Posted Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Exclusive First Look: AirFoil Makes AirPort Express Sing (and Talk)

When Apple announced its AirPort Express base station last year, this site was the first to point out a limitation: the base station's AirTunes feature worked only with iTunes -- you couldn't wirelessly stream audio from other programs, such as QuickTime Player or RealPlayer, to the base station.

Leave it to Rogue Amoeba Software to fix that.

Today, the company shipped Airfoil, a $25 utility ($20 through March) that hijacks audio from any program and transmits it to an AirPort Express base station.

My use of the term hijack was deliberate. Rogue Amoeba (a hard pair of words to type early in the morning, I might add) is the company behind the Audio Hijack family of programs, which let you record the audio from any Mac program on your hard drive. The company has taken its audio-hijacking prowess and applied it to AirPort Express.

I couldn't be happier with the results.

I've been using Airfoil (which was called Slipstream while in development) for a while now, and I've found it a painless and reliable way to pipe audio from other programs to my stereo system. My wife listens to NPR archives on the stereo. I blast radio stations that insist on using Windows Media streaming. Airfoil doesn't care; it just works.

And it's easy. Launch Airfoil, and select your AirPort Express base station in its Remote Speakers list. Then, select the program whose audio you want to hijack. If the program is running, Airfoil quits and relaunches it. (You can avoid this step by installing the accompanying Instant Hijack utility, but it's one of those utilities that jacks into Mac OS X. I'd rather not rock that reliability boat.)

Finally, click Airfoil's Transmit button and start your audio playing. Airfoil's window even indicates whether your AirPort Express base station is connected to your stereo through an analog or optical-digital connection.

Becaus AirPort Express must buffer the audio stream, there's a delay of a second or two until you hear the audio. That makes hijacking movie or DVD audio problematic: the sound and picture will be out of sync. The Airfoil on-line help has workarounds that involve using alternative movie players that let you adjust sound/picture sync. Who cares? For me, Airfoil is all about transmitting streaming Internet audio.

And that's all there is to it. Rogue Amoeba has again filled an important niche, and filled it elegantly.

Airfoil: highly recommended.

Of course it's in the book. You'll find coverage of Airfoil, AirPort Express, and so much more in the next edition of the original Mac digital hub book. Amazon is still offering an insane 34 percent discount on The Macintosh iLife '05, which goes to press in just a couple of weeks. Almost 400 full-color pages and a 2.5+ hour instructional DVD -- for a little over twenty bucks. Pre-order your copy now.