Big home theater systems are now ubiquitous. Everyone seems has at least a 5 to 7 speaker setup with big subwoofers. Yet, why is it that when I go over to someones house, they have their computer speakers cranked up playing either iTunes or Pandora Radio and their big theaters idle? I asked around. Most people never thought about it. In their minds their computers and home theaters were two separate systems. They don't have to be.
Here's a how-to that covers getting music from your computer to any stereo system with a focus on simplicity that anyone can set up.
Before we jump into this, we need to talk about what kind of equipment you already have. For the sake of brevity I'm going to assume you already have a computer, a wireless network and a home theater. If you have all that then lets move on, if not, then get that setup and continue from here.
Here's how its going to work:
We're going to put a program on your computer that will send the music over the wireless network to a device plugged into your home-theater.
AirPort Express To Home-Theater Streaming Diagram
Other than the equipment you already have, we're going to need one piece of hardware and one piece of software.
The hardware consists of an Apple Airport Express and one audio cable. Apple's Airport Express has a number of features. It can extend your current wireless network to cover more area, host a printer, host a USB hard drive, be used as a cat5 to wireless bridge or stream music over your wired or wireless network.
Setting up the Airport Express is easy, plug it in to a socket, hook up the cable for audio to your home theater and run the included software CD on your computer. During the initial setup you'll give the Airport Express a name (a good name is where the unit is located, in case you end up with a bunch of these), tell it to join your existing wireless network and give it the network password if you have one. That's all there is to it.
The Airport Express supports two audio output methods: via 3.5mm headphone jack or 3.5mm optical output. The simplest method is a male to male 3.5mm headphone jack cable if your receiver has 3.5mm jack input. My home theater does not, so I went with a 3.5mm headphone to dual stereo RCA connectors. When in doubt, go with the RCA cables, every home-theater supports them.
3.5mm Headphone Male to Male
3.5mm Headphone Male to Dual Stereo RCA Male
If you want true digital audio to your home-theater, go with the optical audio option. You'll need a funky cable that's specific to Apple audio output. Optical cables work exactly like other cables, but they use light pulses instead of electrical pulses to transmit signal. Just plug one end into the Airport Express's output and the other to your optical input on your home theater receiver.
Apple Mini Optical to Toslink
That covers the hardware setup. Now we need to get a program that will send audio to the Airport Express from our computer. We have a couple of options.
iTunes: Since the Airport express is an Apple product, iTunes has support for it built right into it. Just play music like you normally do in iTunes, then look in the bottom right corner of your iTunes window. There will be a little box (unhelpfully not labeled) that defaults to "Computer". Click in the box and select the name that you chose earlier for the Airport Express.
Speaker Output Selection in iTunes
The downside of iTunes is you can only stream music you have currently in your library. What if you wanted to stream music from Pandora, Last.fm or Sirius Satellite Radio's web interface? You'll need something different.
Rogue Amobea's AirFoil: This gem of a program is available for Mac or PC and enables you to stream the audio output of any program on your computer to an Airport Express unit or other computer with the AirFoil software running.
Rogue Amobea's Airfoil
It's another one of those programs that I consider a "must buy". Nothing else I've used has come close in terms of quality and reliability. To use: You select the name of the program who's audio you want from a drop down box. Then select click on the speaker icon next to the speakers you want the sound to come out, in this case that would be our Airport Express. Away you go.
Now you too can have great party tricks like taking a laptop out by the pool and change the song, play a different internet radio station or adjust the volume. All without going inside. Or use Apple's iTunes remote software, available in the App Store, to change the volume or song currently streaming from iTunes. All from your iPhone or iPod touch.
For the price of $125 you can have any music you can play on your laptop or desktop computer streamed to your home theater and I bet it wasn't as difficult to set up as you were expecting.