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Setting up a streaming audio system for the first time is like that day when you switched to a DVR to watch TV--you’ll wonder how you ever enjoyed your tunes without it. Once all your music’s on a home network, you can listen to your songs from any computer or standalone music-playing device. Whether you’re unwinding, waking up in the morning, or broadcasting beats throughout your house for a party, you don’t have to fuss with issues like which Mac has which MP3 or where that blasted CD got to--all your music is where you want it to be.
Mac fans typically choose between three major music-streaming systems: Apple AirPort Express ($99), Sonos hardware ($349 and up), or Logitech Squeezebox devices ($149 and up). Each system has its own infrastructure, including ways to control everything from an iPhone or iPod touch. And each one has benefits and drawbacks in certain situations.
Apple's AirPort Express wirelessly connects your Mac to your stereo.
As expected, Apple’s AirPort Express is the best match for iTunes… and little else. These little boxes connect to a small set of computer-style speakers or into a home stereo, so factor those costs into your budgeting. You’ll need one AirPort Express and speaker set for each room you want to play music in. An Apple TV ($229) can also do double duty, streaming music even when your TV is off.
While AirPort Express scores with simplicity, there are a few drawbacks. One or more Macs will have to be left on to play music, and extra features that the other systems pack--such as alarms and online services beyond basic streaming radio--don’t work without additional software.
Next up: the Logitech Squeezebox devices. They work well once set up, but they feel more complicated than the other choices. Their server software runs off one of your Macs, telling Squeezeboxes where to find your songs. Like the AirPort Express, you’ll have to have a Mac running to access home audio.
Sonos Bundle--along with the Sonos app--turns your iPhone or iPod into a remote control.
Unlike Apple’s option, Squeezebox devices can play back more internet choices, including Rhapsody and Napster subscriptions. And you won’t have to keep a Mac running when playing online sources--woot! Logitech also offers several Squeezebox devices, from a clock radio–style box with a built-in speaker to hardware that connects to an entertainment center. Consider the Squeezebox if you can sacrifice some of the AirPort Express’s simplicity for better internet features.
Last but not least, Sonos rules high-end audio streaming because of the care put into its hardware and interfaces. And audiophiles can really hear the difference between a Sonos device and its competitors. Like Logitech, Sonos hardware comes in a few packages, some designed to attach to a home stereo, one with built-in speakers, and some that connect to speakers. Sonos devices lack an interface beyond volume/mute buttons, so you’ll typically control everything with the excellent standalone remote ($349) or iPhone app. Sonos’ internet streaming choices match the Squeezebox, but unlike either competitor, Sonos hardware can play music directly from a network hard drive, so you don’t need to keep a Mac running. But Sonos might K.O. your budget as much as it does its competitors. You can pick and choose which gear you want, but plan for roughly $500 or more per room. Yowza.
You’re probably thinking, wait… iTunes works well to share libraries and stream audio over a network. And if you’re happy with that method, there’s no harm in sticking with it. But iTunes sharing doesn’t let you sync music from any system to an iPod or compile ripped songs in a single location--and again, your main Mac needs to be left on for it to work. Fortunately, you can show your music who’s boss and let all of your Macs access a consolidated iTunes library.
Before you begin, consider using TuneRanger ($29.99) to sync different libraries together into one master audio source. Then transfer that combined music folder to a network server or always-on Mac that everyone can reach. Launch iTunes on one Mac while holding Option, pick Choose Library, and navigate to the library file on your network.
This time, the dreaded can't-find-library box is a good thing.
On the other Macs, hold Option when launching iTunes, but make a new library on the local hard drive when prompted. On those systems, change the media folder location in the advanced iTunes preferences to point to the music shared on the network. Within the advanced iTunes preferences on all Macs, be sure to enable the checkbox to copy files to the media folder when adding to the library.
Now install Syncopation ($24.95) on each Mac to keep the iTunes libraries synced. Check the setup documents for details, but be sure to click the option to Import Tracks Without Copying in the Advanced preferences.
If you’ve got an old Mac sitting around, you can dust it off and turn it into an audio client. Translation: You’ll be able to control it from another computer, pushing songs over your network as if it were Squeezebox or AirPort Express hardware.
You’ll never have to turn on--or even connect--a display, either. Try Airfoil on your host computer ($25) with Airfoil Speakers for Mac (free) on the old-Mac-turned-audio-client. You can even duplicate results on an iPhone or iPod touch with Airfoil Speakers for Touch (free).
Stream MP3s and internet radio to your stereo with Softsqueeze.
Even if you have no Squeezebox hardware, you can install the basic Squeezebox Server (free) software on your main computer to stream audio. Then add Softsqueeze (free) to your old networked Mac, and the Squeezebox software will treat it just like standalone hardware from Logitech.
Yes, your screen-viewing time can get better. Instead of sharing videos directly between various Macs, you can streamline your consumption of movies and TV by creating a central server that holds all your video. With this method, you’ll leave the server running instead of having to keep various Macs online. You’ll be better organized too.
Don’t overthink the biggest piece of hardware in this process: the server. Just repurpose nearly any Mac sitting around. Even a five-year-old laptop or iMac will do the trick. Or for bonus points, turn an old PC into a Linux server.
Once you scrounge up an old computer, consider its drives. For a moderate video collection, you’ll want about 60GB of free space. If you gobble down video like Wimpy takes to cheeseburgers, plan for 120GB or even more. Also aim for a speedy drive interface; essentially, just avoid connecting over original USB, which you might find on old systems. And be sure you’ve got a DVD drive if you’re going to transfer over movies. Check out this article for tips.
Your network makes up the other biggest factor for streaming success. 100BASE-T is a must; if you have any old 10BASE-T devices between the server and clients, video will stutter. Ideally, consider gigabit (1000BASE-T) devices. If you must have a wireless client or server, get at least 802.11g or 802.11n Wi-Fi, and keep 802.11b devices--the original AirPort standard--off the network. In many situations, old devices slow down the network to maintain compatibility. That said, more than 10 years after Apple introduced AirPort, we still prefer an all-wired connection because it’s more reliable and faster than most wireless networks.
Once you connect everything, you’ll just store all video files on the server and play them from client Macs or other devices. Again, iTunes provides the simplest way to manage everything: Run it on both systems, and use shared libraries to stream the video.
iTunes can also help you get started with video streaming.
But several other software options deliver fine alternatives. Bundled with OS X, Front Row’s big interface is ideal for watching shows across the room. Plex (free) and Boxee (free) are also built around long-distance interfaces and add more internet features than Apple’s software. Check out this article for even more tips, including additional TV-connected devices that can stream shows and directions to hack an AppleTV to run Boxee. Have fun!