iTunes and speakers for a small house?
November 7, 2011 2:20 AM   Subscribe

What I have: a MacBook Pro running iTunes. What I need: some speakers and a way to get the music into the other rooms of a small house.

So, thus far, I've just been connecting the computer via the auxiliary port of an old tuner/amp from which I have a couple of old speakers wired in. Works fine in this particular room, but now I'm wanting to install speakers in several other spaces of this approximately 1200 sq ft ranch-style house, including a home office, the living room, and a rec room in the basement.

Clearly, I need speakers of some sort for each space and a way to get the music from the computer to the speakers, but what and how? Could probably run traditional wiring, but it might be a pain. Figure there are more options technology-wise these days, but am pretty much a noob on such matters. Help me consider a range of possibilities from "simple" to "complicated but cool." Also general prices and brands/models to consider, if possible. Much appreciated as always.
posted by 5Q7 to Technology (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Airport Express wirelessly streams music from your iTunes library. You plug your pair of speakers into the Express — anything with a 3.5mm jack. You control where and what music you stream with iTunes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:27 AM on November 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

You might read about AirPlay, which is how iTunes streams music to the Express.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:28 AM on November 7, 2011

I bought a logitech squeezebox boom for exactly this purpose. I love it. Good quality speakers for something that size, and you can play internet radio on it as well as streaming your own music.
posted by lollusc at 2:54 AM on November 7, 2011

Actually, looking at reviews for squeezebox multiroom set-ups, people say that the synchronisation is not very good. I don't know if that would be a dealbreaker for you. I only use it to pipe music into one other room where my computer isn't, and it seems to synchronise with the computer well enough. But maybe it doesn't behave so well with multiple speaker sets.
posted by lollusc at 2:59 AM on November 7, 2011

If there's a TV (with HDMI) in that room, you could also use an Apple TV.
posted by HuronBob at 3:04 AM on November 7, 2011

A limitation of the airplay model is that with one source, you can stream to either one device or all of them, but not only 2 or 3. Plus, you would have to provide either powered speakers or a stereo or something.

If you don't already have the speakers, I'd recommend Sonos. I just got a system 2 weeks ago. It's a very flexible, well thought out system. They make units with speakers built in, that can drive powered speakers, and ones that you hook up to an existing stereo. You wouldn't use iTunes directly, but Sonos can scan your iTunes file. Like the other solutions, it dosen't store the music itself, so you'd have to have your computer in.

One of Sonos features is that the units run a proprietary mesh wifi network, which is how they claim they are able to do the multi room synchronizion so well. This means that either you need to connect one of your units hard wired to your router, or buy their bridge unit.

You control Sonos with free software available for computers and mobile devices. And they also sell a hardware remote control.

Their support is great. One of my units had a bad antenna and they helped me trouble shoot and replace it quickly. Also, their customer forum is helpful for learning about the product ahead of time.

I think the prices are $300 for the smaller speaker set and $400 for the larger one.

Sonos can also play a ton on streaming content, including regular radio stations. And for some shows, you can even access the achieves, which is cool.
posted by reddot at 3:33 AM on November 7, 2011

If you have TWO Airport Expresses, you can have TWO computers sending TWO different things to TWOdifferent rooms. Pretty cool. Probably works for more units, too. Also, you can use them to extend your wireless network if you have coverage problems. They are really neat little machines. $90 or so new, and slightly less on eBay. Personally, I'd only buy new ones. (Some older units had power supply problems.) I use mine in a mixed PC/Mac house, BTW, and they have both standard audio and TOSLink fiber optic outputs.
posted by FauxScot at 4:17 AM on November 7, 2011

We use Airports and Tivoli radios. Haven't looked at in a while but there is some software from Rogue Amoeba that I think lets you stream to multiple sources. Another nice thing about this setup is using the "Remote" app on th iPhone to control the music.
posted by mimi at 4:46 AM on November 7, 2011

A limitation of the airplay model is that with one source, you can stream to either one device or all of them, but not only 2 or 3

This is incorrect. iTunes gives you a list of checkboxes, one for each airport you've set up for AirPlay, and you can stream music to any combination.
posted by ook at 4:47 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

A limitation of the airplay model is that with one source, you can stream to either one device or all of them, but not only 2 or 3. Plus, you would have to provide either powered speakers or a stereo or something.

This is not true.
posted by FrereKhan at 5:23 AM on November 7, 2011

Grr, the first part is not true... as already stated by ook :(
posted by FrereKhan at 5:23 AM on November 7, 2011

I bought an apple tv that I hooked up to my surround sound system. You can do the same thing with an airport express.
posted by empath at 5:25 AM on November 7, 2011

Hey guys. My mistake. I have an airport express to extend my network and played around with audio streaming a bit and must have gotten the wrong impression.

But it is true that using iTunes on one computer that you can only play one stream at a time. Perhaps I was combining the two things in my mind.

There's also rogue amoeba's airfoil (or a similarly named product) that will let you send audio from any arbitrary app. Using that, you could send multiple streams from one computer to multiple airport express units.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big Apple fan, but I found the Sonos solution to be superior, at least for my needs.

