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Airport Express Alternatives?

BluePotato

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May 30, 2012
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Hi all,

I'm currently demo'ing a system at home, as part of the setup is my first experience of a streamer. I'm building from scratch so was happy to give a streamer a go as I now have a wired network set up hooked into my NAS which is where majority of my music is stored lossless.

I've used iTunes for years now and whilst open to giving the streamer a go I have for a few reasons decided quickly that unless major sonic improvements are heard then I would really rather stick with iTunes for playback. So I bought an Airport Express yesterday and connected that to the DAC via optical. Sound quality initially was poor in comparison to the (far more expensive streamer) but within 1hour of listening the difference in sound quality was to my ears neglegable. Great news in theory except the AE for some reason has distortion/crackle in the signal which comes through to the speakers and makes the experience not acceptable.

I have a call request with apple support to look at this, a google search shows some evidence of this sort issue a few years ago but nothing recent. Hoping this can be resolved as to my ears the £100 AE is competing with a dedicated streamer (separate DAC) worth nearly £1k so this saves me ££ and provides a solution I'm far happier with.

I guess the question is, does anyone else run a similar setup or is anyone aware of other products that would do the job of an AE?

One last bit of clarity - as mentioned, the AE is connected to my local network by ethernet but I do connect wirelessly to it via macbook to control the music playing

Thanks
 

insider9

Well-known member
Sep 20, 2016
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There's quite a few devices that could do similar job to AE. At a similar price point Raumfeld Connector would be the one. Quite a number of happy users on this forum. If you need more functionality and believe it's worth the extra outlay Yamaha WXC-50 is also a very good device. It all comes down to must have features and your budget.
 

ID.

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Feb 22, 2010
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There's also the previous generation of Apple TV which has an optical output, unlike the current one that only has HDMI.
 

BluePotato

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May 30, 2012
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thanks - will check out those options. Typically I have the new apple TV

Swapped the AE today and the replacement has exactly the same problem - has to be a design floor? Either that or doesnt get along with the Rega DAC R.

Shouldn't be this difficult to get an ethernet cable containing NAS music through to the DAC.
 

Rethep

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May 2, 2011
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That's a very strange problem. I never had any big problem with my AE (7 year old version) except sometimes experiencing dropouts in the (wireless) signal. That has been taken care of by some softwareupdate. It might also have been a problem with the many (strong) disturbing wifi networks here in the neighbourhood.

Considering it's soundquality there is no reason to buy an expensive DAC, so i hope you can solve the problem. Maybe manually switch to another (fixed) channel ?! Maybe a problem with the 2 different frequency areas (2,5 and 5 Ghz) ?! Maybe interference with some other electronic device in your (neighbours) house ?!

Good luck!
 

insider9

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Sep 20, 2016
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I've been using Airplay with Tidal for about a week now. On rare occasion, about once or twice an hour I hear a crackling noise (as if radio static) for a split second. It only happens with Airplay so I assume it's to do with either wifi signal or ipad itself.

Is this similar to what you're experiencing?
 

chrisrock

New member
Jul 12, 2009
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I have experienced this exact same problem with my ATV connected to the DAC built into my amp using a toslink cable. I have read on line others that have also had this problem but haven't seen a solution to the problem. So you are not alone with this frustration.
 

BluePotato

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May 30, 2012
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Indeed, massively frustrating think I'm going to have to concede and find an alternative.

Interference is definitely a possibility, not been able to isolate as yet though. I've only tried a wired ethernet connection to date, could try wifi but surely that cant be the issue and then there the potential for dropouts.

Might give apple support another go but they didn't seem to have many ideas on the last call.
 

BluePotato

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May 30, 2012
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It is similar although I would say it happens every 10-20seconds and im using a wired connection from the AE to DAC (optical) and ethernet to a wired network.

