Eliminate dropouts when streaming music over AirPlay or other WiFi streaming technologies by following these steps.

With AirPlay you can easily stream music from your iDevices or computers running iTunes to Apple’s AirPort Express and AppleTV. Additionally, many AVRs, processors, and other audio components directly play AirPlay streams. See Secrets’ AirPlay tag for our coverage of audio components that support AirPlay streaming.

AirPlay is not only convenient and user-friendly, but also lossless. So music travels to every corner of your home network with all the fidelity of the original recording. That contrasts with lossy streaming technologies such as Bluetooth AptX. See Jim Clements’ Audioengine B1 review for more on AptX. While AirPlay is not the only lossless streaming technology around, it is the most pervasive.

AirPlay streams music with such fidelity and convenience that I have relied on it for 2-channel digital music for a decade. However, lossless streaming inherently requires higher bandwidth than lower-fidelity lossy streaming. Last year my wife and I moved into a new house, and we learned first-hand that streaming performance depends on the underlying network. AirPlay works fantastically downstairs, But AirPlay dropouts upstairs and on a balcony bedeviled us.

Secrets Sponsor

Our streaming chain uses all Apple components: Macs and iDevices to store music and control playback, an AirPort Time Capsule base station, and AirPort Express zone receivers. So I contacted an Apple product specialist to walk me through optimizing our network for AirPlay streaming.

Setup

This article uses Apple’s AirPort Utility and Wireless Diagnostics tools to optimize the WiFi network for AirPlay streaming. However, the underlying approach should improve music streaming in other ecosystems, and help users who use other networking tools. The Apple product specialist led me through a stepwise process that began with looking at router and zone receiver placement, and moved through zone receiver configuration, router WiFi broadcast mode, and finally to WiFi broadcast channel.

The Apple product specialist first asked me describe our WiFi network’s physical geography. I explained the AirPort Time Capsule base station sits diagonally across the house from the two AirPort Express zone receivers. Unfortunately, neither router nor streaming receivers could move significantly, so we didn’t experiment with alternative placement.

Then the Apple product specialist asked me how many WiFi networks my MacBook Pro detected in room. Our urban neighborhood has fairly small lots, so I expected to see quite a few networks around. I clicked on the WiFi icon in the menu bar, and started counting half-aloud.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream
NOTE: Personal identifying information redacted from all screenshots.

The Apple product specialist sighed audibly when my count hit the teens. He explained that network interference causes most AirPlay dropouts, because available spectrum is a zero-sum game. With so many competing networks around, our work was cut out for us!

The Apple product specialist then taught me a neat trick in OSX: hold down the Option key and click on the WiFi icon in the menu bar to see your wireless signal’s RSSI (Relative Signal Strength Indicator) and Noise.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream

Subtract Noise from RSSI, and you get a signal to noise ratio (SNR). The Apple product specialist told me a 40dB SNR is excellent, while a sub-25dB SNR can cause AirPlay dropouts. Our SNR upstairs was 25dB on the nose, or marginal for AirPlay streaming.

Next, the Apple product specialist asked me whether I had set each AirPort Express to “Join” or “Extend” the network. He explained to me that an AirPort Express set to “Join” is a client on the network just like a computer, phone, security camera, etc. However, an AirPort Express set to “Extend” rebroadcasts the router’s WiFi network signal. You can individually set each AirPort Express on the network to Join or Extend in AirPort Utility under the Wireless tab.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream

Both AirPort Expresses were set to Join. The Apple product specialist suggested I switch one of them to Extend, and reboot it to effect the change.

This change increased SNR by 8dB! I then walked around the room streaming music from my MacBook Pro and…no dropouts! But we could still induce dropouts when streaming from an iPhone. So we tried putting the other AirPort Express in Extend mode as well. That just messed up everything everywhere, so we switched that one back to Join and rebooted it.

Secrets Sponsor

The Apple product specialist then suggested we switch the AirPort Expresses from 5GHz to 2.4GHz. He explained to me that the AirPort Time Capsule base station broadcasts over 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands simultaneously, and an AirPort Express can Join or Extend either one. Even though the 5GHz network and the 2.4GHz network can have different names, they are joined at the proverbial hip. Connecting to either network allows full access to the other networked devices on both frequency bands.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream

Initially I set up everything on 5GHz, assuming it was better. But the Apple product specialist told me that isn’t always the case. The 5GHz WiFi signal doesn’t always penetrate boundaries as well as the 2.4GHz signal. So in some circumstances the 2.4GHz band may offer better real-world performance. Furthermore, home construction strongly affects WiFi signal penetration through boundaries. Our house has plaster-and-lath walls. This method of construction is beautiful and durable, but less transparent to WiFi signal than newer drywall construction.

On this advice, I used AirPort Utility to switch both AirPort Express zone receivers to the 2.4GHz band, and rebooted them. SNR inside went up another 4dB. Performance on the balcony also improved, though we still observed some dropouts when streaming from an iPhone on the balcony.

