The highly anticipated $349 HomePod arrived on Friday afternoon, and I’ve been playing around with it for the last day or so. A few things, like the speaker’s build quality and design, are things that I can immediately appreciate upon unboxing. The one surefire conclusion that I can make after using the HomePod is that Apple has, as we know by now, prioritized sound quality over everything else.
The best of HomePod
At launch, the HomePod is available in two colors: space gray and white. The color choices aren’t particularly exciting, but they do ensure that the HomePod will fit right in in most home landscapes. Both colors look great, but I recommend space gray for most users, mainly because the white fabric is bound to attract more dirt and grime.
The design of the HomePod is, as noted in Ben’s initial impressions, quite understated. Especially in the case of the space gray HomePod.
Apple designed the HomePod in such a way that the entire side surface area is essentially one big speaker grille. This design ensures that the HomePod will blend in and look good in virtually any setting. ‘Inconspicuous’ is the first word that comes to my mind when seeing the HomePod placed throughout various areas of the house.
The HomePod is more attractive than the Google Home or the Amazon Echo, and blends in better than most of the speakers from Sonos’ lineup. Admittedly, some of this is personal preference, but I find Sonos’ speakers to lean too much toward the utilitarian, cold look, whereas the HomePod’s fabric material looks more warm and inviting.
Although small, the HomePod is surprisingly heavy and feels substantial in the hand. The fabric outer cover is taut, yet soft to the touch. The cord, which we recently learned can technically be removed, is covered in high-quality fabric as well.
The top of the HomePod cylinder features a touch-sensitive area made of, what appears to be glass, but feels like plastic. LEDs illuminate underneath to provide tap areas for volume adjustment, along with an indicator when using Siri functionality.
Setting up the HomePod couldn’t be easier. If you’ve ever paired AirPods with your iPhone, then you know what to expect when setting up the HomePod.
All you need to do is plug in the HomePod, and move your iPhone close to the speaker. From there, an on screen pop-up along with Siri will guide you through the rest of the setup process.
Playing music and controlling HomeKit devices works just like it does on your iPhone, just say ‘Hey Siri’ followed by a command.
You’ll need to be an Apple Music subscriber to get the most out of HomePod. It’s possible to AirPlay music directly to HomePod via other streaming services like Spotify, but to take advantage of voice controls and other enhanced music-centric features, you’ll need to be an Apple Music subscriber.
The good news is that Apple Music integration is really well done, and subscribers to the service will love being able to play individual songs, radio stations, and have Siri provide you with specially curated playlists based on your listening tastes. You can also ask Siri facts about your music, such as release date, composer, etc.
Because the HomePod works with iCloud Music Library, you can use it to play back songs in your library even if those songs don’t appear natively in Apple Music. I use iCloud Music library as a convenient way to store personal music that I’ve made, and for foreign music that isn’t readily available on streaming services. iCloud Music Library support makes it so that you can request music playback from any song in your library.
By far, this is the most impressive feature of HomePod, and it’s what Apple is using in its marketing efforts to differentiate the HomePod from the competition. A single HomePod sounds much better than common sense would indicate that it should sound, considering its diminutive size.
The HomePod’s impressive sound is owed to the fact that it features a circular array of of seven horn-loaded tweeters, each with their own amplifier. And on top is where the high-excursion woofer is housed, it too with its own custom amp.
What impresses me most about the HomePod’s sound is that it’s able to pack these capabilities inside such a small form factor. The HomePod is tiny, and yet it sounds like a speaker much larger than it is. With that said, the HomePod is still limited by physics, and engineering will only go so far with regard to sound. Keep your expectations high, but not unreasonable. The HomePod sounds great, and packs a punch, especially on the low and high end.
The HomePod features a built-in accelerometer to know when it’s been moved from one location to another. It’s able to use its microphones, A8 system-on-a-chip, and its seven tweeters to calibrate itself acoustically, allowing the speaker to sound the best in any given space. I haven’t tested this feature out very thoroughly yet, only in small rooms, but the HomePod has sounded great wherever I’ve placed it thus far.
The HomePod is a smart hub in that it can directly control HomeKit devices like smart lights, outlets, blinds, cameras, etc. With the HomePod I can simply say “Hey Siri, turn on my string lights,” and my string lights will turn on. True, you can do the same thing from your iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch, but it feels more natural to do so using a device that’s always sitting there, ready at your beck and call.
