Digital audio out to Optical in cable
The TV part of the Apple TV name properly evokes that it’s built as a device to play video. It also has a screen-based interface for navigation. The new Apple TV goes a step further by adding support for richly rendered, smooth-motion games, and opening it up with an App Store. But the Apple TV, past and future, is full of music and spoken words, too—many people also stream audio from OS X and iOS using the Apple TV as an AirPlay target.
Which is why some owners of current models and potential new buyers were dismayed that Apple dropped the optical-audio port in the content box’s new design. That port could output digital audio—including 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound—using the Toslink optical interface. (AirPlay and older Apple TV models support 5.1 surround sound, while the new Apple TV can output both 5.1 and 7.1 but only via HDMI. It’s unclear whether an AirPlay revision will add 7.1 with the new Apple TV.)
If you’re using the audio port now to stream sound and want to do so in the future with a new Apple TV, what choices do you have? It turns out, quite a few.
Keep your old Apple TV, buy a used one, or buy the currently available models ($69). Old Apple TVs, so long as they keep functioning, can still shoot sound out their audio jack. You can omit connecting it to video if you plan to use it only for AirPlay. If you want to select audio apps (like iTunes Radio or Podcasts) from the Apple TV’s interface, check if your HDTV or receiver has multiple HDMI inputs. Most that have one have more (although there’s never enough). You can switch to it from a remote control to get sound running, and then use a dedicated remote control or the iOS app to pause and resume.
Get an AirPort Express. The little base station that could, the AirPort Express, is a tiny powerhouse. It has simultaneous dual-band Wi-Fi, plus a LAN ethernet port to attach a switch—plus a combination audio/digital output that works via a 3.5mm jack instead of a Toslink port. It works as an AirPlay target, and can be configured via AirPort Utility. The list price is $99, although Amazon has new units for $89 right now, and Apple will sell you a refurbished one for $65.
The Wirecutter’s Dan Frakes owns a whopping seven AirPort Expresses, purchased across several years, six of which work solely as audio controllers for speakers in different parts of his home and office.
Use an HDMI-switching receiver or an HDTV with audio output. If you purchased a receiver in the last several years, it’s likely it includes HDMI switching—and if you didn’t originally set it up that way, you may have forgotten it’s even a feature. Yamaha, for instance, makes several in the $200 to $400 range that can handle surround sound and pass-through up to 4K video over HDMI. (Some receivers are AirPlay targets, which lets you send audio directly without an Apple TV hookup, too.)
If you didn’t already have your Apple TV wired into your receiver, but used it with an HDTV set, you can first connect the Apple TV to the receiver, and then pass the HDMI output to your television. This gives you the full benefit of Apple TV’s sound apps, and better audio for your video apps and games, too.
You can also do the reverse, as many HDTV sets have both old-style and more modern Toslink optical-digital outputs. You can connect the Apple TV to the television with HDMI, and then route the audio from the TV back out into your receiver or powered speakers, depending on their inputs.
Use an HDMI audio extractor. Fair warning: I haven’t tested these yet, but they seem a viable option if you don’t have a receiver or HDTV combination that works. An HDMI extractor passes the HDMI signal through to another port, which you connect to an HDTV, but decodes the digital audio portion, and can offer multiple kinds of audio output. A sub-$40 device from Panlong, for instance, will output analog over standard RCA jacks, and has a digital output via Toslink. (SPDIF is the technical name for the audio format that can run over a Toslink cable and other cables types.)
The HDMI passthrough could have problems, though, because this is a little bit of a funky way to work with HDMI, especially the HDCP encryption standard that is used for protected video output. While this approach should work and has generally positive reviews, make sure you know the return policy for whatever store from which you purchase it.
Use Airfoil Speakers on a computer or in iOS device. Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil Speakers software lets you turn a Mac into an audio destination for AirPlay. If you’re just trying to replace that function of an Apple TV, consider whether you already have a Mac in use or that could serve this purpose. It doesn’t even have to be a Mac—Airfoil Speakers for Windows is also available. The software is free. (The company’s paid Airfoil software for Mac and Windows can transmit audio from any app or the system to send to AirPlay-compatible devices.)
If your computer’s speakers aren’t up to snuff, you can send audio from its built-in headphone jack to some powered speakers, or add a USB audio-output adapter for more sophisticated options, like surround sound output.
It may seem a little silly, but if you have an old iOS device that can run iOS 4.0 or later, Airfoil Speakers Touch can act as an AirPlay destination while the software is active. Plugging an old iPod touch or a semi-broken iPhone into a speaker dock or AC power and running its output to powered speakers can be a simple way to route audio, too.