Building a wireless speaker system with just an Apple TV

Business / iOS / User Experience

At our new co-working shared office in Stroud we needed a wireless speaker system that would allow anybody to throw music up onto the speakers from their computer or phone.

As it is a new business, we wanted to keep costs down – what I really wanted to get was some NOCS NS2 air monitors, but we have to start somewhere.

Screenshot of Apple TV Automatic Setup screen

Cheap and cheerful

So the plan was to use some old but powerful PC speakers I have and something to receive audio by AirPlay (for the Android people visiting the shared office without Macs, there are AirPlay compatible apps for Android from what I can tell).

An Apple Airport Express would have been the obvious solution, in fact I’m not aware of any other “Airplay receiver” that does not bundle speakers. However I didn’t want another Wi-Fi repeater, or a box that does nothing but audio and maybe print/disk serving – which we don’t need.

Interestingly, for just £20 more than an Airport Express you can get an Apple TV. This was much more interesting to me as you can do a lot more fun stuff with an Apple TV once you connect a display to it, than you can an Airport Express. Plus you get a physical remote that anyone in the office can use to tweak volume or skip tracks – even if the music is coming from somebody’s computer or phone. That in itself is fantastic.

Later when we get a screen, we’d have no further outlay to gain AirPlay video support for our customers.

Eh – Apple TV with no TV?

The challenge was that we don’t have a TV in the office, or a projector (yet). So until then we wanted a headless Apple TV using just the audio output. Thankfully Apple TV has an optical audio out separate from the HDMI output which normally carries audio to the TV. My crusty old speakers have an optical input but we won’t be using those forever and working with any nice analog speakers is smarter – we would like to upgrade to something better soon.

Turns out you can get a pretty inexpensive DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) that has a TOSlink optical input and analog outputs.

So for about £100 we have an Airplay system that will work with any speakers we choose, and also gives us all the features of Apple TV whenever we connect a screen.

Setting up Apple TV with no screen

Of course you have to set up an Apple TV with wi-fi passwords, network name and so on. How do you do this without a TV – am I mad? Nope.

Apple do not seem to document this in the Apple TV paperwork but I saw blog posts about it a few months back. Using a Bluetooth LE equipped device (iPhone 4S, iPad 3/mini and higher I think), you can set up an Apple TV (3rd gen) from the device, and it is easier than anything else you have ever set up from Apple.

I had a hope this setup process would not require a screen connected to the Apple TV and I was right.

All you do is turn on the Apple TV, touch the Apple TV with your device and wait there a second or so. Apple’s documentation for this is here

The iOS device then detects the Apple TV (presumably using iBeacon – remember these devices are not able to communicate with wifi as the Apple TV is not set up). It prompts you to see if you want to set it up.

If so, you just enter the password for your Apple ID on your iPhone/iPad, and you’re away. It sets up the Apple TV wi-fi and iCloud/Apple ID stuff f(if you wanted it to).

So within 30 seconds of plugging in my headless Apple TV, I had it working and was streaming audio from my phone to it.

Simply amazing.

NOTE: I can’t upgrade the firmware on the Apple TV nor can I respond to any prompts it might put up at boot until I connect a display. Still, we’re very happy for now. It may “stop working” soon, waiting for an input on a display that does not exist, we’ll see. We do get occasional drop-outs of AirPlay connections, so I’ll have to see if the firmware needs upgrading soon.

The Author

Marc Palmer (Twitter, Mastodon) is a consultant and software engineer specialising in Apple platforms. He currently works on the iOS team of Concepts sketching app, as well as his own apps like video subtitle app Captionista. He created the Flint open source framework. He can also do a pretty good job of designing app products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's really embarrassing. You can find out more here.