Sounds great – but only if you use Apple Music, an iPhone, and you can stomach the $350 price tag.
Oh, Apple. You’ve done it again. You’ve made an undeniably sound piece of hardware, then smothered it in Apple stuff that’ll put off a good 50% of your potential audience. I suppose when you’re selling it for $349, you don’t need to sell as many units?
I can’t think of a more Apple device ever than the HomePod. It’s a collision of precision engineering and needless meddling that leaves you both impressed and scratching your head at the same time.
The Bad News
Many of you are going to hate the fact that you can’t use HomePod with (most) non-Apple devices. There’s no 3.5mm line-in (what were you expecting?), nor standard Bluetooth audio protocol. It’s either a smart speaker you control with your iOS device, or a wireless speaker that only works with AirPlay.
While there are a few limited implementations of AirPlay outside of Apple hardware, this is massively limiting. If you’re buying a speaker your whole family or household will want to use, you’d better all be kitted up with iPhones and iPads.
In its capacity as a smart speaker, the HomePod uses Apple Music natively to stream music independent of any devices you have connected. You can control it with your iOS device, or you can use your voice to tell Siri what to play.
Unsurprisingly, there’s no native support for other music platforms. Beyond Apple Music, your other options are your iTunes library of purchased tracks, Beats 1 and podcasts listed in the iTunes directory. You can’t use HomePod as a speaker for your Apple TV, and you can’t yet use two HomePods together to create “stereo” sound.
So if you aren’t an Apple convert, you don’t have an iOS device, or you don’t care about Apple Music, you should stop reading and buy one of the other smart speakers instead.
Tuned to Perfection
If there’s one thing Apple nailed, it’s that the HomePod sounds great. It’s the best-sounding first-party smart speaker on the market, and it’s bound to inspire Google and Amazon to up their game in future revisions. Apple crammed seven tweeters, six microphones and a subwoofer in there – which means the HomePod can comfortably fill a room.
The microphones aren’t just for talking to Siri. HomePod includes an accelerometer (powered by the A8 chip found in the iPhone 6) which detects when you pick it up. Once you place the speaker down again the microphones are used to “tune” the speakers to the room in order to improve the resulting sound.
And what a sound it is. For a single speaker, HomePod produces terrific hum. Each song is tuned for best sound using Apple’s own analytics, a feature that comes at the cost of user-defined adjustments (unless you’re using iTunes on a Mac).
There’s a lot of software tweaking at play when it comes to the HomePod. It definitely works — pretty much everything I threw at the HomePod sounded great. It’s not going to replace your expensive hi-fi, but it’s one of the best compact “kitchen” speakers you can buy (provided you can take advantage of it).
Remember: the HomePod isn’t a battery-powered device. You’ll need to keep it plugged in all the time, which means it can be turned up loud. It’s perfect for a student dorm room, kitchen counter-top, or your bedroom but it can also reach party volumes.
Does it sound $350 good? That’s a tough call. There exist rivals from Sonos, Bose, and an entire market of cheaper knock-off speakers that deliver great sound. They don’t work as seamlessly with Apple devices like the HomePod does, nor do they tune themselves to your surroundings or adjust the sound for the song you’re using.
Apple is charging a premium for the HomePod, but they are delivering something unique for your money. It really is a smart speaker when the sound reproduction is augmented by the technology within.
How’s The Smarts?
Siri is the same assistant you’ll find on your iPhone, with a few limitations. The assistant is pretty good at hearing the “Hey, Siri” command, but then things aren’t so good when it comes to interpreting what you want. I’ve had a few instances where Siri piped up when I said phrases like “very seriously”, but it wasn’t a huge issue.
Efforts to “play the Cool Games Inc podcast” weren’t fruitful. When Siri doesn’t quite understand what you mean, the assistant tends to just play something completely random with a title that vaguely matches your request. It’s a prime example of how Siri still has some way to go.
Luckily the HomePod can be upgraded over time, so anything Apple does to improve Siri should make their way into the smart speaker too. The speaker can already do an impressive amount of stuff, from telling you what the weather will be to controlling your smart devices.
HomePod slots right into Apple’s smart home vision as a HomeKit device you can label and control in your iOS device’s Home app. Once you hear what HomePod is capable of, you can see why a few of these devices scattered around your house is such a tempting prospect.
For me, the dependence on AirPlay wasn’t limiting. I use an iPhone and a Mac, and so does my partner. Switching between outputs from Control Center on iOS is relatively straight forward, and didn’t “fail” once.
I also use Apple Music, so the native Apple Music integration worked great. I did also stream a fair amount of audio from sources like SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and YouTube with no major issues. Setup was a breeze, pairing with my iPhone 7 Plus via proximity (just like AirPods) in a few taps.
Sounds Great, But Not for Everyone
HomePod is typically Apple, technically impressive, and painfully divisive all at the same time. At the least, HomePod makes an important leap forward in terms of sound quality in this kind of smart device. Many of us use these devices as more than simple assistants, and HomePod is no exception.
I’ve come to see it more as a top-quality speaker, with a smart assistant thrown on top. And perhaps that’s a good thing. Current trends have seen the word “smart” dragged through the mud, with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity added to fridges and toasters, for virtually no gain.
This is a smart speaker that uses its smarts to improve its sound. If you can live with Apple’s typically Apple approach, use iOS, and can stomach the premium price tag; you’ll be very happy with what a pleasant-sounding box of tricks the HomePod is.
If you aren’t using Apple stuff, don’t bother.