Fortunately, the Apple product specialist had a final trick up his sleeve. OSX’s Wireless Diagnostics app includes a tool to scan wireless networks for the strongest channels. To access the Scan tool, hold Option and click on the WiFi menu bar. Then select Open Wireless Diagnostics.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream

After Wireless Diagnostics runs, go to “Window” in the menu bar and select “Scan” to access the Scan tool.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream

The AirPort Diagnostics Scan Tool has two panes. The left pane offers a summary of how many networks your computer “sees” and the two best channels for each frequency band. The right pane shows a list of wireless networks detected, with signal strength, noise, and broadcast channel for each one.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream

The Apple product specialist asked me to take my MacBook Pro onto the balcony, and click on “Scan Now” in the bottom-right corner of the AirPort Diagnostics Scan Tool. He explained that routers pick a channel when they start broadcasting, and don’t change channels until they’re rebooted, even though channel congestion can vary. But AirPort utility allows a user to force a router to lock onto a specific channel. This choice is in the Wireless Options menu under the Wireless tab.

Secrets - Optimize Your WiFi Network to Stream

To find the consistently best channel, we hit "Scan Now" several times over a few minutes. While the two best 2.4GHz channels changed a little each time, one channel usually popped up. Also, the right pane of the AirPort Diagnostics Scan Tool told us none of the networks around me broadcast on that channel. So the Apple product specialist advised me to go into AirPort Utility and force the AirPort Time Capsule base station to broadcast on that channel.

After I forced the AirPort Time Capsule base station’s 2.4GHz broadcast to lock onto that channel and rebooted the router…success! We could not induce a dropout when playing from the MacBook Pro or an iPhone, no matter where I stood or how I jiggled the iPhone. The Apple product specialist then recommended I scan every once in a while to see if another channel emerged as a better option, or if we started suffering dropouts again, and said goodbye.

In Use

After several weeks of extensive AirPlay use I am happy to report: problem solved! Due to the configuration changes the Apple product specialist walked me through, our network SNR is consistently around 37dB even on the balcony. That represents an improvement of more than 12dB! AirPlay streaming thus far is just as stable upstairs as on the hard-wired AppleTV in the living room. When I wake up, I can even stream NPR Morning Edition from the WABE app on my iPhone over any AirPort Express in the house without dropouts!

Conclusions

The Apple product specialist taught me that optimizing WiFi performance for streaming music is a lot like setting up speakers and subwoofers for smooth bass in a room: the only universal rule is, have a stepwise process to keep you sane. Within that process, try everything in order until something works! "Everything" in the process of integrating subwoofers for smooth bass is placement (if possible), relative levels, lowpass filters, delays and EQ. “Everything” in the context of stabilizing AirPlay performance is placement (if possible), Join/Extend, broadcast band, and broadcast channel. Should you also suffer from dropouts when streaming music, as we did, follow this process to once again enjoy uninterrupted streams of music in any room you choose.

Further resources:

Chris Eberle, Media Servers – Where Are We Now, Where Are We Going?

Apple Support, Wi-Fi base stations: How to set up and configure AirPort Express for AirPlay and iTunes

Joseph Stromberg, 10 simple tips for making your home wifi network faster

Thanks to Apple for their assistance with this article.

  • buysidetrader

    can this be used with spotify as well or is airplay for iTunes only?

  • Jay Haider

    I expect that anything that improves your network signal should improve any music streaming.

  • Jay Haider

    I don’t use Spotify, but I believe so. As I mentioned in the article, I stream “NPR Morning Edition” over AirPlay from my iPhone most weekday mornings.

    Here’s a support page from Spotify that mentions AirPlay streaming from an iDevice or Mac: https://support.spotify.com/au/learn-more/faq/#!/article/stream-spotify-using-airplay

  • Rattus Norvegicus

    The same techniques would hold. You are basically enhancing network reliability at the edge of the reception envelope.

    This article does point out that it is probably best to run Cat5 (or 5e or 6) for as much of your network as possible and at least to your AP’s at the far corners of your house.

  • star-affinity

    Thanks for sharing the info in this article! Very helpful and informative.

  • Jay Haider

    You’re welcome. Happy streaming!

  • Appledystopia

    When Apple “overhauled” AirPlay around the iOS 9 release, they seem to have reduced or eliminated the buffer. I replaced my Apple TV 2 with a fourth generation model about 18 months ago. They are both in the same location. I have a one bedroom condo and my AirPort Extreme is in the bedroom. My Apple TV is in the livingroom. The second gen Apple TV had flawless AirPlay. I used it with dual band WiFi. The fourth generation model will sometimes have a dropout if I walk in between my WiFi router and Apple TV (pretty much by walking in my living room). It’s ridiculous. There’s no buffering with AirPlay anymore. They “improved” this technology, and yes, music playback starts immediately, but the dropouts are an unacceptable tradeoff.

