Apple and home audio

“Once upon a time, I had a fairly sophisticated stereo sound system, worth well over ten thousand dollars,” Gene Steinberg writes for The Tech Night Owl. “It consisted of a set of classic flat panel ribbon speakers, the Carver Amazing Platinum, in piano black, and several components bearing the Carver and Sunfire labels. The preamplifier even had tubes in it, so call me retro.”

“While Apple builds premium gear, it has not established a reputation for creating products with superior audio quality. Even the 2014 purchase of Beats Electronics for $3 billion didn’t convey the impression that Apple cared about high-quality audio. Beats headphones were legendary for bloated bass,” Steinberg writes. “I suppose recent iPhones, iPads and Macs can play louder without distortion. But you’d hardly call the audio rich and full. Even Apple’s best selling AirPods aren’t delivering state-of-the-art audio either, although they excel in other categories, such as the tiny size and the seamless integration with the Apple ecosystem.”

Apple's HomePod
Apple’s HomePod

 
“That takes us to the HomePod, a smart speaker system, powered by Siri, which was supposed to debut this month for $349. It has since been postponed until early in 2018,” Steinberg writes. “I wouldn’t for a moment expect audio quality to exceed that of those huge Carver Amazings that I used to own. That system offered scintillating highs and thundering bass, but it required loads of power to deliver the goods. But Apple is strongly emphasizing the ‘amazing’ sound of the HomePod in its promotional materials. The ability of the HomePod to tailor itself to your listening environment is impressive if true. If you recall the placement considerations of traditional loudspeakers, you’ll appreciate not having to waste time finding the ideal positioning for Apple’s forthcoming smart speaker system.”

Much more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: As Reddit user Arve stated after HomePod’s unveiling:

1. They’re using some form of dynamic modeling, and likely also current sensing that allows them to have a p-p excursion of 20 mm in a 4″ driver. This is completely unheard of in the home market. You can read an introduction to the topic here. The practical upshot is that that 4″ driver can go louder than larger drivers, and with significantly less distortion. It’s also stuff you typically find in speakers with five-figure price tags (The Beolab 90 does this, and I also suspect that the Kii Three does). It’s a quantum leap over what a typical passive speaker does, and you don’t really even find it in higher-end powered speakers

2. The speaker uses six integrated beamforming microphones to probe the room dimensions, and alter its output so it sounds its best wherever it is placed in the room. It’ll know how large the room is, and where in the room it is placed.

3. The room correction applied after probing its own position isn’t simplistic DSP of frequency response, as the speaker has seven drivers that are used to create a beamforming speaker array,. so they can direct specific sound in specific directions. The only other speakers that do this is the Beolab 90, and Lexicon SL-1. The Beolab 90 is $85,000/pair, and no price tag is set for the Lexicon, but the expectation in the industry is “astronomical”.

So yes, compared to the typical sub-$2000 speaker, the technology they apply may just as well be considered “magic”.

SEE ALSO:
Apple’s late, delayed, limited HomePod is looking more and more like something I don’t want – November 27, 2017
Why Apple’s HomePod is three years behind Amazon’s Echo – November 21, 2017
Under ‘operations genius’ Tim Cook, product delays and other problems are no longer unusual for Apple – November 20, 2017
Apple delays HomePod release to early 2018 – November 17, 2017
Apple CEO Tim Cook: The ‘operations genius’ who never has enough products to sell at launch – October 23, 2017
Apple’s HomePod is uniquely positioned to win the smart speaker market – August 25, 2017
Consumers appear eager to buy Apple’s upcoming HomePod smart speaker – July 14, 2017
Apple Watch and AirPods in high demand; HomePod buying intent outpaces Amazon Echo – July 10, 2017
Apple’s HomePod could have an even more successful start than Apple Watch – July 7, 2017
Apple’s HomePod first impressions: Lots of mystery, impressive sound quality – June 8, 2017
With HomePod, Apple just wants to shake things up (for now) – June 7, 2017
Apple HomePod vs. Amazon Echo – June 7, 2017
CNET: Apple’s HomePod offers superior sound quality vs. Amazon Echo and Sonos Play:3 – June 6, 2017
Apple’s new HomePod sounds incredible! – June 6, 2017
Apple reveals HomePod smart home music speaker – June 5, 2017

19 Comments

  1. iWill buy one when they finally release it.

    Good Things Come To Those Who Wait.

    This ain’t the 90’s anymore kiddies. Stop the whining snow flakes. The sophistication of this gem WILL blow peoples minds @ that price point.

    1. Huh? Apple announced that HomePod was ready for release then inexplicably retracted their original statement and announced a “later” unspecified release date. So, what changed? What happened? Why the prevarication? Was there a design flaw? Was there a breakage in the supply chain? You fail to recognize that this entire episode was an embarrassment without explanation. Hey, maybe the whole world doesn’t need to know the reason(s) for the delay, but that won’t stop people from hypothesizing. What’s your hypothesis?

  2. It is all hype- just like the nonsense about the iPhone X camera being better than a proper camera with interchangeable lenses.

    Unlike Apple, Focal cares enough to make their own drivers and devices- not at a contract assembler that also makes X Boxes, Windows PCs and Android Phones.

    Of course, if all you listen to is Taylor Swift or some Hip-Hop, feel free to buy what is on sale at Wal-Mart. I’ll keep my Focals.

