Invasion of the Pods

I stopped by the Apple Store on the way home from church, always an expensive detour. This Sunday was no exception. I auditioned the HomePod and was suitably impressed. In the noisy way-too-big Apple Store hall, it sounded creditable in the near field. My impressions after a day at home follow. Most of the reviews focus on Siri when the focus should be on the killer app of the “smart speaker”, music reproduction. I’ll talk about music reproduction.

Revision history

  • 3/27/2018 Mostly to fix the hideous number spelling errors but I also added some additional detail about configuration. I also added my day 2 impressions. Yes, Siri is “legally blond” here but I’m slowly learning to speak her lingo. And some speculation about APM Live from Here audio.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HomePod
  2. https://www.macobserver.com/tips/how-to/set-up-homepod/
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lossy_compression/
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tidal_(service)
  5. https://support.tidal.com/hc/en-us/articles/115000397069-TIDAL-MASTERS
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_Quality_Authenticated
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess_discography

Prerequisites

HomePod requires you to have a WiFi network and at least one IOS device in your stable of kit. HomePod relies on the IOS Home App to transfer the network and Apple Store credentials from your iPhone  or iPad to the HomePod. A quick check of the net was unable to locate instructions for setting up HomePod without an iOS device.

Setup

When you first power up HomePod, it goes into Apple Home discovery mode and will pop up an alert on nearby iOS devices to begin the configuration process. This did not work for me, probably because I fished my phone out and woke it after HomePod timed out Apple Home discovery.

I was able to do setup by opening the Home app on my iPhone and then restarting HomePod by removing and restoring power. After a bit of thumbing through screens, I found the screen for adding nearby devices. The HomePod appeared in the list so I picked it and the two devices chatted. The HomePod picked up the WiFi and Apple ID credentials from the phone without further attention on my part. I did have to hold the phone near the HomePod so the phone could hear a chime that the speaker was playing while in pairing mode. Once paired, things went smoothly.

Siri

HomePod Siri has an Apple Music bias. It can easily play current artists, albums, and tracks trending in Apple Music. If you have more diverse tastes, Siri struggles and can come up with some pretty weird interpretations of your requests for “Hey Siri, play Grown Folks by Snarky Puppy”.

Fortunately, Home Pod is also an Apple Airplay audio endpoint and plays happily with any Airplay client like iTunes, Roon, and any iPad app supporting Airplay.

Apple Music

I never bought into Apple Music. I listen to Jazz and acoustic music mostly. These genres are pretty cruelly revealing of AAC lossy compression artifacts. I find AAC fatiguing and flat so I rejected it as an acceptable format. And I didn’t like the idea of iCloud match replacing my ALAC tracks with iTunes AAC lossy versions on my portable devices.

Apple Music “Hey Siri, play Snarky Puppy” played their Sylva record from Apple Music at the Apple Store. In the noisy store environment, it sounded competent. At home, the bass was woolly and much of Michael League’s intonation was lost, especially when he cranked up the bass to the point where his amp went dirty. The growl on the bass was muted. Cymbals which the Apple Store hall swallowed, were smeared. Lossy compression looses the cymbal shimmer and air. It’s all in the small details you supposedly can’t hear that lossy compression discards to reduce storage size and transmission bit rate.

Tidal

Tidal has 2 options, one for AAC compression and a second that sends a lossless format, your choice of ALAC, FLAC, or MQA (Master Quality Authenticated).

Reading the reference above, I discovered that MQA was another lossy compression scheme that is the subject of considerable controversy and scorn in the high fidelity community. MQA originated at Meridian in the UK. Meridian is a competent high end home audio equipment manufacturer that has a history of digital audio innovation in its products. I’ve not heard any MQA tracks so I won’t comment further.

Tidal also integrates with Roon, When you search for an artist or album, Roon shows the relevant albums and tracks in the local library and the hot play lists and tracks in Tidal. Roon clearly separates the two.

I have mixed feelings about Tidal. Much of the recent music featured is of no interest to me. But they do have most anything I want. On a lark, I searched for Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River. They had the original London Symphony Orchestra recording featuring Peter Pears singing the solo and a newer recording of this relatively unknown work. I also searched for Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. There are only a couple of recordings and the original Bernstein recording appears to be out of print. Tidal had it. I checked Charles Ives symphonies and choral works and Tidal had a good selection. I checked the 1812 Overture and Tidal had the Telarc tone arm tossing record and the Mercury recording featuring West Point cannons in addition to more recent recordings of this pops favorite.

Tidal struck out on the RCA 1976 recording of Porgy and Bess with Ray Charles and Cleo Lane. This is a gem that is out of print. Ray Charles combo and Cleo Lane appear to have been recorded separately from the orchestra. The mix to 2 track is not seamless. The featured artists are brilliant. The backing orchestra is competent session play but the record lacks the feel of live performance. The orchestra and the combo are in different sound stages and acoustic environments, something a remix and remaster could fix. But Charles and Lane were brilliant and this record deserves to be heard.

