Tech

Apple HomePod Review: Not what you think it is, but an Amazing speaker.

The Apple HomePod is going to divide opinions over the weeks ahead – you’ll no doubt read about how it doesn’t hold a candle to it’s competitors while others will tell you about it’s amazing performance. It’s the Apple problem really – how do you introduce people to a completely new product that has been designed for some very specific uses which will get lost in much of the conversation. Apple HomePod is a five star device – if you rank it in the correct category.

HomePod is a smart speaker – but it’s not one of “those” smart speakers. Google Home and Amazon Echo are first and foremost virtual digital assistants, as well as being speakers.

Apple HomePod is a speaker with a smart assistant built in. It’s a crazy thing to suggest that such terminology should make a difference but it is important.

I don’t think for a second Google or Amazon would believe their speaker to be anything like what Apple has produced. The sound from Echo and Home is small – thin – it’s lacking. But it does a great job of giving you that in an affordable package.

Just like a $100 Bluetooth speaker gives you amazing flexibility and portability – it does not however come close to the capabilities of a speaker at double or triple the price.

This device is not priced at $499 so Apple can thumb it’s nose to the world, it’s priced at $499 because there’s some stunning speakers around that price – and much more.

Take the time to listen to a Beoplay M5 – $899. Grab a Sonos Play:3 or Play:5 ($449 & $699), or a Bose SoundLink Revolve Plus ($439) – these are the speakers Apple engineers would probably be pitching themselves against.

Sonos is an interesting one because the Sonos One is just $299 and offers incredible sound – as does the standard Bose SoundLink Revolve at the same price – high quality uncompromising sound. In fact, those two products pose the biggest risk to Apple – at $200 less their sound may just be “enough” for many.

Now let me be clear – Audio is a very personal thing, and I’m not an audiophile – there will be many more detailed reviews of the specific audio capabilities of HomePod – I’m describing this as someone who absolutely loves listening to music, and also someone who has a very small range of music tastes. This means I hear the same songs often and I can often really tell the differences in one speaker to another.

What’s Inside

Inside the Apple Audio Labs in Cupertino I was lucky enough to see a completely dismantled HomePod – all the inner components laid out on a table.

There are seven tweeters – in what are described as an “optimised folded horn design”. These sit at the bottom of the unit as it stands.

Above this, and taking up a good 30% or more of the inner design (by my guess) is a high-excursion woofer. With a motor driving the diaphragm to move a full 20mm from peak to peak it’s got a whole lot going on. When you pickup an Apple HomePod it’s not light – 2.4kg by my measure. I held the Woofer alone at the Apple Audio Labs and it was a big weight – easily half that total weight (again, my guess!).

Sitting around and below the Woofer is the highly engineered support and suspension for the woofer – you can’t have something moving so much without support and somehow this whole setup reduces vibrations coming from the device even at high volumes.

Around the middle of the unit are two arrays of microphones. Six microphones in total that are engineered to allow Siri to hear you no matter how loud the music or the room you are in.

Up top is the Apple A8 processor which powers the whole unit, as well as a small circle of LEDs which bring Siri to life through the top of the HomePod.

How does it sound?

Bloody sensational. Gary Geaves, Senior Director, Audio Design & Engineering at Apple told EFTM that “no matter what size product we did, we wanted it to have a surprising sound”. He added that “peoples expectations scale with the size of the product” so there was a desire to ensure people’s reaction to hearing HomePod would be “wow, how can something so small make such a sound”.

And that’s just how it is.

Interestingly at full volume there are some songs that you just have to turn it down, others at peak volume they are just as enjoyable – there is a fascinating technology at play here that gives a lot of songs a very unique sound.

As a single speaker it is not able to give you a true Stereo sound – later this year though a software update two HomePods will be able to be linked as a stereo pair, I heard this in San Francisco and it is amazing, but not entirely necessary for the majority of users.

Listening to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody there are those very “left” and “right” moments we all know – If I look directly at the HomePod and listen to this it seems clear these channels come from different parts of the HomePod to create separation, yet not a left and right separation – strange to describe but a great sound for sure.

I think the key outcome from my several days listening to Apple HomePod are crisp instrumentals and clear vocals. I stood in my lounge room listening to the same music on our full surround sound home theatre system and then HomePod. My eleven year old son Jackson was with me as we flicked back and forth listening to some of our favourite songs. His key take away was being able to more clearly hear the words and instruments on HomePod while the home theatre was a bigger overall sound.

