The Apple HomePod is arriving to the market late, is more expensive than the competition, and (potentially) has a voice assistant that just doesn’t work as well as either Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant.
But dang, it sounds nice.
I had a chance yesterday evening to spend about 45 minutes with the upcoming Apple HomePod in an airy Tribeca loft. It was an interesting choice as a space to show off audio gear — the ceilings in the room used to sample the baseline acoustics of the HomePod were easily 22 feet or higher, and spoken conversation in the room echoed. It was a challenging place to show off a speaker, but the HomePod easily stood up to the challenge.
I listened to snippets from six songs to start: Ed Sheeran’s “The Shape of You,” Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side,” the song “My Shot” from Hamilton, “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down,” and Gregory Porter’s “Holding On.” Two things stood out. One, the HomePod delivers remarkably clear vocals across the board — in each song, the singer’s voice is placed out in front of the music. Two, the HomePod, despite not being much bigger than an Echo or Google Home, delivers a much more sonically dense sound. Small details — the ring of individual strings during down strums of rhythm guitar in Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” — were present and distinct, and it overall presented a much more complete and complex sound than I’m used to hearing from smart speakers.
There was also a side-by-side sound comparison with some of the HomePod’s main competition: a Sonos One speaker, a second-generation Amazon Echo, and the Google Home Max (the best-sounding smart speaker I’ve used). We got brief moments with three songs: Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” Zero 7’s “In the Waiting Line,” and a live version of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” The Amazon Echo was the most obviously outclassed — sound was more compressed, instrumentation was lost, and stereo separation was pretty much nonexistent. The Sonos One, which I’ve been generally impressed with, was also outclassed — bass was noticeably thinner on every song, and smaller details like the attack on the strumming in “Fake Plastic Trees” disappeared.
But the Echo costs $100, and the Sonos One costs $200 (and Sonos is about to start selling two-packs for $350, or the same price as a HomePod). The most interesting comparison came between the Google Home Max — which currently retails for $400 — and the HomePod. I can’t say which sounded better, just that each had its strengths. The sound-staging on the Max — that is, its ability to trick your brain into thinking that different instruments and different sounds were coming from different parts of the room — is much more open and interesting. The HomePod creates a more filled-in soundstage that, in my opinion, makes it harder to pull individual parts of songs apart. Put more simply, on the live version of “Hotel California,” the Google Home Max gave the impression of a band playing with some physical distance between each player, while the HomePod put them much closer together.
I was also shown how to set up a HomePod — a quick 60-second process using an iOS device capable of running iOS 11.3. You can tie the HomePod to one iCloud account, meaning you can use the HomePod to send messages, create notes, or set reminders — the same basic stuff you can do with Siri on your phone. Smartly, the HomePod senses when your phone is out of the home and removes the capability for someone else to, say, send a text message from your phone. You can also use the HomePod as a speakerphone, an appealing prospect (and one I’ve enjoyed using smart speakers for in the past).
There was also a demo of a HomePod in the kitchen controlling a series of smart-home devices using Apple’s HomeKit setup. It impressed on first glance — HomeKit is built around the idea of “scenes,” that you set up, so you may have one set up things that happen in the morning (turn on the coffee maker, warm up the house, open the blinds) and another for the end of the day (lower the blinds, turn off the lights, and lower the thermostat a bit while you sleep).
There were, even in a controlled environment, moments where the rough edges of Siri appeared: Siri failed to pick up a repeated command to stop playing music at one point. To be fair, this is something that has happened to me on both the Amazon Echo and Google Home, but Siri and the HomePod are operating on the back foot here — Siri needs to exceed expectations, I think, for consumers to really take to using the HomePod. There’s also the fact that while you’ll be able to connect other devices to the HomePod, you’ll need to use the (long-delayed) AirPlay 2 standard, Apple’s answer to Bluetooth. Bluetooth can be a frustrating, maddening experience, but it’s also near universal. AirPlay 2 will be found on Apple devices and a small handful of third-party items. If you’re planning on streaming sound from your non-Mac laptop to the a HomePod, it’s not going to happen. Then again, it’s tough to imagine anyone buying a HomePod who isn’t already deeply enmeshed in the Apple ecosystem — a $350 smart speaker isn’t for dabblers.
Overall, I came away really impressed with the HomePod — it delivers sound that, at first blush, equals what the Google Home Max can do in a slightly cheaper and, more importantly, smaller package, and it easily outpaces the rest of the competition. How much this matters to you is a more interesting question: The Amazon Echo doesn’t have great sound, but it’s good enough for most people. But Apple has never been a company selling to the “good enough” crowd.
The more open question is how the HomePod handles everything else a smart speaker is supposed to do. I’m still regularly frustrated by Siri when attempting to use my iPhone for even basic stuff — simple questions, setting timers, sending texts. Whether the HomePod has solved for some of those frustrations can only be answered with some time with a HomePod in my actual home. Still, even if I’m left arguing with Siri about whether I said to play A$AP Rocky or Aesop Rock, I know the argument is gonna sound great.