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  • Bruce Burke

Project: Apple SmartHomeTheater

Updated: Mar 4

How I setup an easy-to-use, intuitive SmartHomeTheater using Apple's TV 4K, and the 2018 HomePods. This Smart Home Theater has exponential expandability, with a surprisingly low cost.



With the recent iOS 14.2 update, you can now use a HomePod or stereo pair with your Apple TV 4K to create a theater experience with Dolby Atmos, or surround sound right in your living room.

You've heard of SmartHomes, and Home Theater, now Apple introduces the ultimate mashup: SmartHomeTheater.

Simple, Yet Smart


Right off the bat I'm laying claim to the term "SmartHomeTheatre", and of course the associated hashtag. Although I have some people use it here and there, I don't think that they are thinking of it the same way I am. I'm planting a flag in the term, because I think it marks an important shift in the home entertainment marketplace. The result of mixing computationally enhanced audio and video capabilities with an increasingly smarter, and self-reliant system is going to reshape entertainment.


With Siri at the center of it all, Apple is reweaving the very fabric of light and sound, along with the way we see it, and hear it - today, and tomorrow. And you can start experiencing it right now today - for a song. You won't believe the audio and image quality you'll get from this simple setup.



I'm going give you a short list of items you'll need to build the exact same setup that I've built for my cocoon. But first I want to tell you how complicated my previous home theater system was, and how simple, serene and relaxing this new SmartHomeTheater is. There is no comparison - at all.


Now the home theater system I am replacing is no slouch, I've had the Denon S301 system for more than a decade. It's what the audio industry calls a Home Theatre in a Box (HTiB). Denon's S301 was similar in concept to the popular Bose 3-2-1 HTiB. Basically, it consisted of a head unit, two free-standing satellite speakers and a subwoofer that was all wired together with the TV.


It had a heavy cabinet that sat on the floor near the home entertainment center. It contained a 9" sub-woofer and all the power supplies and transformers for the system. A heavy-duty cable connected to head unit containing a DVD player and a rather unique interface for the original iPod Music Player. When the 24 pin connector was plugged in a virtual interface for the iPod would be displayed on the TV screen. I still have this iPod, and cables used to interface with the TV display.




Should Old Acquaintance ...


Although the Denon system had great sound, it was beginning to age. The remote control has some damage, so I have to turn on the system manually. The door mechanism is a little funny, and I think the belt that drives the DVD is kaput. So I decommissioned the Denon S-301, I removed head unit, satellite speakers, sub-woofer cabinet, and myriad of wiring, from my home entertainment center.


I have it all set aside and eventually want to setup in my bedroom. But I think before I install everything I will see if I can find a Denon service center and have this great old system tuned up while I have something else to replace it. And what am I replacing it all with?


The most simplistic setup in the world, an Apple TV 4K, and two of Apple's original HomePod smart speakers. That's it simple, easy and straightforward to setup. You would not believe how simple it is, and how elaborate it can get. But before we dive into the deep end let's get familiar with the individual components, and cables you'll need to get everything set up for spatial audio.

Hamburger 4K


Not all of this was possible just a short while ago, but with the release of version 14.2, you can now permanently pair a single, or pair of Apple's original HomePod smart speakers as the default audio output for your Apple TV 4K. That means all your content from your streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu and Disney+ as well as Apple Music, your iTunes library of playlists, as well as all your games from Apple Arcade. Additionally, Apple Fitness+ debuts this month on Apple TV 4K.


Today, December 14th we should see the highly anticipated updates for iOS, macOS, TV OS, and WatchOS. These updates will make all the associated devices work better together and integrate more deeply with each other. This is especially true with Apple's new Fitness+ service which integrates Trainers on the TV 4K box, syncing with your activity, and your Apple Watch.


Although you can use the Apps built into your SmartTV, the Apple TV 4K is the best way to stream all your content to your high-definition TV. Supporting the highest sustainable audio and video signal throughput available for standards like Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio and Dolby Vision video.


