Posted Monday, June 07, 2004

Listen to AirTunes

Searching for a way to unite your iTunes music library and your stereo? You're soaking in it -- air, that is.

Today, Apple announced the AirPort Express base station, a $129 Wi-Fi base station that, at about 4 by 3 inches, isn't much bigger than an iPod power adaptor.

Yet another base station? Not quite. The AirPort Express base station also contains a stereo audio output jack, and it works with a new version of iTunes (version 4.6, due later this week) to enable you to beam iTunes audio to a remote stereo or set of powered speakers. Apple calls it AirTunes, and at first glance, it looks like a versatile way to get your music from here to there.

Here's how it works. Plug your AirPort Express base station into a power outlet near your stereo. Next, connect the base station's audio output jack to an audio-input jack on your stereo. (The base station provides both analog and optical digital feeds.)

Now stroll over your Mac running iTunes 4.6. In the lower-right corner of the iTunes window, you'll see a new pop-up menu that enables you to choose your AirPort Express base station. Do so, and iTunes essentially re-routes its audio output through your AirPort network to the base station. (Macworld's Jason Snell has published some AirTunes technical details on his blog.)

You can buy more than one AirPort Express base station, and Apple hopes that you will. Connect one to each stereo system or boombox in your house, and then use iTunes to aim your music appropriately.

There are some downsides. The AirTunes signal is encyrpted for just one specific base station, so you can't "beam" your music to multiple base stations. If you have two stereo systems and two base stations, you can beam to only one at a time.

Nor does it appear that you can "broadcast" other audio feeds -- for example, a streaming Internet station playing with RealNetworks' RealOne player -- to an AirPort Express base station. AirPort Express's audio features would be more useful if they enabled you to beam any Mac audio to your stereo, not just iTunes.

But the biggest issue may be reliability. The spectrum used by Wi-Fi devices is a crowded neighborhood, and AirTunes may be prone to interference from everything from microwave ovens to cordless phones. Wired recently reviewed some Wi-Fi television sets, and found at least one of them prone to interference: "Because the TV's signals operate in the same frequency band as cordless phones, microwave ovens and other Wi-Fi products, during a Wired News test run it was impossible to receive uninterrupted video when these other devices were running. The video on the [Sharp] Aquos TV began fizzing out even though it was only 25 feet away from the base station."

Will AirTunes have similar problems? We'll find out.

In the meantime, there are other ways to unite a Mac and a distant stereo system. I've long been using the C. Crane FM transmitter to beam streaming Internet radio through my house. And an iPod remains the best way to listen to an iTunes library on your stereo -- you can switch tunes and playlists without having to walk over to your Mac.

But AirPort Express and AirTunes provide yet another option. And keep in mind that AirPort Express is an AirPort base station, so you can use it to share a broadband connection and USB printer or to extend the range of an existing AirPort network. Very versatile.

According to the Apple Store, the AirPort Express base station ships in the middle of July. iTunes 4.6 is due to arrive later this week.

Also due this week... The latest edition of the only iLife book and instructional DVD combination ships this week. Pre-order The Macintosh iLife '04 for just $20.99.