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Apple Adds AirPlay 2 to the Discontinued AirPort Express

In a surprise move, Apple has released AirPort Base Station Firmware Update 7.8, which gives the discontinued 802.11n AirPort Express base station support for AirPlay 2. (See “RIP: Apple AirPort, 1999–2018,” 27 April 2018, for coverage of AirPort’s demise and “iOS 11.4, tvOS 11.4, HomePod 11.4, and watchOS 4.3.1 Finally Debut AirPlay 2 and Messages in iCloud,” 29 May 2018, for more on AirPlay 2.)

The main benefit of AirPlay 2 is that it enables you to stream audio to multiple destinations—like an Apple TV or HomePod—from iOS (iTunes has provided this capability for years). The practical upshot of this firmware update is that if you have a collection of AirPort Express base stations, you can now use them to create a cheap whole-house audio solution. In our testing, AirPlay 2 became available immediately after updating the firmware.

The AirPort Express as an AirPlay 2 output.
The AirPort Express in the list above is TV Extender.

Don’t expect such an update for the AirPort Extreme, since it doesn’t have an audio output jack, rendering AirPlay 2 support pointless.

Installing the Firmware Update from macOS

  1. Launch AirPort Utility from /Applications/Utilities/.
  2. Click the icon for your AirPort Express. It should have a red badge next to its name indicating an update.
  3. Enter your password if prompted.
  4. Click Update.
  5. Wait for the update to download and install, and for your base station to reboot. Updating the AirPort firmware in macOS.

Installing the Update from iOS

You can also install the AirPort Express firmware update from the AirPort Utility iOS app:

  1. Tap your AirPort Express. There should be a red badge next to the name indicating an update.
    A red badge indicating an available AirPort update.
  2. Tap Enter Password.
  3. Enter your password when prompted.
  4. Tap Version. There should be a circled “1” indicating an update.The screen showing the AirPort's firmware version.
  5. Tap Download and Install.
  6. Tap Install.
  7. Wait for the update to download and install, and for your base station to reboot.

Adding an AirPort Express to the Home App

You can also add an updated AirPort Express to the Home app as an accessory since it’s technically a HomeKit device. As far as we can tell, this works only on the iPad and does nothing, but if you’re so inclined:

  1. Open the Home app.
  2. Tap the plus button in the upper-right corner.
  3. Tap Add Accessory.
  4. Tap Don’t Have a Code or Can’t Scan?
  5. Tap the icon for your AirPort Express.
  6. Tap Room if you wish to assign the base station to a room.
  7. Tap Done to finish. The AirPort express in Home.

Again, since you can’t do anything at all with the AirPort Express as a HomeKit accessory, this is completely pointless, at least for now.

Is this update merely a parting gift for AirPort Express owners or a sign that Apple isn’t quite done with the AirPort line? The AirPlay ecosystem could use an audio-only receiver, akin to Google’s Chromecast Audio, even if Apple doesn’t continue to develop the AirPort Express’s base station features.

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