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AirPlay 2: HomePod stereo, Apple TV challenges, macOS limitations

AirPlay 2 has been out for a few weeks now after shipping a week before WWDC 2018 and almost a year after it was previewed at WWDC 2017.

In the places where AirPlay 2 works, the audio streaming feature is a notable upgrade over the original AirPlay feature — but there are also weird choices and clear opportunities for AirPlay 2 now that it’s available.

HomePod stereo pairing

HomePod audio is really good with stereo pairing — and it should be when the speaker price jumps from $350 to $700.

A single HomePod excels at not limiting a sonic sweet spot to just one place in a room since sound is delivered from all sides of the speaker. But if you close your eyes, you can probably identify where in the room the HomePod is located based on sound.

With a stereo setup, the HomePod pair does a great job of filling the room with sound in such a way that makes you think the two HomePods are actually one stereo speaker coming from the center of the two units.

But stereo output is intentionally reserved for music and podcast playback and not all audio output. For example, Siri only responds on a single HomePod, not both in sync.

The HomePod in the stereo pair that responds is also the HomePod that lights up when you say “Hey Siri” — also by design — but I think this is the wrong decision. In a smaller stereo setup, there aren’t really any practical issues with this, but it can be problematic in a wider arrangement.

In my living room, for example, I’ve noticed the further away speaker light up and respond and not the closer speaker. Siri seems to favor the speaker that you last physically touched. That’s clever, but I’d prefer both light up and respond in stereo.

Phone calls are also limited to one HomePod in stereo. My guess is that this is because only one HomePod uses its microphones for the phone call, but I would prefer both speakers to always play audio in stereo when paired.

Breaking the illusion of one stereo pair when a single speaker reacts can be disorienting.

Apple TV as AirPlay 2 speakers

Controlling audio playback AirPlay 2 speakers from Siri on the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or HomePod is really useful. Turning any Apple TV 4 or Apple TV 4K into an AirPlay 2 speaker is also great for building out your multi-room playback potential.

But once you have dedicated AirPlay 2 speakers throughout your home, Apple TV speakers as AirPlay 2 targets can get in the way. I wouldn’t mind an option to hide Apple TVs from AirPlay 2.

The problem has two parts.

First, TV speakers are often optimized for movie playback and not music playback. Many speakers let you switch equalization modes, but this isn’t an automatic change based on what is playing. I’ve found that music sounds way better through a HomePod stereo pair than my TV’s more expensive sound bar, and movies sound better through the sound bar than the HomePods.

Second is volume control. HomePod volume ranges 0 through 100. Simple as that. But Apple TV speakers have their own independent volume levels, then the AirPlay 2 source also has a separate volume slider.

For example, my sound bar volume ranges 0 through 40. We keep it around 10-20, but 50% on the source slider is half what we expect to hear. The solution is to turn the sound bar all the way up for AirPlay 2, then manage the AirPlay 2 source volume slider.

If given the option, I would probably choose to hide Apple TV from AirPlay 2 through Siri and the Now Playing Control Center tiles. I love multi-room audio playback between multiple HomePods and I look forward to adding other AirPlay 2 speakers in the future, but Apple TVs frankly just pollute the experience for me right now.

macOS support is limited

The last AirPlay 2 challenge that I’ve faced is limited support on macOS and no support on watchOS. You can’t tell Siri on Mac or Apple Watch to play music on a speaker in a specific room like you can on iOS, HomePod, and tvOS. Maybe in a future release, but not yet (even in beta).

Limited macOS support is especially frustrating. You’ve long been able to target multiple AirPlay speakers from iTunes exclusively, and AirPlay 2 allows you to target multiple speakers (including stereo HomePod pairs) from any app on iOS.

But iTunes on the Mac has a separate, obscure section for AirPlay 2 output. When you click the AirPlay menu, the first section you see is the legacy peer-to-peer AirPlay picker. Below that is a not-obvious ‘Switch to:’ picker for AirPlay 2 audio.

Using ‘Switch to:’ from iTunes lets you remotely control music playback on the AirPlay 2 speaker versus sending it from iTunes to the speaker. This section is also the only area that will let you do see a stereo pair of HomePods as one unit. (And it only works with music, not podcasts.) This could be easier to understand…

Outside of iTunes, macOS doesn’t recognize paired HomePods as one stereo unit. System audio will see a paired HomePod setup as two individual targets so there’s no built-in way to make a left + right HomePod arrangement serve as your computer speakers.

Proper AirPlay 2 support from macOS is needed.

Apple nailed the fundamentals of AirPlay 2. Latency is dramatically reduced by design, multi-room AirPlay from any source on iOS is super welcome, and Siri control is really approachable. Now that the basics are finished and available, I hope we see some of the rough edges polished in the coming months.

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Avatar for Zac Hall Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news for 9to5Mac and hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour and 9to5Mac Watch Time podcasts.