Airport Express and Airfoil

We've had all sorts of digital music systems over the years. And they keep getting cheaper, simpler, and better.

We started over a decade ago with an over the top multi-room system that was built on Audio Request music servers and controlled by Crestron. We scrapped that system about five years ago (although I kept two of those music servers for each home we own). We moved to a Sonos based system. We still use that in the main rooms of the homes we own.

But my current favorite music system is an Airport Express connected to a simple and cheap amplifier and speakers. We use that in all of our kids' bedrooms and increasingly in other rooms in our homes like our guest rooms. Basically you bring your laptop and iTunes library and we provide the sound system. I like it very much.

But my main beef with the Airport Express is it is limited to iTunes. In the past couple weeks, two friends mentioned Airfoil to me. So yesterday I downloaded Airfoil to my laptop and gave it a whirl. Basically Airfoil intercepts any audio stream on your machine and sends it to the Airport Express.

This is the perfect freemium experience. I downloaded it and tested it by playing in my Chrome browser and it played flawlessly on the music system in our beach house. I've been wanting to have on our pool deck for years now. I've got it now. Sweet.

So of course I bought a five license bundle just now for $46. We'll have Airfoil on all of our laptops before the day is over.

Of course Apple should offer this feature built in on the Airport Express. There are a lot of things Apple should do. I've given up hoping or expecting them to do it. I'm just happy some crafty software engineers built the hack we all want. Thanks Airfoil.

When our oldest daughter came home from college this year, we had already moved into our new apartment. I showed her how the Airport Express worked in her new room. She said, "cool, how do I play radio on it." I didn't have a good answer for her. Now I do. That's progress and I'm really excited about it.

#My Music#Web/Tech

Comments (Archived):

  1. Julien

    Airfoil is great… but not perfect. One of its main drawbacks is the latency, which makes it impossible to use it with anything that needs sync, like movies :/I’m not sure I understand why Apple restricts AirTunes to iTunes too (besides the name, but that can’t be the reason!). But it works well for Spotify too!Also, while we’re at it, I really wish AirTunes would work from iPhones and iPads too.

    1. fredwilson

      i’ve had spotify for three years now. only problem is spotify is not licensed by the majors in the US. i wonder if it ever will be. i love what daniel and the team has built. but i guess the music industry in the US doesn’t

      1. Julien

        That’s true… They keep saying they’re coming, so let’s not desperate!

    2. Rogue Amoeba

      Unfortunately, the latency you see is caused by the AirTunes wireless audio protocol itself. While not originally designed for use with movies, in Airfoil 3 we added Airfoil Video Player. This enables you to play local video with remote audio, in sync. It’s not perfect (we can’t play iTunes DRM encumbered video, and web video isn’t yet supported), but it does the trick for many situations.As far as sending FROM iOS devices out, we’d live to do this, but it’s currently impossible due to the restrictiveness of te App Store. We’ll see what happens in the future.

      1. Julien

        Thanks for following up here. i guess the issue here is, once again, Apple’s choice of closed environment. I believe AirTunes should be part of the OSS and not just of iTunes.

  2. daryn

    Very cool, but if you’re already using Sonos in the house, the price differential, and lack of features, doesn’t seem significant enough to warrant using a different solution rather than adding a couple more zones. If we can solve the issue, which i’m pretty sure we could, it’d rock. Don’t forget, you can also plug any device into any Sonos zone as a line-in and stream that throughout the house…

  3. Simon Brief

    Thanks for sharing Fred. I just started looking for the optimal streaming system for price and capabilities. Have you or any other folks here tried compared Sonos or Airtunes/Airport Express to a Squeezebox rigging?

    1. Druce

      Used Squeezebox for a few years – where it fell down was in the Web interface to find / play tunes, once the library became 10s of thousands of tunes.never used Sonos, thought it was a little pricey for what it did.Currently – Mac Mini runs iTunes, control it via Apple Remote on iPod Touch, or via VNC on the various laptops in each room.Mac Mini has M-Audio transit USB connector, which sends music via optical connector to Denon receiver for the main system (maybe paranoid but thought it would improve over 1/8 inch jack on Mini); via Airport Express to kitchen AudioEngine speakers and other outlying rooms.However, I do get the greeting fairly frequently “An unknown error occurred (-15000)” when connecting one Airport Express – works after I reboot the offending Airport Express… so the wireless is not totally foolproof. I should probably Google that one and try some firmware upgrades.

  4. Morgan Warstler

    have you played yet with rdio?

    1. fredwilson

      a bit

    2. ShanaC

      i disliked it, amd i can’t put my finger on why

  5. Keenan

    Sounds like you got the perfect birthday present. gotta love that.Happy belated Birthday!

