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

Mac Format - - APPLE HOME -

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.

Stream­ing sounds

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.

AirPlay au­dio

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.

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