Yes you can Chromecast, Roku, Firestick and run any number of streaming apps, and servers. But you won't find higher quality audio and video output in a cost-effective, and flexible form factor. If you have an iPhone, a Mac, and an iPad, you're totally screwing yourself if you don't have Apple TV 4K hooked to your high definition TV. And now you can take that much further with HomePods.


Bruh, Do You Even Do, Spatial Audio?


With the 14.2 update, not only did the HomePods get the ability to become the default audio output for Apple TV 4K. No these smart speakers, originally released in 2018 are now able to reproduce the Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio standard. Now I written about this quite a bit in and through different blogs. Theres a deep dive in an AirPods Pro blog carrying the same name as this.


Now I want to say a few things about HomePods. I really want to impress upon you the sound quality you get from these small bookshelf sized speakers. I realize that not a whole lot of people have heard them. But I imagine a lot of people are now starting to receive the new HomePod mini's and are being blown away by the sound coming from this diminutive smart speaker.


Well let me tell you, the original HomePods sound even better. And they have features that the HomePod mini's don't. For one being able to be the default output for Apple TV 4K, the new HomePod mini has to be paired to Apple TV for each session, they cannot be permanently set. Even when paired together, two HomePod mini's do not have the capability to reproduce content in Dolby Atmos. A single original HomePod alone can produce the Dolby Atmos audio standard.




Digitally Remastered


Now let me tell me you, I'm not the dictionary definition of an audiophile, but I have had some great stereo gear, and have interacted with some of the best home theater systems available. I've been in the front row of major concerts, and took a sales job as a home theater sales specialist in between real jobs. I remember working for about three months for North Miami's Sound Advice showroom. I got to sample the best of the best, in special home theater audio and video rooms.


But, I've never heard anything with the tone quality, ambience, and what I like to call invisibility factor that HomePods have. They don't distort, they don't fight each other and they have clarity.


Setting up HomePods is as easy as setting up AirPods once they are installed they show up in the Home App on your iPhone, iPad and Mac. You can pair the two speakers together and then set them up as the default audio output in the Apple TV 4K settings menu. Then select the best audio format available. They connect wirelessly to Apple TV 4K, you just plug them in, and start listening.


Audio Configuration


After setting up HomePods, and starting to watch I began noticing that the audio didn't sound as if it was coming from a fixed place. It wasn't as direct as normal speakers I have dealt with. It doesn't seem gimmicky, it doesn't seem like it's being pushed through some cheap sound effects engine. It seems to be digitally remastered on the fly. I've got the HomePods on either side of the TV sitting flush with the bottom of the screen. They are about 8 feet apart, sitting about 18 inches from either side of the display. When watching a movie with the lights down they disappear into the darkness.


From these two small rotund objects, a little bigger than a coffee can, you get both room thudding bass and almost silent whispers. These speakers heighten any audio signal you send to through them, and they sound better than systems that costs thousands more. HomePods go on sale for around $200 each, a long-time client gifted me the pair I am currently using, I love them.


But I wanted to be fair to my existing Denon system. When I received the HomePods I set them up, but I also kept my Denon S-301 as an audio output source. I tested it for about 3 days, before making my decision. I watched and listened to content from a variety of sources, switching back and forth between the Denon system, and the HomePods. Sometimes playing the same content on both ... One thing I have noticed since using full time is I don't rely on closed captions as much.




Diving In, Deeper


It only took a few days and my decision was made. I took out a head unit about the size of a VCR, a huge subwoofer cabinet, proprietary wiring harnesses, and two good sized satellite speakers. I replaced it with a small rounded box about the size of a hamburger and two speakers I plug into the wall. I took a messy, crowded entertainment console, stripping it down to the bare essentials.


Apple TV 4K costs around $180, deals pop up on it from time to time. HomePods go for around $200 each ... So for around $600 you have a mind-blowing, SmartHomeTheater, all you need is a TV set to display it on. Now this is where it can get a little complicated, I want to give good advice on this. Read this section carefully if you'e starting your system from scratch - with new TV.


