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It was almost seventeen years ago that Apple first debuted “AirTunes” — the technology that would ultimately become what we know today as AirPlay, and while it’s grown in leaps and bounds since those simple, halcyon days of iTunes, it’s lost some of its elegant grassroots simplicity in the process.
You see, AirTunes came out as a bonus feature of Apple’s then-brand-new AirPort Express wireless router and extender. There were no AirTunes-compatible speakers, headphones, or other devices — just a simple white box that plugged into a wall to work as a standalone wireless router or an extender for a larger AirPort Extreme base station.
The biggest trick that the AirPort Express has up its sleeve, however, was a 3.5mm audio jack that could be used to plug in any audio output device — be it a set of speakers or a stereo receiver or amplifier — allowing you to beam music from the iTunes application running your Mac or PC to one or more sets of speakers around your home.
It was a solution that was elegant in its simplicity. You didn’t need to worry about finding compatible speakers or other audio equipment — you just needed a small $129 white box, a standard audio cable, and a copy of iTunes.
Although the original 2004 implementation of AirTunes could only stream to a single AirPort Express, it wasn’t long before Apple released iTunes 6 in 2005, providing the ability to send audio to multiple units around your home, creating one of the first whole-home audio systems at a time when Sonos was only launching its very first product — with a considerably heftier price tag that could easily run you up to $1,000 or more just to put a couple of speakers around your home.
Of course, this all came out at a time when Apple’s most sophisticated portable device was the classic iPod; it wouldn’t be until 2010, when the iPhone 4 debuted, that Apple finally brought remote streaming capabilities to a mobile device, at which point AirTunes morphed into the basic AirPlay technology that we all generally know today.
Even then, however, sending audio to multiple speakers remained the exclusive domain of iTunes, and it took until AirPlay 2 debuted in 2017 before an iPhone or iPad could actually send audio to more than one device at a time. Unfortunately, by then Apple had also killed off its AirPort product lineup, and although at least it also pushed out one last firmware update to bring AirPlay 2 to its very latest AirPort Express, that only helped those who already owned one or could manage to snag one before stock levels dried up completely.
Two years later, however, it’s become almost impossible to find an AirPort Express at a reasonable price, leaving few options for those who simply want to stream music to their own speakers or receiver without springing for more expensive AirPlay 2 equipped versions, but the good news is that it looks like one venerable Apple accessory maker is preparing to fill in this gap.
As far as we can tell from the filings, the device, which will be named “Belkin Soundform Connect,” will be about the size of a small portable hard drive and feature both analog and digital optical audio outputs on one side, with a USB-C power port on the other.
So while it won’t be quite as “plug-and-play” as the original AirPort Express, it does look like it will have a smaller form factor than Apple’s later version — the only one that supports AirPlay 2 — and the ability to power it over USB-C should make it more versatile as well.
Further, while Apple’s AirPort Express units provided optical audio output capabilities from the very first model back in 2004, these were handled through a shared audio port, requiring a special digital audio cable that most people aren’t likely to already have in their collection. By comparison, the Soundform Connect will use a standard TOSLINK connector that’s separate from the analog 3.5mm jack.
Much like the AirPort Express, the Soundform Connect should appear to any iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or Mac as a standard AirPlay 2 destination, allowing you to stream audio to it just like you would to an Apple TV, HomePod, or other AirPlay 2 compatible speakers.
From the FCC filings, it also looks like the device will incorporate HomeKit support, allowing it to be assigned to a room in much the same way as a HomePod, so you’ll be able to direct audio to a specific room or group of rooms using Siri commands.
Roettgers also adds that the price will likely be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100 euros, which works out to around $120, putting it in the same general price range as the AirPort Express. While there’s no indication that it will provide the same wireless router and extender capabilities, it’s fair to say that most users probably won’t care too much about that aspect, considering that most users who are looking for extensive whole-home wireless coverage have already moved into full-fledged mesh Wi-Fi systems rather than relying on a hodgepodge of Wi-Fi extenders.
Sadly, there’s no word yet on when Belkin’s new device may actually arrive, and it also doesn’t seem to offer any compelling replacement for those who already have one or more newer AirPort Express units. As the only new AirPlay 2 receiver on the horizon, however, it will definitely have a huge appeal for those looking to use their normal speakers as AirPlay 2 devices for the first time, or even those looking to expand their existing systems.