    1. No one ever claimed the X was better than an interchangeable lens camera (though its the best pocket camera in the world and you’ll always have it with it you). As far as the speakers, we’ll see, but I don’t doubt that they’ll be better than anything else at or near that price point. Not making your own devices in house isn’t a sign of “not caring”, it’s a matter of scale. You can do better than this snarky crap. So once SJ stopped making computers in his garage he stopped caring? LOL

  3. Tom Holman left Lucasfilm to go to Apple and work on audio. Mr. Holman was a governor of the AES, developed the THX system for Lucasfilm, and built the Apt Holman preamp.

    1. Q ” Will one HomePod substitute for a pair or stereo speakers? Will it produce the same spatial effect?”
      A No

      The human ears do not hear bass in a sound filed directionally but define space using midrange and treble. This is why subwoofers tend to be singular units.

      A single sited speaker- even one with beam forming mikes and sound processing- will be sourcing the midrange and high notes from a single physical location. If they bounce sound off of walls in an effort to give a false sense of space they will distort the original signal by impacting the time arrival of sound to your ears. It may give an impression of space, but is an artificial creation that by it’s very method implies a form of distortion of the sound captured in an ambient stereo recording.

      That said, most modern popular music is close miked and pan pot placed in a sound stage for a stereo signal as opposed to a true ambient stereo sound. This is rarely the case with Jazz and Classical recording, but very common with most others.

      Quality speaker brands spend more than a little time designing their speakers to project a sound field from separated speakers in such a way as to preserve the spatial data of an ambient stereo recording. That is simply not possible with digital sound processing and reflected sound intended to fake a spatial experience as the time arrival of spatial data to your ears will be corrupted by the process.

      Translation: Apple will be selling you canned biscuits and not what Grandma used to make for you. Put in SEC Football terms what they are doing is trickeration.

      1. With all those microphones and beam-forming treble speakers (and a powerful onboard processor), can’t the DSP build in delays tailored to the specific room to allow all the echoes to arrive at the appropriate time to simulate two physical stereo speakers? Or perhaps even 5.1?

        1. II suspect that the correct answer to Jim’s question is somewhere between “no” and what TxUser is talking about.

          On the face of it, you shouldn’t need seven tweeters unless the intention is to make the soundstage much wider than would normally be practical with a single conventional speaker.

          However on the other hand, trying to rely on reflected sound, even when controlled in conjunction with an array of microphones is never going to compare with using two decent speakers spaced a sensible distance apart, but it might still work well – I’d like to reserve judgement on that until I’ve heard it as I’m somewhere between sceptical and intrigued.

          In theory, Apple’s HomePod shouldn’t sound all that amazing, but in the real world it might be quite impressive because few people situate their loudspeakers optimally and even fewer people set them up using measuring instruments. HomePod is able to optimise itself automatically irrespective of where you place it.

          One fascinating thing I did note is that the bass driver is reported to have a throw of 20mm. On the face of it, a 4″ bass driver doesn’t seem impressive, but reproducing bass involves being able to move air and a 100mm servo-driven driver with an excursion of 20mm would be able to shift a lot of air and ought to sound a hell of a lot lot more impressive than it’s paper specification might suggest and sound louder than you might expect.

          HomePod isn’t going to impress die-hard audiophiles any more than iPhone cameras impress people with DSLR camera systems, but that’s not Apple’s intention. Apple are trying to create a speaker that makes itself sound pretty good, wherever you put it and the details revealed so far suggest that they may be onto something.

          1. My cousin got one of the first 4-channel Quadraphonic sound systems and put all four speakers side-by-side. He thought it was great. Audiophiles are apparently made and not born.

        2. I guess if you had enough processing power you could separate out all of the sound field information, delay each signal for the reflected distance and approximate the original, but nobody has done that and I doubt a less than $400 speaker with a mobile phone chip is capable of that.

          The physics of reflected sound and a stereo image involves timing and if the timing is off it will result in phasing problems which can actually distort the sounds if they are not in sync. The miking of a live band is way more complicated because of the physics of phasing and the issue also impacts how sound is regenerated by horns and speakers when you listen.

          The best guess is that they will incorporate some form of DSP to create an artificial sound field because doing an accurate job of the real thing would be quite a bag of hurt.

          If you want to get your geek on, take a look here. There are sound files to demonstrate some of this.
          http://www.audiocheck.net/audiotests_stereophonicsound.php

    2. No, and no. Apple is attempting to use digital signal processing to extract a premium price for a compromised single point bluetooth speaker for Apple Music renters. This tech has been used on TV soundbars with unimpressive results for years. Apple’s vaporware me-too Alexa pod with more speakers in the can is not a hi fi. Nothing in that form factor delivers the goods. If wireless bluetooth is what you seek, there are already many choices on the market and they are all pathetic when compared to even a modest 2 speaker stereo setup.

      Real high fidelity music starts with uncompressed DRM free files, high current amplification, and properly placed highly engineered wired loudspeakers that are sized for the listening environment.

  4. I have a perfectly good music system that I’m not getting rid of, in other rooms where I don’t I’m perfectly happy with the sound from my iPhone for the short period where I might be doing something in there before moving on. I’m sure there will be a market for HomePod but I’ve no idea why Apple haven’t also released a cheap model that just has the Siri facility and basic sound for response so that you can access Siri in every room. I’m not buying multiple HomePods for every room. Couldn’t they have added “Hey Siri” to Apple TV? as well?

  5. The Sonos One has Alexa integrated with a room mic to tune to the room. The ecosystem has been tested through the years and it works with Apple Music. I don’t want to wait anymore. It is also cheaper at $199.

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