The trials and tribulations of multiroom wi-fi

Sun, 23 Jan 2011, 8:17pm

 

I’ve just been reading my colleague Andrew Everard’s column in the February issue of our sister magazine, Gramophone. Andrew’s piece is titled “The changing face of system connectivity”, and in it he outlines how far we’ve come from the days when a turntable connected to your amp, and the amp to speakers. Job done.

Which struck a chord. I’ve spent the weekend setting up and testing a multiroom set-up around the house using Apple’s new AirPlay system, built into iTunes 10.

So now, in addition to my trusty Primare pre/power amp, Roksan CD player and B&W 805 speakers in the main hi-fi listening room, I’ve got iTunes running off the iMac to an Apple TV streamer in the living room and an AirPort Express in the kitchen.

The Apple TV is wired into my home cinema system (Yamaha AV receiver and Monitor Audio 5.1 speaker set-up) and the AirPort Express into the Tivoli Audio micro system in the kitchen.



This means I can now play a CD on the ‘proper’ hi-fi system, stream iTunes around the house using AirPlay to several different rooms simultaneously or just listen to good old-fashioned radio (FM downstairs/DAB upstairs).

And I can even stream iTunes or Spotify directly from my iPhone to the Apple TV or Airport Express if I can't be bothered to  turn the iMac on.

Oh, and did I mention the iPod docks in the bedroom and conservatory? (They’re not yet hooked up to the AirPlay network, but that’s my next job).

But all this clever technology, and different ways of listening to music, are not without challenges. Yes, the ‘plug’n’play’ simplicity of AirPlay is hugely appealing, and means I can choose to listen to whatever I want to from my iTunes library (or Spotify) without having to rummage about for a CD.



AirPlay gives you instant access to your iTunes music

However, as I’ve discovered this weekend (and as Andrew makes clear in his Gramophone article), wi-fi is not the most stable platform for playing music, even when using an Apple Extreme 802.11n wireless router with simultaneous dual-band support (2.4GHz/ 5GHz). Which is why a company like Sonos uses its own dedicated network for its multiroom systems, arguing that it's more robust.



Sonos systems use their own wireless network

In fact, with the other half working on the iMac earlier today, the AirPlay network kept crashing as there simple wasn’t enough bandwidth to cope with web browsing and music streaming simultaneously. Changing the channels and fiddling with the settings on the wi-fi router didn't help much either.

Matters weren't improved by the tendency of the AirPlay icon to disappear periodically from my iPhone, requiring a reboot (a not uncommon problem, and one which Apple is aware of).

To keep the music flowing, I had to resort to plugging the iPhone back into one of the iPod docks and give up on the multiroom malarkey.

As it happens, I spent Friday evening in the pub with a couple of experts from B&W discussing this very issue. They’ve designed the new Zeppelin Air in conjunction with Apple, so know a thing or two about wireless streaming.

Computers, music, mobiles and multiroom merge

From the tests they’ve done, they reckon you need a consistent speed of 11Mbps for AirPlay to work reliably over wi-fi without any dropout, particularly if you're streaming something like Spotify. (My own AirPlay set-up struggles if the speed drops below 15Mbps).

Either way, if you're streaming music from the web on AirPlay or movies to an Apple TV, a wired Ethernet connection is a better bet than wi-fi.

My problem is that the cable modem is in the loft room, and I’d need a lot of very long cabling to hard wire the Apple TV and Airport Express into it, which is why wi-fi appeals.

With so many connectivity options now available to us (and I haven’t even started on DACs, USB, Bluetooth, direct digital connection of iPods etc), it’s hard to know where to begin.

For now, I’ll keep the iPhone in its dock until the other half has finished mucking about on the iMac. At least then my music won’t be interrupted.


Comments

That's interesting, Andy.  We were asked to look at an installation where the client was having trouble with his Apple TV2.  All the problems we've already discussed really.

We installed a pair of Devolo Powerline adaptors, and although the router end was was connected by ethernet.  we left the Apple TV2 end wireless (even though the Devolo was only 4ft away from the Apple TV).  Suddenly everything was working fine.  But here is the key:-  The laptop was streaming to the main router which was relying via ethernet over mains then over a DIFFERENT wireless "network" to the ATV2.  So 2 wireless networks, and data only going in 1 direction.

