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Review: Airfoil 4, a flexible audio streaming solution

Airfoil ($25) is a great solution for using Apple’s AirPlay technology to its fullest. The tech needs a fairly solid wireless network to work seamlessly, but provided you’ve got one, Airfoil is an amazingly simple way to sling audio around your house to AirPlay-capable speakers and iOS devices.

AIRFOIL AND AIRFOIL SPEAKERS

Airfoil has clients for Windows and Mac, although the types of clients may be a little confusing at first. The actual Airfoil app for Windows or Mac costs $25 and that’s what helps you pipe your audio wirelessly over your network to AirPlay-compatible speakers (including the Apple TV) or other devices that are running Airfoil Speakers (this supports Windows, Mac, Linux, and iOS devices).

Streaming from Mac to Mac with Airfoil Speakers running is alright (and even shows metadata and playback controls), but isn’t quite as good when run on an iPhone 2G or 3GS (no metadata or controls – just a volume slider).

I’ve tested with a few weeks of streaming and have had issues with some major skipping and audio tearing, especially when the iPhones fall asleep while streaming (both were on powered iPhone docks, so they were being charged).

You may have better luck with iOS devices and Airfoil on your own home network (since I experience unusually high levels of packet loss on mine), but I have found that streaming from Airfoil to an AirPlay-supported speaker set is a much more reliable method. This won’t work out for everybody because it does cost at least $99 to buy an AirPort Express (to attach to a speaker), but the AirPort Express and Airfoil have been a dream come true. The audio quality is fantastic and I experience audio skipping in one out of every 30 songs, if that.

SETUP

Airfoil is painless to set up and can stream audio in a number of ways. The main client is a small window with a drop-down list for the audio input source and a list of all the available speakers on your wireless network. Activating or de-activating a speaker is as simple as clicking on its icon, and each speaker has its own separate volume controls.

WIRELESS LAG

Despite its awesome factor, still takes about a second and a half to start or stop an audio stream. In other words, there’s always a little bit of lag. This doesn’t matter much when you’re streaming iTunes, but it is strange when you set Airfoil to stream all of your system sounds and your audio cues play 1.5 seconds after you see the notifications on-screen.

I’ve tried Airfoil out on three or four different wireless networks in the past month and the lag seems to be just part and parcel for this kind of streaming

[Edit: Paul from Rogue Amoeba got back to me on this point and informed that the delay is actually built into the wireless protocol that Airfoil uses, which is Apple’s very own AirPlay.]

MULTIPLE SPEAKERS

I live in a relatively small space so Airfoil’s ability to stream and sync audio with other wireless speakers is just gimmicky around here, but given a larger space and different rooms, Airfoil could really shine as an awesome local radio station. You could stream music from a main machine to every other office computer running Airfoil Speakers and even allow people to pause, skip, or play songs from their stations. I haven’t tested the maximum number of speakers that Airfoil can support, but playback over three speakers was flawless and perfectly in sync.

KILLER FEATURES: EQUALIZER AND VIDEO PLAYER

The fact that Airfoil allows you to stream audio to AirPlay and Airfoil Speakers is amazing and should be reason enough for most people to take interest, but what if you already own AirPlay compatible speakers? iTunes can already stream audio natively to AirPlay speakers and Apple TV, so it might seem, at first glance, that a $25 Airfoil purchase would be redundant in this circumstance…but that’s before the equalizer and video player enter the equation.

I’ve got my AirPort Express hooked up to a monster Altec Lansing boombox that tend to pump out some monster bass. The speakers have their own built-in equalizer, but even on the lowest setting, the boom of the bass can still tend to give me a little headache. So when I realized that Airfoil had its own 10-band equalizer, I was overjoyed. I’ve since lowered the bass on Airfoil to near base level (hah), and I can now listen to my music nice and loud without suffering from minor audio-induced concussions.

The second killer reason for purchasing a copy of Airfoil is the Airfoil Video Player. The lag I mentioned earlier is already noticeable for things like system-wide audio, so you can only imagine how out-of-sync web and local videos tend to get when streamed over Airfoil. Fortunately, the developers at Rogue Amoeba have addressed this issue quite handily with a specialized video player that’s built right into Airfoil.

To use it, you simply select Airfoil Video Player as Airfoil’s input source, load your video (drag and drop local files or type a URL for a web video), and wait a moment for the playback to sync up.

The experience isn’t completely ideal, though it is getting there. The video player interface can be a little laggy while playing web videos on my 2009 13″ MacBook Pro, but the audio and video do sync up perfectly, and I was delighted to see subtitle support (just make sure the .srt file has the same name as the video).

CONCLUSION

Airfoil is already a great little utility for slinging audio around your house or office, but it got even better for me once I purchased an AirPort Express and hooked it up to my Altec Lansing speakers (I needed a new router anyway).

The only major warning I’d have for prospective buyers is to take advantage of Airfoil’s free demo before making a purchase. Airfoil is great, but it relies heavily on the stability and performance of your wireless network. Before I bought the AirPort Express earlier this December, the performance of Airfoil was sub-par at best, and I noticed audio skipping within 5-10 minutes of starting to stream. The demo version of Airfoil allows up to 10 minutes of streaming before it pollutes the stream with static (which is not the way I would have done a demo version, but it did make me want a full license…), so that should be plenty of time for you to test whether or not your network is up to handling Airfoil.

Thanks to the AirPort Express, however, my home network is finally half-decent, and I’m having an absolute blast with Airfoil.

Airfoil 4 was provided by Rogue Amoeba for review on iSource. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.

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