AirPlay 2 Review: A computational audio duet for your HomePod

When Apple first announced the HomePod back at WWDC 2017, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, announced AirPlay 2 along with it. The next generation of Apple's audio and video media streaming protocol, it would open up HomePod and other AirPlay 2-enabled speakers to both stereo pairing and multi-room audio.

HomePod shipped late and AirPlay 2 shipped even later. Years after similar features were available from Sonos, for example. But it's here now, and so the question becomes: Is it too little, too late, or is it the update everyone's been waiting for?

Read the AirPlay 2 FAQ Read the HomePod review

AirPlay 2 Stereo Pairs

Creating a stereo pair is super easy. If you set up a second HomePod in the same HomeKit room as your first, it automatically asks you if you want to create a stereo pair. Tap and you're set.

You can also go into the Home app and pair or unpair two HomePods at any time, check which one is left and right, and switch them if needed.

A stereo pair works the same as single HomePod: From Control Center or from any app that supports AirPlay 2 directly, simply tap on the playback destination button and select the paired HomePod as the destination. You can do that from iPhone or iPad.

You can also do it from Apple TV by bringing up the audio destinations menu and clicking on the paired HomePods.

Just like with a single HomePod, the first song the stereo pair plays is used to detect their location and the geometry of the room. But now the two processors communicate together and work in concert using a custom connection to adjust the base EQ for each mic and apply the same filter, so the sound is consistent.

The left and right HomePods don't just split left and right channels either, they split left and right ambient audio. Thanks to computational audio and beamforming, it creates a similar three-dimensional sound to a single HomePod, only wider and fuller, and without being constrained to a tiny sweet spot like some traditional speaker systems.

For Siri on a stereo pair, all the microphones will work together to listen but, for consistencies sake, replies will default to the left HomePod. You can change that any time you like by touching the right HomePod and saying "Turn on Hey Siri". It'll then stay on that HomePod unless and until you change it again.

AirPlay 2 Multiroom Audio

Multiroom audio with AirPlay 2 is just as easy to set up and use. Make sure your HomePods are set to the appropriate HomeKit rooms, and then you can pick them just like you would any other playback destination.

AirPlay 2 Multi-Room Audio

AirPlay 2 Multi-Room Audio (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

The only difference is that now, you can make multiple picks. Choose living room and bedroom, and the same song or podcast or audiobook plays in both locations at the same time.

Once you select the destinations, you can walk around the house or office and keep listening to your podcast, audiobook, or music, all in perfect sync.

To handle multiroom audio with AirPlay 2 on HomePod, Siri has gained some new capabilities.

If you say, "Hey Siri, play some music here," the closest HomePod will pick it up. Once it's playing, you can say, "Hey Siri, move the music to the bedroom," for example, and the song will switch from its present location to the new one you asked for. You can say "Hey Siri, play some jazz everywhere," and all your HomePod speakers will spin up a custom station for you.

The same works for volume, so you can say "Hey Siri, turn the volume..." up or down, here, there, or everywhere. Same with "Hey Siri, stop..." in any room or every room.

I had some initial trouble getting it all to work: I'd mistakenly set one HomePod to bathroom instead of bedroom, so Siri couldn't find the speaker I was asking for. And a couple times Siri thought I wanted a song with "everywhere" in the title, instead of wanting the song to play everywhere.

But overall, it works remarkably well.

AirPlay 2 Ecosystem

HomePod is the first AirPlay 2 speaker but it won't be the only one.

Just like the original AirPlay, Apple is making AirPlay 2 available to other companies. So, we'll also be seeing a range of compatible speakers from B&O, Bose, B&W, Sonos, and many others. That means you'll be able to fill your rooms with a variety of hardware and sounds.

AirPlay 2 Conclusion

Yes, AirPlay 2 is core functionality that should have been on HomePod at launch, but it's here now, it's working for me as advertised, and — big surprise — I'm loving it.

Two white homepods sitting on a television stand

Two white homepods sitting on a television stand (Image credit: iMore)

Siri itself still needs a major update, of course, including more domains and especially media domains so everything from Spotify to Audible to Overcast can play natively on the hardware. And Handoff needs to let us move audio not just between HomePods but between Apple devices. It's great that I can push music from my living room to my bedroom, but I want to be able to get up from my Mac or Apple TV and move whatever I'm listening to to my iPhone, for example, as well.

But even as-is, AirPlay 2 makes HomePod much more attractive. When compared to cheap Amazon or Google speakers, the idea of multiple HomePod speakers might look expensive. Compared to traditional, higher-end speakers, even though they lack Apple's advanced computational audio convenience and capabilities, multiple HomePod speakers can make a lot of sense.

That's especially true for people all-in on the Apple ecosystem, who care deeply about audio quality and its computational future, or just want to be able to drop great sounding speakers anywhere, any time, and have them sound great.

And given Apple's track record, what I'm most curious about is just how far this hardware will be pushed with additional, future updates.

I know a dedicated Apple TV mode with Dolby ATMOS-like audio support is near top of my list.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • Hey Rene, thanks for this. One thing I’d love for you guys to test out is this. Take one HomePod and have it in the same room as another AirPlay enabled speaker (or AppleTV Plugged into a sound bar). In the Home app, make sure both are in the same room. Then, start playing music that you know will send some sounds from the left speaker, and others from the right. In my experience, it seems to use HomePod as one speaker and the AppleTV (sound bar) as the other. This works for TV and film too, to the extent with some, it seems to know which is the speaker under the TV (projector in my case) and HomePod (at the back of the room). The thing I can’t work out, is HomePod and Apple TV are plugged in next to each other. So I don’t know if HomePod is doing some form of PURE magic where it’s actually hearing where the sound is meant to be coming from and somehow pairing with AppleTV do create stereo/surround sound. Whatever is going on I’ve not seen mentioned in any write ups (likely because most are testing HomePod stereo). I first discovered this even before the new OS came out using my MacBook. As that let you pair three devices together, I noticed it was doing stereo separation (of sorts) between three devices.
  • I finally unpacked my second HomePod and paired it with the first one in my living room. As you say, the pairing iwas incredibly easy to set up, and the sound quality was as good or better than advertised when I finally got to listen to them working together. Nevertheless, I'm having problems with control center glitches on my iPhone X. I don't know whether or not these are bugs, and they're kinda hard to describe, but I'm curious if anyone else is experiencing something similar. First, when I pause a song using Siri, then, after a few minutes, ask it to resume playing, the music occasionally reverts to playing on a single HomePod. When I touch the top of the other one to try to get it going, the one already playing cuts out, and the one I touched starts playing something else altogether. The only way to get the two HomePods to start playing the chosen song correctly as a pair is to go back into control center and restart everything. Second, where the HomePod control center pane on the iPhone is supposed to show what's playing on the paired HomePods, it shows only the icon, and the word "connecting." When I touch that part of the pane, though, it does switch me into iTunes and allow me to select and play to the HomePod pair there, and it also correctly shows what's playing. Rebooting my iPhone doesn't fix this behavior. (I should add that I listen to a lot of classical music, and since Siri sucks at handling things like "play sonata X in D minor, opus Y, by composer Z, with pianist you know who," I tend to use the control center finagle a lot more than most people appear to. I wonder if that's part of my problem.)
  • How do I get my Apple TV listed on my iOS devices as an audio source? It's available to airplay to and I can send audio to my Apple TV from my phone and from my Apple TV to my AirPods, but it isn't listed as a separate audio source? I don't have any HomePod's.
  • Rene, do you know if AirPlay 2 / HomePod will be able to support Dolby Atmos?