By coincidence today, the BBC reported that Wi-Fi users were typically getting a 30% reduction in their internet speed, compared to using a wired ethernet connection.  No surprise there then.

 

John Arcam Dawson wrote:

We also do something similar with the rCube, rDAC and our dongles for iPhone/Pad/Pod and PCs by utilising the KLEER system which is relatively narrow band and frequency hops to find space in the crowded 2.4GHz band. It's not foolproof but is reasonably robust.

I do wonder if Airplay is ocurrently overhyped and will disappoint some users because of this.

John Dawson (Arcam)

I have both an airport express (newest 2012 version) plus an rDAC. I use the airport in 'join a wireless network mode' so theoretically I can play music from any iDevice on the my wireless N network. Unfortunately, airplay is pretty rubbish and breaks up all the time, but playing wirelessly from my PC to the rDAC via a USB dongle is flawless.

I think I'll sell the airport it's just unusable unless I move my wireless router right next to it...

I think Andy got his wireless crossed.

One thing you could look into is the signal strength the cable modem broadcasts. I have a FritzBox 7170 and it has the option to turn the signal strength up or down. Our apartment is not very big and the FritzBox is in the centre and I have turned the signal down to 12%. No need to broadcast or signal into the street.

Another Andy could look at is channel interference. Changing the channel in the wifi router to a channel that noone else is using will result in much better wifi performance.

I had much the same problem some time ago using an old iBook and an original Airport Express in the days when Airplay was "Remote Speaker".

I simply ran one cable from my router which was in located in a bit of a dead spot in the house, to another £9.99 cable wireless router, and bridged the connection. Voila, excellent wifi performance throughout the house.

I had some trouble with occasionaly dropouts when intially setting up my Squeezebox in the Lounge,  due to it being at the opposite end of the hosue to the wireless router.  My solution was a solwise 85meg homeplug next to the router and a wireless homeplug in the lounge.  I gave the wireless network created by the homeplug a different name,  and then connected the squeezebox to that one instead of the one the router was creating.  Job done,  perfect streaming of music to the squeezebox ever since.

Thanks rjb70stoke, have tried changing channels on the wi-fi router but that hasn't made  a great deal of difference.

Which comes back to the point about Sonos using a proprietory system to try to minimise such effects.

We also do something similar with the rCube, rDAC and our dongles for iPhone/Pad/Pod and PCs by utilising the KLEER system which is relatively narrow band and frequency hops to find space in the crowded 2.4GHz band. It's not foolproof but is reasonably robust.

I do wonder if Airplay is ocurrently overhyped and will disappoint some users because of this.

John Dawson (Arcam)

The World has gone mad. All this 'i' stuff!

I fully admit most of the article went way over my head but from what my ears tell me I'd be better off strapping on a Walkman (one of those old cassette thingies).

Or, if I want music in every room I can just crank up the volume on my hi-fi...

Must be me age...55;¬)

Andy- be interesting to see if you have similar streaming results in the kitchen as me,in my case a Pure Sensia,when the microwave is on.The music changes.

Defrost- changes to the "Norman Collier Dialogues"

Full power- changes to "Harpo Marx sings"

In relation to the airplay icon disappearing, I read elsewhere that if you change the language settings it re-appears (Settings - General - International).   I randomnly went from English to French and back again and it worked - utterly bizarre.  I see you can switch between English and British English (which might be easier for us non-bilingual types!)

I usually find that just switching the iPhone off and back on again (that old IT support trick) usually does the job, Chisy1

Mind you, at least we now know whence most of the contents of our review stockroom have vanished

All in the name of research, Andrew!

Have you tried using a static IP address and setting up port fowarding in your router? Also some wireless routers allow you to prioritise or limit the amount of bandwidth available to each device connected to the network.

Which is why I still think hifi audio digital streaming is still in its infancy from a usability point of view.

