I have always wanted music in all the areas of my home, as I am a huge believer in the power of music and the effect it has over mood, expressions, health and relationships.
I started off with the ambition of having multi-room music with remotely controlled playlist options and volume levels of individual zones. After a little bit of online research, I found that all this is very doable. But the tough part was about narrowing down on options, finding something inexpensive yet impressive and most importantly, something that works reliably in India!
I eliminated the Bluetooth speakers option in no time as BT speakers enable only a one-to-one pairing. In other words, any source can connect to only one BT speaker at a time, thereby not fulfilling the ‘all-home’ or ‘multi-room’ feature high on my wish list. Which meant, the option was to have a music system on a home network. And any search for such a system would lead you to Sonos.
Now, Sonos is god-send (or should I say ‘Elvis-send’?!) for music lovers because of the range in their speaker systems, quality, the multiple sources for streaming like Pandora, Google Play, Calm Radio, Deezer etc and a dedicated bridge for setting up a ‘music-streaming-only’ network to ensure an awesome experience. Definitely, this is what you should go for – if you don’t live in India and have deep pockets. Unfortunately Sonos is unavailable in India yet and comes at an import price steeper than the already steep retail price in the international markets.
This led me to Apple Airplay, which enables multi-room music controllable using iTunes on a PC or Mac. The range of Airplay enabled speakers is impressive, with Bose SoundLink Air costing a hefty Rs 21,000 to JBL Soundfly Air costing a reasonable Rs 7,500 thereabout and several other brands somewhere in between.
I chose to go with the Airplay based music system after all and it has worked beautifully for me. I have four JBL Soundfly Airplay speakers in various rooms and they live up to my expectations especially considering the price I paid.There were a few initial glitches but it has turned out to be a good experience over all.
If you are interested in having a similar Airplay based music system at home, I’d recommend the following:
1. JBL Soundfly Airplay:
These speakers may not be top-of-the-line but for the price, they are definitely good enough. Set up is super easy as there are about five or six steps to follow to get the speaker on to your home network and it would take you as many minutes to get it working. The best part is that it has no cables and the speaker plugs straight into the electrical socket. And this means, no recharging hassle. If you have one of those unused electrical sockets at home, JBL Soundfly Air was made for it! There is only one button for power/standby making it a very simple design with no clutter. While setting up, do remember to change the Name of the speaker to say a zone you are using it in – Bedroom, Living Room etc otherwise you won’t be able to detect one from the other in the iTunes speaker selection menu.
On the negative side, the bass levels could have been a little better; Tiesto and Armin Van Buuren fans might be a little let down with the thump. Since the speaker has a horizontal spread, accessing switches next to the socket plugged into will also be a slight challenge. And if I really were to nitpick, the white LED when the speaker is on and playing is not so great to have if you plan to sleep off listening to music in your bedroom – which I do and I find the light quite bright and hence disturbing.
Having been a Winamp disciple, I took to iTunes quite easily. As with all Apple software, this is quite intuitive and easy to use. The various views of Playlists, Artists, Songs, Genres etc provided by iTunes along with automatically searching for and adding album art is quite a delight. I am yet to explore Genius so no comments on that yet.
Note: Don’t worry if you don’t see the blue Airplay icon next to the control buttons on iTunes; it is displayed only if there is a compatible Airplay device found on the network, so the moment you have one, the blue Airplay icon is displayed (amber if the device is detected and the connection to it is broken, in which case just reload iTunes)
The not-so-great part of iTunes is its lack of support for external online streaming sources like Saavn, Grooveshark etc. One has to download buy all the music and add them to iTunes to be able to stream it to the Airplay speakers and that is currently the only way. Individual devices like iPhones or iPads can pair with only one Airplay speaker at a time thereby making them no better off than BT speakers. So the only way of streaming to multiple speakers is through iTunes on the PC/Mac which means all music has to be on the system’s HDD. Streaming music is still not available on iTunes but I hope with the acquisitions of Beats, this will change soon. Till then, there is always Airfoil ($25) and Airfoil remote ($5) if this is really bogging you down.
It would also help to have a timer based playlist/song playback option to do something like say: Fri evening 9 pm – David Guetta, Sat afternoon 2 pm – Kishore Kumar, not to mention waking up to once fave music every morning!
3. Remote app:
The Remote app is really great thinking by Apple. Since only iTunes that is installed on the PC/Mac can stream music, what do you do if you are in a room away from the PC/Mac and want to change the song or stop the music? The answer is Remote which can be downloaded free of cost from the App store, available for both iPhone and iPad.
After downloading the app, turn on Homesharing and then pair it with your PC/Mac iTunes . Your entire collection on the system becomes available for control on your handheld device. Remember, the mp3 files don’t get transferred to your device; they only become accessible for control on your device, provided your PC/Mac, Airplay speakers and the device with the Remote app are all on the same local network. In other words, you can’t play the songs away from your home network on your device. In still other words, the Remote app is just what it says it is – and allows you to remotely control your iTunes without having to be in proximity with it.
Remote is really cool and helps you get a grip on your playlist. Playing songs as per your mood and those around you becomes really easy. Remote also allows you to select speakers and control individual volume levels so all the convenience of the iTunes is available on your handheld.
The best part of iRemote is the iTunes radio that was a chance discovery one evening. This opens up a world of new possibilities and I just love it. Not sure why it is tucked away in an obscure part of the software. And I am not able to find this on the iTunes PC version for some strange reason!
On the negative side, I find Remote takes a long time to load every time a load the app despite checking in the ‘Stay connected’ option in the settings. Also, it would have been great if there was lock-screen integration for Remote just like the native Music app on all iDevices. Accessing the Remote app after the device gets locked is not easy right now
This is the set up I have right now and but for some really glitchy Wi-fi the experience is just great. I would rate it a 90 on 100 right now.
I might want to go for Airport Express soon to have a drop-free music experience. Currently, automatic app upgrades, new devices latching on to the home network all result in clogging which breaks the music stream and that is very VERY irritating. During such times, even the Remote app fails to connect so there is no way of stopping it. It sounds like a scratchy vinyl playing non-stop and that is my definition of hell.
And yea, Airfoil looks really worth the buy to me. I am not very fond of having a huge collection on my HDD and I am not much of a guy for listening to a standard playlist. Bringing on Saavn, Grooveshark, Raaga and Music India Online to my multi-room Airplay system looks really appealing to me.
So if Ambient music with Nature sounds is what calls you on a Saturday afternoon or the mellifluous notes of Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia lulls you to sleep at night; if you want to spend great moments with a loved one listening to romantic Jazz or have a dance party in your living room to the crooning of Yo Yo Honey Singh, having a multi-room Airplay music system is definitely an easy, good and inexpensive option.
And if that ain’t enough, try something like this Corseca in-ear BT headphones so that you can listen to your favorite music on-the-go and receive calls. The headphones are not as concealed as I wanted them to be and the cable connecting both earpieces is unavoidable, but it is the closest that comes to the kind of in-ear, wireless, completely concealed earphones you might have seen in the movie, Her
But is the ‘Her’ headphones just a sci-fi concept? Actually, NO! You might be having this in your ears as early as Jan 2015 – check out Bragi Dash! I am definitely making a dash for this one!
Till then, JBL Soundfly, Airplay and Corseca should do just fine.