    I did all of the WiFi tinkering and came to the same conclusion — I now have to use the 2.4GHz network, because it can penetrate through a wall. The wall is just drywall with no insulation. My AirPort Extreme is literally 20 feet away from my Apple TV! Without an adequate buffer, any minor disturbance in WiFi will result in a dropout.

    I never had to do this with my Apple TV 2. It was in the same location and used the same router and iOS AirPlay clients. It just worked. The AirPlay overhaul introduced regressive defects. It’s not as robust as it used to be. They are overhauling it yet again (AirPlay 2) which makes me cringe a little, because the Apple TV team seems to break more than they fix. This is my experience with 6 years of using Apple TV (as a complete replacement for cable). In tvOS 10.2, they broke Siri’s ability to toggle Reduce Loud Sounds. After two updates, they still haven’t fixed it.

    This is par for the course with Apple TV. The Apple TV team just isn’t very good. It makes sense for Apple to put their best and brightest on the iPhone, iOS, Mac and macOS. Apple TV is the worst Apple product I have owned, but that said, it’s not bad compared to tech products as a whole. It’s definitely not iPhone quality, but at least it isn’t Motorolla quality.

    Please report these defects to Apple. I don’t think their QA testers are even aware of these issues. We can only hope AirPlay 2 is a step forward with no steps back. I just don’t have a good feeling about it…

  • Appledystopia

    Another optimization — set your WiFi connection to manual instead of DHCP, on your devices (iPhone, iPad, Apple TV). Appearantly, with DHCP, the router is constantly being pinged by devices. When it is manual (static) this doesn’t happen. I noticed fewer dropouts after I did this, but it didn’t elminate the problem.

  • Jay Haider

    Thanks for your insight. I haven’t tried streaming wirelessly to our 4th gen AppleTV, as it was easy to run a cable to it. But since these tweaks we haven’t had problems streaming over AirPlay to AirPort Expresses, a 3rd gen AppleTV, or a number of non-Apple devices that work over AirPlay.

  • Appledystopia

    After a few weeks, I ended up using the 5GHz network and it works almost perfectly. I had two dropouts in two weeks. I can live with that. The 2.4GHz band didn’t have enough bandwidth to stream music in high-fidelity. Music that I listen to a lot (Steve Roach’s “Light Fantastic”) just sounded wrong to me, as if it was being compressed even more. It seems that AirPlay will do some on-the-fly data compression if there isn’t enough bandwidth. Neat, but I don’t like the poor sound quality… And I had dropouts! 2.4GHz was even worse, but for an unexpected and unfortunate reason…

    So I went back to 5GHz and it has been really nice. I think in dual band mode, it switches between the two bands as needed, which actually seems to exacerbate dropouts. When I walked in between the Apple TV and my router, it switched bands and caused a dropout. AirPlay sessions are much more robust when all devices are connected to a single 5GHz band.

    But the big thing is that my POS neighbors hacked into my WiFi router and were using it. I had no idea until they recently hooked up an Apple TV and I saw it in my AirPlay list. I think they have been using my WiFi for years. I changed the password to something that their tools won’t be able to crack in decades, and now AirPlay is flawless. Also, my Internet connection in general is always fast now. In the evenings, I would see very erratic behavior. It’s because those turds stole my WiFi. I know, because they renamed their Apple TV (with one of their names) and I saw it in my AirPlay list!!!

    So yeah, never underestimate the possibility that someone is stealing your WiFi, especially if you live in a condo or apartment building. I didn’t change my WiFi access password in years and it was not strong. Even though AirPlay works over the local network, the router had to support multiple freeloaders using massive amounts of data. I knew the usage reports from my ISP seemed unusually high!

    The additional network activity of up to 3 other people illegally using my router caused AirPlay dropouts and much frustration. I want to punch these people in the face, but they live next door. Even before this, they were the worst neighbors I have ever had. It’s literally like living next to the Jerry Springer show. I have to sleep with earplugs, because of them.

    The only thing is that, this all worked just fine on my Apple TV 2. The freeloaders didn’t disrupt my AirPlay sessions. The AirPlay overhaul they did a few years ago made it more fragile. But without a bunch of people freeloading on my router, it is much better. No dropouts. Just bad neighbors…

    Oh, and nothing is as fun as entering a massive ASCII password on Apple TV with that wonderful on-screen keyboard. You can’t use the Remote App because it needs to be on WiFi (catch-22). It took three attempts because l, I and | all look the same in the font on my iPhone. It took 10 minutes to enter the new WiFi password on my Apple TV, but those mofos are never going to crack it.

    The thing is, they actually have Internet access and a router. They just decided to use mine too, because they need more. It’s like 3-5 people living in a one bedroom condo. Total Jerry Springer show trash…