I would like to stream hi-res audio wirelessly without dropouts, or at least through USB.

In general I view all streamers, be they from Linn or Logitech, as experiments and not products.

I'm sure we'll get there one day though.

Wireless is not the right way forward for quality audio, nor is proprietary kludges. So stick to wifi for transcoded streams to your iThing or to your Android device, and even to your kitchen lofi player. But anything that needs bandwidth and where quality is the premium, go with wires e.g. for the hifi and for watching stored films.

A system that requires kit from one provider to extend it is taking several steps back in evolution!

I'm not a wireless expert, I can only speak from our experiences.  

As an A/V installer, this chestnut comes up all the time.  "Wouldn't it be nice to stream audio around the house wirelessly?"  Well, yes it would, and Sonos has one of the more robust systems, as already mentioned.  We do get involved in wireless installs, and I have the whole "Apple wireless thing" at home.   However.......

Wireless setups are a very hit-and-miss affair.  The main reason is that the 2.4GHz frequency is massively crowded.  For example, in my home, I can suffer interference from other Wi-Fi devices, DECT phones, The microwave oven, my heating thermostat (yup, it's wireless!), our alarm system, the garage door opener, the baby monitor, Bluetooth devices, even the electric toothbrush!  And that's without even mentioning all the wireless gear that the neighbours have! So you can see that things can get pretty busy and the result is very high levels of background RF noise.  We don't notice the interference on our Wi-Fi devices when we're surfing the net, because Wi-Fi is very good at adapting it's speed (slowing down) to get the packets through.  But this doesn't work so well with streaming audio, hence the dropouts that most people experience from time to time.  The problem gets much worse when we try to stream lossless high bitrate audio.  So even if you are showing a full Wi-Fi signal, it may be getting buried in RF noise.

There is another problem to add to this.  In newer properties we are seeing insulation and plasterboard which is foil-backed.  Hey presto!  you have a Faraday Cage!  So we now have situations where wireless devices don't even work in the next room.  It's especially bad in loft or penthouse apartments where the entire dwelling is enveloped in foil-backed insulation, which plays havoc with 2.4GHz signals.

All these problems and we haven't even talked about Video yet.  If you're going to distribute audio, why not do the same with video?  Well, on a wireless system that's even more of a problem. And if you get standard definition working, then there's high definition, and then 3D.....

If you want a bullet-proof method of getting decent quality audio around the house, bung in a LAN cable.  They're easy to tuck around the edge of the room under the carpet. or glue to a skirting and paint.  The cable is cheap and the connectors can be bought from Maplin with the crimp tool for a few pounds.  The result is like night and day! As a bonus, you can happily stream video over LAN too.  The great thing about using CAT5 cable is that with adaptors at each end, you can do squirt other stuff down the cable instead.  How about HDMI? or analogue audio, or digital audio, or analogue video, or telephone.  It has numerous uses and can handle audio and video with ease.

So rather than get too hung up on whizzy wireless, if it doesn't work for you, get some wires in enjoy home A/V as it should be.  Cabled networks are here to stay.  And if you're planning a house build or renovation, don't even wonder if you'll get away with Wi-Fi, just pull 2 or 3 lots of CAT5e (or better, CAT6) and you'll have all of your future requirements covered too!

Hmmm,you lucky lucky man I notice you have an iMac.  Well try using a PC to set up the Apple Airport, 2 days of solid setting up, uninstalling, re-installing, contacting the help desk, should be called how to blow a valve in your heart desk, even going on the net with over 20 different solutions the lovely little white box would not work with my PC, I am pretty efficient with PC,s, my £80 little white box turned into £320, because yes apple have built a very sturdy little unit, Airport is a very good name for it, as at 1.00am on a Sunday morning with words I will not put to print it became the Apple Airborne and instead of cracking and hitting the deck with a really satisfying crunch it went through the double glazed french door... the wife went into the upper atmosphere and I am now going to LAN my systems and be done with it.

Instead of wiring the whole house can I use homeling home hub. Will it work?

Not to mention all those potential brain frying radio waves that the jury is still out on - LANs seem so much easier and less cost and higher quality.

