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Using Apple's AirPort Express with a DAC: A how-to guide

Apple's AirPort Express can output audio via fibre-optic cable, making it ideal for use in a high-end audio system. Our thrilling guide will tell you how

Want brilliant sound quality from your AirPort Express? So did we. And for that, we needed to connect it to a dedicated audio processor via fibre-optic cable.

Apple's AirPort Express does much more for audio lovers than you might think. You're probably aware that it lets you stream your iTunes library, from your Mac or PC, over Wi-Fi, through the APE to your hi-fi. But you may not know that it has a digital fibre-optic output, meaning it can stream lossless audio, with bit-for-bit accuracy, to a dedicated sound processor (a DAC), and into a hi-fi sound system.

Erm, why should I be interested exactly?

Because when you send audio via AirPort Express, it's processed by its on-board sound chip. It's fine for most people, but it's basic. If you've invested in a decent hi-fi you're going to want to let a DAC process your audio properly, which means taking sound away from the AirPort Express via optical digital cable. By doing this, the APE simply passes the digital signal on, instead of converting it to audible sound and passing it over a standard audio cable.

Sounds awesome. By the way, what the hell is a DAC?

Ah, yes, we're assuming here you know what a DAC is. For those of you who don't know, it's usually a dedicated box, and it has just one job: turn a digital signal of ones and zeroes into sound. This requires specialist circuitry and audio chips, so it's something usually confined to the audiophile world. But if you've got a decent home audio system, it's something to seriously consider investing in.

This is a DAC. The iBasso D10, to be precise.

Fine, I'll invest. What's a good DAC to use with an AirPort Express?

We've used two for this guide: the superb-sounding Beresford TC-7520 and the more expensive, but portable, iBasso D10. Both feature digital optical inputs, which are essential for use with the APE. Both can also be used via USB with a computer, making them suitable for use as high-end sound cards for PCs, Macs and laptops, and both function as headphone amps too.

Go DAC shopping and read some other reviews. All you need a DAC to have is a) a digital optical input and b) a line-level analogue output.

I've got my AirPort Express and my DAC of choice. Now what?

The AirPort Express outputs via a 3.5mm headphone socket. It's also a digital optical output, however. Yes, two things in one hole! (Yeah yeah, that's what she said etc.) But you'll need what's called a Toslink cable. Here's one. Then you'll need to turn one end into a mini-Toslink connection in order for it to fit in the APE. For this, you need an adaptor. One like this should work fine. Connect up your APE to your DAC, then connect your DAC as normal to your hi-fi via standard audio cables. Your APE will now simply pass digital signals to your DAC for processing, instead of processing itself on its own audio chip.

Sounds exciting. How do I send it audio then?

If you've not got your AirPort Express set up already, follow the instructions for connecting it to your computer from Apple's Web site. Once set up correctly, tell iTunes to send all music to your AirPort Express. And that's it! If you're using lossless audio (explained here, if that's new to you) your music is now being sent wirelessly to your hi-fi, retaining every bit of data from the CD you ripped it from, and is being processed by a dedicated DAC.

Lossless audio? Is that some pretentious crap I should care about?

Depends. If you've just bought a dedicated sound-processing unit and wired it up to an AirPort Express with fibre-optic cable, chances are you're already running the risk of being seen as a pretentious audio snob. Welcome to the club! We have cake. And so, to answer your question, yes, lossless audio is probably something to consider using.

Any audio in iTunes, however -- such as songs bought from the iTunes Store, or normal old MP3s -- will work fine, and you'll still get much better sound by using a DAC, even though the files you downloaded are compressed.

Let us know how you get on in the comments section, or ask any questions in the forum.