A brief note on home theater audio: news broke a few days ago that Apple’s HomePod has been discontinued in favor of its more affordable, younger sibling, the HomePod mini. The HomePod was never for everybody, but it’s an excellent product and it always struck me that it could have been for far a larger market than it ever won.
Rather than pitching it as a competitor to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Nest lines of inexpensive, lower quality smart speakers, Apple might have had better success measuring it up to speakers from high-fidelity smart audio leaders Sonos—particularly that company’s home theater offerings. I’ll admit that I’m a longtime Sonos skeptic, but even an objective accounting of what it costs to add enhanced sound to a television setup shows that the HomePod offered great value.
As a baseline, consider what Sonos offers for this market. Its entry point product is the Beam compact soundbar for US$399, and its high end offering is the Arc, an enhanced sound bar for US$799. By all reports these are excellent products but the sound bar form factor, despite its popularity over the past decade, has never appealed to me. Sound bars demand to be placed front and center, they typically require wired connections, and despite all of the marketing, in my experience you just can’t replicate two stereo speakers strategically placed in opposite corners of the room with one sound bar sitting in front of your television.
To get that true surround sound experience with Sonos, you’d need to upgrade to a 5.1 surround sound set which includes a Beam, a subwoofer and two smaller speakers, pushing the price to US$1,359. A step-up Surround setup with the Arc instead of the Beam costs US$1,498. This is pretty rarefied air.
Meanwhile, you could get a pair of HomePods for US$299 each. Place those in any two opposite corners of your room and form a digitally linked stereo pair using Apple’s superb self-adjusting technology to fine tune the audio, and you’ve created an impressively immersive, wireless surround sound experience. Of course you’d also need an Apple TV 4K for them to work as the default audio output for your television. But even with the US$179 cost of that device, the whole setup totals just US$777.
If it wasn’t already obvious, this is what we’ve done in our home and it works great. Of course, the caveat is that a HomePod setup requires you to be committed to the Apple ecosystem while the Sonos is famously open and compatible with all sorts of other systems, a true advantage. But Apple’s approach is simpler, requires fewer wires and fewer boxes, no additional software, and is exceedingly easy for my whole family to use. There’s also no mussing with inputs and modes or, worst of all, juggling multiple remote controls, the typical banes of other “advanced” home theater setups. And it’s worth noting that the Apple TV, though much maligned for its pricing, is a truly excellent user experience. If Apple had bundled the Apple TV 4K with two HomePods and marketed them as an integrated home theater offering that offers significant value over similar Sonos offerings, I think it would’ve been a different ballgame.
Apple will continue to offer the smaller HomePod mini, which from reviews seems to be totally fine, but hopefully they’ll bring some of the same seamless integration with the Apple TV 4K to those devices too. Currently, you can’t set a HomePod mini stereo pair as the default audio output for the Apple TV, which is a big part of the seamlessness of the experience we enjoy so much in our setup. In the meantime, you can still find the original HomePods on sale while they last, or hunt ’em down on eBay. I wouldn’t hesitate to do that again if I needed to set up a new home theater today.