Mounting ceiling speakers to your room and steaming your favourite beats to any or all your rooms with an Airport Express and your iPhone or iTunes is more than just convenient, it's a touch of luxury. I'll show you how easy it is to setup a room, in less than an hour, and free your music library.
What are the advantages of ceiling mounted speakers? Well for one, there's no Hi-Fi lying about in every room and your music library is accessible from anywhere in your house from Windows or Mac or iPhone; you can also set an alarm clock with an iPhone app to gently wake you up in the mornings with your bedroom ceiling speakers, and of course through a house party with every room rocking.
The device that gives us this magic is the Airport Express which supports Apple's propriety technology called Airplay.
This device allows music to be streamed encrypted over your wifi, and it even includes track meta-data such as track name and album art (which won't be used for this setup).
Airplay technology does such a great job that Apple have recently licensed out the technology to top speaker manufacturers such as B&W, Denon and Bang and Olufsen.
Why wait for the big boys to come around your house with their shiny overpriced speakers?
You can do a perfectly good job with some locally purchased items with some distinct advantages such as:
- You can stream to one room at a time, or all of your rooms at the same time using iTunes. Think house party.
- Your full library is accessible from your iPhone, and your iPhone doubles as a Hi-Fi remote for any room.
- Your room is clutter-free from standalone speakers and your ceiling speakers are out of the way of mobile phone signals which give that annoying feedback buzz when mobile phones are placed near them.
Before Airplay came along, the only other option to stream media was DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance). True to Apple engineering ethos, Airplay is simplistic and easy to setup, which is why it's worth embracing and likely to erode DLNA's dominance.
What you'll need for one room:
- An existing home wifi network.
- Apple Airport Express device available from your Apple Store or grab one on eBay.
- A small amplifier with Aux-in and speaker connections. Good bargains at second hand stores are always available.
- Ceiling mount speakers from your local Hi-Fi or electronics store
- A stereo to RCA cable, or if your amplifier supports optical inputs, get an optical cable because Airport Express supports this to.
- A jigsaw or small handsaw tool to cut the holes for the speakers.
- Speaker wire, preferably shielded spear wire. The length depends on how far away your amplifier is from the speakers.
- Small tools like wire cutters, screw driver, jigsaw, soldering iron(optional) and some heat shrink tubing or insulation tape.
- iPhone apps to extend features of use of your ceiling speakers.
- A celebratory beer to enjoy and kick back and listen to your marvellous installation wonder.
About the speaker and amplifier needed for this setup:
The ceiling speaker wattage for an average-sized bedroom needs to be between 8-10 watts only. The amplifier can be a small amplifier purchased from eBay or any audio/electronics shop. I picked up my small amplifier from a second-hand store at a good bargain price. Make sure it has speaker connections and an Aux input. This amplifier has extra features like microphone inputs and DVD sound outputs which I won't be using.
You need to decide and check three important things before commencing this project:
- The position of the speakers in your room:
If it's your bedroom, you may want to locate the speakers on either side of your bed for the stereo effect, and likewise if it's your office, you may want to locate the speakers equal distance from your main working position to get a balanced effect, which will make your streaming beatz that much more enjoyable.
- Check the ceiling space above your speaker positions:
Once you have decided on the position of your speakers, the most important step is to check the ceiling cavity above the speaker for any obstructions, like support beams, water pipes or electrical wire. Depending on your ceiling speakers, you'll need about a clearance of about 80mm from any object found in the ceiling space. If there is any obstruction you'll have to re-position your speakers to avoid damage when cutting your speaker holes.
- Amplifier position:
Decide on a place for your amplifier and Airport Express which need a power outlet. The position I used was the ceiling entrance because there was a plug point available. The benefit is that the amplifier, airport express and all the wires remain tucked away in the ceiling, but you could also use a cupboard or shelf in the room. Just remember that the Aux cable and speaker wire will have to be routed and connected to the chosen amplifier position from your speakers.
