How to Use Apple AirPlay as a Cheap Sonos Alternative

Apple Airplay as Sonos AlternativeI struggled to find straightforward, up-to-date information about this around the Web, so figured I’d write a quick post in case anyone else out there is attempting to do the same thing.

Basically, I was looking for the cheapest and easiest way to  stream audio from Spotify and other applications on my iPhone and iPad to my stereo / home theatre system. The idea was to replicate the functionality of a basic Sonos system without forking out $500 for Sonos equipment. 

The solution:

The simplest solution I found — and one that’s actually surprisingly elegant — is to use an Apple Airport Express, which incorporates Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming technology. The Airport Express is essentially just a small wireless network router with a 3.5mm audio output jack built in (standard headphone socket size). The new models retail at $99, but I managed to pick up a slightly older one on Craigslist for just $30.

Simple setup:

Once you’ve got your hands on an Airport Express, the setup is pretty straightforward. All you need to do is plug the Airport Express into an outlet, and hook it up directly to your powered speakers or audio receiver using a standard audio cable (pictured above). From there, fire up the Spotify application on your iOS 5 Apple device (iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch) and begin playing a song. Then, double tap the home button to reveal the multitasking bar at the bottom of the screen, scroll all the way to to right to reveal the AirPlay icon (pictured left), and tap it to instantly route the sound via the Airport Express and through your speakers. From that point any and all audio output from the device you’re using will stream through your speakers, so you have complete control from the palm of your hand to change tracks and playlists, control volume levels etc.

More than Spotify:

The great thing about this solution is it’s not just the Spotify app that supports AirPlay. It works with the pre-installed Apple Music application, too, but also with the YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, MOG and Hulu apps, amongst others. All you have to do is tap that AirPlay icon from within a supported application and you’re away. You can watch YouTube content on your iPad, for example, while streaming the audio through your stereo equipment with no need for cables. Another great feature is that anyone connected to your network can also send audio to your speakers, making it easy for them to share content, too. You can even password protect access.

Multiple zones:

AirPlay also supports streaming to multiple devices. As a result, it’s possible to set up different Airport Express-connected speaker sets in different rooms or zones. After tapping the AirPlay icon, you can simply choose where you want the audio to go.

Apple TV:

It’s worth noting you can also use an Apple TV instead of an Airport Express to achieve similar results. The devices retail at the same price of $99, but the Apple TV only features an optical digital audio output, as opposed to the standard 3.5mm analogue jack that the Airport Express includes. If you’re just looking for the simplest way to stream audio, therefore, the Airport Express is probably your best bet.

Sonos Killer:

A single-room Sonos setup costs around $500, while the AirPlay method cost me a grand total of $30. It’s fair to say AirPlay probably isn’t as flexible as a full-featured Sonos setup in terms of what it’s possible to achieve, but for my needs AirPlay is more than sufficient. It also has advantages over Sonos, allowing you to stream audio from other apps besides just Sonos-compatible ones such as Spotify, Pandora and Napster. For most users, therefore, the AirPlay solution is probably a much more viable, and affordable option.

*UPDATE: I’ve had a couple of people asking about the equipment in the image above. The desktop amplifier is Dayton DTA-100a, and the unpowered speakers are Energy CB-5s. The image itself is courtesy of Macworld.

Comments

    • Kevin says

      Something I just discovered, by using the app WHAALE you can stream music from any iOS device to multiple AirPlay receivers. You can also adjust latency between them.
      It works with the soon to be American released Deezer, Audiobus, iTunes, and the hundreds of Internet radio stations they have listed. I sent them a message asking about Pandora and Spotify and their reply was that so far those two are not willing to sign any agreements with them.
      I tried it and it works very well and is very intuitive.

      • Charles says

        Hi –

        I use Whaale. If you have a PC server you can run a media server on it for free called Plex. There is a plugin for Plex for Spotify. If you have a premium account you can stream music from Spotitfy via Whaale using the media server icon that comes with it.

