Apple Airport Express 

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Apple Airport Express...wireless music client. Be patient, very patient. Worth the effort though.
Apple Airport Express - Wireless network
Image courtesy of Apple

I was recently planning a 50th birthday party do for my wife, and part of the evening was a disco. I had put together a playlist of dance tracks on my Windows powered PC using iTunes 7, the music management software that comes with the iPod (itunes review published 7/1/07), but wanted to stream the playlist to my 5.1 set up in the disco room without having my laptop on display and wired into the stereo.

The answer, a wireless music streamer to work from my wi-fi enabled lappy. But which one. I searched the net for various models, however the important thing to note with many wireless streamers is that they won't play iTunes protected tracks, this was a must as many of my tracks were purchased from iTunes store or ripped to Apple encoded MP3.

The obvious choice was the Apple Airport Express (AAE), Apples own music server client.

I paid £88.00 for it at the Apple store in my home town, but was a little sceptical when the assistant in the store said I would be off and running in no time. Experience has told me that anything that creates and requires its own wireless network to perform usually needs some time dedicating to its setup, and so it proved.

The concept of the Airport Express is simplicity itself.

The unit is basically a wireless router but with the capacity to stream iTunes music and also enables you to plug a printer into its USB 2.0 port for wirless printing. It also has a ethernet port available, all in a unit no bigger than a pack of cards.  Plug it in to any power point, connect it to your AV receiver or amp via line in (audio L and R) or optical (neither is supplied with the AAE), load the software supplied and use the Apple set up assistant to create a wireless connection between the iTunes software on your PC and your hi-fi. well no!!!

The software loads iTunes version 4.6 which is the minimum required, the latest version is 7, so the software tells you that you cannot complete the installation. Don't worry, it has loaded all you need to get up and running.

Plug in the AAE, preferably within easy distance of your hi-fi. You will need a audio cable with a standard 3.5mm plug to go into the AAE, and audio L and R to your hi-fi input. I used an iChord (review published 14/1/07) worth the £41.

Go into the set up assistant and follow the instructions, if all goes well the software will create a new wireless network which you can switch to when you want to stream your music.

That's if all goes well. With me it didn't.

I wanted to add the Apple Network to my existing Linksys powered home network, and the software invites you to do this, but I simply could not make this happen. The AAE would create its own network to run alongside the Linksys network, but in essence this mean't that I could not listen to iTunes and look at the internet at the same time as both were on separate networks. The Apple store stated there should not be a problem but did not have much advice other than giving me a few pointers such as, make sure there is no interference running in the house when you set up such as, other wireless networks,Dect wireless phones running on the same wavelength as the AAE (2.4Ghz)  and no microwave ovens running (microwaves are very destructive to wireless networks apparently.) The Apple helpline was rubbish. I was on my own.

I spent a week looking thorough various forums and realised that there were many similar complaints regarding the inability of the AAE to create a network that would join another wireless network. In fact it was impossible, the consensus being that the Apple network would not join another network unless it was an Apple based network.

The answer was blindly obvious though; bin off the Linksys router and use the AAE to run my home network. I plugged the cable modem into the AAE and configured it using the Admin Utility in the AAE software package. However there was one last glitch to get over before I could make the thing work and if you want to make iTunes work with your hifi this is the most important part.

When the AAE is properly configured a new speaker icon is added to iTunes which gives you the option of which speakers to use. Either your hifi speakers, computer speakers or both, but this icon would not appear on iTunes for love nor money. What was going on? I had internet and e mail via the AAE, but no music via my remote speakers. Back to the forums where it transpired that this icon will sometimes not appear unless you turn off all firewalls when at the installation phase. I turned off Norton and everything suddenly worked. Turned Norton back on and everything was fine. Phew!!!!

So what about the sound quality, well in short nothing is lost in translation. The quality is the same as on the PC in whatever format and bitrate you originally downloaded it and of course you can manipulate the music with your amp or AV receiver.The AAE uses a buffer of a few seconds when streaming music from iTunes, so there are no glitches at all, no skips or jumps (other than what may have been downloaded from your CD) but I would seriously think about using a quality cable to connect the AAE to your hifi.

Overall the performance of the unit is very good, but complicated to set up from scratch. I am not saying that you will have the same problems as me with your set up and in fact if you have a Mac the process takes about 2 minutes, but just be aware. Apple have sold a stack of these units and I can see why. As long as you are not bothered about having remote control of your streamed music and no remote display (other than through iTunes on your PC) you are fine. The AirPort Express is well priced and simply made, not much to go wrong really.

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