Can Apple's HomePod take on a surround sound theater system?

Posted:
in General Discussion edited June 2018
Apple's HomePod is one of the best sounding smart speakers on the market, and the recent addition of stereo pairing with AirPlay 2 makes the setup even more engaging. But how does a pair of HomePods stack up against a dedicated home theater system?





When Apple revealed their HomePod at WWDC 2017, they promised users the ability to pair two speakers together with Airplay 2, a new wireless protocol that also enables multi room audio streaming and other audio enhancements. A long time coming, AirPlay 2 was finally released alongside iOS 11.4 last month.

We tested out stereo pairing on our HomePods and not only did it work perfectly, but it sounded really good. Two speakers are obviously louder than one, but the update also increased bass when a pair of HomePods are cranked up all the way.

HomePod Surround Test


With engaging, immersive sound, it's only natural to wonder if a pair of stereo HomePods would make a viable home theater setup for the Apple TV.

Obviously, the HomePod is unable to achieve true 5.1 channel surround sound, which uses 5 separate speakers and a subwoofer, but Apple's devices do feature technology that bounces sound off walls and nearby objects to simulate a deep soundstage. With stereo pairing, HomePods detect each other and their respective placement in a a room, so they know exactly where to send different channels of sound for optimal audio reproduction.

To be clear, this is not Apple's attempt at 5.1 channel virtualization, but the solution does broaden HomePod's soundstage considerably.

Testing

We pitted a pair of HomePods against a 5.1.2 channel Dolby Atmos-compatible surround sound system. For our test, the two overhead speakers were disabled, as Apple TV will not support Atmos until the September release of tvOS 12.

Surround Sound


Starting off with the intro scene to "The Greatest Showman," the surround sound system output very clear vocals with deep bass. The YouTube clip was streamed over AirPlay from an iPhone to an Apple TV. Hugh Jackman's voice played through the center channel, music played from the front and rear channels, and sound effects played across all channels.

The bass thumped very loud and we could discern crowds behind us like we were sitting in the circus watching a live performance. When Anne was being pulled up into the air, her voice shifted from the left and right speakers up to center, really selling the experience.

Switching over to the HomePods, we were immediately greeted with an issue. The Apple TV 4K would not allow us to stream from an iPhone X. Instead, it automatically switched back to the HDMI output for audio. We ended up using the native YouTube tvOS app as a workaround.

Playing back the same "Greatest Showman" clip on HomePods was disappointing. Even at max volume, it was much quieter than my surround sound system was at 80 percent volume. A little digging revealed that the YouTube clip lacked adequate audio output levels, and while the dedicated surround sound system had enough power to compensate for the low input volume, the HomePods simply could not keep up.

Greatest Showman


The sound quality wasn't bad though, and we even heard the virtual surround sound algorithms at work. Instead of the crowds being behind us, however, we heard them from the side. The crisp highs and low bass of the dedicated system were still miles ahead of the HomePods, even at low volumes.

Next we watched some "Pirates of the Caribbean" through the Netflix app, and once again the volume was extremely low on our HomePod setup. The home theater system sounded great, and just required a bit more volume than typical to compensate.

Interestingly, sound effects come through much louder on HomePod when navigating the Apple TV 4K's menu, but levels drop once a movie starts.

We wanted to make sure that there wasn't a problem with the setup, so we played some music from the Apple Music app. We were greeted with much higher volumes, and while it didn't match up to the massive front left and right Polk Audio speakers, it sounded much better than output from our movie streaming apps.

Polk Audio


We moved on to "Thor: Ragnarok," where HomePod volume was a bit louder than the two previous films, but still much too quiet for a good movie experience and nothing that compared to the surround sound system. Apple's speakers were unable to keep up with a $350 LG soundbar with wireless subwoofer. It could be the fact that audio in films do not constantly come close to 0 decibels like most songs do, or that Apple TV outputs a lower signal when playing back films, but we suspect it's a bit of both.

Impressions

The surround sound system sounded amazing in all respects, as loud as a good movie theater but with a better surround sound experience since it is tuned to an exact point in space. Moving to the HomePod, we were in some cases surprised to hear crowd both in front and behind us. The vocals were clear, but not as crisp as we would like. We had a similar experience with the bass, which was present but not as visceral as the output from a dedicated woofer.




The thing that was missing most was the volume. The built in speakers of any modern TV are at least twice, if not three times as loud as Apple's max settings.

Apple has a function built in to limit HomePod volume, but not to boost it. That's a feature it needs to be a viable home theater solution.

As expected, HomePod is not a replacement for a surround sound system, nor is it marketed as such. Users can purchase an entry-level dedicated surround system, or a very good soundbar with Atmos support, for the price of two HomePods.

