Why Apple Shouldn’t Have Released the HomePod Without AirPlay 2

I was pretty ambivalent about the HomePod in my review. I found the sound to be mediocre for a lot of music, and it simply wasn’t worth the price. I don’t particularly care about using Siri with that device, and don’t consider that worth paying $350 for the speaker. I’m interested in its musicality.

Apple (finally) released AirPlay 2 this week, which notably offers the ability to create a stereo pair from two HomePods. I decided I’d try this out. I’m quite impressed by the sound.

For background, I have a fairly large bedroom, but the way it is set up means that I can’t put a dresser opposite the bed – or any kind of shelf – on which I’d put an AirPlay compatible amplifier and two bookshelf speakers. So the HomePod seemed like a good option; but a single HomePod not only didn’t sound good, but I couldn’t set it up in a good position for listening in bed.

So I bought a second HomePod when Apple released AirPlay 2, and put each HomePod on an Ikea bookcase on either side of the room, roughly centering the stereo sweet spot at the bed.

I wasn’t expecting this to sound great; given the sound of a single HomePod, I didn’t think the stereo would make much of a difference. But I was very surprised when I started listening to music. While the single HomePod is flat, and the frequency response is way too bassy, creating a stereo pair allows the electronic wizardry in the devices’ processors to create something that is frankly surprising. Music has a very good soundstage, with a much more balanced frequency response (though I still put the Bass Reducer EQ setting on my iPhone when streaming music to them).

Live music sounds vibrant, with the slight faux surround sound that the HomePod creates, and studio recordings sound precise and clean. I tried with a wide range of music, and, while there was the occasional track that didn’t sound great, most of the music I listened to sounded excellent.

But there was a problem: my Ikea bookcases were a bit too tall for me to get the right amount of treble from the tweeters. You need to have tweeters around ear level to get the right sound, because the waves are so small, and lying in bed I was too low and didn’t hear enough treble. It was fine when I was sitting up, but I often read lying down in bed, and wanted to be able to listen to music in this position at times.

IMG 7851So I thought it was worth trying to move the HomePod from the top of the bookcases to the top shelves. My first thought was that it would be boomy and bassy, but much to my surprise, the HomePod adapted to this location – which is certainly not the ideal place to put a speaker – with aplomb.

There was no boom, no notable difference in frequency response, other than the fact that I could hear the treble a lot better. And while I had to put books under the speakers when they were on the top shelf – this is one of those Ikea bookcases where the tops, bottoms, and sides aren’t solid – there was no need on the shelves.

Apple should never have released the HomePod without AirPlay 2, because reviewers heard the speaker in sub-optimal conditions. While you can use this as a standalone speaker, it’s really not good enough. However, it’s a bit expensive to buy two of them, and if I had more room, I certainly would not have bought a second one; I would have bought a small amplifier and bookshelf speakers. But with these two diminutive speakers in my bedroom, I now have full, rich audio, which is surprisingly good, taking up little space.

It’s worth noting that Apple may have tweaked the audio in the recent update to the HomePod software, which could also bring improvements. I’d still like a direct EQ setting for the HomePod, rather than have to set it when streaming from my iPhone. It means that if I want to stream from my iTunes library, I have to turn on the EQ on my Mac, and it’s not easy to do this remotely. I’d also like to see a balance setting for a stereo pair of HomePods. In my bedroom, the bed is equidistant from the right and left side walls, so it works out fine, but in other situations people may want to adjust this.

But kudos to Apple. Whatever they’ve done to make two HomePods work so well together is impressive.