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Review: Apple Airport Express's AirTunes

10/27/08 | by Adam | Categories: Technology, Music, Reviews, Macintosh, iPhone

Link: http://www.apple.com/ca/airportexpress/

Recently I picked up an Apple Airport Express which is their little doodad that acts as a 802.11n extender, USB printer host and -- most importantly to me -- an AirTunes source. One of the problems I've been chewing on for a while is how to get my home theatre to spool music from my MP3 collection without needing to turn on the projector to see what I'm doing. As the speakers there are by far the best in the house, it's the most appropriate place to listen.

Elsewhere in the house I'm using the Creative Soundblaster Wireless which sticks the display onto the remote but it's always been a little disappointing in practice; besides, it's been out of production for years so I couldn't buy another one even if I wanted to.

For a while I used WinAMP on the HTPC and just learned my way around the keyboard, but when I moved to the Microsoft BlueTooth Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000 keyboard I lost the priority settings for WinAMP; this meant that when I pressed "play" on the keyboard, the PC wouldn't start WinAMP and therefore no music. There's also some issue I've been unable to troubleshoot where if there are no active tasks on the PC, it'll go into a hibernate mode and require a power cycle to reactivate. Basically, it's no longer a workable solution.

The second option was to use a PS3 with its media streaming. In practice, it's terrible. The support for remote filesystems on the PS3 when dealing with large music collections is unusable as there's a two to three minute delay when trying to choose songs or just navigate the hierarchy. This is as true on a gigabit connection as it is on a wifi one. Beyond that, the interface is sufficiently complicated that it's impractical to do without being able to see what you're doing. Natch.

In the end, I settled on the AirPort Express. This uses an iTunes installation as its data source. I already have one up 24/7 to drive Radio Adam which means I have full access to my music collection without having to install any further server software. Check 1. The arrival of the iPhone/iTouch with the Remote application gives me the ability to pick and select what I want to listen to without firing up the projector. Check 2.

The setup was pretty simple. I plugged in the AirPort to the power socket, connected up the optical wire between it and the amp, and then plugged the gigabit network into its port. The MacBook automatically detected the AirPort when it was added to the network and brought up the configuration tool. The default settings were basically correct and the only thing that was required was to disable its wireless support. I told iTunes on the server to look for external speakers at which point it added a new menu option to the GUI. This permitted audio redirection to both the regular USB RocketFM (which is what broadcasts RadioAdam) and to the AirPort. That was it: music now played cleanly through the amp. A quick change to the display on the amp so that the MD selector now reads "iTunes" and I was done.

I used a borrowed iPhone to fiddle around with changing playlists and jumping around between songs. It worked well with the exception that sometimes there was a bit of a delay selecting playlists. I figure that's due to the old G4 Mac Mini just creaking a bit at the seams. Eventually I'll replace it with a newer Intel one but for the moment it's doing fine.

The AirPort Express isn't that cheap at $100 and it is an audio-only solution, but for my purposes it's perfect. It's small, discrete and does exactly what I needed. It has added a new item to my technology budget though: an iTouch to act as the remote control so I don't need to borrow the iPhone all the time.


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