This Apple TV update is both bittersweet and exciting

Apple may have discontinued the full-sized HomePod, but that only means its latest Apple TV feature for using the smart speakers for home entertainment is all the more bittersweet. The newest update builds on Apple TV's support for using one or two HomePod as the stereo speakers for your entertainment system.

That was one of the early features of the Siri speaker, using Apple's AirPlay 2 to wirelessly link the full-size HomePod with the streaming set-top box. It meant you could skip buying a separate soundbar or using the generally underwhelming speakers built into your TV, and get the much better sound quality from Apple's auto-adjusting speakers instead.

The downside was that the speaker support only worked for audio coming from the Apple TV itself, something Apple has now addressed. A new Audio Return Channel beta, spotted by 9to5Mac, allows any audio from the TV – such as from channels pulled in via its own tuner, or from other devices you may have connected to other HDMI ports such as a console like an Xbox One X or PlayStation 5 – to be piped through the Apple TV to the connected HomePods.

It relies on HDMI ARC and eARC, the same port standards that most modern soundbars rely upon. As long as your TV has an HDMI port with support for ARC or eARC, you can connect a device with an external audio output and effectively pipe all audio from other HDMI inputs through that. You'll also need an Apple TV 4K (2nd generation).

Usually there's one ARC or eARC port, designated with the name next to the HDMI label. You may need to enable it within the TV's settings, Apple points out, or indeed turn on HDMI-CEC as well. After that it's a matter of selecting "Play Television Audio" in the new Audio Return Channel section in the Apple TV settings.

What makes this particularly bittersweet, of course, is the fact that Apple discontinued the full-sized, original HomePod earlier in the year. Instead, it opted to focus on the smaller, cheaper HomePod mini, which has much the same functionality only at a lower price and in a smaller design.

Problem is, one feature difference is that you can't use the HomePod mini as wireless speakers for your Apple TV, at least not currently. It's unclear if this new ARC/eARC support for Apple TV was merely something Apple had been working on before and, even with the discontinuation, decided to release for HomePod owners to enjoy, or a sign that it may have more speakers or more flexibility for HomePod mini in mind. However, it also could be instrumental in a whole new iteration of Apple TV.

Rumors earlier this year suggested Apple has been working on a new Apple TV version with a FaceTime camera and an integrated Siri speaker. That would presumably be able to use HDMI ARC/eARC as well, so that the soundbar functionality could be used to play audio from other sources beyond just the apps on Apple's own set-top box.