When Apple’s slightly-delayed HomePod launched at the beginning of the year, it did so without multi-room controls or stereo pairing, two features that are table stakes for any Wi-Fi connected speaker — let alone one that costs $349. Apple promised that those features were coming, and for impatient HomePod owners, it seems like today will be the day.
Thanks to Buzzfeed breaking the embargo, we now know that iOS 11.4 will be available today, almost certainly starting at 1PM Eastern time, as per hallowed Apple tradition. Thanks to Buzzfeed‘s article and the pre-written stories from a dozen other outlets, we also know that iOS 11.4 will bring AirPlay 2, which adds multi-room and stereo audio to the HomePod and Apple TV, among other things.
The first version of AirPlay was a simple system to play music over a Wi-Fi connection. It had better range and quality than Bluetooth, but lacked any particularly sophisticated features. AirPlay 2 is much more like Google’s Cast system or the controls for a Sonos speaker setup, if you’ve ever used those. AirPlay 2 will let users play back music on multiple AirPlay 2 devices around your home, regardless of manufacturer, as well as enabling stereo pairing on the HomePod.
Apple says that a number of other features and improvements are coming under the hood of AirPlay 2 as well. The Verge says that there’s a bigger buffer for music so that network artefacts won’t interrupt your music — although that may also add more of a delay before playback — and a tighter clock sync between devices to allow for multi-room playback without the devices getting out of sync. You will also be able to make phone calls and watch videos on the streaming device without interrupting music playback, which is a big improvement.
But there’s still a major difference between AirPlay 2 and something like Google Cast. With Google Cast, your phone or PC or smart speaker is just working as a remote control for your internet-connected speaker: You tell the speaker that you want to hear this song or playlist from Spotify, and it goes and finds the song and starts playback itself. With AirPlay 2, the music is being streamed from the device to the speakers, so if your phone drops off the Wi-Fi network for a second, the music will die. On the other hand, it does make it possible to play back songs that you have saved on your device that aren’t available on the internet, so the tradeoffs go both ways.
There are more features coming in iOS 11.4 in addition to AirPlay 2, of course. We’re hoping to see the new Messages in iCloud, which should finally fix syncing of iMessages between iPhones, iPads, and Macs. However, we’re going to have to wait for 1PM to poke around the full release.