Airport Express to the Rescue!
At the end of the school year, I was asked to fix the problems with our auditorium’s sound setup. I won’t get into all the details, but one of the goals was to provide a way to stream audio to the sound system without wires.
My first inclination was to see if anyone makes a pure “AirPlay” receiver (we are a 1:1 iPad school, after all), and although there are such systems in a “traditional” sound system receiver (not what you use for professional audio), there was nothing that was an actual stand-alone AirPlay receiver. We were looking for ease of operation, so outfitting a Raspberry Pi computer for AirPlay (yes, you can do this) did not make sense. The device has to be able to be powered on (the rack is not powered all the time) and just work. When you need things to “just work,” Apple is usually the place to go.
The answer, instead of an Apple TV (which CAN stream audio–not needed in this application) was to purchase an Apple AirPort Express. The Express can be set to run off your existing network (yes, it IS a fully functional wireless router), and has an audio port (normal 1/8″ stereo mini jack) that can be patched into a system. I used a stereo 1/8″ to dual XLR cable to connect the device to our Mackie 16 channel sound board. The Airport Extreme basically set itself up–using my iPhone. I was able to add a password to the AirPort Extreme, and a password to the AirPlay functionality.
There are some Bluetooth modules that can stream audio, and are device agnostic–but I have had mixed experience with Bluetooth receivers (dropping connections, primarily). We need our streaming audio to be reliable, as it will likely be used for our student musicals (middle school “junior” productions that are performed with a background recording) and talent shows. We were looking at a new Bluetooth receiver as an option…but that cost $200. That is twice the price of the AirPort Express.
At the same time that I installed new hardware, I removed the existing DVD/Cassette combo that was in the rack…no one used that anyway! The AirPort Express is tucked away in the rack itself (it cannot be seen). And if someone attempts to connect to the AirPort Express, they will not be able to do so without the password.
So…at this point, the auditorium has a fully-working sound system, with a hassle-free audio-only AirPlay connection for iOS devices and MacBooks (and there are some apps that enable Android to send audio via AirPlay as well). So…the little (same size as an Apple TV) AirPort Express came to the rescue, at a price of less than $99. That may seem like a lot of money for one function–but it is actually far less expensive than other AirPlay options, small, and reliable.