I love music. I love having music on all over the house. In the “old” days, you could tune a radio in each room to the same radio station, and experience whole home audio – with advertisements, and people talking over the beginnings and ends of songs. But there was a higher idea to strive for: rich people could have their whole houses wired with speakers, run off a central stereo amplifier. That was what luxury was all about!
Fast forward to today. Music is in the process of democratization on a scale we couldn’t have imagined a couple decades ago. Today, we can carry around more music in our pockets that we could listen to in a year of continuous play. And we can make phone calls and shoot movies on the same devices that do it. We live, as they say, in the future.
But whole home audio is still a bit of a luxury item. The best known example is the Sonos family of speakers and associated devices which allow you to connect a music source and stream music wirelessly to quality speakers located wherever you like throughout your home. It works, it sounds good, but it’s not cheap. Their main speaker runs $399, its smaller cousin is $299, and if you want to pipe music into your existing stereo/home theater system, their Connect device costs $349. Still a bit pricey.
Then, this week, the folks at Logitech sent me a review sample of their new UE Air Speaker. The UE Air is a good quality, room-filling speaker, whose special feature is that it’s Logitech’s first AirPlay-enabled speaker. AirPlay, for the uninitiated, is Apple’s proprietary protocol for sending audio wirelessly to speakers and having them all play in sync at the same time. AirPlay is built into iTunes on both the OSX and Windows versions, making it pretty easy for people to stream their digital music libraries from their computers to anywhere they can set up an AirPlay-receiving speaker in the house. The long-desired promise of whole home audio.
Except AirPlay-compatible speakers have been relatively rare, and not cheap. The UE Air is $399 – pretty comparable to the Sonos, actually, in both price and functionality. It works well – you can get it logged onto your home network using a personal computer or an iOS device in quick order, and then it just shows up as another available speaker for iTunes. It also had an ejectable dock so you can mount an iOS directly to the speaker and run it that way. Simple, with a good sound. In a way, it closes a gap in Logitech’s wireless speaker line that’s been there for a while, and it does it with class. But it’s not cheap.
And, not to steal Logitech’s thunder, but I’ve been hacking together whole home audio for a while now, in somewhat cheaper fashion. Let me tell you how.
First, getting your music to your home entertainment center? Apple TV is an AirPlay receiver, so for $99 (instead of Sonos’ $349) you can get all your digital music, and whatever internet radio you can add to iTunes, to your 7.1 surround system pretty easily. But what about Pandora? What about LastFM? Or MOG?
Well, it turns out there is a fine solution. Long-time Mac software company Rogue Amoeba has put out a lovely little program called Airfoil for both Macs and Windows machines. For $25, Airfoil will extend AirPlay one very useful step further: it will turn any AirPlay-capable device into a receiver. This includes iPads, iPhones, iPod Touches, Apple TVs, Macs and PCs running iTunes, and AirPlay-enabled speakers. In a very important way, this changes the game.
I’ll paint a picture of my home. I have a laptop, connected to a Logitech Wireless Boombox in my workspace (I’ve reviewed the Boombox before – it’s a great portable speaker, and works great as both computer speakers and something you can take on the road with you, but you could substitute any set of powered computer speakers and make do). I have the Logitech UE Air review unit now located in the game room. We have a 1st generation Apple TV connected to our home entertainment center in the living room. And we have a 1st generation iPod Touch whose audio out feeds into a set of computer speakers in our bedroom. With Airfoil over the home network, we have a whole home system that can play any audio from my laptop – iTunes, Pandora, my SomaFM app, or whatever.
My point is this: with the odds and ends most technically-competent geeks already have lying around, it won’t cost much more to hack together a functional whole home audio system. And while AirPlay-capable speakers are very cool – and if you’re in the market, the Logitech UE Air is a fine one to choose – you can make do with much of what you already have, and perhaps pick up a little software and less-expensive hardware to make it work for now.