Fill your home with holiday music

Whether or not you care for the sound of jingling bells and a rooftop echoing the click, click, click of reindeer hooves, there’s no escaping holiday music. Along with ornamented trees, candles, and nogged eggs, it’s parcel and part of December’s latter weeks. To join rather than beat the holiday spirit, you may wish to pipe such music throughout your home. Here are a few ways to do so.

Home for the holidays

If you live in a smallish apartment, whole-home audio is a cinch. Attach a couple of powered speakers to your computer, phone, music player, or tablet; press the Play button; and crank up the speakers until they rattle the mistletoe dangling in the farthest corner of your home.

If you find a cable untidy or need to extend the reach of your computer or mobile media player, a Bluetooth powered speaker is for you. Good up to a broadcast range of about 30 feet, gadget manufacturers of every stripe make Bluetooth speakers that you can broadcast to from an A2DP-compatible device (which includes the vast majority of today’s Android and iOS devices). Bluetooth speakers can be had for under $40 and are easily found in any mall or online emporium. One drawback, however, is that you’re limited to connecting your computer or mobile device to one set of speakers at a time.

If you’ve moved beyond such small quarters and find yourself needing to fill multiple rooms with music, your job is more involved—and more expensive—though not terribly complicated. If you’re a user of Apple products, the obvious choice is to explore Apple’s AirPlay technology.

For those unfamiliar with AirPlay, here’s the gist: With music stored in your computer’s iTunes library or on an iOS device, you can wirelessly stream that music to AirPlay-compatible devices. In Apple’s world this means an Apple TV, and AirPort Express Base Station, or any set of AirPlay-capable speakers. Windows users can use AirPlay devices as well as iTunes 11 for Windows natively supports AirPlay.

An Apple TV is an inexpensive AirPlay desination.

With an Apple TV or AirPort Express, setup is simple. Just plug in your Apple TV or AirPort Express and configure it so that it uses the same local network as your computer and iOS devices. (The Apple TV and AirPort Express have AirPlay switched on by default.) The Apple TV will play your audio through whatever AV device it’s connected to, using an optical-audio cable: a stereo or home-theater receiver, a TV, or powered speakers. The AirPort Express plays through any audio device connected to its audio-output jack (which, unlike the Apple TV’s jack, handles both analog- and digital-audio connections).

But you needn’t stick to Apple’s AirPlay devices. AirPlay has been incorporated into a number of third-party products, including powered speakers from such companies as Altec Lansing, B&W, iHome, Klipsch, JBL, Libratone, Logitech, Pioneer, and Sony. And if you prefer the speakers you already own, audio companies such as Denon, Harman Kardon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony, and Yamaha are shipping AirPlay-compatible receivers.

On the air

To send music over AirPlay in iTunes 11, click the AirPlay icon just to the right of iTunes’s volume slider; when the list of AirPlay-capable devices on your local network appears, choose the one you want to play your audio through. If you want to stream your music to multiple destinations, click the Multiple button and then check the box next to each AirPlay device you intend to use. Within this AirPlay menu, you’ll see that you can adjust the volume of each device individually, as well as use the Master Volume slider to raise or lower the volume of all devices proportionally to their individual settings.

Choosing AirPlay destinations in iTunes 11

If you have a Mac running Mountain Lion or Mavericks you can stream any audio that Mac produces to a single AirPlay destination. To do so, open the Sound pane of System Preferences, click the Output tab, and choose the AirPlay device you’d like to use. (Apple’s documentation claims AirPlay Mirroring works only with mid-2011 or newer iMac, Mac mini, or MacBook Air models; and early-2011 or newer MacBook Pro models. However, this limitation applies to video mirroring. Any Mac that can run Mountain Lion or Mavericks should support audio mirroring.) If you have an older Mac that doesn’t support Mountain Lion or Mavericks you can instead use Rogue Amoeba’s $25 Airfoil to stream your Mac’s audio to AirPlay-compatible devices. The company makes a Windows version as well.

On an iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 7, you’ll find an AirPlay option in Control Center, which allows you to choose a single AirPlay destination. Under iOS 6 you’ll find AirPlay button within compatible apps. There are a handful of Android apps support AirPlay, including doubleTwist Music Player, AirAudio, and Flipps HD.

AirPlay alternatives

Convenient and free though AirPlay may be, it’s not the perfect solution for all occasions. For example, if you wish to play different music in individual rooms from the same source—modern holiday music in the living room, traditional holiday music in the kitchen, and soulful holiday music in the bedroom, all playing from your Mac’s iTunes library, for instance—you’ll find that AirPlay isn’t up to the task. It can handle streaming one track to multiple units, but not different tracks to each unit.

One solution would be to use a different source device for each room. In this case, your computer could stream to the living room, an iPhone to the kitchen, and an Android device to the bedroom. If you already own these devices, it’s an affordable way to go.

But you get greater flexibility from a system designed for multi-room play, such as audio gear from Sonos Logitech’s Squeezebox units, and Bose’s SoundTouch powered speakers. These are wireless hardware systems, consisting of multiple devices, that allow you to stream different tracks to each unit. They support not only music in your iTunes library, but also Internet-based streaming-music services. Sonos and Logitech provide access to a greater number of these services, including Pandora, MOG, Spotify, Slacker, Last.fm, and Rhapsody. These Sonos and Logitech systems can be controlled from your computer, from free apps you install on your iOS or Android devices. Bose, new to the game, currently offers support only for Pandora and local music streamed over AirPlay.

A Sonos system makes it easy to stream music throughout your home.

Play on, Santa

With that, your apartment, condo, house, tent, trailer, mansion, dorm room, office, or more-comfortable-than-it-looks-hole-in-the-ground is ready to be filled with audible cheer. As to what exactly that audio might be, that's a topic for another time.

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