HomePod & multi-room audio
It looks good, sounds good, and can control your smart devices – but the HomePod has some other audio tech tricks up its sleeve too
When Apple announced the HomePod back in June, it also mentioned that the speaker would include both the iOS HomeKit software for home automation, and the AirPlay software that is built into Macs and iOS devices that enables them to stream music via Wi-Fi over your home network. More importantly, both HomeKit and AirPlay are being updated as part of iOS 11, which will be launched just ahead of the HomePod. These updates will allow HomeKit and the new AirPlay 2 to work together for the first time.
The full details are still under wraps, but if you have a speaker that works with AirPlay 2 – and this can be any AirPlay 2 speaker from other manufacturers, as well as Apple’s own HomePod – then you’ll be able to control the speaker using the Home app on your iPhone or iPad. And, at the same time, AirPlay 2 will be able to use the ‘rooms’ feature in the Home app to stream music to multiple speakers located in different rooms.
This is kind of a big deal. There are plenty of companies that already produce their own multi-room speaker systems, including well-known names such as Sonos, Bose and Libratone (whose Zipp won our Best On Test award back in 2016). The trouble with these speakers is that they all work differently, and use different networking technologies and apps to connect multiple speakers that are located in different rooms. This means you have to commit to buying your entire multiroom speaker system from just one manufacturer, since their speakers won’t be able to work with speakers made by others. You’re also limited by the apps that each manufacturer provides for its speaker systems. Most of those apps will work with streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal, but few of them currently work with Apple Music, so your choice of multi-room system will also depend on which streaming services you like to use.
But, according to Apple, that will all change with AirPlay 2. The updated Home app in iOS 11 will be able to stream music to any speaker that works with AirPlay 2. This means that you can now create your own ‘off the shelf’ multi-room audio system using different speakers from a variety of manufacturers (as long as they all support AirPlay 2). So you could have Bang & Olusen’s over-the-top A9 as your main speaker in the living room, Apple’s HomePod in the bedroom to control the lights and heating, and maybe a portable Libratone Zipp Mini that can double up as your holiday travel speaker as well.
Adding AirPlay support to a speaker also means you’re no longer reliant on the often rather clunky apps that the manufacturers provide. As we’ve mentioned, the apps provided with most multi-room speakers don’t work with the Apple Music service, but speakers that support AirPlay or AirPlay 2 will enable you to stream music or audio from any app that you have on your iPhone, iPad or Mac, without having to rely on a dedicated app provided by the manufacturer.
Speakers that support AirPlay do tend to be more expensive than their Bluetooth equivalents, but they’re also more versatile – and offer better sound quality too – so it’s worth spending some money on at least one good AirPlay speaker that you can use as your main system at home. And the versatility of AirPlay 2 will enable you to add other speakers from different manufacturers in future.
There are some pretty good AirPlay speakers already available, starting at just £169 for Libratone’s Zipp Mini, or £249 for the full-size Zipp. There’s a bit of a cluster around the £500 mark, with models such as the sleek Zeppelin Wireless from Bowers & Wilkins, and the M5 from Bang & Olufsen (which has a cylindrical design very similar to the HomePod). And if you’re feeling flush you could spend well over £1,000 on Devialet’s Phantom speaker, which looks like something out of StarWars, and boasts 4500W of output that could do as much damage as a Death Star. Other big name which have announced plans for new AirPlay speakers since the launch of the HomePod include Bose, Bowers & Wilkins and the Apple-owned Beats. Additionally, some existing speakers that use the original AirPlay (introduced in 2010) may also work with AirPlay 2 – or may be updated by their manufacturers so they do. However, since that’s unlikely to be the case for every speaker model available out there, it’s worth doing some research when shopping around to make sure any AirPlay speaker you buy will be compatible in future – we’ll keep you up to date on when AirPlay 2 arrives with iOS 11. So the HomePod really is a landmark product. Not only does it promise excellent sound quality, and voice control technology that will compete with the Amazon Echo, it also looks like it could completely transform the market for multi-room audio speaker systems in a way that no other manufacturer can.
B&O’s BeoPlay range includes a number of AirPlay-ready speakers, many of which can be upgraded to AirPlay 2.
Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin Wireless is one of our favourite AirPlay speakers – it’s easy to use and sounds fantastic too.