June 17th, 2017

By: Carlin "Rick" Smith

There have certainly been several announcements, well actually most are pre-announcements, that have potentially interesting impacts on the market (probably just interesting).

Let's walk through a few of them.

Apple Announcements at WWDC and Other Nuggets

Apple finally enters the AI Smart Speaker market with the announcement of the Apple HomePod shipping in December.  

Some of the biggest reaction has been to the price of $349.  I admit I am a big Apple fan but it doesn't mean I will blindly spend on everything they sell at any cost.  For example, I am not an Apple Music subscriber nor have I ever really determined that I need an Apple Watch no matter how hard I try to justify to myself.  That being said watching Apple's WWDC keynote its clear they are trying to make a reasonably high-fidelity device with room shaping acoustics built in.  A Sonos speaker can easily be $299 minus the AI interface of Siri, Alexa etc. and nobody would argue the Amazon Pod or Google Home are even trying to make a high quality audio experience.  So, my take is $349 combining the potential of good sound quality and AI is not unreasonable by any means.  So far early reports from initial listening at WWDC were pretty positive.

Remainder from Apple Press Release

San Jose, California — Apple today announced HomePod, a breakthrough wireless speaker for the home that delivers amazing audio quality and uses spatial awareness to sense its location in a room and automatically adjust the audio. Designed to work with an Apple Music subscription for access to over 40 million songs, HomePod provides deep knowledge of personal music preferences and tastes and helps users discover new music. HomePod features a large, Apple-designed woofer for deep, clean bass, a custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters that provide pure high frequency acoustics with incredible directional control and powerful technologies built right in to preserve the richness and intent of the original recordings. HomePod will be available starting in December, initially in Australia, the UK and the US.

At just under 7 inches tall, HomePod can be placed almost anywhere in the home and is available in white and space gray.

“Apple reinvented portable music with iPod and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “HomePod packs powerful speaker technology, Siri intelligence and wireless access to the entire Apple Music library into a beautiful speaker that is less than 7 inches tall, can rock most any room with distortion free music and be a helpful assistant around your home.”

HomePod is designed for voice control with an array of six microphones, so users can interact with it from across the room, even while loud music is playing. By saying, “Hey Siri, I like this song,” HomePod and Apple Music become the perfect musicologist, learning preferences from hundreds of genres and moods, across tens of thousands of playlists, and these music tastes are shared across devices. Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like “Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?” or create a shared Up Next queue with everyone in the home. HomePod, Apple Music and Siri deliver the best music experience in the home that streams ad-free directly to HomePod.

As a home assistant, HomePod is a great way to send messages, get updates on news, sports and weather, or control smart home devices by simply asking Siri to turn on the lights, close the shades or activate a scene. When away from home, HomePod is the perfect home hub, providing remote access and home automations through the Home app on iPhone or iPad.

Audio Innovation and Advanced Technologies

At just under 7 inches tall, HomePod represents years of hardware and software innovation:

Apple-designed upward-facing woofer, paired with the custom A8 chip, enables bass management through real-time software modeling that ensures the speaker delivers the deepest and cleanest bass possible, with low distortion;

Custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own amplifier, provides well-balanced smooth timbre as well as precise directional control of a multitude of beam shapes and sizes;

Apple-designed A8 chip provides the brains behind the advanced audio innovations;

Automatic room-sensing technology allows HomePod to quickly learn its position in a room, whether it’s in a corner, on a table or in a bookshelf, and within seconds, is perfectly optimized to deliver an immersive music listening experience wherever it is placed;

Six-microphone array with advanced echo cancellation enables Siri to understand people whether they are near the device or standing across the room, even while loud music is playing;

Siri waveform appears on the top to indicate when Siri is engaged, and integrated touch controls also allow easy navigation;

Automatic detection and balance of two speakers using both direct and reflected audio to deliver amazing audio wirelessly for an even more immersive experience; and

Easy setup that is as intuitive as setting up AirPods — simply hold an iPhone next to HomePod and it’s ready to start playing music in seconds.

Security and privacy are fundamental to the design of Apple hardware, software and services. With HomePod, only after “Hey Siri” is recognized locally on the device will any information be sent to Apple servers, encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier.

