There are Apple products I’ve been more excited to receive, but I can’t think of any that I’ve awaited with such impatience. The reason? Curiosity about that audio quality!
I wrote last time that it was Home hub and voice control of HomeKit devices for my partner that really sold it to me, and I wasn’t expecting too much from it on the audio front. Sure, it was going to beat out other smart speakers, but I didn’t see it as serious competition to proper HiFi brands.
But as the reviews came in, I started to wonder …
When What HiFi gave it a 5-star review, and The Verge’s Nilay Patel – a self-described speaker nerd – said that it ‘sounds incredible,’ then it did start to look like Apple might be onto something.
But let’s start with the design …
Look & feel
This is clearly a Jony Ive design. Apple’s design head said that his ambition for the iPhone was ‘a single slab of glass,’ and it’s clear that his vision here was similar: a single speaker grille.
I have the Space Gray one, and it has very neutral, almost anonymous looks. Stick a pair of these on a bookshelf and – given the number of cylindrical speakers now available – they’d just blend right in. Especially as the top display panel is blank when the speaker is in standby mode.
When playing, you have white –/+ symbols to control the volume manually. There’s no play/pause symbol, but touching the space between the volume controls still acts as a play/pause button.
The blurry Siri pattern appears only when you activate it with a ‘Hey Siri’ command.
Visually, HomePods aren’t going to wow anyone – but neither are they going to clash with your decor. I think Apple’s decision to make the speaker blend right it is a good one, and you can always opt for white if you want something that draws more attention to itself. Personally I’m very happy with the muted look of the Space Gray.
All the reviews said that the AirPods-style set up couldn’t be simpler. They’re right. Bringing your iPhone close to the speaker brings up a prompt to begin, and pairing is confirmed by the iPhone listening to a tone from the HomePod.
You then select the room in which the speaker will live – in my case, the office for my first tests – choose Siri’s language and agree to the terms & conditions. Finally, tap to agree to transfer settings from your iPhone, and iCloud, iTunes and WiFi set up is all handled automatically.
It’s all beautifully simple, and I was playing music about 90 seconds after first powering-up the speaker. And once I relocate it to the living-room, that will be as simple as changing the room in the Home app and waiting ten seconds for the HomePod to recalibrate to the new room. A definite 10/10 here.
The set up process ends with prompting you to ask Siri to play some music, which she did immediately. (Yeah, my Siri has a female voice and I refer to it as ‘her’; live with it …)
With my iPhone, iPad and HomePod all in the same room, ‘Hey Siri’ commands were consistently picked up by the HomePod – which is a default that makes sense to me.
My first impressions of Siri on HomePod – having tried maybe 30 or so commands or queries – are extremely positive. Although it’s obvious that HomePod uses noise-cancellation technology to listen to the music it’s playing and then subtract that from microphone input, the experience of quietly issuing a command while the speaker is blasting out music full volume is still incredibly impressive.
One thing I’m on the fence about is HomePod lowering the volume of music to respond to HomeKit commands. On the one hand, it’s friendly that Siri responds with a verbal confirmation, but given she doesn’t have to lower the volume to listen, it would be nice to have a completely uninterrupted music experience when doing something like switching on lights. Call this a feature request for a toggle to choose whether or not you want HomeKit confirmations.
However, one thing isn’t working out of the box: personal requests. Although I chose to enable this during set up, Siri tells me my personal device (ie. my iPhone) isn’t reachable. I’ll do some digging into this later.
I mentioned last time that I was hoping we’d be able to use HomePod to control HomeKit lights from kind of 2.5 rooms: the living-room, the alcove kitchen and the glazed balcony – which is effectively a separate room through an open door. I’ll report back next time on how well that works, but with HomePod on my desk, I tried talking to it from inside my office cupboard, and from standing in the hallway, and it heard me perfectly, so I’m optimistic.
For my speaker comparisons below, I was stopping and starting the track in iTunes on my Mac. For the Sonos head-to-head, I was doing the same on my iPhone.
With the HomePod, I was simply saying ‘Hey Siri, pause’ and ‘Hey Siri, resume.’ After going back-and-forth between the speakers maybe 60 times in all, doing this manually started to feel really clunky – while simply telling the speaker what I wanted felt very slick.
Similarly, I was convinced that using Siri to control the volume on the HomePod was going to feel stupidly clunky; in fact, it didn’t. Sure, saying ‘Hey Siri, increase the volume’ as many times as required would be horrible, but once I’d got used to the volume range, then ‘Hey Siri, set the volume to 70%’ when I wanted it loud, and ‘Hey Siri, set the volume to 30%’ when I wanted it quieter actually felt very easy and natural.
‘Hey Siri, play some music’ just has it play some music it knows or thinks you like – what it calls your personal radio. This included some tracks I didn’t know, and ‘Hey Siri, what’s this?’ again started to feel like a very obvious way to get the information.
When it was playing a track I didn’t like, ‘Hey Siri, skip track’ did the job. The next track, I wanted to know who it was and who was in the band, and Siri told me. ‘Hey Siri, play some acoustic music’ pulled up another personalized playlist. Similarly, asking Siri for chill music, loud music and so on gave me matching music tailored to my tastes.
Of course, all of this is stuff you can do with Siri on your Watch or iPhone. However, there’s something that just feels natural about interacting directly with the speaker.
