Using a 3rd Generation Apple TV as a Multi-Room Music Server

Sections: Audio, Multiroom audio

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A few weeks back, I was on the phone with Technology Tell Network publisher Rick Albuck, talking — as we usually do — about technology, when he started telling me a pretty interesting story about how he uses Apple TV in his distributed audio system at home, and how the lack of analog inputs on the new Apple TV threw a bit of a monkey wrench into that setup. “This is a cool story,” I said. “You should write about it.”

And he did! What follows is the first of what will hopefully turn into a series of guest posts from Mr. Albuck.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple TV since the first-generation media streamer came out in 2007. It instantly became such an integral part of my daily entertainment lifestyle: the movie rental hub; the music server for my living room; even a portal to share YouTube videos with my family. One of the big benefits of the original Apple TV was its RCA outputs, which I hooked into my Marantz ZS5300 Multi Zone Selector Amplifier, and via the remote app dialed up multi-room tunes on my Paradigm in-ceiling speakers in the kitchen, and Paradigm Rock Speaker and Niles outdoor speakers on my deck outside. For me, it was the perfect distributed audio system.

After years of using that Apple TV without issue, though, I found myself tempted by all of the new content available on the updated Apple TV: Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, cooler photo steaming, and—perhaps most of all—AirPlay!

But, to gain access to all of that new content, I had to give something up. Or at least I thought I did. The connections on the first generation of Apple TV had HDMI and Component for video, along with Optical digital and analog RCA jacks for audio. It made connecting my multi-room system easy and seamless: HDMI carried audio and video to my Anthem MRX 700 receiver; and the RCA jacks carried a separate audio stream to the Marantz multi zone amp. My wife could watch television in the living room while I listened to my music in the kitchen or outside via the same Apple TV. She had the remote; I had the Remote App. Nice, easy, and best of all, simple!

First-generation Apple TV

So I was apprehensive about purchasing the new Apple TV—not because the experts said the old generation was better and had an internal hard drive, because I’m fine with streaming media, especially at 802.11n wireless speeds—no, I was apprehensive because the new generation does not have the analog audio outputs of its predecessor. Aside from the HDMI output, it only has TosLink for audio.

Third-generation Apple TV

The problem with that is that my multi zone amp only has analog inputs (which isn’t a knock against the system. It rocks!). I initially thought that to gain all of the enhanced features of the new Apple TV, I would have to give up my multi-room experience. But thankfully there is a solution. After some research, I found that a Digital-to-Analog Audio Converter exists, and best of all, it only cost me less than twenty bucks. I simply ran the digital optical cable from the Apple TV to the adapter and RCA cables from the adapter to the Marantz.

Granted, that used up an extra power outlet, but the adapter works great! Now I can access all the new content that Apple TV has to offer without sacrificing my multi-room audio experience.

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  • Frank Videon

    I have an old TV (DVI-D, VHS, Component inputs) that I want to hook up the Apple TV. What converters and/or cables do U suggest?

    • Dennis Burger


      This converter would cover you in the audio department, but not for video. For that, you’ll need an HDMI-to-DVI adapter (like this one, although there’s still a chance you could run into some HDCP handshaking issues.

  • Steven

    Wow. He bought a $20 adaptor. What a great article.

  • Larry

    Interesting. So could you tell us who makes the D/A convertor?

    • Dennis Burger

      In this case, it’s a product from a company called Neewer. Quite a few companies offer virtually the same product, though, including Monoprice, Gefen, Menotek, and others.

  • joe thomas

    This “article”, looks like a sales promo for amazon reseller of cheap D to A converters. Really? Why bother having all that connected gear if you are going to resolve it though the $20 box? That is a sound server. I wouldn’t call it a music server.

    • Dennis Burger

      No, Joe, this “article” sprung from a conversation between me and my publisher, in which he was telling me about why he waited so long to upgrade to the new Apple TV, and how it eventually made it work the way he wanted it to. “How’d you do it?” I asked. “Twenty dollar converter I bought on Amazon,” he said. “That’s great! You should write about that,” I replied.

      I’ll be sure to tell Rick that his solution doesn’t live up to the high standards of Joe Thomas, though.

  • George Roch

    I am confused by the statement that the AppleTV’s “HDMI carried audio and video to my Anthem MRX 700 receiver; and the RCA jacks carried a separate audio stream to the Marantz multi zone amp. My wife could watch television in the living room while I listened to my music in the kitchen or outside via the same Apple TV.”

    I am not sure how the old ATV’s worked, but I am pretty sure that the Optical Audio out on the new ATV’s is not a separate stream. That is, if you are watching Netflix from the AppleTV in the living room, then its the Netflix sound that would be fed to your Marantz Multi-zone amp. You would just be sending a single source to lots of rooms.

  • Dennis Burger

    Right you are, George. That’s the one real downside to going this route. With the old Apple TV, you could control the RCA outputs separately, and — if memory serves correctly — even control the volume output of them via the Remote app. With the new setup, Rick is limited to listening to one or the other.