Step One: Cut the Speaker Holes
First, mark out the holes according to the diameter of the speakers. The diameter and measurements of the hole can be found on your speaker box, some ceiling speakers come with a round template which you can trace with a pencil on your ceiling for good accuracy. Once you have your circles drawn on the ceiling, and done the all important step of checking for obstructions, you're ready to cut. Use a small hand drill to drill a hole in the inside of the lines to create a starting point for your jigsaw blade. Grab your jigsaw and begin cutting. Most ceiling boards are soft and very easy to cut and it should only take a few minutes per hole.
Step Two: Prepare the Speaker Wire and Connections
Measure out the required length of speaker wire to the amplifier and strip the ends with the wire cutter. To make a good connection on the speaker I decided to solder the wire to the speakers and put heat shrink tubing over them to protect them. Insulation tape will also work well to protect the connections. I didn't have any shielded speaker cable on hand, but this might be a good idea to invest in because it is likely that the speaker wires run over other electrical wire and that could give some single distortion or interference on your speakers.
Step Three: Mount the Speakers
Thread the speaker wire through the ceiling to the amplifier and mount each speaker in their respective hole. Tighten the screws to activate the clamping mechanism of the ceiling speakers until the ceiling board is flush with your speaker. Push in the speaker grid if this is supplied with your speakers. (At this point it may be clever to check that your beer is chilling... because you're almost done!)
Step Four: Connect Your Amplifier and Airport Express
Connect your speaker wires to their respective right and left positions on your amplifier and then connect you AUX cable to the Airport Express' Aux output and the two RCA plugs to the amplifiers input.
Step Five: Setup Your Airport Express
The Airport Express comes with a host of other features, which we won't climb into for this article, so bear in mind it has other nifty features you can come back and play with, like attaching external storage, printer and extending your wireless network. (Editor's note: For more details, we've covered some of the finer points of integrating your Airport Express with your network for wireless music.) For our setup we just want to join the Airport Express to the existing wireless network and give it an identifiable name like bedroom, lounge or patio. Power up the amp and Airport Express and launch the Airport utility on Windows or Mac and configure the device accordingly. Remember that if you loose connection to an Airport device and it responds with an error it's always a good idea to have a network cable handy so you can plug it directly into your Mac or Windows PC and configure it directly with the Airport software. I had to do this on two occasions when I lost connection with the device due to incorrect network settings. It's actually easier setting it up with the network cable and removing the cable permanently once everything is running smoothly.
Step Six: Launch Your favourite Streaming Apps
Test the setup by playing your favourite track and clicking the small square in the lower right-hand corner of the iTunes window to select your desired room speakers. iTunes has the ability to stream to multiple speakers around your house, each with its own volume control.
If your Airport express is not detected by iTunes on your network this small square with an arrow, will not appear. You'll have to check the power and network configuration to make sure it's on your network correctly before that little square icon appears. Also check that the status light on your Airport Express device is green, which indicates no errors.
You're done! You can now stream music to any room or even multiple rooms at once with iTunes or any other app capable of streaming to an Airport Express. Enjoy your streaming ceiling speakers and be sure to use them the next time you throw a house party!
Time to put up your feet and enjoy that cold beer while appreciating your handy work! Or, if you want a little more functionality, read on.
Extend the Functionality of Your Setup with Apps
This step is entirely optional, but it's been one of my favourite uses for my wireless, multi-room speaker system. Download the iPhone app TuneIn Radio to add more features to your ceiling mounted speakers. The app costs $0.99 and is well worth all the great features.
TuneIn Radio will allow you to stream your favourite radio stations and pre-recorded shows to your speakers in any room, so you can listen to stand-up comedy, the NASA Mission audio feed, your favourite talkshow and practically every music station on the planet in the comfort of your room. TuneIn Radio also has a great feature of setting an alarm which will stream your radio to your selected speakers at a designated time, so no more annoying buzzing sound to jerk you out of bed in the morning.
To do this select the radio station you want to wake up to, and stream it to your bedroom speakers. Click on the list icon on the top right of the screen to bring up more features for the current station.
Click on Set Alarm/Record Time and enable it for the days and time you want to wake-up. Make sure the volume is at an appropriate setting and be sure to test the setup so you you are not late for work. If for some reason TuneIn Radio can not stream radio to your speakers on the selected alarm time, it will activate a backup alarm on your iPhone, provided the app is running in the background.