Apple Announces AirPlay 2

During the Apple keynote at WWDC they mentioned AirPlay 2 coming to their latest operating systems this fall.  While they didn't provide specific details, you can infer the ability to stream music to different named rooms over the same wireless network.  For example, you might define where in your house the speaker is located, using such as ‘Living Room’ or ‘Bedroom’.  Once configured you can control which speakers are playing music at any time, both individually and as a group. 

As long as the speakers are AirPlay 2-compatible, you’ll be able to connect speakers from different manufacturers together through this system, giving you the flexibility to choose the products you want to use when setting up your multi-room system.

Apple said that it is partnering with companies such as Bang and Olufsen, Bose, Beats (which it owns), Polk, Denon, Bowers and Wilkins, Definitive Technology, Devialet, Naim and Bluesound to bring AirPlay 2 to market.

It won't only be Apple apps such as HomeKit and Music that will be able to take advantage of the new features, as Federighi said that "third-party audio apps will be able to get in on the multiroom audio fun".

Which Apple products will have AirPlay 2?

Any Apple device that supports iOS 11 will also get AirPlay 2:

iPhone

iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 7, iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPhone SE, iPhone 5S

iPad

12.9in iPad Pro (first generation), 12.9in iPad Pro (second generation), 9.7in iPad Pro, 10.5in iPad Pro, iPad (fifth generation), iPad Air 2, iPad Air, iPad mini 4, iPad mini 3, iPad mini 2, iPod touch

iPod touch (6th generation)

It’s assumed MacBooks and other Mac computers will also support AirPlay 2 once they are updated to the MacOS High Sierra operating system.

iOS plays FLAC Media Files

Apple announced iOS 11 for the iPad/iPhone at WWDC and those who have installed the betas made available have reportedly included full playback support for FLAC audio files. This means users now have the option to browse and playback high-quality music files straight from their iPads and iPhones.

The functionality is not built into the Music app but instead when using the new File App in iOS 11 which is a consolidated interface to a number of cloud file services like iCloud, Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, etc. you can select FLAC files and play them natively.

Up until now, Apple had deliberately opted to ignore offering playback support for FLAC files in both iTunes and iOS – although there are numerous third party apps to do the trick. So far, no indication that macOS High Sierra also announced at WWDC will allow native FLAC playback.

Microsoft finally supports USB Audio 2.0 with Windows 10 Creators Update

I know many of our readers and customers use either a Windows PC or a Mac to stream digital music files to their DAC of choice over USB.  The USB Audio 2.0 specification was created many years ago and adopted quickly by Apple natively in OS X and subsequently macOS.  For those using Windows I am sure you have noticed that you have had to rely on your DAC manufacturer for a USB driver while the Mac just plugs and plays and does not require a driver.  This is due to lack of USB Audio 2.0 support natively in Windows.  Microsoft quietly has included a native USB Audio 2.0 driver with the Windows 10 Creators Update.  Better late than ever I guess and below is a post from the program manager at Microsoft with some details.

Please note that any third party driver will be preferred over the inbox class driver. The USB Audio 2 class driver will only install if there is no third party driver (If the device manufacturer has made the drivers available from Windows Update, those will be preferred over the inbox class driver). For those of you who wish to switch to the inbox class driver manually, you can find instructions on this blog post.

We are continuing to fix bugs in the newer builds that are released to Windows insiders. We would love your feedback on the driver. If something is not working, please file bugs (with the Feedback Hub app) with logs as described in this post.

- Bala Sivakumar
Program Manager, Windows Audio

HDTracks Announces Streaming Service

HDtracks, the grandfather of hi-res download sites, will be launching their own streaming service, HDmusicStream, which will feature all MQA-encoded music all the time, later this year.

HDtracks have chosen 7digital to provide app development, host the music catalogue on its platform, and deliver tracks to consumers. Here's Pete Downton, Deputy CEO of 7digital (as reported in StockMarketWire.com):

"We are excited today to be able to confirm our relationship with HDtracks. The Grammy Award-winning label Chesky Records—from HDtracks founders David and Norman Chesky—has, for many years, set the highest standards in high resolution audio. 

Their pursuit of excellence will soon be available to audiophile music fans in a streaming service for the first time".

Spotify has rumored to offer a lossless audio streaming service sometime soon.  Will others follow suit or will they? Would love to see Apple and Amazon offering this service as both certainly have the infrastructure to do so.  Apple when will 4K video steaming.....never mind not point of this blog.

Featured Brand Partners

  • Crestron
  • Epson
  • Lutron
  • Marantz
  • Monitor Audio

See All Partners