How do you find the Yamaha WCX-50? Does that do the same job? I'm not particularly bother for bells and whistles but if it provides a good performing clean sounding solution that might be my answer.
 

insider9

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Sep 20, 2016
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BluePotato said:
It is similar although I would say it happens every 10-20seconds and im using a wired connection from the AE to DAC (optical) and ethernet to a wired network.

How do you find the Yamaha WCX-50?  Does that do the same job?  I'm not particularly bother for bells and whistles but if it provides a good performing clean sounding solution that might be my answer.

 

 
Is this all wired or at any point are you using WiFi?

Yamaha sounds very good without the need for an external DAC. In fact it has one optical input so can act as a DAC for one other source. On top of that you get a fully functional preamp, Bluetooth, DLNA, USB player, Internet radio and streaming services. Plus already mentioned Airplay. I only wish it supported Tidal natively.

If all you need is a streamer to plug into a DAC then you'd be spending more than you need to. What DAC are you using at the moment?

I've ordered a stronger antenna to see if WiFi can be improved hopefully eliminating the issue. I suspect it is to do with rather poor signal.
 

BluePotato

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May 30, 2012
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Apologies, been doing a bit more investigation tonight with the AE. Interestingly when I play music from my Synology NAS using DS Audio (supplied software) and push that to the AE and into the DAC the sound comes through crystal clear.

Question in my mind now is I need to understand itunes and airplay a bit more. My itunes music folder is on my NAS. If I ignore the AE for a minute, effectively if I play a song via itunes it will fetch it from the NAS and play. Now when I introduce the wired AE I expected it would do the following:

1) request song a from itunes on laptop, fetch that track via airport express using the wired connection to the nas and play into the DAC via optical input thus making the most of the wired connection

in reality it might be:

2) request song a from itunes on laptop, itunes fetches that track via wifi and pushes it via wifi into the airport express and play into the DAC via optical input thus ignoring the wired connection (other than the fact thats needed for the ae to be recognisable). This I could see considering the size of the files might be a strain on the system and not what I'm after

So questions for help if anyone has had this before are:

- does airplay work as per scenario 2? If so is there a way to change it?

- I can only assume given the flawless playback using the DS Audio software this does work as per scenario 2
 

insider9

Well-known member
Sep 20, 2016
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Suspect it's scenario 2. I use Tidal via Airplay from iPad. Effectively iPad needs the stream to then send it to Yamaha, madness. That's why I think wifi signal might be to blame. It needs simultaneously stream up and down the same content bouncing it off ipad onto the stereo.

Spotify connect is much more thought out. If I play files from USB on Yamaha it plays them directly and without any delay or issues. The app for playback is ok.
 

lovstromp

New member
Nov 17, 2009
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I wonder whether Chromecast works with your iTunes library the way it works with Tidal? i.e., streaming directly from Tidal and not through your devices first. I've got my iTunes library on a nas as well and if my above assumption is correct then we'd be able to use Chrome as a control unit only and Chromecast fetching the music from the library.

I've used AE before and had the same problems mentioned by others above. Chromecast would be a cheap alternative if this works.
 

insider9

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Sep 20, 2016
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lovstromp said:
I wonder whether Chromecast works with your iTunes library the way it works with Tidal? i.e., streaming directly from Tidal and not through your devices first. I've got my iTunes library on a nas as well and if my above assumption is correct then we'd be able to use Chrome as a control unit only and Chromecast fetching the music from the library.

I've used AE before and had the same problems mentioned by others above. Chromecast would be a cheap alternative if this works.
Would Chromecast Audio manage gapless playback over wifi? It sure is a cheap alternative just not sure for iTunes.
 

chris_bates1974

Moderator
Feb 28, 2013
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I've had none of these issues with my AE. It's wired, and I stream from various i devices using Apple Music. I have had the issue of the AE needing to be updated.

As an aside, a few posts above mention using an additional DAC. I use the DAC functionality in the AE, and have found it to be really very good (in my modest system at least). I wonder if it is the use of an additional DAC that contributes the problems?
 

chrisrock

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Jul 12, 2009
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BluePotato said:
chris - how did you work around it? Buy a different product?
I haven't found a work around unfortunately. I just reverted to streaming direct from my laptop into the amps dac. I may at some point try an alternative bit for me I can't get the ATV to work without th issues.
 