At this time it's best to keep HomePod limited to Apple Music, where it does great job, and look elsewhere for movie watching needs.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 52
    So here's my question: what about using 2 HomePods to replace the left and right front speakers in a surround sound system.  Would that work?  Would it be worth it?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 52
    bb-15bb-15 Posts: 272member

    Huge volume difference. HomePods can be loud enough to hear a movie. The video chosen should have been loud on the HomePod so that the volume could be about equal to the sound system. Otherwise the huge volume difference made the comparison worthless.


    edited June 2018 stevenozNotsofastradarthekatwatto_cobragregg thurmanneo-techberndogjony0
  • Reply 3 of 52
    georgie01georgie01 Posts: 273member
    As good as the HomePod may be for what it is, it was intended for either the average person who thinks their low-end audio system doesn’t sound too bad and/or the person who enjoys the convenience and technology of the HomePod.

    But for someone like me ... I have an SVS cylindrical subwoofer (produces strong bass down to 16hz) along with Klipsch reference speakers. It’d be silly for me to get a HomePod for any reason other than convenience. Even the Klipsch iFi system I use with my TV roasts the HomePod for overall sound quality.

    Not meaning to diss the HomePod, its a very impressive device. Just that while comparing it to a ‘real’ audio system might be useful, it also has a predictable conclusion.
    stevenozracerhomie3Alex1Nwatto_cobraneo-techjbdragonjony0
  • Reply 4 of 52
    gunner1954gunner1954 Posts: 142member
    Just wondering, instead of Youtube and Net flex, why didn't you play a rented or purchased movie from Apple's iTunes store, or stream a from iTunes from a Mac? Would this have made a difference in volume and controls?
    scotyradarthekatStrangeDayswatto_cobrapatchythepirate
  • Reply 5 of 52
    Great article and video! Thank you!
    GeorgeBMac
  • Reply 6 of 52
    mcdavemcdave Posts: 1,199member
    Just wondering, instead of Youtube and Net flex, why didn't you play a rented or purchased movie from Apple's iTunes store, or stream a from iTunes from a Mac? Would this have made a difference in volume and controls?
    Seems odd not to use low-quality source content like going to courts clutching ‘facts’ from Wikipedia.

    Was the “Reduce Loud Sounds” setting on?
    scotysagoma6williamlondonwatto_cobraimergingenious
  • Reply 7 of 52
    chasmchasm Posts: 1,704member
    So what I'm getting from this article is if you like deafening yourself in your far-smaller-than-a-cinema home theatre, spend a lot more money on a dedicated home theatre system. Fair enough.

    If you're the sort that doesn't rank the quality of a movie directly to how many explosions it features, i.e. you're more of a "story" movie watcher than an "action" movie watcher, it sounds like a pair of HomePods (once they add Dolby Atmos) could do the job very nicely.

    I hope Max will revisit this test again when Atmos has been added, and will also bear in mind that there is a wide difference between "boom" movies and "story" movies, and test a variety of high-quality films (not low-rent streamers) to see where the strengths and weaknesses of each system lay.
    edited June 2018 radarthekatelijahgAlex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 52
    sagoma6sagoma6 Posts: 1member
    "The YouTube clip was streamed over AirPlay from an iPhone to an Apple TV". YouTube doesn't support 5.1 yet. Any 2 channel stereo signal that came from YouTube was being processed by an algorithm on the receiver to be "split up" and distributed between the 5 channels (and sub) of the dedicated system.
    edited June 2018 radarthekatelijahgStrangeDaysAlex1Nwatto_cobraGeorgeBMaclamboaudi4
  • Reply 9 of 52
    mcdavemcdave Posts: 1,199member
    chasm said:
    So what I'm getting from this article is if you like deafening yourself in your far-smaller-than-a-cinema home theatre, spend a lot more money on a dedicated home theatre system. Fair enough.

    If you're the sort that doesn't rank the quality of a movie directly to how many explosions it features, i.e. you're more of a "story" movie watcher than an "action" movie watcher, it sounds like a pair of HomePods (once they add Dolby Atmos) could do the job very nicely.

    I hope Max will revisit this test again when Atmos has been added, and will also bear in mind that there is a wide difference between "boom" movies and "story" movies, and test a variety of high-quality films (not low-rent streamers) to see where the strengths and weaknesses of each system lay.
    Actually, it was the dialogue that was noticeably lacking in the HomePod setup but that’s usually the case without (& sometimes with) a dedicated speaker.

    maybe Atmos will help, definitely worth another look.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 52
    dysamoriadysamoria Posts: 2,349member
    "...as loud as..." Maximum volume isn't what makes a surround system good. In fact, I am repeatedly faced with theatres that have shitty surround systems BECAUSE they've been running at too high a volume that they've become damaged, or where no one has properly balanced the speakers and the center channel is completely drowned out by the rest, making the dialog almost impossible to hear.
    elijahgAlex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 52
    Eric_WVGGEric_WVGG Posts: 686member
    All of this unscores the necessity of some sort of successor to the Airport Express for Airplay 2 streaming. 
    rob53watto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 52
    I gave up reading at the point you tested all this with a bloody YouTube clip!
    radarthekatelijahgStrangeDaysAlex1Npscooter63watto_cobrapeterhartjdgazdysamoria
  • Reply 13 of 52
    macguimacgui Posts: 1,525member
    mrarfarf said:
    Great article and video! Thank you!
    Yes. I think it's pretty obvious that nobody of sound mind and hearing would expect the HPs to compete on any level with a dedicated HT system.

