When Apple launched the HomePod in February of this year, early users squawked in equal measures about its unbelievable audio capabilities and the fact that it was a WiFi-connected smart speaker that didn’t “talk” to other speakers. Its limits, not just around stereo pairing and multi-room audio but also around some basic voice commands, established it early on as a $349 product that only true Apple fans or audiophiles should consider.
But Apple promised then that key updates were in the works for HomePod, that super impressive sound machine built into a body like a soft roll of toilet paper. Now, a week ahead of its giant annual software conference, those key updates have come. iOS 11.4 is being released today, and with it comes HomePod stereo pairing and AirPlay 2. AirPlay 2 will not only let iOS users connect with multiple HomePods, but also adds some Siri support to non-Apple smart speakers.
HomePod is still one of the more expensive smart speakers in its class, and Apple doesn’t plan to offer any kind of bundle deal on the hardware. And it’s still really optimized for Apple Music. While WIRED hasn’t had the chance to test the new features yet, things like searching for songs using voice and controlling multi-room volume for a non-Apple streaming service (like Spotify) won’t work the way they will with Apple Music. But generally speaking, the iOS 11.4 update gives HomePod some of the features that have long existed in competing speakers like Sonos, Google Home, and Amazon Echo.
Much like the initial set up process of a single HomePod, stereo pairing is supposed to be mind-numbingly simple. Once you’ve set up one HomePod, you’re supposed to be able to just power on a second and tell Siri to pair the new speaker, identify which one is left and which is right, and be done with it. The paired speakers will measure the sound waves bouncing around the room or rooms, the same way a single HomePod does, but in this case they’ll do the spatial awareness stuff at the same time.
Also, when a single HomePod distributes sound, it separates out direct sound, like vocals and key instruments, from ambient sound, and beams them out different sides of the speaker. With stereo-paired HomePods, the left HomePod will send direct left sound out to the front and ambient left sound out the back, and the same goes for the right speaker and right side of the stereo sound. You can easily imagine using two of these on either side of your TV, which is technically possible; though Apple likes to emphasize that HomePod is for music.
The release of AirPlay 2 is almost certainly a bigger technical deal than stereo pairing. It was first announced a year ago at WWDC, and is the next version of Apple’s wireless protocol for streaming music and video. With the earlier version of AirPlay you could send an audio or video stream from your iPhone to one compatible Apple device at a time. AirPlay 2 enables streams to multiple devices, which means you can have multiple HomePods (Apple won’t say what the maximum number is) in different rooms and have them play the same tracks.
You’re probably thinking “like Sonos” right about now, and you are correct, at least from a functional standpoint: HomePod is now competing more directly with Sonos systems. But the rollout of AirPlay 2 also means you can ask Siri to control music on other third-party speakers, too; provided those third-party speakers have support for AirPlay 2. (And you don’t need a HomePod for that.) Sonos has already committed to supporting AirPlay 2, as have Bang & Olufsen, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Libratone, Marshall, Pioneer and more.
The catch is that you can only use Siri to launch and search for music initially if that music is coming from Apple’s Music service. Other streaming music services have to be launched through their own apps; then can be controlled in control center or using basic commands like pause, next track, and volume up. But this means that Apple is basically allowing Siri to work with some non-Apple smart speakers, even if it’s all still happening on iOS and not from within the speaker itself.
Also: HomePod now supports Apple’s calendar app, which means you can ask Siri for your upcoming calendar appointments. It’s something that the Google Home and Amazon Echo have been able to do, and some people would probably say it’s one of the more useful features of a home speaker with a built-in assistant.
Apple’s approach, though, is both more private and less so than the others. Because the HomePod doesn’t distinguish between voices, anyone within shouting distance of the HomePod can ask for your calendar information. Once you leave your home, assuming you take your phone with you, the HomePod no longer has access to that info. The better option for the privacy-conscious crowd is probably to disable this feature completely: calendar support can be turned off in settings, just like Messages.
The HomePod still can’t perform some other tasks you’d think it might. It won’t initiate phone calls, though it can act as a speaker for calls initiated on an iPhone. One of the most maddening missing features is that you still can’t set multiple simultaneous timers on HomePod, because Siri doesn’t do this. Sometimes I think the only thing that stands between me and a burned-down home is the option to set multiple Alexa timers while I’m cooking (even if Alexa is creepily recording snippets of private conversations.)
But from the start HomePod wasn’t really positioned in the same way as utility-focused smart speakers. If you’re Apple, you don’t charge $349, boast about your engineering efforts and attempt to turn people’s homes into pseudo anechoic chambers because you think they’ll use the end product for timers and dad jokes. Apple is trying to convince people to pay good money for sound, something that’s experiential, and also, almost entirely subjective. HomePod is now much closer to what it should have been when it first launched; even if it is still, in some ways, catching up.