MajorFubar

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Mar 3, 2010
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Strange how the AEX should react differently in different setups. Other than I have an issue with mine dropping off WiFi (probably because of overcrowded airspace) I have no issues with it. As for sound quality (from its optical output), in a test I don't think I could reliably tell the difference between lossless files played optically from my Mac Mini directly to the speakers and the same lossless files streamed from my phone to the AEX via AirPlay. I don't know if the AirPlay protocol is lossy or lossless, but if it's lossy, it's transparent to my ears.
 

insider9

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Sep 20, 2016
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Quite right iMark. Here's some info comparing Bluetooth and AirPlay if anyone is interested to read.

Clicky

With all this in mind the wireless performace may be what is causing issue.
 

iMark

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May 16, 2008
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MajorFubar said:
I don't know if the AirPlay protocol is lossy or lossless, but if it's lossy, it's transparent to my ears.
AirPlay is based on Apple Lossless (ALAC), so it's a lossless protocol, capable of streaming up to CD quality.

The only problem I've had with an AE was after a firmware update. Same happened to friends of ours. After downgrading the firmware to 7.6.1 the dropouts disappeard. This was with an AE of the first generation but the model capable of 801.11n, not the really first model.
 

iMark

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May 16, 2008
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insider9 said:
Quite right iMark. Here's some info comparing Bluetooth and AirPlay if anyone is interested to read.

Clicky

With all this in mind the wireless performace may be what is causing issue.
Another advantage of AirPlay (not mentioned by Cambridge Audio) is the fact that you can stream the same music to more than one device. Our music collection is on a Mac Mini in my study. In iTunes I can choose: computer, Room 1 (Yamaha receiver with AirPlay), Airport Express (bedroom stereo) and any other Mac that's on. With AirFoil and Airfoil Speakers I can stream any sound from the Mac Mini to all devices on the network.

I think Bluetooth audio is limited to streaming to one device at a time.

Wikipedia has this description of the AirTunes part of AirPlay:

"The AirTunes part of the AirPlay protocol stack uses UDP for streaming audio and is based on the RTSP network control protocol.The streams are transcoded using the Apple Lossless codec with 44100 Hz and 2 channels encrypted with AES, requiring the receiver to have access to the appropriate private key to decrypt the streams.[ The stream is buffered for approximately 2 seconds before playback begins, resulting in a small delay before audio is output after starting an AirPlay stream." This is another reason to rip CDs as ALAC files. Your computer doesn't have to do any transcoding before streaming the sound. This appeals to audiophiles and some claim this makes the Airport Express sound better than an Apple TV, which has to transcode the 16/44.1 stream to 16/48. Personally I've never used an Apple TV but I can say that streamed ripped CDs sound excellent in our system.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AirPlay
 

daveh75

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Jul 31, 2008
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Though of course if you're using AirPlay to stream from a streaming service that uses a lossy codec or lossy files from your device it matters not a jot whether AirPlay is lossless or not.

AirPlay requiring your device to act as server and making inefficient use of WiFi makes it inferior to the likes of Chromecast or Spotify Connect too IMO.

Then there's the fact the AEX is now ancient (having last been updated mid 2012) and only supports 802.11 a/b/g/n which is a problem if you intend to use it as a repeater say, rather than just as an AirPlay receiver.

It's also exceptionally poor value for money now it's £100. They really should of reduced it to about £30 if they're going to continue to neglect (or abandon it if the rumours are correct) but keep selling it regardless...
 

insider9

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Sep 20, 2016
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daveh75 said:
Though of course if you're using AirPlay to stream from a streaming service that uses a lossy codec or lossy files from your device it matters not a jot whether AirPlay is lossless or not.