Maybe it’s just the novelty, and two or three days from now I’ll wonder why I was so taken with that idea; I’ll let you know. But for now, I really like the experience – especially the ability to switch artist, playlist or genre simply speaking in a conversational tone while music is blasting.
Ok, here we get to the $64,000 question! Given that HomePod is actually the least smart smart speaker on the market, and costs the most, it only makes sense for most people if the sound quality justifies the cost.
I’ll give my usual disclaimer here. I’m not an audiophile, but my ears do appreciate decent-quality speakers. In our apartment, we have a B&O system with BeoLab 6000 speakers; a Naim mu-so; Bowers & Wilkins MM-1s; and a Sonos Play 5. So the HomePod wasn’t competing against crazy 5-figure audiophile kit, but the bar was set pretty high.
It seemed obvious that a $350 speaker wasn’t going to complete with a 4-figure B&O or Naim system, but I had to try it anyway. And no, it isn’t in the same league – with one possible proviso I’ll come to next time.
Next up, I pitted it against the pair of B&W MM-1 speakers on my desk. This isn’t, of course, a completely fair test as it’s two speakers against one, but neither is it an absurd comparison. The HomePod is almost exactly the same height as a single MM-1, and about one-and-a-half times the depth. It weighs massively more. The pair of MM-1s costs about $75 more.
My standard reference track for audio reviews is Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. The track has a great range, from a thumping great drumbeat to really high notes. I started by listening to that, switching back-and-forth between the two.
The MM-1s were better. They had a lot more depth to the bass, and greater clarity. But it was closer than I’d expected. I’d rate the HomePod 80% as good. And it almost equalled the pair of them in terms of maximum volume.
Finally, a head-to-head with the Sonos Play 5. This is a single speaker, but much larger than the HomePod. The Sonos also costs $150 more.
Here, I was even more surprised. This was much closer. I toggled back and forth between the two speakers multiple times, before finally concluding that the two are not only in the same league, but rank really closely within it. And if I had to give the edge to one, it would actually be HomePod.
I’ve always liked Sonos speakers – but let’s compare:
- Sound quality: Almost nothing in it
- Clunky Sonos app versus Siri control
- Truly awful, flakey Sonos setup versus fully-automatic setup
- Speaker-only versus Home hub too
- Large-ish size versus much more compact one
Sorry, Sonos, but Apple just killed the Play 5 – not just the Play 3 Apple preferred to use as its basis for comparison.
Soundstage and sweet-spot
Early reviews talked about the wide soundstage created by the HomePod, effectively separating out different components so that they seem to be coming from different parts of the room. From my initial tests, I’d say this is present but over-played; however, my office is a relatively small room with very little in it, so quite an echo-ey space. I’ll report back on that next time when it’s in the living-room.
But there is one area where the HomePod sound is brilliant, and that’s when you’re moving around a room. Unlike conventional stereo speakers, which can have a sweet-spot so small only one person can really enjoy it to the full, the HomePod has loads of sweet spots!
Not quite 360-degree coverage. You can definitely hear both bass and treble fade in and out slightly as you walk around it, but the sound is way, way better than both the MM-1s and Sonos when off to one side of the room. Which, if you’re someone like my partner, who is almost unable to sit still when at home, constantly pottering around, could in itself be a killer feature.
Price & initial conclusions
At $350 (£319 in the UK), HomePod is obviously expensive when compared to other smart speakers. You can pick up an Amazon Echo Dot for $40 and a full-sized Echo for less than $100 or a Google Home for $130.
But none of those are decent speakers, and HomePod definitely is. When it can outperform a Sonos Play 5 – and in my view, it does – that’s serious audio chops for the price.
And the audio tech you’re getting really is cutting-edge. Big name audio companies have themselves only been offering beam-forming tech for a relatively short time. Indeed, even if you fork out the $40,000 it costs to buy Bang & Olufsen’s flagship Beolab 90 speaker, you’ll find the company touting beam-forming tech as a key feature.
Resonances in your room, and boundary effects from your walls, affect the sound you get from your loudspeakers. BeoLab 90 is fitted with Bang & Olufsen’s new Active Room Compensation technology that makes up for the impact of your room, your furniture, the placement of the loudspeakers, and the location of the listening position.
This advanced technology guarantees you get a sensational sound experience, exactly where you want it. In other words, the speaker, and not the room, defines the sound.
This is the same technology Apple is offering for three hundred and fifty bucks.
So forget comparisons with smart speakers: compare the HomePod to decent shelf-sized speakers, and figure you’re getting some smarts thrown in for free – together with some serious high-end audio technology. If you’re an iTunes and Apple Music person, it’s HomePod I’ll be recommending in future, not Sonos.
Am I going to keep it? It’s too early to tell whether it will take its planned place in the living-room, as the real test will be how well my partner gets on with it for HomeKit control. But certainly it’s a significantly better speaker than I expected it to be, and I already want to use it as a bedroom speaker in place of the Sonos. In fact, I’m even having a slightly heretical thought – but I’ll save that for next time. So yeah, one way or another, I’m going to keep it.
My recommendation for now? Try one. Even if you’re like me – someone who’s not an audiophile but tends to stick to established audio brands – I think you’ll be impressed at what you’re getting for the price.