What’s the definition of a smart speaker? I feel this an important question to answer before I get to the meat of this Apple HomePod review. A speaker that isn’t smart is just a speaker, after all, and there are plenty of those vying for your hard-earned cash.
So what does the “smart” bit in “smart speaker” actually entail? It’s quite difficult to frame an answer without reference to either Amazon Echo or Google Home. In this context, smart means responding to voice commands to play music or radio. It means controlling your home’s smart lights and thermostats, making voice and video calls, and asking about the weather. It means setting up timers and alarms and, occasionally, telling jokes on request.
According to this definition of “smart”, as you’ll find if you read on, the Apple HomePod falls somewhat short. But that’s not the only meaning of the word smart and, in fact, in other ways Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo is streets ahead.
Apple HomePod review: Sound quality
It’s the design and engineering behind the HomePod’s audio technology that’s Apple’s big gambit in the smart speaker wars. On this front, there’s nothing like it on the market today.
Beneath that attractive yet unassuming exterior – that softly curved, 7in cylinder, all clad in spongy mesh fabric – is an incredibly complex arrangement of tweeters, woofers and microphones.
At the top of the speaker’s housing is an upwards-firing 4in woofer, which Apple tells me has a peak-to-peak cone “excursion” of 20mm. That’s not a traditional speaker driver spec. Normally, one would talk about parameters such as QTS, XMAX and VD when discussing the physical characteristics of a speaker driver before excursion distances. However, it’s still a lot for such a small driver and it goes some way towards explaining how the HomePod can reproduce such prodigious bass.
The trouble is that with more excursion can come a lack of control and definition and, if you push the driver to the edge of its performance, a greater risk of “bottoming out”, or distortion. More expensive speaker drivers combat this by using huge magnets, which allow for more exacting control. The weight of the HomePod (2.4kg) tells you there’s almost certainly a pretty beefy one here, but Apple complements this with it’s own clever technology. Using a microphone, it continually monitors the position of the woofer and its output to prevent over extension and, thus, distortion while at the same time maximising performance.
That’s not all, though. The HomePod is also room aware. Pick up the speaker up and and accelerometers inside tell the speaker to start a scan as soon as you put it down again. Now, this is not new tech. Sonos’ TruePlay does effectively the same thing but it’s a slow – entirely manual – process where you wave your iPhone around the room to scan your surroundings and optimise the sound. The HomePod carries out this process entirely automatically, while the music is playing, and the amazing thing is you can actually hear it working.
While playing Beck’s latest single, Colors, I moved the HomePod from the kitchen table onto an enclosed shelf, which with most speakers would be a recipe for muddy sound and overbearing bass and that’s certainly what I got at first.
Almost miraculously, though, after ten seconds or so the HomePod sorted itself out, rebalanced the treble, mids and bass and sounded great once again. I moved the speaker back onto the table, once more out in the open and, initially, the music sounded thin and lacking in body, but before long the bass was back, injecting the track with much-needed energy.
With seven tweeters surrounding the bottom of the speaker in a ring, the HomePod is also capable of directional sound and with each one working together with the speaker’s room-scanning tech, the HomePod is able to spread the sound so that music has both a sense of both space and coherence.
All good stuff. The question is: how exactly does this speaker sound in real-world use? The answer, quite simply, is that it’s preposterously good.
It’s better the £200 Sonos Play One, which sounds flat and boring in comparison and it’s in a totally different league to Google Home and the second generation Amazon Echo 2. It produces a fuller, deeper, more three-dimensional and broader sound than Amazon’s best-sounding speaker, the Echo Show, with much more bass.
A speaker this size simply has no right to sound this good. In the mids and highs there’s a crisp sweetness to audio reproduction that most small speakers struggle to reproduce. And at the bottom end a surprising amount of low-down thump and richness. It’s perhaps not as warm in the mids as I’d like it to be and it can occasionally take on a bit of a harsh edge with some tracks when you crank the volume all the way up.
But most of the time I’ve spent with the HomePod has been spent gleefully exploring the full range of its sonic capabilities, and I can report that it has very few weaknesses.
And, having listened to the HomePod in a variety of different rooms, both carpeted and hard-floored, on shelves, speaker stands, tables and the kitchen worktop, I can confirm that, while it isn’t the best speaker I’ve ever heard (these might just fit that particular bill), it is certainly the most usable and flexible.
The only negative is that there’s no way to take the output of the HomePod and send it to another audio system or speaker via 3.5mm output (it doesn’t have one) or Bluetooth transmission, but with sound quality this good, who would want to?
Apple HomePod preview: Sounds smart?
This isn’t just a speaker for listening to music, though. It’s intended to take on the best Amazon has to offer in the smart speaker business as well and this is where things start to unravel for the HomePod.
Just as with the Amazon Echo range of speakers, the speaker’s microphones are capable of picking up the speaker’s wake phrase – “Hey Siri” – from across the room and even when music is playing quite loudly.
