Apple recently updated its HomePod software, introducing AirPlay 2 and support for stereo pairing. I’ve been using these features since they arrived, and this is what I think so far:
What are the improvements?
Apple’s iOS 11.4 update introduced HomePod 11.4 which bought two significant new features to HomePod systems: AirPlay 2 and stereo pairing support.
AirPlay 2 lets you control music playback around your home using Siri, HomePod and AirPlay 2 supporting speaker systems from third party manufacturers. So long as all your systems are on the same Wi-Fi network you get multi-room playback and controls.
The latter mean that using Siri, Control Center or other apps, Apple Music users can assign different tracks to play through different speakers or ask all the systems to play the same track. They can even request that music move with them between rooms.
It’s more than just music – podcasts get the same treatment, so you can listen to your favourite podcast in one room while enjoying the latest Flohio mix in another. (You control volume on those different playback systems in Control Center.)
HomePod stereo pairing
If you have two HomePod units you can now pair them for stereo audio playback. Technologically, this is much more complex than it sounds:
Not only is music streamed separately to each HomePod, but the systems must then figure out how to play the music accurately and in time – you do not want one HomePod to be a fraction of a beat ahead of the other.
Apple has successfully achieved this, developing its own wireless peer-to-peer direct link tech that brings paired HomePods into accurate sync with each other thanks to the A8-series processors inside them.
Setting up a paired HomePod is easy – you can choose to do this during the initial set-up process. During that process, Apple will define each unit to left or right channel audio.
The effect? When you play music, you’ll hear it in stereo and the impact of that music will be enhanced by the ambient noise technologies and space identification technologies that make a single HomePod sound so good.
Anecdotally of course
I’ve had the chance to compare what the music playback sounds like through a single HomePod and other smart speaker systems (including those from Amazon, Harmon and Sonos).
Apple developed a range of reinforcing technologies to make a single HomePod sound good. These technologies help make a single HomePod deliver 360-degree sound stage, but when you use two paired systems you get true stereo supplemented by intelligent sound enhancements that make your audio experience even more unique.
Even the biggest HomePod critics agree that you get excellent music playback from a single system. Apple has done crazy things to audio to achieve this – but are two HomePods better than one?
Two are better than one
I think so.
Music is an intensely personal experience. Ear-to-ear, most people have their own unique take on what makes for excellence in music playback, so what sounds great to Donald may not sound idealistic to Abraham.
What this means when it comes to reviewing music playback on paired HomePods is that my anecdotal belief that these systems sound great when paired together may not reflect your experience, but they do.
You can expect full bass, treble and mid-range sounds along with extraordinary audio accuracy in a pair of systems of this size.
What I would change
I do have a couple of improvements I’d like to see:
The first is around Siri. At present Siri insists on coming out of one speaker when I want it to emerge from another. The only way to change this is to unplug the speakers and swap them around. Even swapping the Left and Right audio channels does not affect this. (I think Siri will stay with the most recently set-up HomePod, but I am uncertain if this is the case.
More audio control
I think HomePod does a great job of optimizing audio, but I want more. I don’t necessarily want to listen to what the technology thinks is the best available music balance but would like more digital graphic equalizer controls to bring more granularity out of the music I play.
Two HomePods will set you back just under $700. I think you are getting an excellent music playback system for the money, but I think it will be a hard sell for Apple at that price – particularly as an Apple Music subscription is pretty much essential to get the most out of these speakers. Saying that, you do get something that competes with systems in this price range.
A headphone jack?
If Apple ever releases a networkable Apple Music/HomePod accessory equipped with a mic and headphone jack it will enable its customers to use their existing audio equipment within a HomeKit set-up.
That’s a primary reason audio integration specialists tell me they recommend use of Amazon Echo: even though the Echo’s music playback is rubbish (I think), its headphone jack makes it a low cost choice to bring music streaming to existing audio equipment.
The future will be better tomorrow
I’ve played a whole bunch of tracks for this review. Things like Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine, Banco De Gaia’s Last Train to Lhasa, Little Axe’s Wolf that House Built, tracks from Radiohead, Anthony & the Johnsons, The Postal Service, Gareth Cousins – despite their musical diversity, all these artists share a desire to push how music sounds toward the bleeding edge.
In each case, tracks played back on a paired HomePod system delivered anecdotally impressive audio quality and accuracy, (though this is limited by the quality and accuracy of the original recording mix).
I think that with HomePod stereo pairing Apple has developed a fantastic music playback system for a digital age.
The big achievement
This is a big achievement. Not only has Apple built on the superior digital music playback quality of a single system, but in doing so has also shown us how it can vastly improve HomePods with nothing more than a software update.
That’s going to prove even more important in future, Siri will improve, HomePod’s smart speaker capabilities will be enhanced, and music playback will become smarter, more accurate and altogether more delightful.
What does this mean?
It’s the same message as iOS 12 and iPhone 8, really: Not only are the products pretty good today, but the way Apple works means you can predict significant improvements to these systems in the years ahead. You aren’t just buying into what they can do today, but what they will become capable of tomorrow. And on your journey to tomorrow, the music will sound great.
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