    1. fredwilson

      Yeah. I bought myself the perfect birthday presentAlthough Gotham gal got me some nice stuff too

  6. MattEmmi

    For That’s where you have to graduate to the Sonos. Otherwise. Airpor+airfoil is pretty versatile.

  7. rosshill

    I love the simplicity and practicality of this post – the situation isn’t perfect, but it’s almost like a one step backwards two steps forward. The Airport Express is a nice piece of kit.

  8. Nick Molnar

    The only annoying thing about that setup is the 1 second delay. Not noticeable for music, but definitely is when you toss on a video.

  9. Aviah Laor

    49 or not 49, if you are still able to show your college daughter how to run new tech, and not the other way around, you are OK 🙂

    1. fredwilson

      good point

  10. Ted Casey

    Good post. I’ve been using iTunes, Airport Expresses in each room, and the iPhone remote app for control for about a year at a house. Remote/iTunes gives amazing jukebox control with “iTunesDJ”, song voting (guests show up and vote songs into the queue), and Genius recommendations. No other set up like Niles, sonos, or Crestron compares in music ease of use and power. Wish there were volume control for each zone, or wish Airfoil (which does have indiv zone volume control) had a remote control app for the iPhone (the Airfoil Speakers app doesn’t do this.) There is also a frustrating lag sometimes if you want to turn the voume down immediately or skip a song and the iPhone has dropped the WiFi connection (“persistant wifi is a feature of iOS 4 so may the that has been addressed.) I am in the middle of designing an AV setup for a new apartment and my current thinking is to have a centralized wiring closet with audio and video sources (including an AppleTV (which can act just like Airport Express remote Speakers, but also stores an iTunes library)), have in wall speakers and keypads in each room to select source and control volume, and mount an iPad in wall in the kitchen with Weather Station, Pandora,, Remote, NPR, Bloomberg, iPod music and Photos, acting as an audio source for the whole apartment, as a remote control for iTunes around the apt, as a news display and photo frame. Just wish I could sync the iPad to a Mac over Ethernet… Anyone have any suggestions?Twitter: tednyc

  11. Rogue Amoeba

    Fred: Glad you found us, and glad we could help! Stay tuned for updates.

    1. Tristan Louis

      ooooh. I’m crossing my fingers that it’s airfoil for android :)I can say that airfoil + airport express is the single most important piece of technology in our house. I’ve made substantial upgrades to the overall network infrastructure (cat6 running in every room, TV connected to the network, etc…) but the one thing my wife always raves about is the fact that we can toss music from any of our laptops to any of the rooms in our apartment (we have 5 airport express runing here).Now I’m thinking it would be great if I could mount my music collection from our networked server to my android device and airfoil it back out. Or, in similiar ways, use the other apps on my android device (, pandora, NPR player, doggcatcher, etc…) and airfoil the stuff out too. That would cut out a lot of physical computer use in our house…

      1. Rogue Amoeba

        We don’t have any concrete Android plans right now, but the platform is certainly appealing. Airfoil Speakers for Android would be the first step. As far as Airfoil for Android (sending FROM Android out), that’s less likely, but we’ll see.

        1. Stu

          How about AirFoil for iOS?

          1. Rogue Amoeba

            From our identically-titled Knowledge Base article:…Unfortunately, it’s not feasible with iOS as it is.

  12. Harry DeMott

    That combo is the reason I invested in Pandora a few years ago. Had the same problem – sent an e-mail to their customer service – and they sent me the link to Airfoil. I’ve been using it ever since. Great product for sure. Recently I actually switched a lot of my home usage to Sonos devices – as they do both iTunes libraries as well as Pandora and other music services – and I can have 4 different streams playing throughout the house (wife and 2 kids) – but Airfoil remains on all of the computers and works great every time I need it.

    1. fredwilson

      we have six sonos zone players in our apartment in the is tricky to have that many on a single networkwe had a packet flooding issue caused by the sonos devices that we had to do some custom configuration on the main router to cure

  13. Amol Sarva

    I really don’t like Apple’s wifi generally. It does not play well with other routers, extenders, and sometimes gadgets like Dash or Chumby. :(So at home we have two wifi networks – one for airtunes and one for regular web.And it’s too expensive. A cheap, standardized music-oriented wifi connector gadget should be $20. Not $99.

    1. fredwilson

      YupMe tooWe use cisco wasp for our home networkWe only use airport express for music

  14. bijan

    Cool post.It would be great if you could wirelessly send tunes like hypem or from your laptop to the Sonos zoneplayer. Basically airfoil to zoneplayer.

    1. fredwilson

      I agree. I do that a lot with the line in on sonos but wireless is so much better

  15. Banet

    Thanks for the lead — Airfoil is exactly what I was looking for.If you have a moment, it would be interesting to hear how your home network is set up. Is it just one wifi network router with many airports (how many?)