AirPlay requiring your device to act as server and making inefficient use of WiFi makes it inferior to the likes of Chromecast or Spotify Connect too IMO.

Then there's the fact the AEX is now ancient (having last been updated mid 2012) and only supports 802.11 a/b/g/n which is a problem if you intend to use it as a repeater say, rather than just as an AirPlay receiver.

It's also exceptionally poor value for money now it's £100. They really should of reduced it to about £30 if they're going to continue to neglect (or abandon it if the rumours are correct) but keep selling it regardless...
Only use it for Tidal. Otherwise it's Spotify connect which is much better I agree. it's that or FLAC playback of USB drive.

By the way, new wifi antenna came today so should know if my issue is resolved in the next couple of hours.
 

BluePotato

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May 30, 2012
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Well, I've been on the phone to Apple Support, initial support line tried to help but this sort of thing isn't going to be a common query, got referred to 'specialist support' in the US who told me my set up was perhaps too advanced for Airport Express and that device is more for connecting printers etc rather than Hi Fi. Had been on the phone an hour or so at that point and it was clear wasn't getting anywhere, the chap didn't know what a NAS drive was or heard of Synology so I realised I was onto to nothing accepted his answer just to end the call.

Strange how the performance is fine through DS Audio. Not sure how that differs to itunes but imagine its the same - ie Scenario 2 in my earlier post ie retrieving music via wifi and pushing to the airport rather and only using the ethernet into the home network as a method of providing connectivity. At least I now understand why Network Streamers make sense - shame you have to buy into their software. I also like last.fm so would lose scrobbling.

Guess options now are:

1) stick with DS Audio and use that via the airport in the knowledge that AE is doing little other than picking up and routing on the digital signal (and downsampling anything hi res)

2) plug my laptop via usb into the back of the DAC and return the AE - not tried this but am assuming would work

3) take the hit and start looking at streamers. I've got the MOON MIND 180 on trial at the moment, at £850 it has no DAC and the app isn't available for macbook which is how I like to control my music (only ipad, iphone etc). Maybe could get used to the software but not that keen and no scrobbling. Benefit though is I know its making most of my CAT6 wired network

4) bin the lot and buy a turntable and vinyl*biggrin*

Thanks for support so far all - any alternative methods of accessing your digital collection gratefully received
 

iMark

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May 16, 2008
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daveh75 said:
Though of course if you're using AirPlay to stream from a streaming service that uses a lossy codec or lossy files from your device it matters not a jot whether AirPlay is lossless or not.[/quote}

True. But it won't hurt either.

daveh75 said:
AirPlay requiring your device to act as server and making inefficient use of WiFi makes it inferior to the likes of Chromecast or Spotify Connect too IMO.
But is that a problem?

daveh75 said:
Then there's the fact the AEX is now ancient (having last been updated mid 2012) and only supports 802.11 a/b/g/n which is a problem if you intend to use it as a repeater say, rather than just as an AirPlay receiver.
That's a fair point. It's quite quite expensive for a product that hasn't been updated for years. If you only want to stream audio I would recommend buying the previous model (the one that supports 802.11n) second hand. We have just cascaded one to the bedroom audio system. It's nearly 9 years old and is still working.

daveh75 said:
It's also exceptionally poor value for money now it's £100. They really should of reduced it to about £30 if they're going to continue to neglect (or abandon it if the rumours are correct) but keep selling it regardless...
It's not very clear at all what Apple's intentions are in regard to their networking products. It would be a great shame if they stopped making and updating the products. Although quite expensive, they seem to be quite durable. Our Airport Express is nearly 9 years old and hasn't missed a bit, except for a firmware upgrade that caused drop outs. We even used it to set up our own WiFi network in hotels that only had ethernet in the room. Very nifty. Even if Apple stops making the Airport Express, it would be great if other companies would make a licened and updated streamer based on the AirPlay protocol. Our Yamaha stereo receiver works very well with AirPlay. Maybe a company like Yamaha could make a AirPlay/Musiccast receiver box.
 

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