Thinking about the different adjustments I’ve made to sound systems EQ over the years to get a sound I like, I would argue the HomePod does a great job at both Treble and Bass. I’m not sure there’s a clear sound identity to the mid-range, which may either be lacking or simply overpowered by the performance of the Treble and Bass.

What’s stunning about the Bass here is the very genuine sense of Bass without the thumping and overpowering beats. Likewise with the Treble and vocals – the sound is not thin, its just clear.

Overall I would say HomePod offers an outstanding sound with crisp vocal performance and utter clarity throughout the range.

Smart Speaker?

This is the smartest speaker you’ll find – well, I’ve gotta say these soundbars with Dolby Atmos which fire upward to reflect sound from the ceiling are pretty smart, but Apple goes a whole lot further with what they call “Spatial Awareness”.

Because of the six-microphone array and the A8 processing chip the HomePod is able to listen to the reflection of music off a wall or anything sitting near it.  With this information HomePod is able to direct music in a very different way for each situation.

When sitting in the centre of a room you’ll get a complete 360 degree audio experience.  If the HomePod is in a space like a bookshelf, or perhaps more likely on a ledge against a wall it intelligently directs the vocals to the centre of the room while reflecting ambient reverb and things like backup vocals agains the wall to fill the room.

I can’t say I’ve noticed a difference in the 5 or so different locations I’ve placed HomePod but perhaps it could be argued thats exactly the way it should be.  With any other 360 degree firing speaker against a wall you’ll get some reverberation or sound distortion.  Not so here.

Walk anywhere in the room and the sound is as impressive as anywhere else.

Move HomePod or reconnect it and it will re-adapt to the environment around it.

Oh, you thought I was going to talk about Siri when I said “Smart Speaker” – you see thats exactly the problem here.  As a speaker it’s bloody smart, but it also happens to have Siri built-in, so there’s a next level of smarts too!

So yes, Siri is built in – and at that point you start to want to compare HomePod to Google Home and Amazon Echo.

Let me tell you right from the get-go, HomePod comes third in a “Smart Speaker Voice Assistant” race.

In many ways Siri and HomePod are better, but unfortunately there is a deep lack of knowledge. Particularly here in Australia.  No Siri won’t sing Waltzing Matilda or play you the sound that a Kookaburra makes, Siri is almost all about the Music.  She cannot be beaten on Music knowledge, Google Home does an amazing job answering questions about songs you are listening to but Siri has a slight edge.

The Number 1 use of “smart speakers” and the Number 1 reason people want smart speakers is to play music.  So it makes sense that Apple would focus on that space.

Unfortunately, I predict a large number of social and YouTube videos showing just how Siri fails to answer questions like things relating to Cricket, or NRL and AFL – sadly Apple has not announced any hyper-local integration with Aussie content, so in essence, HomePod with Siri is useful for playing music and music knowledge, and controlling anything that can be connected to Apple HomeKit.

Controlling your Lights, Cameras, a huge range of smart home devices is made possible with HomeKit controlled with Siri.

Just like on your iPhone Siri in HomePod can tell you the weather, do unit conversions, check stocks, and a fair bit of general knowledge. But push her too hard and she will hit a brick wall – Google is almost always going to own that space given their deep search knowledge, and while many will compare – I don’t think Apple are even suggesting they could be the best in the business with Virtual Assistants at this point.

What HomePod does well

Siri’s ability to hear you speak the words “Hey Siri” while the music is pumping has blown my mind.  With the speaker at 100% volume (Siri likes to ask “That’s very loud, are you sure” when you ask her to go Volume 100%) you can speak in your normal voice and she will hear you.  I showed this to several people who agreed it was something to behold.

It might not seem like much, but when you’re relying on your voice to control a device, it’s pretty critical that it can hear you at all times.  I’ve not had to yell, only when you are at the other side of a room might you feel inclined to raise your own voice.  This capability should not be overlooked, it exceeds anything else in the market.

If you’re wondering how Siri goes when you’ve also got your phone nearby – good news, it’s surprisingly intelligent.  My phone triggers a lot of the time, but as soon as HomePod starts “hearing” me the phone switches off.  There have been a few times when my Watch takes the command or the phone, but I think the idea is not to be looking at your watch and talking to HomePod, and likewise the phone.

Setup is an absolute breeze, almost identical to the process created for AirPods with a popup on iPhone when you first turn on the HomePod.

During this process you are also able to connect “Personal Requests”, which allows you to use HomePod to send SMS messages, add notes or tasks to your iCloud account.

