When Apple finally confirmed HomePod, the long-rumored Siri speaker, Tim Cook said that before anything else, a home speaker had to deliver great audio.
Apple is a company that deeply cares about music and wants to deliver a great audio experience in the home. We feel like we re-invented it in the portable player area and we feel we can re-invent it in the home area as well.
At $349 – against $130 for Google Home and $180 for Amazon Echo – the HomePod will need to live up to that promise in order to justify its price. Apple provided a number of journalists with the chance to compare the sound quality with both the Echo and the Sonos Play 3, and we’ve got a roundup of the early verdicts …
It should be said that the Echo isn’t exactly stiff competition – it may be a smart device, but it’s a pretty crude speaker. The Sonos Play 3, however, is a serious competitor. It may be not be the most impressive speaker in the Sonos line-up, but for a relatively small device, it delivers impressive sound quality and volume. It also automatically adjusts its sound output to match the characteristics of the room in which it’s used, a feature shared by the HomePod.
To me, the fact that Apple put the HomePod up against the Sonos suggests confidence. A couple of writers did query whether the Sonos had been tuned to the room – which is a manual process – but What HiFi checked and confirmed that it had.
I’m no audio expert, so I won’t even pretend I can go into all the reasons why the HomePod sounds so good. But I did notice the HomePod was able fill a large room very well and sounded great no matter what angle I was listening from, which Apple says is possible because the HomePod is smart enough to intelligently tune itself and balance the audio to match any room or position you put it in. It sounded even better when playing in stereo while synced with another HomePod.
Still, it was tough to evaluate the HomePod on its own, and I didn’t realize just how good it sounded until I heard a nearby Sonos 3 speaker playing the same songs. The Sonos sounded OK, but the sound wasn’t nearly as rich as the HomePod [and] the Echo sounded like someone was singing through a tin can a mile away. It isn’t even in the same league as the HomePod or Sonos.
HomePod puts vocals in a direct center channel, and beams ambient sounds around for what Apple says is a more omnidirectional music experience. I walked around, and it sounded good from multiple parts of the room. Apple said HomePod can separate vocals and other parts of the music via Apple Music, but that more recent recordings will perform the separation better […]
HomePod came off as bolder and more vivid than Sonos Play:3 in the experience I tried, and a lot better than Amazon Echo. I’d also say the music sounded consistently vivid and crisp in a quiet space, more so than the Sonos and Amazon comparisons on-hand.
The HomePod however, sounded crisp and bright no matter the musical genre fed through it — it rendered The Eagles as well it did Kendrick Lamar. As a reminder, there’s a huge woofer and seven tweeters inside, all meant to make audio sound as vivid as possible no matter where you are in a room. It works. The PLAY:3 was generally very good, but audio felt remarkably closed off when I wasn’t sitting right in front of it. If listening to the HomePod was like listening to a CD, then audio through the Echo sounded like AM radio.
The main thing to know is that Apple has done a remarkably good job finding ways to get its speaker to feel like it’s filling a room with sound. It starts with the subwoofer, which delivers bass that doesn’t quite hit you in the chest but does manage to put other smart speakers like the Echo or Google Home to shame. It’s obviously no standalone subwoofer, but it outperforms what you’d expect from a speaker of this size. […]
Apple is claiming that, using the microphones, the speaker can work out the shape of the room and then beam different parts of the song to different areas. So the vocals get pumped straight out into the center of the room while the “ambient” bits get bounced off the wall. I can’t speak to the proper audiophile terms for what they’re talking about, but I can say that it sounded pretty immersive and impressive in person.
As Sia’s The Greatest played out, the HomePod sounded impressive: strong bass rang out – which was perhaps the overriding audio takeaway for the speaker – but the vocals still seemed sharp and crisp.
In comparison, the Sonos Play:3 appeared uncharacteristically flat, while the Amazon Echo felt almost pedestrian.
We listened to Superstition by Stevie Wonder and DNA by Kendrick Lamar. Both sounded good on the Sonos but appeared punchier and louder on the HomePod. As we moved around the room, the HomePod managed to project in every direction, with no discernible sweet spot.
We also heard a pair of HomePods playing a live recording of Hotel California by The Eagles. The attention to detail was striking, with different instruments sounding discretely realised. Did we feel like we were at the concert? Maybe not, but it did sound powerful.
The take-out, then, seems to be that the HomePod certainly leaves the Echo for dust, and competes well with the Sonos Play 3 – though it seems fair to conclude that this is partly because Apple’s speaker throws out more bass. But it appears to deliver the kind of audio quality you’d expect of a speaker at this price level. I’m looking forward to hearing it for myself.