Despite announcing earlier this year that it’s officially out of the router business, Apple has pushed out one last big firmware update for its second-generation AirPort Express, adding AirPlay 2 support to the 2012 Wi-Fi router. The update was discovered by 9to5Mac, which found evidenced earlier this year in the iOS 11.4 and iOS 12 betas that suggested AirPlay 2 could be coming to the device despite the fact that Apple no longer even sells it. With Firmware Update 7.8 for the AirPort Express, the device now appears in Apple’s Home app and as an AirPlay 2 target in much the same way as the Apple TV and HomePod. Thanks to the built-in output — which supports both standard 3.5mm analog and mini-Toslink optical connections — AirPort Express users will now be able to turn just about any set of speakers — or even a stereo receiver — into an AirPlay 2 target.
The new addition is actually a nice nod to the heritage of the AirPort Express as one of the very first “whole home audio” solutions; the original AirPort Express was Apple’s first device to offer Wi-Fi audio streaming [back in 2004] when the technology was known as AirTunes and only available for streaming from a Mac or PC running iTunes — a device and feature that broke new ground in an era when Bluetooth stereo audio was still in its infancy. While the original and first-generation 802.11n AirPort Express models are probably not even remotely capable of supporting AirPlay 2, the addition of the feature to the second-generation AirPort Express will be a nice boon for those who already invested in the technology. It’s also possible that the firmware update may signal Apple’s intention to produce a lower-cost dedicated AirPlay 2 adapter using the AirPort Express platform.