How to hack together multi-room music with Sonos, Airfoil, and old iPhones

I love listening to music, soundtracks, and other aural miscellany while puttering around my apartment. Silence might be nice in some places, but when you work and live alone, there's something soothing about having some classic rock at your back while you're doing dishes or writing up an article.

I've collected a variety of speakers over the years for the various rooms of my house, but I'd never thought to try and hook them all together until last week, when I had the good fortune of acquiring a Sonos Playbar (opens in new tab). If you're unfamiliar with the Sonos brand, the system hooks into your wireless network to allow you to remotely control and stream music to your Sonos speakers, all in unison. This is pretty great if you have multiple Sonos speakers, but I didn't quite have the cash flow to drop another few hundred bucks on a few Play:3s to set up around my apartment. And unfortunately, Sonos doesn't hook into AirPlay natively.

My first hack, as I use AirPlay to listen to almost everything, was to figure out how to wire the Playbar into my AirPlay network. The solution was actually pretty simple: Instead of hooking the speaker directly up to my television, I wired it to my Apple TV. Instant AirPlay bliss.

Granted, this wiring has some caveats: namely, I can't use the Playbar with any of my other TV accessories (Xbox, cable, etc). But given that 90 percent of my TV-using these days goes through the Apple TV and its associated channels anyway, it's not a bad trade-off. And if I really wanted to blast some Mass Effect soundtracks through the Playbar while enjoying my Xbox, it's easy enough to swap the optical audio cable from the Apple TV back to my television proper.

Once I hooked up the Playbar to the Apple TV, I started thinking. I couldn't afford a full Sonos system, but my two big studio speakers were now hooked up to an Airport Express and an Apple TV, respectively: It'd sure be cool if I could make them play music at the same time. And lucky for me (and you), there's a wonderful little app from Rogue Amoeba called Airfoil for just that purpose. Airfoil (opens in new tab) hijacks audio from any program on your Mac and subsequently pumps that audio to any AirPlay-capable receivers on your Wi-Fi network. There is a small audio delay as the data gets transmitted because of the AirPlay standard, so it's better for streaming music and podcasts than, say, the audio from Hulu or Netflix.

You'd think I'd be satisfied with two fully-operational speakers in my apartment, but I'd gone too far down the rabbit hole. You see, Rogue Amoeba also makes an app for iOS called Airfoil Speakers Touch (opens in new tab) which turns any Wi-Fi-enabled iOS device into an AirPlay receiver. So I took an old iPhone 4s and iPhone 5, installed Airfoil Speakers Touch, and hooked them up to two small speakers I had in my kitchen and bathroom, respectively. Within minutes, I was streaming audio from my Mac to four different speakers, the same music in every room. The power!

You're not just limited to controlling Airfoil from your Mac, either; you can install Airfoil Remote (opens in new tab) on an iOS device to gain access to your Airfoil controls while walking around your apartment.

So there you have it: patched-together multi-room audio for only $25. Not as fancy as hooking together a couple of Sonos speakers, no, and it doesn't quite work for TV audio—but for my purposes, it's more than enough.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

11 Comments
  • That's... remarkably clever! I've been trying to figure out a way to hack something like this together for iPad TV watching. Now I don't have to!
  • To be clear, Airfoil Speakers Touch does NOT turn any iOS device into an AirPlay receiver. The app will turn the iOS device into an Airfoil audio receiver. The important distinction being that you still need to buy the $25 desktop app to route audio to the device.
  • If you were lucky enough to purchase the IAP long ago, you actually are able to use it as a true AirPlay audio receiver - I activate it on my phone and now my iPad sees it as an available AirPlay target, no desktop app required. (Pretty cool, I've used it as a makeshift connection to AirPlay to my surround sound system.) Unfortunately, they used undocumented APIs to do this, and Apple finally noticed and demanded they remove it. Somehow, they worked out a deal where they removed the IAP so new users couldn't buy it, but they were allowed to leave the feature in for people who had bought it. So, technically, both you and Serenity are right!
  • I was trying to think of a similar, low-cost hack for my basement laundry room, one place where I don't have big speakers. Those little Bluetooth speakers are getting cheaper and better all the time. I might eventually get my WalDock from Kickstarter, maybe. Then it hit me, the perfect solution. Earbuds fill your head with sound, and follow you everywhere you go.
  • For future reference, if you'd like to port your Xbox and Apple TV audio together, you can pass the Apple TV's HDMI through the Xbox One's HDMI input for the Xbox's tv function. It'll pass through the Xbox and through the its audio out. Granted there will be a slight amount of degradation, but it's an option. Sorry I said xbox so much.
  • Very interesting. Great article. These are the kind of articles I love to see on imore. Great work serenity. Sent from the iMore App
  • Clever workaround. I have been looking into a Sonos system also and find it hard to get rid of all my high end speakers I already own from previous years in multiple rooms with dedicated receivers. I really like the concept of multi room playback and control. I hope there will be a solution for people like me to tie all my current systems together using the high end equipment I already have. One can dream.
  • Exactly! Sonos' closed system can be very frustrating.
  • Here's another lonely guy living in a studio who needs / loves background noise / music and etc., and this solution ROCKS!
  • Interesting! What does that do to your battery life?
  • Great work! We have been working on our own solution to this problem at mBox.. multiroom audio using any old Bluetooth, WiFi or UPnP speakers