After I wrote the first draft, I went looking for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a pops favorite. The old Bernstein recording that I grew up with (Columbia/Sony) was not in the catalog but a number of newer recordings were, including the original piano arrangement. This was a pretty powerful playing, by an un-credited artist, that was a bit of a war horse. I’d love to hear Beka, Justin Kauflin, Jacob Collier, or Joey Alexander play this standard. These young jazz pianists would have fun making this piece their own.

Smart Speaker Killer App

It’s the music, stupid. If you don’t love music or you can hear the difference between the sources mentioned above, save your money. Apple HomePod is an amazing value in high fidelity music reproduction. There are other small speakers, some like the Magneplanar MMG, that are better, at a similar price, but none that combine a wireless receiver, decent amplifier, and good natural sound featuring extended bass, a natural mid-range, and clean cymbal reproduction at that price. Nothing I’ve heard comes close, well maybe the old Monsoon Audio planar magnetic panels that are no longer available. Apple has done well as system engineers. They’ve nailed the physics and signal processing to make a great little wireless active speaker.

Things I’ve auditioned include

  • Sylva by Snarky Puppy
  • Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall by Harry Belafonte.
  • Alyen by June Tabor
  • A splash of Fresh Cream by Cream
  • Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
  • Julian Lage Arclight

My reference system consists of a Parasound P5 preamplifer (with internal DAC), GAS Ampzilla amplifier, and Dhalquist DQ-10 speakers. These are magical components that easily humble more costly systems in their musicality and ability to reproduce complex orchestral music like Snarky Puppy’s Sylva record.

“Hey Siri, play Arclight” produced Julian Lage’s 2017 album of that name. Siri didn’t tell me if she was playing the Apple Music Arclight playlist or my ALAC transfer from my iTunes library. I have a suspicion that she played the Apple Music version because my iMac was asleep (off) at the time so there was no iTunes sharing service running within the lifelines. The bass was not right. Again, it was a little loose and the intonation was off. This is a Grammy nominated record having impeccable recording, stereo mastering, and  media mastering.

Stereo?

I don’t think I’ll buy 2 for stereo. Apple is working on it with AirPlay 2. I don’t know the details but they are extending AirPlay to play content in multiple zones in the manner of Sonos and SooLoos. But what I can tell you, is high fidelity mono sound is worth it. The lounge-filling deep natural bass from a coffee can is amazing. The mid-range is natural. Male and female vocals are natural. The high harmonics are there. Bells tinkle, cymbals shimmer and sustain. Great piano music has bass harmonics and right hand sparkle. I don’t know that the Omani-directional sound and high percentage of reflected sound will permit a detailed stereo image like that I enjoy with the Dhalquists.

I expect a stereo pair of HomePods would behave like the old Bose 901 speaker that featured a large amount of back wall corner reflection. There was no stereo image. The reflection and reverberation mixed the two channels together loosing the sense of space.

WHRV and Live From Here

“Hey, Siri. Play WHRV radio” works. I’m looking forward to the coming “Live from Here” broadcast this Saturday. During the launch season, I discovered that Live From Here sounded much better in the YouTube stream than off the air. In the last Prairie Home season, the show tried to play live music but couldn’t “get it out on the radio”. No bass, no kick drum, no drums period, no cymbals. The audio engineers were afraid of clipping or over modulating so they played it safe. It was a revelation to see a drummer in the band while watching the old show one Saturday. I’d never heard a drummer on the radio. I didn’t hear the drummer that day. The old show never could have produced a band like Snarky Puppy. There is just too much going on. But Snarky Puppy mixes live sound every show and the Puppies sound is killer so it can be done.

When the show changed format, Live from Here producers knew they were a live music show first and a live spoken word show second so they set out to upgrade the audio production. The show now mixes for stage monitors, hall sound, live radio sound, live YouTube stream, and the archive. And there’s no doubt there is a drummer in the Here Band. And Michael League bass is powerful and articulate. The show has produced what is, to my ears anyway, the best recording of Grown Folks in the band’s catalog.

WHRV lets the automation run the station on the weekend. The MPR Live from Here feed that goes out on the satellite is engineered to meet NPR feed standards. Compliant programs are transmitter ready. They don’t need additional compression, limiting, or equalization to be broadcast in a standard US stereo FM channel.The bits from the satellite can go straight into the FM modulator for broadcast.

I suspect that WHRV is applying additional unneeded compression, limiting, and equalization to the broadcast signal received from American Public Media. It is likely that the WHRV live stream is equalized differently than the broadcast stream.

Because AirPlay is involved at home, there is a 2 second lag (standard AirPlay jitter buffer size) and the level is different coming off the AppleTV but Ampzilla’s VU meters tell the tale. At a given peak VU, the off-air sounds louder and the VU meters are much less bouncy. Hence the hypothesis that WHRV broadcast sound is compressed relative to the MPR live audio and video stream sound. I much prefer the MPR sound to the WHRV sound.