        This way you can have the same track playing on all zones at the same time via Spotify, or different tracks from the same Spotify account, to different zones at the same time.

        Hope it helps,

        Cheers,
        Charles

  1. Trung Woodman says

    Excellent article. I already had the same idea for my new apartment this way to.

    Some tips:

    There are lot of apple airport express you can get at off eBay. I got mine from marktplaats.nl (the Dutch craigslist) for just 30 euros.

    Another nice thing is the “Remote” app of apple. Enabling your iMac, MacBook for homesharing allows you to control via the remote iOS app. So wherever you go, you can control your iTunes to with the “Remote” app and switching the AirPLay location :)

  2. Wayne says

    I started out using Airplay and found out there were to way to many music dropouts Sonos net technology for streaming music if far superior to Airplay. I’m a 100% apple devotee but the Airplay technology is just not as robust as it needs to be to stream music. Sonos allows you to stream your music library from iTunes or a NAT, plus stream from almost all the major streaming music services, Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, ect.. all controlled by your phone, computer or tablet. Sonos is more expensive but worth it. I have 6 Play 5’s, 3 Play3’s and the new SUB in 5 zones in my house and the sound quality is awesome.

    Sonos Rocks.

    • Jimmy says

      I’m getting ready to move into a bigger house, and I’m shipping over an airport express from my other house. I think I’m going to give airplay a try to see how bad the dropout actually is. Given the price SONOS is charing, I think I’m more than willing to endure a few dropout, then having to put out at least >$500 for a complete SONOS solution.

  3. Mitch Valburg says

    Wayne, the dropouts you mention when using Airplay are probably from some aspect of your implementation, not inherent to Airplay. I’ve been using a multiple Airport Express setup streaming music from my desktop to multiple locations in my house (simultaneously) and almost never have dropouts.

    I second RichardFrisch’s comment about simultaneous multiple zone streaming: in my case, itunes does it well and Mog not at all (one Airplay location at a time). I have used Airfoil to stream any audio content on my desktop to multiple Airport Express nodes, but it is (at least in my system) laggy and prone to glitches. Not as polished as Airplay at this point.

    • Scot says

      Can I do a 12 zone setup with airplay via airport express and have them all show up in iTunes at once, or is this what the apple support site means by “a maximum of 6 zones”?

  4. WHAALE Multiroom Player says

    At the beginning of August 2013 a new iPad-app was added to the iOS-app-store that allows to overcome some of the “problems” so far for the Airplay solution.

    Basically, the app allows to
    – stream music directly from the iPad to one or multiple Airplay speakers at the same time – real multirooming sound without the need for an additional Mac or PC (all you need is a WLAN, the iPad and the speakers).
    – The app also plays multiple sources on multiple speakers simultaneously.

    It is called the
    WHAALE Multiroom Player
    (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/whaale-multiroom-player/id663776918?mt=8)
    and it comes with a neatly designed UI…

    Currently, the app only supports playing music from the local iTunes library, but other music sources are planned (internet radio, network streaming, Spotify, …).

    WHAALE Multiroom Player

  5. brian says

    Hi. A very good article.

    Few Questions:
    1. Will Apple Express Airplay playback happen in the absence of an active WiFi signal from your home router. What I am asking is does AE create its own Hotspot so that the speaker its connected to and the device / source stay connected via the AE.

    2. Is the multi-room capabilities only thru computers or even iOS devices.

  6. graham says

    In reply to Brian – I can understand you asking that question, however I think Airport Express needs your wifi to be configured using the Apple Airport utility, so I am pretty sure it needs your Wifi to operate.
    (I have not used AE myself yet, so I don’t mind if anyone who has, says otherwise).
    I am about to go down this Airport Express/Airplay route to feed my existing HiFi. I can also add other Airplay speaker/s to give me multi room wireless music. So as Jack says, if you have Apple devices and use iTunes, this seems a very cheap alternative to Sonos.
    AE is mostly used to improve/extend your home Wifi, but to use it for receiving Airplay means setting your AE to ‘Client’ mode so it can receive Airplay from your Mac or IOS device.