Siri can also create and read WhatsApp messages (as well as other Third-party apps with Siri integration such as Viber, Skype and WeChat)

As a speaker for your home, the iOS integration is sensational – allowing anyone on your network to use AirPlay to send Audio to the HomePod – those devices of course must stay within the network, and as I’ll explain soon, there is no Siri integration with third party apps.

No question about the sound quality either, so what we have here is an outstanding sounding speaker which you can control with your voice and perform some very simple yet smart tasks with your home and device.

Where HomePod must improve

However, it does feel like there are some glaring oversights with HomePod’s features and integration.

It’s minor, but the speaker only works with iOS devices – so you can’t be an Android owner and use this speaker as a WiFi or Bluetooth speaker – flat out nope.

There is no third party music service integration using Siri – now thats either because Spotify haven’t worked on Siri integration, or, and lets be honest – much more likely – Apple hasn’t made that possible or without its challenges, so this is an Apple Music Speaker made to play Apple Streaming music or music on in your Music library and apps on your iOS device (which play through the HomePod using AirPlay).

Interestingly, I think the speaker may be too smart for it’s own good on some very rare occasions.  The only time I’ve questioned the speaker quality was playing “John Farnham Live at the Chapel – Acoustic sessions” – Talk of the town is a very involved track with lots of instruments and vocals, in no way were John Farnham’s vocals obvious to me on playback – strange, but noted.  Listening to other Acoustic tracks seemed A-OK.

As I mentioned earlier it’s bitterly disappointing that Siri is still unaware of our local sports like NRL, AFL and A-League.  Yet there are no less than 25 Minor League Baseball competitions which Siri can give you detailed information about – so it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that Apple haven’t invested in some folks in their Sydney Head-Office to sort that out – Asking Siri about sport is a great possible feature.

Perhaps the most glaring issue with HomePod is for those who do not live alone. In my household we have three kids who’s music tastes I am desperately trying to influence (which is concerning many people) and my wife who pretty much hates 80% of my music.

Not an issue normally, because we have iTunes Family Sharing, we each (including the kids) have an iTunes account, and they are linked so any purchases are shared.  However Apple Music knows me very well – in fact the first song played during the setup of HomePod when instructed to say “Hey Siri play me a song” was John Farnham – Your the Voice.

The weekly “Favourites” recommendations in Apple Music are spot on.  I love it.

So if I setup HomePod in the lounge-room and my daughter starts throwing in some “Hey Siri play Taylor Swift” more often than  not, I’m going to start getting Tay Tay in my recommendations – and that’s not cool.

No Problem says Apple, you can disable “Listening history” from the speaker so when people ask for music it won’t be biased toward me, and more importantly other specific requests won’t influence Apple Music’s opinion of me.

To be clear, if the kids have their own devices they can AirPlay their music too it, but they cannot use Siri – so you’re paying big bucks for an “AirPlay enabled speaker” essentially – not a bad thing, just not ideal.

But come on – it’s 2018 – can’t Siri tell the difference between us?  Use my account for me, My wife’s for her etc etc – we train her to know us – perhaps she even checks “is that Trevor” now and then, but disabling it all together means I lose the advantage of my HomePod listening history influencing my overall Apple Music account.

More concerning perhaps is that “Personal Requests” can only apply to a single phone or account too.  So adding reminders, notes, or texting friends can only be done on one phone and one account.

A company with Apple’s resources should be putting everything into ensuring this is a device for the whole home, not just the person who sets it up.

Should you buy it?

Ahh, the $499 question!

If you live alone, are deep in the Apple Ecosystem, use Apple Music and love music – hell yes!

For those of us with families or partners, then the lack of user profiles is a real bust, but not enough to stop you buying it – no way.  Siri is fast, responsive, can hear you in the most amazing of circumstances and this really is one hell of an amazing speaker when it comes to quality of sound.

Wondering if this is going to tick the box for you if you’ve been getting excited about all the hype around Google Home and recently Amazon Echo then yes, it’s a bloody great smart speaker – just don’t try and push it outside it’s clear boundaries of general info (Weather & News), HomeKit enabled smart home gear and Music – that’s where it performs best.

What’s the Upshot?

This may quite possibly be the most polarising device Apple has made in quite some time if not ever – It is without question an amazing speaker, and Siri has the best hearing of any Voice assistant and really knows her music – yes there is work to be done, but it can all be done with software.

Apple HomePod scores five stars as an outstanding speaker in its own right, with Siri integration done

Apple HomePod
Date Published: 02/07/2018
A smart speaker that has outstanding sound and a built in music knowledge
4.5 / 5 stars
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