    But this article/video does tell us that the HomePod, as it stands, is not a suitable system for videos' audio. Not that it's not nearly as loud as the ATMOS HT, but that it's not as loud as the music the same HPs will play.

    For me, I'd want more volume but I don't need the high dynamic range typical of HT kit. A bigger picture needs bigger sound, but I don't want as much as other people might.

    Maybe Apple will give us a firmware update that will allow for more volume from non-music sources. Of course it could be Nanny Apple (LOL) protecting us from ourselves turning up the volume for the dialog then blowing the speakers out when the hunter-killers fly overhead and blast the puny humans.

    Fortunately, decent video speakers can be had for as little as $250-$400, to give credible stereo (2.0) to music and movies. That is just two-channel stereo, but compared to HPs, there are much better choices for  modest 'home theater' sound.

    As a smart music speaker, I want one, maybe two.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 14 of 52
    ivanhivanh Posts: 394member
    “It’s really good” + imagination & blind faith = fantastic.
    williamlondondysamoria
  • Reply 15 of 52
    Short answer... no. Longer answer... absolutely not, especially at the comparable price tag. The HP simply gets dusted by nearly everything else out there in terms of home theater usage.
    muthuk_vanalingamdysamoria
  • Reply 16 of 52
    tehgeotehgeo Posts: 9member
    georgie01 said:
    As good as the HomePod may be for what it is, it was intended for either the average person who thinks their low-end audio system doesn’t sound too bad and/or the person who enjoys the convenience and technology of the HomePod.
    I think you miss the point of the HomePod. (And the article confuses things by diverting from a question of FUNCTIONALITY into QUALITY questions. Sloppy, really.)

    i dont think anyone is arguing arguing this is a replacement for a high-end system, as it just isn’t. 

    And, although it could be perfect for a small apartment or dorm, you aren’t going to have high end audio in those cases, anyway. 

    But it it does sound very good FOR WHAT IT IS. 

    And it does an excellent job at providing whole house sound (with, obviously, multiple units).

    im not going to put a high-end system in the garage/kitchen/whatever. 

    You probably have premium audio in... living room? Home theater?? Any way, it is optimized room-specific and for A SPECIFIC LISTENING POINT. 

    But what about the the rest of the house?

    The HomePod is better than most “secondary systems” people put in as solutions for other rooms. 

    I can walk through the house and great audio from room to room as I’m busy doing things. 

    Or, even walk around in the SAME room. I can be doing chores in the garage, for example (a notoriously difficult room) and get the same audio anywhere I am. There is no sweet spot. 

    So, for sitting and listening, a high-end system wins. Like listening to an opera. Or a movie. 

    But the HomePod wins for whole-house casual listening. 

    StrangeDayswatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 52
    larryalarrya Posts: 552member
    tehgeo said:
    georgie01 said:
    As good as the HomePod may be for what it is, it was intended for either the average person who thinks their low-end audio system doesn’t sound too bad and/or the person who enjoys the convenience and technology of the HomePod.
    I think you miss the point of the HomePod. (And the article confuses things by diverting from a question of FUNCTIONALITY into QUALITY questions. Sloppy, really.)

    i dont think anyone is arguing arguing this is a replacement for a high-end system, as it just isn’t. 

    And, although it could be perfect for a small apartment or dorm, you aren’t going to have high end audio in those cases, anyway. 

    But it it does sound very good FOR WHAT IT IS. 

    And it does an excellent job at providing whole house sound (with, obviously, multiple units).

    im not going to put a high-end system in the garage/kitchen/whatever. 

    You probably have premium audio in... living room? Home theater?? Any way, it is optimized room-specific and for A SPECIFIC LISTENING POINT. 

    But what about the the rest of the house?

    The HomePod is better than most “secondary systems” people put in as solutions for other rooms. 

    I can walk through the house and great audio from room to room as I’m busy doing things. 

    Or, even walk around in the SAME room. I can be doing chores in the garage, for example (a notoriously difficult room) and get the same audio anywhere I am. There is no sweet spot. 

    So, for sitting and listening, a high-end system wins. Like listening to an opera. Or a movie. 

    But the HomePod wins for whole-house casual listening. 

    You literally repeated what the original poster said that you’re arguing with. 
    muthuk_vanalingamGeorgeBMac
  • Reply 18 of 52
    Seriously? You place PolkAUDIO and other SURROUND SOUND Equipment up against 2 Messily HOMEPODS!!??  Epic Fail on so many levels of comparison! XD
    edited June 2018 Alex1Nwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 52
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 7,464member
    I’ve read some stupid shit on AI but this article takes the cake.
    Alex1Nwatto_cobralamboaudi4SoundJudgmentuniscapejcs2305dysamoria
  • Reply 20 of 52
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 8,811member
    why test using a web clip streamed from your phone, instead of renting a move from itunes and playing it back natively on the Apple TV? that seems like a far more typical use case. 
    williamlondonAlex1Nwatto_cobraGeorgeBMacpeterhartroundaboutnowdysamoriaJinTechimergingeniouspatchythepirate
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