Apple finally 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 gave the original HomePod 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 sound bar/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 Dolby Atmos, it just puts everything over the top.
How to setup your Apple Atmos system
It's actually pretty easy to setup an Atmos system with one or two HomePods and an Apple TV 4K. 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. (It should be iOS 14.2, tvOS 14.2 and HomePodOS 14.2, respectively.)
- 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 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 use the HomePod as your TV Speakers.
- Select Use as TV Speakers to turn on home theater audio.
There's a catch: It only works with your Apple TV.
As good as Apple's ultimate Dolby Atmos system is, it might not be for you. The biggest issue is that it relies completely on the Apple TV 4K to work and if you change inputs — say if you decide you want to play Xbox or PlayStation, or you want to want cable — the sound won't come out of the HomePod(s). So the only reason to build out a Atmos system with owe or two HomePods and an Apple TV 4K is if you never really plan on switching inputs, or are willing to have an extra speaker like a soundbar for other uses. You have to be all-in on Apple, which probably isn't realistic for a lot of people.
The other thing that I wish Apple would do would be to enable you to designate two HomePod mini speakers as rear-channels so you're able to get true immersive Dolby Atmos experience. Sonos allows you to do this with two One (or Play:1) or two Five (or Play:5) speakers when paired with its Sonos Arc, and it seems like a missed opportunity for Apple. Of course, since Apple rolled out the Atmos update to Home speakers two year after their release, there's still hope we'll get more software updates down the road. (If you're wondering, the HomePod mini doesn't currently support Dolby Atmos.)
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.