This is where the system may vary - it all depends on your TV, and how it's connected. I've done all the leg work here, so you don't have to. Here's how your TV works with the Apple TV 4K box. It's different than a lot of other media streaming boxes, understanding how its different will result in a better home theater system for you. Apple TV 4K is pretty simple, but connections sophisticated.




HDMI 2.0a - High-Speed Data


The first thing I want to note is that when you are sending a video image from your streaming box to your TV for playback you are sending data. The data protocol, how much data can be moved, and how fast it can be transmitted relies totally on the hardware, ports and cables between those two devices.


I'm sure you've heard in the past few years that Netflix was the number one user of Internet, it's like 25% of the traffic. Thats because high-definition movies and TV shows are huge amounts of data. Movies shot in 4K Dolby Vision HDR with Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio soundtracks are behemoths. Streaming it down from the Internet, passing it through the Apple TV 4K box and sending it on to your TV requires the right kind of connections to get the best possible results.



This isn't your father's HDTV anymore, forget about 1080P. We are entering a whole new world of entertainment with 8K TV's already being released. There is three different elements that affect the signal quality between the box and the TV set. The port sending it, the cable it's being sent over, and the port receiving it.


So lets start with the port that connects your Apple TV 4K to your 4K TV. As you can see in the diagram above the spec is HDMI 2.0a. Now there is a step beyond this spec, the new industry standard is HDMI 2.1. But since the Apple TV 4K has the 2.0a spec lets concentrate on it. The HDMI 2.0a standard has to do exclusively with High Dynamic Range (HDR) content. HDR for TVs provides greater realism thanks to brighter whites, deeper blacks and greater graduations of colors. But, it requires compatible TVs, source devices, and content that is specially encoded.




HDMI Progression


The HDMI Forum, which oversees the industry specification, press release on the 2.0a spec reads as follows; "The specification has been updated to enable transmission of HDR formats, which provide enhanced picture quality by simultaneously enabling greater detail for both the dark and bright parts of an image. The HDR-related updates include references to CEA-861.3, CEA's recently published update of HDR Static Metadata Extensions." Not more pixels - more metadata.


Essentially, the change is specifications on how to better transmit High Dynamic Range metadata.


HDR metadata is information that accompanies the video image that tells the HDR-compatible display how to best display the greater color and contrast range on the associated video image.



So, an Apple TV 4K can take that shadowy scene in a villains hideout, and "tell" the display exactly how to to optimize, and render it in its truest Dolby Vision HDR form. So look for both HDMI cables that supports the 2.0a, or HDMI 2.1 specification, and a display capable of handling Dolby Vision HDR with the greatest specs you can get in your price range, there's a boatload of good information below. Believe me when I say that I am learning right along with you as I research.


I stopped tracking the advances in TV, pretty much after 1080P became standard on all TV's. I thought well this is as good as it's going to get. But advances from companies like Dolby Labs has taken TV a lot further than I suspected. But in watching some recent unboxing of 90" 8K OLED TVs, my interest has been piqued again, and now I am on the quest to find the perfect TV panel.




I don't have a Dolby Vision capable TV, it's on my list, but wasn't a consideration when I was in the midst of buying a 4K TV. As the video clearly illustrates there is a lot of variables. I bought a 55" HiSense 4K TV that supports UHD and HDR 10 but not Dolby Vision. I believe it's LED, you don't get OLED in the $300 price range. But, by buying High-Speed HDMI cables that can throughput 19 Gbps, and updating the Chroma in the Apple TV 4K, I am getting the best bang for my buck.


There is some settings in both your TV and your Apple TV 4K that you'll want to configure. First being the CEC settings in your TV. Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) is a feature of HDMI designed to control HDMI connected devices by using only one remote control. CEC enabled devices can command, and control each other. One Siri command, or button turns on everything.


You'll also want to match content frame rate, and set the video output to match your TV in the Apple TV 4K settings. One thing to understand when you're using HomePods as default audio output for your Apple TV 4K, the audio is being transmitted to these smart speakers using AirPlay 2. The settings of the HDMI interface to the TV have no bearing on the audio output to the HomePods.