And if you wanted to get fancy and have the best of both worlds, you could hook an airport express as an input to one of the Sonos units.
posted by reddot at 5:55 AM on November 7, 2011

Also, not to hijack the thread, but can other airplay enabled hardware, like the iHome iW1 Wireless Speaker System, treated the same way (grouping, etc) as an airport express?
posted by reddot at 6:17 AM on November 7, 2011

I'm putting my vote in for a simple SONOS set up as well. We just got one speaker and my house is so little that it's great on one floor. I can unplug the speaker and bring it anywhere I want, really. I listen to Pandora, the radio and my iTunes on it and control it with my iPhone app or computer. The sound quality even makes my picky husband very happy. It's wonderful!
posted by LilBit at 6:35 AM on November 7, 2011

But it is true that using iTunes on one computer that you can only play one stream at a time.

That's true. (Though if you have an iPhone, iPod or iPad, you can stream music from those devices as well, allowing multiple streams if you're into that.) You can also use the Remote app to treat the iWhatever as a controller for the iTunes on the main computer. In either case you can control the volume for each speaker (and the computer itself) individually.

Sonos is comparatively expensive -- $300 each, plus the $50 bridge device; you can get a $99 Airport Express and a pair of decent speakers to hook up to it for much less than that. AE's don't require a "proprietary mesh network", they just hook into (and extend) your existing wifi network. Multi-speaker synch works perfectly well; there's sometimes a slight delay when pausing or changing the volume or whatever, but the audio on each device stays in synch with the rest.

For someone who isn't running iTunes already, Sonos might be a better choice, but if you're already a mac/iTunes household airplay is pretty hard to beat.

The only real problem I've had with my AEs (I have three connected to speakers throughout the house) is that I'm using the old b/g models which are prone to interference from our cordless phone. I've chosen to look at this as a feature rather than a bug (the music pauses when I answer the phone!) but I'll admit it's a little annoying sometimes. The newer "n" models can apparently be switched to different frequencies to avoid this, but I haven't confirmed this personally.

you could hook an airport express as an input to one of the Sonos units.

I don't understand how that would make any sense, since if you have a sonos unit you don't need the airport express, and if you have an AE you don't need any of the features of the sonos unit other than the speakers.
posted by ook at 7:43 AM on November 7, 2011

Call me King of Luddites, but I actually think the cheapest and best solution involves wires. You can buy a decent amp for $100, very nice speaker selector boxes for $30, and flat/underfloor speaker wires for about $1 a metre. If the MacBook has to be wireless, then stream to an Airport Express plugged into the amp.
posted by roofus at 7:58 AM on November 7, 2011

roofus: What sort of example units would you suggest? (what amp, what speakers, etc?)
posted by sdis at 8:39 AM on November 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice thus far. It's looking like the Airport Express would a good option for my needs. Any thoughts about particular brands/models of speakers to go with it? (FWIW, I'm not an audiofile, but I don't want anything that will sound crappy.)
posted by 5Q7 at 8:44 AM on November 7, 2011

My buddy works for this company:
They make bluetooth speakers that sound amazing. It's an all in one package. You can find them at Fry's if you want to give them a listen.
posted by chevyvan at 10:25 AM on November 7, 2011

i have a set of logitech speakers plugged into my airport express in the (not overly large) living them. sounds good, can get nice and loud without distortion (ie it sounds good in other rooms, not like muddy thumping)...i got them at a computer store years ago...3 parts: subwoofer (about the size of a big 4-slice toaster) and left and right speakers about the size of a large iced tea glass...nice oval design on stands. plugs into the wall (subwoofer) and has a 3.5 jack on one of the speakers volume control on one speaker and also on subwoofer (to adjust yr bass) simple, easy to use, sounds good...approx $150.00. (the subwoofer really makes all the difference...don't buy compact speakers without one...if space is an issue, you can literally put it anywhere, even inside a drawer or cabinet...low-frequency sound penetrates)

(also, airport express is awesome...more than one and it extends your wifi like a relay station)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:28 AM on November 7, 2011

To clarify the point about streaming different tunes to separate Airport Express/Apple TV devices - yes, as stated above, one instance of iTunes can only stream a song to 1, some, or all devices.
You can however have multiple user accounts on the same machine, each running iTunes, each streaming to a different subset of rooms. You may run out of wifi bandwidth, depending on your hardware, if you go too mad.

One of the best things about using the Apple route is being able to use the iTunes 'guest' mode (iTunes DJ) - where friends/party attendees can browse your library (or a restricted playlist if you like) and select the upcoming tracks in a controlled manner, rather than stopping the current track and skipping to the next. There's also a kind of voting thing, which I think works best if people are using their own devices (it seems to be one vote per device, rather than an increment-the-vote-by-one-click-here).

Lastly (having waffled enough), the (new, small, black) Apple TV will happily sit in a powered off/standby mode yet will appear to the iTunes/Remote application without any other interaction; it obviously also streams videos from iTunes (or the web) if you have it connected to a TV.
The Airport Express needs to be left powered on - with a bright light shining - in order to be accessible... but then again, the Airport Express can extend your wifi range, has an ethernet port (in case you need a physical connection) and can have a USB printer connected too.
Horses for courses, I suppose - and being roughly the same price, if my wifi network was pervasive enough (and I didn't need a printer connection), then I'd shove Apple TVs everywhere :)
posted by Chunder at 3:38 PM on November 7, 2011

The Airport Express needs to be left powered on - with a bright light shining

You can turn off the light in Airport Utility (the option is kinda buried; in Manual Setup hit Airport, then Options, then change the Status Light setting.)
posted by ook at 7:17 AM on November 8, 2011

(This is probably an unnecessary update, but I've just noticed I was wrong above: you can't turn off the light, all you can do is switch it from "always on" to the much more annoying "flash on activity". Can't win 'em all, I guess.)
posted by ook at 9:33 AM on November 9, 2011

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