Apple created a smaller and more affordable smart speaker, the HomePod mini ($99) — and it's impressive. I've been testing two HomePod minis over the last several days, and it's easily my pick for the best-sounding and best-looking miniature smart speakers. But slipping under the radar are some updates to the original HomePod, including the ability to create the ultimate Apple surround-sound system.
Alongside the launch of the HomePod mini, Apple updated the original HomePod with a Home Cinema mode that lets you set one or two HomePods (paired in stereo) as the default speakers for your Apple TV. And secondly, Apple has given the HomePod support for Dolby Atmos, even all by its lonesome.
Dolby Atmos capability is a crucial element of a modern home theater system which creates virtual channels that trick your ears into thinking that sound is coming from all around you — left, right and above — instead of just right in front of you. To watch movies or shows that support Dolby Atmos, you need to have a smart TV that supports Dolby Atmos or you can use a streaming stick that supports Dolby Atmos, like an Apple TV 4K or a Fire TV Stick 4K. In the case of HomePod, you don't need a TV that supports Atmos because the Apple TV 4K can play Dolby Atmos audio over AirPlay 2.
(A quick point of clarification: If you have an older TV that doesn't support Dolby Atmos, you can buy a streaming device that supports Dolby Atmos. You then connect that streaming device directly to your Dolby Atmos soundbar or AV receiver via "HDMI In" and then connect the soundbar/AVR via "HDMI Out" to your TV. But there's a catch because some Dolby Atmos soundbars, like the Sonos Arc, don't support an “HDMI Input” port and therefore can't play Atmos content on older TVs. So before buying a Dolby Atmos soundbar, be sure to make sure it will work with the setup you currently have.)
The result is incredible. The HomePod is by far and away the best sounding smart speaker you can buy. Apple's acoustics team engineered the hell out of the HomePod, packing it with special technologies (like beam-forming) that make it sound exceptional for the space it's in. And when you pair two together and give them support for Dolby Atmos, it just puts everything over the top.
How to setup your Apple Atmos system
It's actually pretty easy to set up an Atmos system with one or two HomePods and an Apple TV 4K (either models from 2017 or 2021 will work). Here are the steps:
- Make sure your iPhone (which you're using to set up the system), HomePod(s) and Apple TV 4K are all running the latest software.
- In the room where you have your TV and Apple TV 4K setup, place your HomePod. If you have one HomePod, place it centrally (where a soundbar should be). If you have two HomePods, place them on either side of your TV.
- Open the Home app on your iPhone and make sure your HomePod(s) is in the same "Room" as your Apple TV 4K. If you have two HomePods, you can then configure them in a stereo pair.
- Turn on your Apple TV 4K. You should see a message asking you if you use the HomePod as your TV Speakers.
- Select Use as TV Speakers to turn on home theater audio.
How to get your Apple Atmos system playing all your TV's audio
Previously, there was a big caveat for anybody wanting to create a surround sound system with Apple's HomePods — it relied completely on the Apple TV 4K to work. This meant if you changed inputs, say to play Xbox or watch cable TV, the sound wouldn't come out of the HomePod(s) but out of your TV. So the only reason to build out an Atmos system with one or two HomePods was if you never planned on switching inputs away from your Apple TV 4K.
Thankfully, that has since changed.
In May 2021, Apple rolled out an tvOS update that brought support for HDMI ARC and eARC to the Apple TV 4K for the first time. This means if you have a new-ish TV that supports HDMI ARC or eARC, you can set it up so that all audio — from your cable box and gaming consoles, for example — plays out of your HomePods. All you have to do is first make sure that your HomePods are set up as the default speakers for your Apple TV (by following the previous, above, instructions) and then follow the below steps.
- Go the Home screen on Apple TV.
- Select Settings > Video and Audio > Default Audio Output.
- Under Default Audio Output, make sure that HomePod is selected.
- Under Audio Return Channel (Beta), select Play Television Audio.
- You'll know ARC or eARC is turned on when it says On (ARC) or On (eARC).
If you have any other issues setting this up, go to Apple's support page, here.
Before investing in Apple's Atmos system, a word of caution:
Apple's ultimate Atmos system is fantastic and the update that allows them to play all audio, not just if you're using the Apple TV 4K, makes it all the more useful. But there are still a few things to be wary of before investing in its system.
First, you can't designate two HomePods or two HomePod minis as rear-channel speakers, which would give you an even more immersive Dolby Atmos experience. And this seems like a missed opportunity for Apple. It's a little unfortunate because many of its competitors, like Sonos, allow you to do this. (In a Sonos home theater system, you can designate two Ones or two Fives as rear-channel speakers when paired with its Sonos Arc. Of course, since Apple rolled out the Atmos update to its HomePod two years after its release, there's still hope we'll get more software updates down the road...but...(read the next paragraph.)
Second, Apple announced in early 2021 that it was going discontinue its larger smart speaker and focus its energy on the HomePod mini. You can still buy the HomePod from Apple, but only while supplies last. This is a big blow for anybody thinking about investing in Apple's Atmos system because, while Apple has promised to support the HomePod for at least the next several years, it doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence.
Third, the HomePod mini doesn't support Dolby Atmos. So while you can still connect one or two HomePod minis to your Apple TV 4K or Apple TV HD and use them as TV speakers, they won't play Atmos content. Basically, if you want the ultimate Atmos system you need to invest in its larger, recently discontinued speakers.
As for cost, the price to build the ultimate Apple Dolby Atmos system isn't astronomical. You should buy two HomePods (even if one is enough for Atmos), which Apple is now selling for $299 a pop (but you can occasionally buy from Best Buy or Amazon for as little as $199 each), and an Apple TV 4K which costs $179. That's a grand total of $747 if you buy the HomePods at full price or as little as $547 if you get a deal. It's an investment, of course, but one that will save you the price of a new TV, and that is even lower if you already have a HomePod.
For context, most Dolby Atmos soundbars and home theater systems run between $500 and $1,200. Those, of course, need a new TV that supports Dolby Atmos too. It may not be the perfect alternative for everyone, but if it fits the bill for you, it's a terrific deal.