Computational Audio


This may be somewhat confusing, but the Audio options you see in the Apple TV 4K setup screen is based on what TV you have and what type of HDMI cable you have connecting it. The audio options, grouped in with the video selection only control the sound if you are playing content using the internal audio of the TV.


Other than volume, you have very little control over the audio that HomePods output. It's all wirelessly, and computationally controlled through the interconnection between HomePod(s), and Apple TV 4K. This was totally new and foreign to me.


I'm from the era of stereo gear stacked from floor to ceiling. Speakers, Receivers, Amps, Pre-Amps, Post-Amps, Equalizers, Turntables and more. Hi-Fi was the first tech, before computers and the boxes were covered front and back with buttons, knobs, meters, dials, input/output jacks, and interconnection terminals galore.

To have a home theater that has no buttons, meters or wires is just weird to me. Not be able to endlessly fiddle with settings took some getting used to. But once I got over myself, and took advantage of the self optimizing system that freed me up to actually relax, enjoy and listen to what was playing - rather than trying to control it.


So now my home theater setup is as simplified as you can get. A screen with no visible buttons, a small hamburger-sized box, that like the TV, has only a small LED indicator to let you know it's on, and two speakers that are just plugged into the wall and have only a LED touch panel on top. It's a big departure from what I considered a streamlined system, that I had in the Denon. The robots run my home theatre now, but I don't mind ... They do a much better job tuning audio than I ever did.


The one control I do have, Volume - never gets used that much. I've pretty much set a standard sound level I like and the system remembers it. I have been fine tuning it by telling Siri to turn it up two or three percent ... I've previously used Siri to control music on my iPhone, a remote bluetooth speaker, or with my AirPods. But there is something magical about laying back on the couch and telling Siri to wash the world away with some classical music. Controlling a home theater with my voice is different than barking a command at my iPhone. I am now in control of my surroundings.




SmartHomeTheater


So far, we have talked about is the basics that you need for this setup, it's a shortlist; TV, Apple TV 4K, and two of Apple's original HomePod smart speakers. I've discussed the types of HDMI cable to use, and of course you should use the best network cable you can find to connect to your router.


But otherwise there is isn't a lot of cabling and setup, I barely pulled the TV console away from the wall. There isn't a whole lot to connect and fiddle with, and now I really don't need the remote.


I can tell Siri to turn on the TV which automatically turns on the Apple TV 4K box, the TV set itself and the two HomePods. It's not ready for me to make my selection. Do I want to stream movies or TV programming with an App, Listen to Podcasts or Apple Music, play a game on Apple Arcade or pull up an Art Gallery screensaver or photo stream while I listen to music.


Apple TV 4K gives you a lot of choices, including Apple Fitness+ a service that interconnects your Apple Watch with individualized training sessions to track your progress and improvements.

But that's the tip of the iceberg, you now have a SmartHome hub, and can begin adding some cool features to your smart home theater setup. You now have the new Intercom feature that works with your whole family and all their Apple devices. And there is handoff that lets you pickup and drop-off any media you are listening to my simply tapping your iPhone on a HomePod, or you can tell Siri to do it. Siri stores up to six different users for personalized messages, playlists and more.


As you have only $600 invested at this point, you have money left over to dive into a whole new realm of home theater I had prepared for but never setup, ambient lighting to enhance your viewing experience. You may think this may sound hoity-toity, but it's incredibly awesome, and exponentially expands your home theater experience.


About a year and a half ago I had purchased a bunch of the Phillips Hue lights, and accessories I would need to pimp out my home theater, but then my landlord sold the waterfront building I was in on Clearwater Beach. I had to move everything out, and then Covid-19 lockdown started. Then, last month in unpacking some boxes I had put in the closet, I discovered I had everything I needed.




Adaptive Lighting


Yes, the Home App has a lot of cool new features, for a family of people in a large home, but I'm a single guy who lives alone. Currently I don't have a lot of friends coming over, because of the lockdown. So, the killer feature for me is to have both automated, and voice-controlled lighting ...