    1. fredwilson

      I don’t use apples wifi for our home networkI use cisco waps and routersI only use airport express for music

  16. ShanaC

    Not an airport express house. lots of custom networking.Q? if both you and your daughter are playing music, how does Airfoil know what to prioritize?

    1. Jose Paul Martin

      You’d hear fusion 🙂

    2. Rogue Amoeba

      Only one application on one computer can talk to the AirPort Express at a time. If it’s receiving from one source (iTunes, or Airfoil, on one computer), trying to connect from another source will result in an error.

      1. ShanaC

        How does it know what gets priority?

  17. Jose Paul Martin

    Fred, I’ve had the same experience… wish you’d asked long time back! I highly recommend Airfoil!!I have my wishes too… I just wish Apple would introduce the ability to play straight from the iPhone… if Airport Express could work with iTunes on your mac… why not the iPhone… that would totally replace things… tell your friends, just come with your iPhone… and we’ll play your beat!

  18. Mike Hart

    Stupid question for the wifi challenged – how does Airport Express talk to your receiver/amplifiers? I would think your receiver had to be wifi capable, correct?

    1. fredwilson

      there is a line out from your airport expressit’s a 35mm out to a RCA in

  19. Martita

    This may be the solution I’ve been looking for to.. if I can understand it. I have an awesome set of Bose speakers in my living room I’d like to be able to play songs from my iTunes library as well as Pandora and possibly XM. We have four airport expresses in the house and multiple macs. For the moment I’d love to get music in my living room from the Bose and if that rocks would like to find a way to extend that with standalone amplifiers in other rooms (like kitchen and office) so large parts of the house could play same music.How could I achieve this?

    1. fredwilson

      Buy at least one inexpensive amp and connect one of your airportexpresses to it and then connect your Bose speakers to the amp

  20. Terry J Leach

    Fred do you have a Stereo receiver anywhere in your home theater setup?

    1. fredwilson


  21. John Lynn

    Your last comments about getting to profitability quickly is the key for me. I think that’s a very healthy change that will likely have to occur. I’ve personally boot strapped my startup with early revenue and profitability a major focus of my strategy. I wrote a post about it which I call “My Own TechStars/YCombinator Summer:”

  22. Dan Kantor

    I’m a big fan of Airfoil as well. The latency is noticeable though compared to using Airtunes with iTunes but since it is the only solution for anything non-iTunes I end up using it a lot.Instead of hooking Airtunes up to a receiver and speakers, I got these powered speakers –…. They sound great and take up a lot less space w/o needing a receiver.

  23. davidporter

    Nice, Fred. I’ve been using this combination for years and love it. Was just discussing adding a how-to video for Airport Express + Airfoil on the site to encourage listening to 8tracks in the living room.

  24. NICCAI

    Started using rdio recently, and I was thinking about the airtunes dilemma – forgot about airfoil. ThanksAny recommendations for a desktop set of speakers? I love the pair of AudioEngine 5’s we have in our living room, but I want something a tad smaller for my office.

    1. Dan Kantor

      I have the AudioEngine 2 and love them. I haven’t heard the 5’s although I imagine they are better. But the 2’s are smaller.

      1. NICCAI

        Yeah, I’ve definitely been happy with my audioengines, so I might go thatroute again. Anyone know what happens with airfoil and multiple rooms ofspeakers from a single source (my office)? Does it give output choices likeiTunes? #lazydisqusing

      2. NICCAI

        Actually, it appears the answer to my question is yes.

  25. whitneymcn

    Just catching up on posts and saw this — we’ve been using this setup in a lot of our house since we moved a year ago, and it’s really sweet considering the ridiculously low cost.

  26. david hyman

    fred, at mog hq, we have 8 of these little class d amps that amazingly cost 44 bucks each, to an airport express, and power mog through the whole office. each amp powers a pair of speakers and airfoil let’s you turn them all on an off independently. we can have office parties with them all playing the same song (from MOG of course) or anyone can play over any zone. amps are here! home, i do one better. that little output on the airport express is also an optical out with the right cable one can get at the apple store. i feed airport express into my outboard d/a converter for my dedicated listening room. mog from my macbook air to this is a great experience.

    1. fredwilson

      wow, you have really figured it out.who makes the class d amps?

  27. Chris

    Fred–Thanks for the tip on Airfoil, a great addition to the house AV solution. Quick question: anybody else have the ‘Cannot find Airport Express’ error? I think I saw one comment (druce?) on that below. I’ve googled the h&ll out of it and all of the suggestions (change wireless channels, upgrade firmware, connect AE to network via cat5/6, etc.) have not made the drop issue go away. It happens very frequently and is super annoying. I assume it is Apple’s wireless protocol. Thanks,Chris

  28. Me

    airfoil’s been out a long while… its really great when youre projecting movies on a wall and want better quality sound… Ra

  29. felixc

    +1 on Airfoil. The combination with Airport Express is a great solution.