For a cool $1000 or so, you can buy the Sonos Bundle 150 and wirelessly play music from a single remote control in two separate rooms in your house. On the other hand, for a whole bunch less if you’ve already got the right equipment, you can get the same functionality from your iPhone or iPod touch. Let’s take a closer look at how to use the iTunes Remote application for the iPhone 2.0 with inexpensive equipment you may already have to remote control music playback wirelessly in any room in your home.
The Sonos homepage describes its popular but expensive product thusly:
To start playing music, just grab the full-colour wireless Controller and simply pick a room, pick a song and hit play. With the Controller in hand you’ll have instant access to your entire music collection….
When you’re done here, any iPhone or iPod touch will do exactly the same thing, in addition to all that email, calendar, internet, and mapping functionality that’s made them so popular already—and for hundreds of dollars less. You can play music in any room individually, or in several rooms with the music playback synced between rooms.
The special sauce in this setup is a feature of Apple’s AirPort Express wireless routers called AirTunes, which streams iTunes music wirelessly over your home network to any room in your house. AirTunes isn’t new by any means, but with the advent of the new Remote app for the iPhone and iPod touch running 2.0 software, its usefulness has increased dramatically; it’s become a Sonos killer.
What You’ll Need
I’m going to price out the cheapest (or nearly cheapest) version of this setup, including the price of the iPod touch. If you already have any of the necessary equipment, the price drops significantly. (Prices adapted for Aussie Lifehacker readers.)
1. iPhone or iPod touch: 3299 (8GB touch)
2. Linksys WRT54GL Wireless Router: $65 (not the only supported router; see below)
3. Headphone-to-RCA Cable: $2 (I’m estimating, but you can get these things cheap at your local electronics store.)
4. Apple AirPort Express: $129
Grand Total:$595 (give or take a few dollars)
I actually had all of these things on hand, so it didn’t cost me a dime.
The Linksys WRT54GL router is not required, but it’s inexpensive and it’s what I’m using. It’s likely you’ve already got a basic wireless router on your home network, and as long as you can set it up as a Wireless Distribution System (WDS), you probably won’t need to buy a new router. The Apple AirPort Extreme ($249) is the easiest to set up with an AirPort Express, naturally. In my setup below, I used the much cheaper, much cooler WRT54GL running the free, open-source Tomato router firmware (which I showed you how to install here). If your current router supports WDS, you can shave an extra $50 off the setup price.
Because it’s made specifically to extend iTunes wirelessly, the AirPort Express wireless router is the one must-have piece of equipment—no substitutions here. You’ll need one for every additional set of speakers you want to add to your set wireless remote control setup. (Of course you can find them cheaper on Craigslist or eBay.)
The added bonus to all of this is that we’re setting up the AirPort Express as a wireless network bridge. That means that not only will it give you the very cool music functionality—it’ll also extend the range of your wireless network by boosting your signal in the room you’ve got it installed. It’ll still show up as one Wi-Fi network to all of your wireless devices, so you don’t have to do anything special to take advantage of it once you’ve set it up.
Gather Your Setup Information
Before you get started tweaking settings, let’s write down a few important bits of information to make things easier on us down the road. You may find this information in varying places depending on your base router, but the information you need to gather is the same.
First, head to the Basic Network settings page (Tomato link) on your router and find the section Wireless section. Copy your Wireless MAC address, which should look something like
XX:00:X0:0X:00:XX. Also write down your SSID and Channel, and take note of your B/G mode.
Next, plug your AirPort Express into a power outlet and connect it to your router with an ethernet cable. (I’m setting up the AirPort Express on a Mac, but it should work similarly on a Windows PC.) Open the AirPort Utility, and after a few seconds it should scan and recognise your AirPort Express on your network. Once it does, click on the Express in the AirPort Utility sidebar and write down the AirPort ID (which is really just the MAC address).
Now that you’ve got all that, you’re ready for the heavy lifting.
Set Up Your Base Router
This setup should work with any router that supports WDS—check your router’s manual and/or administration interface to find out if it does. If you want to follow along exactly with me, I’m using the open-source Tomato firmware (if you don’t have it installed on a supported device, here’s how).
Return to the Basic Network settings page (Tomato link). The first thing you need to do is change your Wireless Mode to Access Point + WDS.
Next head down to the Security section and change your wireless security type to WEP if it’s not what you’re using already. Set a passphrase and generate your keys (or just let Tomato randomly choose a secure option for you). Copy down your first key—you’ll need it later to set up the AirPort Express and to connect other devices to your wireless network (including your iPhone or iPod touch).
(NOTE: WEP security was an unfortunate concession; I normally recommend the more secure WPA2 Personal, but I had trouble getting the AirPort Express to connect correctly as a wireless bridge using WPA2 security. WEP 128, on the other hand, worked fine.)
