Wireless networking: WDS and AirTunes

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes
February 7th, 2011 • 3:54 pm

A little while ago, I discovered the joys of music sharing over a wireless network. All it took was the purchase of AirPort Express base station and an AirPort Express Stereo Connection Kit. I added the AirPort Express to my local network and connected it to my music system’s A/V receiver in the living room with the digital audio cable included in the connection kit.

It works great and I can control my entire iTunes music library stored on my Mac Pro in my office remotely using the free Remote app on my iPad or the iPod touch. Given the increasing proportion of tracks in my music library that I only have in downloaded form and have never burnt onto a CD, it makes it much easier to listen to a wide variety of things (and not just to music CDs) on my main music system in the living room. And of course it makes it all the more tempting to not even bother to pull the CD out of the shelf and stick it into the CD player, and to opt instead to listen to the slightly compressed version of the tracks included in my iTunes library instead.

(I’ve imported most of my collection of music CDs in iTunes as AAC/M4A files at 160 kbps or 256 kbps, and I’ll confess I am not really able to tell the difference between the CD and an AAC file when playing tracks on my sound system, even though it’s a pretty good system. There might be subtle differences, but they escape me in normal listening conditions and I have never attempted side-by-side comparisons to see if I could really detect any differences.)

That said, I did encounter one issue that one needs to keep in mind when setting up AirTunes with an AirPort Express on an existing wireless network.

My main router for my wireless network is an older AirPort Extreme (so-called “Snow” base station). Since I already had another AirPort Express in another section of the house that I used to extend my wireless network, by way of the WDS options provided in AirPort Utility, and since that other AirPort Express was already properly configured, when I got the Stereo Connection Kit, I used that other AirPort Express to set up AirTunes. Everything worked perfectly well.

Then I proceed to configure the second AirPort Express to further extend my network to the rest of the house. WDS requires that all base stations configured as “WDS remote” devices use the same network name and password as the main router, and more generally the same network settings. AirPort Utility provides an option to export and import the configuration for a base station, in the “File” menu:

File menu in AirPort Utility

So I figured I would just open the AirPort Express base station that was already properly configured, and export its configuration:

Export in AirPort Utility

Then I just opened the other AirPort Express base station, imported the saved configuration, and restarted the base station.

For network connections, this appeared to be working fine and I made sure I was able to roam throughout my house with the iPad without ever losing my Internet connection. I didn’t encounter any problems and so I left things the way they were and promptly forgot all about it.

Then the next time I used AirTunes, in the pop-up menu for speakers in the bottom-right corner of the iTunes window, I noticed that I had two different options for remote speakers. I thought it was a bit strange, but figured it was just a glitch and managed to get AirTunes to work by selecting the second option. Somehow I failed to make the connection to what I had done a few days earlier when setting up the network.

This went on for a few weeks. I had one option in iTunes for remote speakers that worked and one that didn’t work. It was a bit frustrating because I could never remember which one it was. In addition, I had a separate and totally unrelated problem on my A/V receiver itself which also caused AirTunes to fail. For some reason, if I changed the input option on the A/V Receiver to the one I had chosen for AirTunes manually using the input selection knob on the receiver, it wouldn’t work. But if I switched the input using my universal remote control, it worked fine.

It took me a while to figure out, and during that period I was of course quite confused, since I thought AirTunes was not working because I had selected the wrong remote speakers in iTunes, when in fact it often was because of the unrelated problem with my receiver. No wonder I couldn’t remember which of the two remote speakers options was the correct one!

Anyway, finally I figured out the knob vs. universal remote problem on my A/V receiver a couple of weeks ago, and soon after that it dawned on me that the duplicate remote speakers choice in the iTunes menu was not a glitch and had a perfectly rational explanation: When I exported the configuration from one AirPort Express and imported it to the other, it also copied the AirTunes settings from one base station to the other. And sure enough, when I went to check, both AirPort Express base stations had the “Enable AirTunes” option checked:


I guess it was one of those “Doh!” moments. I promptly disabled AirTunes on the other AirPort Express and restarted it, and now the second remote speakers choice in iTunes is gone.

And so now, as long as I remember to use my universal remote to switch to AirTunes on my A/V receiver, everything works perfectly fine at the first attempt.

I still haven’t figured out the problem with my receiver, but it’s totally unrelated to iTunes and AirTunes and is simply part of the joy of using a modern A/V system with the crappy user interface that is so typically of most modern appliances except for the ones made by Apple.

In conclusion, one thing to keep in mind when you configure a wireless network using WDS is that, when you use the export/import feature in AirPort Utility to apply the same configuration to multiple base stations, it appears that it really copies everything, including settings that are not needed for WDS functionality and that you might not want to duplicate.

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