How To Make ANY Speakers AirPlay Speakers for Cheap (under $15)
If you have an Apple product, you've probably heard of AirPlay. All Apple devices use the protocol to send audio/video to compatible devices.
While AirPlay is an excellent feature within the Apple ecosystem, you need to spend to enjoy the benefits, especially if you have existing speakers. I'll show you that for a basic setup (not audiophile, 24/192 bitrate quality), you don't need to spend $500 on an AirPlay-enabled AV receiver or $250 on a Homepod or SONOS, or even $75 on a used Airport Express 2nd generation. You can do it cheaply for under $15 by using an Airport Express 1st generation, available online from places like eBay.
Final Setup - AirPort Express Powering the USB Speakers and Playing Audio via AirPlay
AirPort Express 1st/2nd Generations
In 2004, Apple released the original version of the AirPort Express (A1084/A1088). It was limited to 802.11G but provided connections such as Mini-Jack for audio, USB for printing, and an Ethernet port. Four years later, an upgraded 1st Generation model (A1264) had support for 802.11N and AirPlay v1. I recommend the A1264 model if you're following along and want to enable AirPlay on any speakers, but the A1084 will work fine too.
The internal DAC is limited to 16-bit and 44.1 kHz, basically, CD quality streaming if the source material is lossless. Today, TIDAL and Amazon Music HD offer 24-bit / 192 kHz, but when playing through the Airport Express, it is downgraded to 16/44.
In 2018, Apple announced it would no longer make consumer wireless products such as routers. And over time, due to security reasons, AirPort Utility no longer supports AirPort Express 1st Gen devices. But using the guide below, one can easily set up an Airport Express 1st Gen device.
How to Setup a 1st Gen AE?
We need to run through this extra step because Apple stopped supporting older wireless devices in their current Airport Utility app. Much of what I'll walk through is in the below Medium article. In short, what you are trying to do is install AirPort Utility 5.8.1 alongside the current version you have.
Cheap wireless speakers: How to configure an original AirPort Express (A1084) on macOS 10.15 Catalina (and older)
Once connected, launch AirPort Utility 5.8.1.
Configuration is similar to setting up any other Apple Wireless device. Once completed, change back to your local network, open AirPort Utility, and the older first-generation AirPort Express will be listed.
Even though the older 1st Gen AE is listed, you will be unable to edit any settings from newer versions of AirPort Utility.
Newly configured 1st Gen AirPort Express visible in the home network via AirPort Utility
AirPlay is an excellent feature within the Apple ecosystem, but you don't need to spend $500 on AV receivers with built-in AirPlay 2 or $250 on Homepods or money on a used AE 2nd Gen to get the benefit. The ability to use a set of USB-powered speakers I had unused with AirPlay was definitely worth the effort.