Finally, move down the the WDS section and enter the MAC address of your Aiport Express (the AirPort ID we wrote down earlier). Make sure the drop down is set to Link With. Once you’ve finished all these steps, hit Save at the bottom of the page. Your router will update your settings, and you’re ready to set up the AirPort Express.
Set Up Your AirPort Express Router
Start up the AirPort Utility, again with the AirPort Express plugged into your main router with an Ethernet cord. Click the AirPort Express name in the sidebar. This time, click the Manual Setup button. We’ll be making a lot of changes in the AirPort Express setup to get it working as a wireless bridge (and iTunes extender), so make sure you’ve got the information we gathered above on hand.
First, click the Base Station tab and give your AirPort Express a name (this is the name that will show up in iTunes and on your iPhone remote). I chose Living Room, because that’s where my AirPort Express will be. Next, set a password for the AirPort Express. This password isn’t actually important for our setup as far as I can tell, but it’s unavoidable. Make it anything you want.
Now head to the Wireless tab and change the Wireless Mode dropdown to Participate in a WDS network. Set the network name to the SSID, the Radio Mode to the wireless B/G mode, and the channel to match the broadcast channel of your base router as you wrote them down above. Set your wireless security to WEP 128 bit, and enter the key you generated above.
Now click on the WDS tab, where you should select WDS remote in the WDS Mode drop-down and paste your base router’s MAC address (the one we wrote down above) in the text box labelled WDS Main.
Next click on the Internet tab at the top of the AirPort Utility. You shouldn’t have to do much here, but make sure that you’re connecting using WDS (you shouldn’t have a choice at this point), set Configure IPv4 to “Using DHCP,” and set Connection Sharing to Off (Bridge Mode).
At this point, you’ve got just one more thing left to do. Go to the Music tab and tick the checkbox next to Enable AirTunes. If you want to, set a speaker password (I wouldn’t unless you’ve got a good reason to).
Once you’ve done all that, click the Update button. The AirPort Utility will update your AirPort Express with all your new settings and your AirPort Express will restart. If everything went as planned, your AirPort Express is now set up as a wireless bridge for your base router, and you’re ready to stream your music wirelessly to any room in your house. (Hint: Your router will glow amber until it’s working, at which point it’ll glow green. If it’s flashing amber, that means there was a problem.)
Hook Up the Airport Express to Your Stereo
Unplug your AirPort Express from the router and the power outlet and move it to wherever you plan on setting it up (mine’s behind my TV). Plug it in, and plug the headphone-to-RCA converter into it and your stereo. If you have a fancier stereo than I do, the AirPort Express supports digital signals, so the right kind of S/PDIF cord would work as well.
Enable AirTunes in iTunes
The next to last thing you need to do is open up the iTunes preferences and tell your computer to look for remote speakers with iTunes. You’ll find this checkbox in the Advanced tab of the iTunes preferences.
Once this is done, you’ve already got wireless streaming set up in iTunes. When it’s working, you should see a drop-down in the bottom right corner of iTunes where you can choose which speaker set you want playing or choose multiple speakers.
Finally, it’s time to set up our iPhone or iPod touch as remotes.
Install and Set Up Remote on Your iPhone or iPod touch
After all the sweat you’ve put in so far, this step is dead simple. We’ve already covered how to set up the Remote App on your iPhone, so I won’t go into all the details here.
Once Remote is set up and running on your iPhone or iPod touch, you can play back and remotely control your entire iTunes library from anywhere in your house you’ve got an AirPort Express set up. To toggle your speakers, just hit Settings in the Remote app and toggle the speakers on or off.
How Does It Work?
After a short time, I can tell you nothing feels better on an afternoon of household chores than walking around your home to a unified soundtrack in every room. I’ve only got one AirPort Express with AirTunes set up on my network, but you could easily add more rooms and speakers at just $130 or so a pop. If I’m just going to be hanging out in the living room, I’ll turn off the computer speakers and just play from there. Likewise, the music stays at my computer when that’s where I am.
The iPhone Remote app also works with the Apple TV, but I haven’t tried it with this setup. If you have—or you’ve done multi-room remote control with your iPhone or iPod touch and AirTunes—share your experience in the comments. If you’re looking for a similarly cheap wireless solution, check out Gizmodo’s review of the EOS Wireless iPod Dock and Speaker System.
Now if only the music followed me based on proximity to wireless nodes and transferred to my iPod headphones when I left my wireless network. A boy can dream, can’t he?
Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who wants nothing more than to be bathed uniformly in music no matter what room of his apartment he’s in. His special feature Hack Attack appears every week on Lifehacker.