First and foremost, I'm an avid movie watcher so let me just state that the following perspectives come from someone that enjoys going to the cinema and wants to best replicate the theater experience at home. Before we get into Home Theater with Apple TV 4K its best we set this feature apart from another feature that joined Apple TV in tvOS 14.2.
Default audio output works with all HomePods including the upcoming HomePod mini and allows playback of all audio, including system sounds to playback through HomePod speakers set to the same room via the Home app on iOS. Home theater with Apple TV 4K allows for a virtual surround experience from one or two of the original HomePods offering up support for Dolby digital 5.1, 7.1 surround, and Dolby Atmos tracks with the speakers analyzing the acoustics of the room and adjusting on the fly.
Dolby Surround and Atmos
For those unfamiliar, a traditional 5.1 setup consists of a center speaker for dialogue, a left and right speaker to create stereo for music or ambient noise, and left and right surround speakers used to create a surround sound effect. Dolby digital 7.1 surround adds two rear channels into the mix and Dolby Atmos adds two or four (5.1.2, 5.1.4) speakers to fire sound downwards for fly over effects and the ultimate reference-quality experience. What Home Theatre with Apple TV 4K sets out to do is reflect audio to recreate a virtual interpretation of these multi-channel setups.
One major gripe early on with Home theatre with Apple TV 4K is how stealth-like the feature is. With next to no support documentation available at the time of writing, all focus on default audio output and no clear indication what track you're listening to, those without a trained ear will be taking Apple's word for it that something magical is happening. It took getting in touch with Apple technicians to make sure I had everything set correctly. Here are the steps you need to take to get up and running:
- Update Apple TV 4K and HomePod(s) to software versions 14.2
- Set HomePod(s) to the same room as your Apple TV 4K in the Home app
- Set HomePod(s) as default output for Apple TV 4K
- Set Audio Format to Auto
- For the best surround sound, place HomePod within 10 inches of a wall and as close to the center of your TV as possible. If you use a HomePod stereo pair, place the speakers about 4 feet apart on either side of the TV
Overall Home Theater with Apple TV 4K impressions
Whilst impressed with both solo and stereo HomePods and how detailed their presentations were, it wasn't until I got to some neighbor annoying high volumes that I felt like I experienced Atmos 360 degree sound on either setup.
For testing at those high volumes, I decided to revisit 'The Invisible Man', one of my favorite movies from this year, and one of the last movies I was fortunate to see at my local cinema which will always be my favored point of reference. If you haven't seen it, the movie opens with a perfect Dolby Atmos demo sequence with a powerful series of waves rushing front to back and further forward as they crash into rocks. The scene then shifts inside a home with nature's ferocious power still heard in the distance, fully detailed and wonderfully handled by both setups.
At low volumes however, there's decent separation of left, right and center channels and the signature bass I've come to love from HomePod handles the lower frequencies to a standard that traditionally would only result from a dedicated subwoofer. At $299 for a one speaker setup, you're getting a very capable 3.1 setup that outshines any soundbar I've experienced within that price range. For a stereo HomePod setup at $598, in my opinion, you're getting around the same performance seen from a Sonos arc which retails for over $200 more.
From the perspective of someone that has a dedicated 5.1 home theatre setup, the lack of rear channels is a major compromise of the current setup but given the evidence, I'm optimistic this limitation will cease to exist in the coming months. The other limitation is of course the major issue with HomePod, it's incompatibility with anything produced outside of Cupertino, though I'd imagine an easy way of fixing this would be to introduce HDMI video inputs to the next generation of Apple TV hardware and have Apple TV process both audio and video from third-party devices.
The pairing of HomePod and Apple TV is one many of us have been chasing since the speakers launch over two and a half years ago and it's now finally here. The new Home Theatre mode and the option to set HomePod as your default audio output will undoubtedly make a lot of Apple loyalists happy whilst simultaneously adding a new dimension to in home entertainment to many households. What will come as a surprise to many is that with one update feature HomePod has pivoted from what many people called an overpriced but beautiful sounding speaker to one of the best value home theatre setups available on the market today. If you already have a HomePod, do give Home Theater mode a try and if you don't yet own Apple's speaker, this may just be the excuse you were waiting for.