPlay debuted back in November 2010, few audio systems with integrated AirPlay support have actually been released. (We recently reviewed the first, B&W’s Zeppelin Air.) Which means that if you want to take advantage of AirPlay to stream your music around your house, it may be easier to put together your own system.

Here’s a look at what you need to do, either using an existing audio system or by building a new one from scratch.

Apple’s AirPort Express is AirPlay-ready thanks to its combo digital/analog audio output.

Use existing speakers

If you’ve got an existing stereo system, a set of quality computer or powered speakers, or even an iPod/iPhone “speaker dock” with an auxiliary-input jack, all you need is an Apple AirPort Express Base Station ($99; for analog or digital audio connections) or second-generation Apple TV ($99; digital only), along with a simple audio cable.

Once you’ve configured the AirPort Express or Apple TV to receive AirPlay streaming (see the Enable AirPlay section, below), setup is simple. If your existing speakers use an analog-audio connection, only the AirPort Express will work. You just run a standard analog cable—with a 1/8-inch stereo miniplug on the AirPort Express end, and either a miniplug or left/right RCA plugs on the other, depending on your stereo’s audio-input jack(s)—from the AirPort Express’s audio-out jack to that audio input.

If you’ve got a speaker system—or, more likely, a home-theater receiver or a dedicated digital-to-analog converter (DAC)—with an optical-digital audio input, you can use either an AirPort Express or an Apple TV. You simply run an optical cable from the audio-output jack on the Apple TV or AirPort Express to an optical input on your audio system. The Apple TV requires a standard TosLink connector; the AirPort Express uses a Mini-TosLink plug. If you don’t have the cable you need, you can pick one up from most electronics stores or—for a lot less money—online from a site such as Monoprice.

You can control volume using the audio system’s own volume control, or you can set your stereo at a comfortable level and then instead use iTunes or your iOS device to adjust the volume level.

Build your own

If you don’t already have a good audio system, or you’ve been thinking about buying a new one for AirPlay use, you’ve got plenty of options, including buying a full-size stereo or a bookshelf/mini stereo system. But if you’ll be using this system mainly for AirPlay—in other words, you don’t need all the bells and whistles of a multi-function stereo—you might consider, in the spirit of my older article on building your own iPod stereo, putting together your own compact AirPlay-audio system.

An AirPort express connected to a small desktop amplifier and unpowered speakers (here, Dayton's DTA-100a and Energy's CB-5, respectively) is an inexpensive way to create an AirPlay system.

Such a system consists of a compact, low-power amplifier, a set of quality bookshelf speakers, and an AirPort Express. The DIY route has the advantage of being smaller and less conspicuous than a traditional stereo, while likely giving you better sound quality than computer or docking speakers, thanks to (with some savvy shopping) better speakers and the capability to spread the speakers farther apart for better stereo separation. Depending on your components, it can also be surprisingly inexpensive.

Your amplifier options are numerous. I recommend a Class T amp, which will generally give you 10 to 50 watts of efficient power in a tiny package. A couple solid options are Amphony’s diminutive, 40-watt Model 200 microFidelity Mini Amplifier ($69) and Dayton Audio’s 50-watt (and more polished) DTA-100a ($130). If you want a step up in quality, Audioengine’s Audioengine N22 ($199) uses class-A/B amplification and higher-end components.

For speakers, you’ll want bookshelf models that offer quality audio at a reasonable price. On the extreme-budget end, consider Dayton Audio’s BR-1CAB ($55 a pair) or Energy’s CB-5 Bookshelf Speakers (listed at $180, but available on Amazon.com, where they regularly sell for around $85 a pair). For a big step up in compact quality, there’s Paradigm’s Atom Monitor ($250 a pair) and PSB’s Alpha B1 ($279 a pair).

Setup here is similarly easy: You just connect the speakers to your amplifier using standard speaker cable, then connect your AirPort Express to the amplifier as described above.

The in-between route

If you’re putting together a new system but you don’t want the hassle of a separate amplifier and speakers, there’s one other option: A set of high-quality, self-powered speakers. One of our favorite AirPlay systems is an AirPort Express paired with Audioengine’s A5 powered speakers ($349; $449 for bamboo model). These self-powered speakers sound shockingly good and are beautifully designed, and—especially convenient for our purposes—the right-hand speaker includes an AC-power outlet on the back that’s perfect for hosting an AirPort Express. Just run a short cable between the Express and the A5’s audio-input jack and you’re ready to go.

One of the simplest AirPlay systems uses self-powered speakers (such as Audioengine's A5, shown here) paired with an AirPort Express.

Enable AirPlay

To stream audio to an AirPort Express or Apple TV, you must first connect the device to your network, then you must enable AirPlay on it. On an Apple TV (second-generation only), go to the Settings menu, choose AirPlay, and then make sure the AirPlay option is set to On. If you’d like to give the Apple TV a more-descriptive name—the name that will appear in the AirPlay menu in iTunes and iOS apps—you can do that in the General screen of Settings.

For an AirPort Express, you must launch AirPort Utility (in /Applications/Utilities), choose the AirPort Express, and then click Manual Setup. Click the Music icon in the toolbar, and then check the box next to Enable AirTunes. You can also rename the AirPort Express here.

On either unit, you can opt to set an AirPlay password so that anyone who wants to stream audio to the Apple TV or AirPort Express must provide that password. If your Apple TV or AirPort Express is in a public area—or even an apartment building or condo, where neighbors might be tempted to hijack it—a password is a wise idea.

Music in the air

Once you’re all set up, streaming audio to your new system is easy. In iTunes, you click the AirPlay button (the Speakers pop-up menu in older versions of iTunes) in the lower-right corner of the iTunes window, and then choose the AirPort Express or Apple TV as the destination. To send audio to multiple AirPlay-equipped devices, choose Multiple Speakers. In an AirPlay-enabled iOS app, you just click the AirPlay button and choose the destination. (When streaming audio from an iOS app, you can currently choose only a single AirPlay destination at a time.) Turn on your audio system, make sure it’s set to the correct input (if it has more than one), and sit back and enjoy the magic of wireless audio.


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