There are many different manufacturers that make smart lights that work with the Home App, I chose the Phillips Hue line of products because it seemed as if they also had some other products beyond smart bulbs to help outfit your SmartHome. So let's dive into what you will need and how you go about setting it up. I'll tell you what I used, and how I set it up so you can get started on your own.


First think about where you want ambient lighting. Go forth with the understanding that almost all Phillips Hue bulbs, bars, spots, and strips can display a multitude of colors or standard white light.



After watching a few different reviewers and researching the subject I had purchased three Hue Play Bars, and five bulbs I can use in any light socket. Play Bars come with both mounting or standing brackets. I used the included 3M adhesive circular discs to attach the Play Bars to the back of my TV. They are about a foot long each and aren't very heavy. All three can plug into a single wall adapter.


I have one horizontally mounted in the top center of the back of the TV about five inches down from the top edge with the PlayBar pointing directly at the wall behind the TV. Then I have the same bars vertically mounted left and right, about the same distance from the edge, centered top to bottom.




Expanding Luminance


I used the other five Phillips Hue bulbs around my living room, to extend the lighting effects from being just around the TV set to filling the entire space. I replaced the two bulbs in the overhead living room light, put one in a small table lamp thats about two feet to the left of the TV, another on the right in my desk lamp, and then the last one at the right end of couch in a large table lamp.


Now to hook up all these lights to your SmartHome Hub and Siri voice commands you'll need a Phillips Hue Hub. You connect the Hub to your router then use the Phillips Hue App to connect all your smart lights to your hub. Then you make a Scene, you drag and drop the various bulbs you have to mirror your room layout and your set and ready to go. You can choose from a number of presets or create your own lighting setup. Just recently Adaptive lighting was added and your interior lights can mimic the natural light of the daylight environment, outside your house.


I can walk in from outside or walk into the living room and say Hey Siri, turn on the lights, make them X lighter or darker, turn them off etc. I can also ask Siri to play some music and without turning on the TV set or the Apple TV 4K, my digital butler starts playing it through the HomePods. Interestingly enough if I ask Siri to turn my TV, and then navigate to Apple Music App, the song is playing there also and the karaoke like lyrics are running in real-time, without any user interference.


But because they took away all my buttons, knobs, meters, and sliders, having a robot do all this wasn't enough. I had to go all the way, I had to sync my bars, and bulbs with the images on TV!


Synching Color & Light


You may have seen this on YouTube but if you haven't experienced it firsthand you're missing out ...


About the same time I bought all the bridges, lights and bars, I also got the Hue HDMI Sync Box. But part of the reason I didn't set the whole thing up was the HDMI Sync Box didn't support 4K and my new TV and Apple TV 4K box did. So in my disappointment, I packed the whole thing away.


But recently Phillips updated this box to support 4K HDR, including Dolby Vision, and HDR10+. Having read about this upgrade, I was anxious to get the whole system set up. This is pretty simple to setup, you install the box in-line between the Apple TV 4K and the HDMI input on your TV.


Think of it like an HDMI switcher. You can plug up to four different HDMI sources into it, and then run one cable into the TV. You can add gaming consoles, Blu-Ray players or Roku, Chromecast etc. Even run an HDMI line directly from your iPhone, iPad or Mac if you want to play content directly rather than using AirPlay 2. Virtually any source can be sent, completely integrated with your lights.

Syncopation & Illumination


The Sync Box experience is to boost the immersion factor of whatever you’re watching by precisely syncing the colors of your surrounding Hue bars, and bulbs with the picture on your TV. The more accurate and precise the syncing is, the more immersive the experience.


The experience is grand, my picture expands covering the entire living room wall, lamps on either side of the room expand it to the corners, then two overheads, and end table lamps fill the room. It can be as mellifluous, or as rambunctious as I want it to be, and it works with my iPhone, iPad, MacBook, Apple TV 4K, and any other devices I bring into my environment.