This task it achieves with little fuss. I lined up the HomePod next to an Amazon Echo Show and found that, across the room and up close, the Apple device’s microphones were more effective at picking up up my voice when speaking at normal volume. To be fair, this isn’t the Show’s strongest suit; the Echo Plus is much more effective and matches the HomePod stride for stride in recognising voice commands spoken quietly against a background of moderately loud music.
Still it goes to show that Apple has this essential part of smart speaker design nailed. I found the microphone array was able to pick up voice commands from a few metres away even with the music turned up to room-filling volume and you don’t have to shout.
The things it can tell you about the music you can listen to are pretty impressive, too, particularly the way you can ask about what’s playing right now. You can ask Siri who the drummer is on a track, for instance, for more information about the album or even the producer.
It’s possible to ask the HomePod to play more tracks like the one you’re listening to, different versions of it or something completely different. These are capabilities missing from Amazon’s Echo speakers which won’t even let you “play it again” if you choose not to use Amazon Music.
Having said that, the HomePod isn’t perfect. Often, it didn’t know who was playing on a particular track, instead opting to inform me who has played the drums/guitars/bongos for the band in the past.
And it has a problem with distinguishing between singers and bands. When asked, “who’s singing?” while LCD Soundsystem’s Oh baby was playing, “LCD Soundsystem” came the rather obviously incorrect answer. Thanks, Siri. Only if you ask – very slowly and very clearly – “tell me more about the singer” will you get that information.
This is symptomatic of the smart speaker experience on the Apple HomePod. Indeed, Siri on the HomePod is very much like Siri on the iPhone: occasionally useful, quite proscriptive about the phrases you use and not nearly as accomplished as either Alexa or Google Assistant in picking up the naturally spoken word.
And that isn’t the end of the HomePod’s quirks. Next on the hit list is its inability to set up more than one timer simultaneously. You can set up plenty of alarms but if offers to cancel your existing timer if you try to set up a second. Crazy stuff.
More seriously, there’s absolutely no voice-controlled way of listening to radio stations, other than Beats 1 (which is Siri’s “favourite radio station on earth”) or other streaming services. You can pick up your phone and stream radio from BBC iPlayer Radio, Spotify, Tidal and so on via Apple AirPlay, but without an Apple Music subscription you’ll be missing out on whole point of HomePod. True, the Echo is similarly biased towards Amazon Music Unlimited, not allowing you to use commands like “play it again” with Spotify, but it does at least let you pick and choose songs with your voice.
Moving on, you can’t also yet associate the HomePod with different Apple Music accounts. With Apple Music constantly monitoring what you listen to in order to build its famed personalised playlists, this could be a problem if the little people in your house insist on listening to “Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows” on repeat when you’re not at home. Fortunately, you can prevent this from influencing your music recommendations via Apple Music by flicking a switch in the settings.
Another thing you might want to consider disabling is the HomePod’s ability to send and read out text messages. Since the HomePod doesn’t distinguish between voices, anyone can use the speaker to send texts via your phone and read them out, even if you or your phone aren’t in the room.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s barely worth having the HomePod’s smart facilities, though, as other publications have. After all, the HomePod can do some of the things its rivals can. It can read out the news and, helpfully, you can switch sources on the fly – between Sky News, BBC Radio 5 Live and LBC.
It can advise on traffic conditions on your daily commute and carry out various actions with a single trigger phrase using HomeKit’s Scenes capability. “Hey Siri, good morning” can trigger an action that turns on the kitchen lights and starts the kettle boiling, for instance. HomeKit’s location awareness is another nice feature that plays nicely with HomePod. Set the speaker’s location so it’s the same as the speaker, and you can carry out certain actions without having to specify the location of the devices you’re after. “Hey Siri – turn on the lights”, for instance, will switch on all the smart lights in the room the speaker is in; you don’t have to tell it where.
And this all works reasonably well, but your smart home gear does have to be HomeKit capable to work with HomePod, and it’s another area in which Apple cedes the advantage to Amazon. Not only can Amazon’s Echo Plus speaker support some devices natively via its embedded Zigbee wireless chip but all of Amazon’s smart speakers currently support a much broader range of smart devices than HomeKit does via Alexa’s third-party “Skills”.
Apple HomePod preview: Verdict
The Apple HomePod arrives late to the smart speaker party and it’s considerably more expensive than most of its rivals, so it needs to offer something extra over and above the competition.
In some ways it does just that. It’s a phenomenal speaker, packed with exciting engineering and innovative technology. It blows every other smart speaker out of the water when it comes to audio output quality and it’ll do it wherever you happen to put it.
It isn’t as “smart” as Amazon’s Echo or Google Home, bafflingly omitting radio playback, Spotify support and basic things like multiple timers. Siri isn’t as good at interpreting what you say and support for smart home automation is limited as well
If all you’ve been waiting for is a great-sounding speaker, you can control with your voice, then it’s hard not to adore the Apple HomePod, for all its foibles. But this just isn’t the transformative, market-leading product that Apple probably hoped it would be.
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