Amazon Echo users have been used to the benefits of far-field microphone technology for quite some time now, but this is the first time that we’ve seen such technology grace an Apple product. If you’ve never experienced the benefits of far-field mics, it basically allows a device to hear you from far distances, even when there is substantial background noise or when music playback is occurring.
In other words, this technology allows you to use a normal speaking voice instead of having to raise your voice or yell unnaturally at the assistant. With the HomePod, Siri can hear you even when the speaker is playing music at a high level.
I’ve compared the HomePod with both the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot, and found that the HomePod, with its six-microphone array, performed best. The Echo Dot came in second, but the Google Home Mini wasn’t even close as far as microphone performance was concerned.
The worst of HomePod
To me, this is the most absurd fact about the HomePod’s launch. A feature so fundamentally basic, yet nowhere to be found in the day-one HomePod software. Actually, that’s not totally true. Hints at stereo support are there when the setup process recognizes more than one HomePod in the vicinity, but you still can’t establish a stereo pair.
Granted, stereo pairing support will probably be one of the first new features that Apple ships with future HomePod updates, but it’s weird that it’s not there from the very beginning.
Almost as weird is the lack of multi-room audio support, courtesy of AirPlay 2. Like stereo pairing, AirPlay 2 support, announced at WWDC 2017, probably isn’t far behind, but it should have been available from the start.
Have a turntable that you’d like to connect to the HomePod to take advantage of its impressive sound? Too bad. There’s no way to directly connect outside sources to the HomePod, because there are no auxiliary inputs.
At this point, the HomePod’s lack of third-party streaming support has been driven into the ground already. As an Apple Music subscriber who rarely dabbles in anything else, the lack of direct Spotify support is not a big deal to me, but I understand how this upsets those who like Apple hardware, but prefer Spotify or other streaming services.
The thing you need to keep in mind is that Apple is putting more emphasis on its services, and it will continue to do so in the future. Unlike the Apple of old, which more or less only really cared about hardware sales numbers, Tim Cook’s Apple is taking a more balanced approach that prioritizes services, and the significant income that those services generate.
To be fair, that may not be the reason why we don’t yet have support for third-party music apps like Spotify. Perhaps Apple genuinely hasn’t gotten around to adding music app support to SiriKit, of which the HomePod relies on for music playback. If that’s the case, it should definitely be on the priority list for WWDC 2018.
Apple obviously has the know-how on how to differentiate one voice from another, because Siri on iPhone is able to listen specifically for the owner’s voice. Yet, for some reason the HomePod lacks the ability to detect multiple voices. In fact, it outright lacks any voice training at all.
The lack of such a core feature is head-scratching at best. It means that the HomePod, a device that’s meant to be used and enjoyed by multiple people in common areas of the house, can only be configured for one person. Even worse is the fact that literally anyone can start controlling the device to send text messages, tune Apple Music, and anything else Siri on HomePod is capable of doing.
You can disable personalization, but that defeats the purpose of a having an always-available assistant. For HomePod users with families, this is a baffling day-one omission that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
The HomePod is impressive in a lot of ways. It has solid design and build quality, and features, by far, the best sound quality that I’ve ever heard from a speaker its size.
For those happily entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, the HomePod is a no-brainer. It allows for easy control of HomeKit devices, is integrated tightly with Apple Music and iCloud Music Library, and features excellent far-field voice recognition.
But there are downsides, especially for those who prefer other music services like Spotify and Pandora. While it’s possible to stream these services to the HomePod via AirPlay, you don’t get the tight integration that comes from being able to fully control such music services directly from the HomePod itself.
And then there are the head-scratchers, such as the lack of stereo pairing and AirPlay 2 support. And perhaps the most baffling thing of all, no voice training, which means no support for multiple users.
For all that the HomePod does right in the area of sound quality, it’s noticeably lacking in areas that competing smart speakers have mastered by now.
The good news is that Apple is generally good at iterating via software updates. Just like how Apple Watch is much different than when it first debuted, there’s a good possibility that the HomePod we know today won’t be the exact same HomePod we know tomorrow. It’s just unfortunate that the HomePod couldn’t come out of box firing on all cylinders.