Apple Airport Express

Apple Airplay Multi-Room Setup 6 Zones

Apple Airplay is one of the best wireless home audio solutions available.  With it’s lossless audio design, it sounds as good as digital audio gets when delivered wirelessly.  It is bandwidth heavy but can be overcome with some design considerations.  This Do-It-Yourself wireless project will end up costing far less than other solution providers with proprietary equipment.  This project is wireless in the control aspect as it can be controlled via most of the Apple products available, but the speakers still need to be wired from the central equipment.  The system will be able to be controlled anywhere in your home where there is a wifi network signal. The Airports are going to be wired via ethernet cable to help with the high overhead of bandwidth needed with 6 Airplay instances operating at once.  In my experience, I could use 3 or 4 Airports via purely wifi, but they would drop out above that number because of the traffic.  Newer, faster wifi routers may be able to overcome this limitation.  Look into “multicast” if you attempt a straight up wireless system.  I’ll hook up one of the Airports to operate as the wifi router for the audio only traffic.

A note on some of the other options out there with Open Source processes of Airplay:  (Raspberry Pi, TPLink, Dolry, etc.)  I’ve researched these projects for a few years now trying to develop a product to bypass the expense of Apple’s products and have found that as of this writing; none are ready for prime time easy use for the average consumer.  I consider myself fairly tech savvy and I’ve found the solutions challenging to implement.  Some of the problems I’ve encountered are the problem of synchronization of the Airplay instances, where all the zones are off by a few milliseconds causing weird echo/reverb through the house, dropouts at specific intervals respective of each hacked module, and flat out failure due to inferior equipment design and other bothersome miscellaneous problems of smaller notation.  Another worry of using a hacked version of Airplay is that Apple has an encryption key that may render ALL these devices useless should they decide to pull the switch on a new OS or IOS version, unlikely but nevertheless a consideration.

Parts List

6- Airport Express Modules A1264 (aka MB321LL/A).  $35-$90 These are out of production but can be acquired easily used on Amazon.com, Ebay.com or Craigslist.org.
They’re great values starting around $35.  They have easy factory reset buttons and are ready to go in less than a minute.
Warning: There are two types that look identical.  The ones to avoid are the ones starting with A108_  (Most popular A1084)  These do not work with the current Airport Utility provided with the current Apple OS.  See Wikipedia for more info on Apple Express versions.
The current version is fine also, but the form factor of the A1264 is much easier to mount a series of them together in my opinion.  MC414LL/A

Apple Airplay Airport Express

Apple Airport Express

1- Dayton 12 channel (6 channel stereo) multi-room amp. $650 MSRP

Dayton Amplifier

Dayton Amplifier

1- Belkin Power Strip Model BP108000-06.  I like this one because of how the Apple Express’ fit perfectly and the outlets pivot to give some flexibility in mounting positions. $25

Belkin Power Outlet

Belkin Power Outlet

1- 8 Port Ethernet Switch or similar 8 Port Router for the technically inclined.  With a router the audio traffic can get separated from the main wifi traffic in your home. But the setup is a bit more complicated to integrate.  For my example I’ll be showing the setup on the LAN side of a router, but it will be the same as using a straight ethernet switch.  Some options here:
8 Port Ethernet Switches $25-$60

8 Port Ethernet Switch

8 Port Ethernet Switch

6- Y-adaptor splitter. 1-3.5mm mini jack to 2-male RCA $3.50 each

Y-adaptor

Y-adaptor

 

6- 3 foot Ethernet Cables $4.99 each

Ethernet Cables

Ethernet Cables

For control of the system, some options include:
iTouch
iPad
iPhone
Macbook
iTunes
PC running iTunes

Some useful app for utilizing the multi-room aspect outside of iTunes (iTunes has multi-room functionality built-in):
Porthole (Mac)
Whaale (Mac)
AirFoil (PC and Mac)
Remote.app (Apple Native for IOS) <—a must have

Step One:  Assemble Physical Parts

  • Arrange the Apple Airplay Express’ onto the Belkin Power Outlet.
  • Plug in the Y-adaptors into the audio ports.
  • Plug in the ethernet cables into the RJ45 jacks of the Airport modules.
  • Plug in the ethernet cables into the ethernet switch.
Apple Airport Express Audio

Apple Airport Express Audio

Apple Airplay Airport Room Labels

Airport Room Labels

Ethernet switch

Ethernet switch

(Note:  This example isn’t a permanent installation example.  The amplifier will create substantial heat. The Apple Airport Express modules should not be placed on top as shown in the example.)

Step 2: Configure Apple Airport Express Modules

There are two methods to configure the Apple Airports.

This is a short video describing the step with a screenshot tour of the process.

Step 3a:  Configure iTunes to play music

The computer used needs to be logged into the network being used for only audio.  This is a performance design consideration for rock solid audio performance with virtually no drop outs.  If the system shares the main home network, it will contend with the other traffic and the audio may drop out more that is desired.  If you’ve got a robust network and you know what you’re doing, by all means go ahead and share the audio portion.  For our example here we’ll assume the computer is hooked up to our “Audio” named SSID network dedicated to Apple Airplay traffic only.

  • Open up iTunes
  • Click on this icon on the top bar in between the volume and information window

    Apple airplay

    Apple Airplay

  • When it drops down you will see your Apple Airplay rooms listed
  • Click on multiple if you want music to play in more than one room.  You can choose all of them or a specific selection.
  • You can also adjust all the volumes independently.
Apple Airplay iTunes

Apple Airplay iTunes

 

Step 3b: Configure most any audio app to play through any single zone

Continued in Part 2

9 Comments

  • Francisco J Zavala says:

    Hello,
    You said, “I’ll hook up one of the Airports to operate as the wifi router for the audio only traffic” ….. I am doing all what you specified here and almost ready to buy everything but I have a doubt about connections. How exactly you connect all ? Starting with the main modem, whats next ? ….I have a main modem=>time capsule as router=> switch=> all devices connected vía ethernet ….

    thank You

    • Brian Kruse says:

      I’ll edit that part to read “I’ll hook up one of the airports to operate as the wifi ACCESS POINT (AP) for the audio only traffic”
      Definitely the wrong terminology in the original.

  • ScottG says:

    What model of amplifier is this? I’m having difficulty finding a suitable amp?

  • The problem with this setup. (I’ve got the exact one) is that the AirportExpress seems to overheat over time. Especially if its enclosed in a cabinet with other equip. Placing them all side by side on a power strip only increases the likelihood. I would recommend at least spacing them out so there’s airflow between units.

  • I’ve been running this exact same setup for 3 years now but I’m still on the lookout for a way to consolidate the cable mess :-). The greatest strength of airplay system is that any guest can show up with their phone, tablet or computer, log into the wifi network and be guest DJ. The other missing feature is how to drive more than one airplay zone with a phone or tablet.

  • pedro2nr says:

    Great article and setup. I would like to recommend for new users to switch from Apple Airport Express to Google Chromecast Audio. The main reasons is: exclude Ethernet cabling and native multi-room support. Not to mention the Chromecast Audio is smaller in size and available at current retail stores.

    • Brian Kruse says:

      I definitely want to write a Chromecast Audio version. The Apple setup still would favor better lossless audio and support for simultaneous synchronized multi room play from iTunes.

Leave a Reply