I can control it with my voice using Siri or I can quickly call up the App on any of my devices. Here's a pro tip, if you want to get the Sync Box effect without the Box you can download the App for your MacBook, and AirPlay content to your TV using the Apple TV 4K and it will have the same effect. The Hue lighting system seems to switch pretty well from device to device. I've rarely had to wake it up to what device I was using. If I open the laptop it syncs, if I turn on the TV, it syncs, etc.


The Hue Sync App, which controls the HDMI Sync Box gives you three adjustable Sync Modes: Video, Music, and Game. Each of these presets lets you adjust the light's intensity; from subtle, which has a gradual color fade, to extreme, which almost slaps you from one color to another.




Must Have Control ...


The Hue Play HDMI Sync Box factory presets are predictably tuned. In Game mode, intensity is set to extreme, while Video mode has a moderate intensity setting. But look here's something I have control over. There's sliders, and buttons and modes and stuff.


Yes it's all virtual, but I finally found some controls to play with. I can fiddle with the presets as much as I like, making and saving scenes and color palates. If you're looking for controls the Apple Home App provides the platform you need to create and build out a SmartHome with the features you want. Lights, locks, thermostats, and now even some home appliances are HomeKit enabled.




SmartHome All the Things ...


The SmartHome features built into the Apple TV 4K and HomePods supports any and all HomeKit enabled SmartHome devices. The Home App now has a discover section that allows you to get familiar with SmartHome accessories and capabilities. If you're looking for a rabbit hole, this is it.


I'm getting spoiled, I don't even pick up the remote anymore. I just talk to the living room, and it responds. Siri is different on HomePods than it is on an iPhone. It's more silent as it goes about it's tasks. It's more like a Butler, than a personal assistant. It's reserved, and seems more professional.


Despite anything thats playing the six microphones around each speaker hears what I have to say. I don't ever feel like I have to shout over it, the way I do with my iPhone and iPad sometimes. Siri seems more mature on HomePods.


I've also noticed that if I have the TV playing but am asking Siri to a question verbally on my iPhone at the same time, Siri doesn't pick up the dialog from the TV like it did when I was using the Denon system for audio output. It seems to know that it's dialog from the TV, being output elsewhere and doesn't have anything to do with my question.



Size Matters


Now I live alone in a one bedroom, the living room is approximately 12' x 14'. I don't remember having the HomePods volume up past 3/4 for anymore than a couple of minutes. These speakers can get loud - this from a guy who has seen Van Halen, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest live.


But I understand Victor's point in the video above and actually love his hack. I think if you do have a spacious HomeTheater area and want that deep gut-rumbling bass, you can try this modification.


Personally for me, the HomePods are delivering the sound and the quality I want. The investment in the each piece separately adds value to your home theater setup. But combined together they provide a bunch of cool features that you'll come to appreciate very quickly. So here's a quick tally of the project for you. I'm using rounded numbers, to give you a ball park figure, watch for deals.


Apple TV 4K - $180, Two HomePods - $420, Phillips Hue Starter Kit with 3 Bulbs - $190, Two Additional Bulbs - $90, Three Hue Bars - $200, HDMI Sync Box - $230, TOTAL: $1,310.00.




Bigger is Better


Although the features discussed in the video center around the new HomePod mini, the original HomePods have all the same features and a few more. HomePod mini is well suited for a den or bedroom, but if you want a real SmartHomeTheater pick up a pair of the original HomePods.


Shop around a little bit, acquire it all on deals, and you could probably dial it all in for $1K. I did leave out one thing, the starter kit came with a dimmer switch that you can program to different bulbs. As the HomePods support a complete SmartHome, I have picked up some of the new Hue Edison-style bulbs complete with filaments.



By creating a new room in the Home App, I can setup these new bulbs in my bedside table lamps and control them with my dimmer switch. Yes I started out with a SmartHome Theater, but it looks like my Apple SmartHome continues to grow. The cool thing is it's all portable, and moves with me.


One last point, unlike the competitors Apple's SmartHome isn't sending all your interactions, and conversations back to the mothership. It's all kept private and secure - like you expect from Apple.


What do you want to automate in your home? It's simple to do with Apple HomeKit accessories.

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