Categories
Audio

Hope for Home Pod?

A review of Apple HomePod AirPlay connection issues. HomePod is a pain as a music delivery device but sings sweet when it does manage to connect.

Featured image courtesy of Apple.

Apple dropped Home Pod squarely atop the steaming mess that is Apple Music. Which is sad because Home Pod is a decent little portable speaker with HiFi ambition in the mid range. Home Pod has a sweet voice, that is to say a flattering way with human vocals. Bass is bloated and limp in the C-3 region where most bassists play and highs don’t go all the way to the top of the cymbal region but in between, the sound is marvelous. Just the thing for casual listening.

Apple’s audio engineers did a wonderful job. So what’s the issue? Apple’s Apple Music ambitions and new gadgets get squarely in the way of the user experience offered by this wonderful product.

HomePod Survey followed critical feedback

A couple of days ago, I filed a thoughtful but critical feedback regarding Apple HomePod issues with the UI and connections. On Tuesday, a lengthy survey showed up in my Email. I responded in detail. HomePod is more than a music playback device. It provides user interfaces for home entertainment, home control, speaker phone and calls, and handles Apple Secure Video, a well conceived and trouble free product.

I hope this response indicates that Apple is serious about getting HomePod’s music playback right. The sound is great, the user experience is horrid. I’ll explain…

References

  1. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=blivet Ten pounds of used cow chow in a 5 pound sack. Yes, it is a thing.
  2. https://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/a-roon-primer/
  3. https://roonlabs.com/roon-partner-programs
  4. https://www.head-fi.org/threads/schiit-happened-the-story-of-the-worlds-most-improbable-start-up.701900/
  5. https://github.com/mikebrady/shairport-sync/wiki

It all began in the beginning…

In 2002 or 2003 or so Apple introduced the iPod and made a thing to transfer music to it and to manage your music library and let them sell you music and let you play music on your Mac. And life was good as long as iTunes was just a library manager and local music player.

Trouble in paradise …

Then AirPort Express came along and AirPlay and now you could play music in other rooms. So what did they do? Apple added remote music play to iTunes. Now you had to leave your Mac running to play music in the lounge using the new AirPort Express and future Apple TV AirPlay endpoints. The AirPort express had a neat trick, its 3.5mm jack concealed a TOSlink optical connection allowing one to bypass the mediocre internal DAC.

Now, to play music, you had to leave the machine vulnerable to the evil minds of offspring and bored kitties and with the large vulnerability surface presented by all the user support daemons that run when a user is logged in on the console.

I’ve reported feedback on this design issue for years with no action taken.

Then came Siri

A few years ago, Apple added Siri, a speech interface eagerly listening for her name and an utterance in Siri command language that asked for knowledge or for her to take some simple action. And if she didn’t know what to do, she turned on Apple Music. And if you had no music, she played whatever was hot on Beats Radio (big mistake in this jazz listener’s view).

And HomePod …

Now with HomePod, we have busybody Siri listening for “Hey, Siri”. Listening promiscuously for Hey, Siri. BBC World Service US edition gets her juices flowing when the table radio is playing BBC World Report over night. Every now and again she thinks she’s heard something that requires a response. And if you leave the proximity sensor active, fumbling for the light or the alarm will cause HomePod to play whatever is on Beats Radio at the moment. Doh. So Siri is off. Listen for “Hey Siri”, off. Respond to touch, off. And AirPlay is still refuses connections. The old permit sharing on the local network setting that used to make life good has been replaced by AI magic.

The Dismal Manor Jukebox

The Dismal Manor Jukebox is a home brew collection of audiophile bits and pieces. (Apple Engineer faints) But Roon is the core. Roon is a network audio player developed by Roon Labs specifically for OEMs to use in high end audio components. Roon Labs is a Meridian spin-off of the SooLoos audio player team as a separate commercial product. The intent of the spin-off was to place all Roon users on an equal footing vis a vi the network audio supplier. No secret sauce for the in-house users, everybody get the same.

So RoonLabs makes its living by licensing Roon to companies with sales in the $10M to $100M range that are brave enough to make networked audio components. Not every company is that brave. But for those that are, Roon plays fair with all of its licensees.

Roon Architecture

Roon consists of a Core, Controller, and Endpoints. Roon licenses these to OEMs to embed into products and makes reference implementations of the Roon Controller (Android and iOS), Roon endpoint that can be built under Debian Linux and included in a Linux distribution. And Roon Core versions for MacOS, Win10, and Debian Linux. Most OEMs making media servers use the Debian version.

Dismal Manor Roon Core

The Dismal Manor Roon Core runs in a Ubuntu Linux virtual machine hosted on our TrueNAS 12 file server. The Roon environment runs in a BHYVE virtual machine allowing Roon to mount the media libraries and Roon working directories as local disks. No issues while the network sorts itself on power restore. This arrangement is really good.

The Roon Core’s job is to stream music from your library. Period. It supports multiple zones and can do unique things in each zone or send a single title to multiple zones (endpoints). The endpoints must be receiving Roon’s RAAT (Roon Advanced Audio Transport) protocol for synchronized playback.

Dismal Manor Roon Controllers

Roon Controllers provide the user interface ably described by the Absolute Sound article [2]. Dismal Manor uses the iPhone and iPad Roon App as primary controllers. I also make use of the MacOS Roon App at my desk.

Dismal Manor Roon Endpoints

Roon uses “endpoints” to deliver audio to to a reproducing device. Roon supports AirPlay and GoogleCast devices and is careful to validate its source implementation with all partner implementations submitted for evaluation. Roon Ready devices embed the Roon endpoint code and support Roon Advanced Audio Transport as mentioned above. We have 1 RAAT only endpoint and 3 RATT/AirPort endpoints as summarized below.

  • Allo Digi One Signature Pro transport
  • HiFiBerry Digi+ Pro transport (2 of these)
  • HiFiBerry Dac2 Pro (1 of these)

We have 3 Schiit Audio DACs, Gumby Multibit for Music, Modius for TV, and Modi plus Mani for study playback.

In the lounge, a Schiit Audio Vidar and Magnepan Magneplanar Little Ribbon Speakers make audio. In my study, Audeze LCD-1 headphones. In the bedroom, a Tivoli Audio Model 1 table radio.

And everything except the controllers is on wired Ethernet.

So Why HomePod?

Apple Stock Image of iPhone to HomePod Mini Handoff

It does other things. Here at Dismal Manor, it is also our standby HomeKit hub. HomeKit is the brains behind our Apple Secure Video dog doorbell and the RockyCam that lets me check my anxious critter when running errands in town. That’s its big duty, one that has proven a pleasant surprise as iOS 13 became iOS 14 and Home App upgraded.

HomePod is also the best damned speaker phone on the market. No echo coming or going on conference calls. Period. Take the call on iPhone and hand the audio off to the HomePod by NFC. Just bring it close and poof, the call moves to HomePod. HomePod can also initiate calls via Continuity if you have enabled other devices can call using this iPhone option in phone settings.

And Apple has added that Intercom trick …