Kevin Hunt: How To Send Music Through Your Home's Powerline


It's barely worth discussing how to upgrade a stodgy audio system with a wireless connection because once Apple's Airport Express enters the room the conversation usually ends.

The Airport Express costs $99, though, which might seem overpriced if its only function is bringing Ambient Psychedelic Chillout radio from an iPhone or downstairs Mac or Windows computer to a connected audio system in the upstairs chill-out room. Fortunately, the Airport Express, a Wi-Fi base station with Apple's AirPlay wireless technology and a dual analog-digital audio output, isn't the only pathway to the chill-out room system. Music also can travel through the house's electrical wiring using a powerline network adapter.

A powerline adapter connects to a router, then plugs into a wall outlet and sends a signal through the wiring to another adapter plugged into another outlet in another room. That second adapter might have a USB or Ethernet port, bringing the Internet to an audio system, printer or computer.

A good powerline adapter with audio connections usually costs as much as the Airport Express, but Netgear's Powerline Music Extender (model XAUB2511) recently showed up online for $60 and a $30 mail-in rebate. With the total price $30, including AirPlay compatibility, the Music Extender promised to do the same thing as the Aiport Express at a 70 percent discount.

So I took the $30 challenge. My Airport Express actually had a second job. Aside from bringing music to a small office audio system, it also added a basement printer to the home network. Yet it couldn't do both at once. When I wanted that rare printout, I'd unplug the Airport Express, walk it into the basement, set it up, go back upstairs to a laptop, print out the pages, then go back into the basement to retrieve the copies and the Airport Express.

That's a lot of legwork, but the $49 printer did not seem worthy of its own $99 wireless lifeline. Netgear says the Music Extender also can add a wired printer to a wireless network via its USB port, but in my setup it could not despite hours of trying. (Netgear made several troubleshooting suggestions before citing router incompatibility with my Airport Extreme.)

Maybe that's why it's called a Music Extender, not a Printer Extender. For music, this device worked immediately. The Powerline Music Extender is big and bulky but benefits from a pass-through electrical socket for the rest of your equipment, an important feature because powerline adapter performance suffers when plugged into a power strip.

I plugged one adapter into an outlet, then plugged the power strip that included the router into a nearby outlet. Then I took the other piece of this powerline starter kit — most adapters use the HomePlug protocol, so mixing brands is OK as long as any additional adapters have the same or higher speed rating — into a room down the hall.

The Music Extender adapters are rated at an optimistic 200 megabits per second, fine for music. Even the faster adapters like the TrendNet Powerline 1000 — the $170 PL-420E2K due in June with maximum speeds of 1,000 megabits per second — are limited by your home's Internet speeds and the age and condition of its wiring.

The Music Extender includes an oddball cable with a USB connector at one end and RCA audio cables and a female minijack at the other. In the middle, a small compartment houses the chip that converts the digital signal to analog. You can add your own digital-to-analog converter, or just start listening, almost immediately.

It took only a couple minutes for the second adapter to pair with the first. Then, with Slacker playing on my iPhone, I selected the Music Extender from the AirPlay menu. It sounded, incredibly, like Airport Express — the device, not the album.

Powerline Network Adapter

Cost: $30 and up

Good: Adds Internet or Wi-Fi over electrical wiring to areas of a home network with weak signal. Adds a wired printer or attached hard drive to a home network, replicates AirPlay wireless streaming when connected to an audio system.

Not So Good: Performance drops when plugged into a power strip or installed in a house with older electrical wiring or on different circuits.

Common Brands: Netgear, D-Link, TrendNet, Linksys

Information: HomePlug Alliance (homeplug.org)

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