When Apple released the HomePod smart speaker back in February, we thought it was good, but weren’t blown away. The difference now is that Apple has finally unlocked a couple of capabilities the smart speaker was sorely lacking: stereo pairing and multi-room audio.
The features come as part of an update in the form of iOS 11.4, which is out today. Apart from stereo pairing, which frankly should have been available at launch for such a product (especially if it was to take on the likes of the Sonos One with Alexa built in), the possibly more exciting news is the software update also unlocks Apple’s new wireless multi-room audio system: AirPlay 2.
This means that as long as you have an AirPlay 2-compatible speaker, it can be added to a multi-room setup to rival the existing one-brand systems out there right now. And this in turn means it may well be possible to cobble together a cheaper multi-room system over your entire house, as well as freeing consumers from having to be brand-loyal and submit to one company’s audio tech throughout the home.
The good news continues as the list of brands already signed up to support AirPlay 2 is impressive: Bang & Olufsen; Bluesound; Bose; Bowers & Wilkins; Definitive Technologies; Denon; Devialet; Dynaudio; Libratone; Marantz; McIntosh; Marshall; Naim; Pioneer; Polk; and Sonos. Yes, Sonos. This could be great news for those who feel locked in to the Boston-based company’s product, which for a good long time was the only quality game in town for affordable multi-room audio. With AirPlay 2, they should be able to add other brand speakers to their existing Sonos devices.
AirPlay 2 multi-room will be operated via the iOS Control Centre. While listening to music, all you need do is select or unselect where the music is playing, or you can ask Siri to play music in a room, a group of rooms, or everywhere in the home, much like Sonos’s existing offering. Apple’s own HomePods will be automatically supported so there will be no need to manually group speakers.
With two HomePod speakers set up as a stereo pair, Apple’s speaker is able to tell where it is placed in a room and adjust the audio profile accordingly, communicating with its twin using a proprietary wireless peer-to-peer link to make sure your music playback is in sync. When two HomePod’s are paired only one will respond to Siri requests, apparently, to avoid both replying at the same time.
There are still some issues, though: yes, HomePod now supports Apple’s calendar app, but still cannot distinguish between voices, so anyone within speaking range of one of your HomePods can access your calendar data (you can turn off calendar support in settings, of course). It still can’t initiate phone calls. You still can’t set multiple timers.
But when we reviewed the £319 HomePod, we stated that most of its teething problems could be fixed, in particular the lack of stereo pairing and potential benefits of AirPlay 2. Now these issue have been addressed it makes the speaker a much more compelling purchase, despite the price. In short, thanks to this iOS update, those who shelled out for a HomePod when it first launched will finally get something approaching what they paid for.