The Case Against Using Apple’s HomePod as a Home Theater Speaker

At its recent WWDC 2017 conference Apple unveiled its HomePod speaker but was intentionally vague regarding it’s final feature set. It was promoted as an high-end audio streamer for the Apple Music catalog but little else was detailed. In the months leading to its anticipated Dec 2017 release Apple is working hard to expand and perfect features such as Siri and HomeKit integration. This left analysts and consumers to speculate regarding additional use cases for the still mysterious device. A whole-home music system akin to Sonos is a given but what about using the HomePod as a Home Theater speaker system?

Using the AppleTV to stream Apple Music to the HomePod speaker is implied in the AirPlay 2 specifications. This could be a significant selling point for both of those devices. You could view the song’s artist, title and even lyrics on the TV screen during music playback. Karaoke anyone? But this would require Siri commands to originate from the AppleTV remote which needs a physical button press for activation. It seems more likely that you’d control music playback by talking directly to the HomePod which would in turn stream lyrics and other song info to the AppleTV for display on your TV screen. Your TV screen could also display the results of Siri queries to the HomePod microphone much like Amazon’s pending Echo Show device. Expect Apple TV and HomePod to integrate closely as they are both HomeKit hubs and must coordinate to avoid conflicts.

Using the HomePod as part of a home theatre sound system while technically possible would be far from ideal. Citing a “less than optimal user experience” I think Apple will downplay any home theatre scenarios.

Potential shortcomings include:
1. Most AppleTV in use today are already linked via HDMI to an AVR receiver with wired speakers. Adding a HomePod to this setup is superfluous. Even if your AppleTV audio is currently playing through crummy television speakers using the HomePod has other pitfalls…

2. It’s critical that the center channel originates from directly behind (or below) the TV screen. This is the channel that carries most of the vocal dialog. It’s very off-putting for a character’s voice to originate from the sides or rear. That’s why sound bars are designed to sit front and center. From that position they can project realistic dialog while digitally mimicking the surround and rear speakers. Even with the HomePod’s advanced signal processing it would best be positioned under the TV for the truest dialog rendering. But it’s cylindrical shape doesn’t really fit there. SonosBose and Vizio all have properly shaped speakers with specialized audio enhancements designed just for this purpose.

3. Deep bass sounds are omni-directional and reflect well off parallel surfaces. So placement near a wall often enhances their punch. With its rather small and upward firing subwoofer the HomePod would especially benefit from this phenomenon. Even with its room-mapping technology and automatic calibration the HomePod will fare better away from the TV screen – ideally near a corner of the room for the greatest bass boost.

4. True stereo sound (not simulated) would require 2 HomePod speakers. That’s $700 in speakers plus another $150 for the AppleTV. To most consumers this seems overpriced considering a well-reviewed soundbar with subwoofer can be had for $150.  And with a 4K Roku priced at just $70 Apple is best avoiding this comparison altogether.

5. If the first generation of HomePod is well-received Apple is free to futher expand the product line.  This could include a home theater model designed specifically for the living room. And a full screen model for the kitchen?A camera equipped model for FaceTime calls? A battery operated model for the back yard? Time will tell…