Interesting article. I have a logitech duet system which works really well (it is easy to setup if your music is on a computer, not so easy if your music is on a NAS drive - but is worth the trouble).

But this article gave me the idea - why don't I buy a second router for internet, and keep my N rated netgear for music streaming only? Routers are cheap nowadays, the 'streaming' router wouldn't need internet access and I guess the trick is to tell no one the wireless key for it Wink

"They reckon you need a consistent broadband speed of 11Mbps for AirPlay to work reliably over wi-fi without any dropout". The speed of your Internet connection has nothing to do with streaming music across your own network. This only becomes an issue when streaming from the Internet.

Even so I don't have any issues listening to streamed music on a 6Mbps connection, and can even stream recorded TV programs to my iPhone via 3G. At home my 54Mbps wireless connection will quite happily let me watch TV on my laptop from the main media centre PC so I suspect Andy has either very thick walls or a faulty wireless router.

@pierschip.  I think there may be a little confusion in the original text about wireless speed and broadband speed.

It's great to hear that you are having success with your wireless setup.  However, as has already been explained, others don't have nearly as much success, and it is rarely due to a faulty router.  But your situation does underpin my main points very well indeed.  And that is that wireless connectivity for audio and video is a hit and miss affair and can be unreliable.  It might work well for some but not others.  It is very important to note that "low bitrate audio and video doesn't have as many issues as high bitrate audio and HD video.  So even if it does work now, it may not later on.  We are only ever going to move to better quality audio and video streaming (I hope!).  

It's very easy to compromise quality for convenience, but that isn't why we all read What Hi-Fi, is it?

pierschip/Griffsetr1, I was referring to streaming music from the web using services like Spotify rather than internally from iTunes - apologies if I didn't make that clear.

The issue I have with wi-fi is getting a consistent level of performance. Yes it works, but dropout and interference are an all-too common problem, and I'm not alone in this as many above have posted.

And using wi-fi for a multiroom system can put considerable strain on your wi-fi network.

It is true, wireless streaming is hit & miss. I have a wireless network of three Logitech Duets around the house fed by a BT Homehub and sporadically one or other (or sometimes all) won't work. It's very annoying. Sometimes I think it may even be down to atmospheric conditions as I can't see what else might have changed!

Andy & TobesEtc.

I totally agree, and this is where people need to be made aware that Wi-Fi isn't necessarily the panacea to all our networking wishes.

Don't get me wrong, I love Wi-Fi and do use it for some audio streaming.  But as BGM, and mainly because I'm always testing it's viability for clients.  Probably the two coolest uses I've found for Wi-Fi (apart from web access, of course!) is wireless printing and wireless automatic backup.  Fantastic! But not for bulletproof A/V streaming.

TobesEtc.  I can't even begin to go though whole list of reasons without actually seeing your own setup, but have a look at my big post and have a think if any of those reasons might be the cause (microwaves are a killer!).

I had a very quick look at the Duet specs on the Logitec site, and noticed something odd.  While it says the Duet is compatible with 802.11b/g/n networks (your home hub can do the faster "n' speed), it then says that it's own capability is only 802.11b/g.  Not n.  In theory then, I think that this would drag your whole network speed down to 802.11/g which is a bit slower than ideal, especially when you have lots of data chugging around.

Luckily the Duet can connected via a LAN cable, so if you don't mind a bit of experimentation, buy a cable long enough (or make one) to temporarily connect a Duet to your hub and see if that fixes the problem.  In which case it might be an idea to think about connecting the Duets this way permanently.  You can still set them up so the hand controllers work wirelessly.

Instead of a long LAN cable, I bought a pair of Belkin Powerline adapters, which use the home mains wiring to distribute the network about the house.

I use this in addition to WiFi, and have done so for about a year.  So far, so good. No speed issues, although it does depend on the quality of the house wiring.

Plus a mains conditioner is always a good addition to filter out the inherent interference it causes.

Yes, I've just added a pair of Belkin Powerline adapters too, and it's made a huge difference. Now getting a consistent 19-20Mbs via ethernet which has helped enormously.