  7. Remi says

    Fantastic article, it helped answer a number of outstanding questions I had earlier on in my project. I looked at Sonos and Airplay when trying to make a decision.

    I had started out over 6 years ago with Airports and standalone speakers dotted around the house, I enjoyed the experience and so early this year, during a home refurbishment project, I decided to do it properly and install ceiling speakers around the house. It was a big project, and so I got a few AV companies involved and they all came back recommending Sonos. Being a Management consultant by profession, I decided to analyse my requirements and choose objectively, ignoring the AV companies bias. I was not bothered if I had to ditch the Apple Airport express setup as my aim was to get it right.

    On tabling my actual requirements, Apple Airplay via Airport Express’s won hands down, for 1 key reason – Sonos limited my output content, I wanted to be able to play anything from my computers, iPhones, iPad’s etc not just limited content that Sonos enabled me to. i.e. I wanted to stream live content from different websites straight to my speakers. i.e. this Sunday, instead of listening to music I decided to listen to a church service streamed online. I couldn’t have done this with Sonos. I can do this with Airplay and send it to my speakers all around the house, I found I use that feature a lot.

    I went for 5 Apple Airport Express’s and 3 Apple TV’s distributed around the house. They also act as Wifi extenders so there is good Wifi around the house.

    In terms of drop off, you need to ensure that you have good Wifi everywhere around the house or you will experience drop outs with Airplay, because in some cases you are streaming from your iOS device which needs a good wifi connection to connect properly. To ensure you have this in place you could include Powerline Network adapters (using your plug socket to provide an ethernet network to the Airport express) with the Airport Express’s this will ensure you have no drop outs.

    Multiroom Control, I use Whaale on my ios devices if I want to send the same or different content to each room or zone. The Whaale utility is good and solves the problem of not being able to send multiroom. The interface could be a bit better, and is nowhere near as slick and as sophicsticated as the Sonos interface. But it does exactly what it says on the tin.

    From my Mac I control the content via Airfoil or the Mac OS itself, with no problems.

    Summary I get more functionality from Airplay than Sonos, at a half of the cost, and this is with brand new equipment, my cost comparison is as follows:

    Airplay setup for 5 Zones
    5 Airport Extremes – £79 each = £395
    5 Powerline adapters – £40 each = £200
    Airfoil App = £15
    Whaale App = £1.50

    Total £611.50

    Similiar Sonos setup for 5 Zones using Sonos Connect
    5 Sonos Connects – £279 each = £1395

    Total £1395

    PS. I am using KEF ceiling speakers around the house and so have not costed for any speaker products, i.e. ceiling speakers or amps in the like for like comparison.

  8. Michael says

    Using Airplay,
    Do you have any idea if there is a way to send Spotify, Pandora, Youtube, music to speakers(connected to airport Express) while having your Computer speakers be a second source of sound?
    Like in iTunes when you use the ‘Multiple speakers’ function.
    Thanks

  9. says

    I love SONOS. The simplicity and flexibility. Apple Airplay couldn’t quite compete with my IOS devices. In order to manage the music from my HUGE iTunes library. The “home share” is very slow syncing up with my IOS…. and only one speaker could be controlled at a time.

    Then I discovered “remote” app for IOS from apple. It is originally designed for the apple TV but is brilliant for airplay. With “remote” I can do everything SONOS does and more I think.

    The music is mirrored almost instantly from my HUGE iTunes library on my computer to my IOS device and now from my handheld I can control all my airplay speakers throughout the house. My playlists and music is a direct mirror of my iTunes so everything is easy peasy… and fast fast.

    The best part is it’s FREE.

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