Tuesday, February 20, 2018

HomePod Review

My wife and I are casual musicians and both grew up with a love for music. Ever since we moved in together, we always have had a speaker in the kitchen — it’s the place we most commonly play music without headphones. The JBL OnBeat Venue LT speaker we’ve had in there has served us well, but has officially been usurped by HomePod. Here’s why.

Table of Contents

Defining HomePod

Let’s get this out of the way. HomePod is first and foremost a great sounding speaker for your home. All other features are secondary (i.e. Siri and its capabilities). Apple aims to compete with Sonos, the current market leader in this area. Having said that, by mere inclusion of audio and a personal assistant, HomePod is by default a competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home products. It is not, however, a like-for-like competitor just yet.

Echo is the big league veteran, while Google Home was just drafted. HomePod is a high performer on a farm team hoping to be called up. It’s batting .300, but needs a little more time to work on fundamentals.

High Level Points

  • Only works with Apple devices. No Bluetooth audio functionality.
  • No traditional audio inputs.
  • No standalone apps or App Store.
  • Streams content directly only from Apple services, including: Apple Music, iCloud Music Library, and Apple Podcasts.
  • You can AirPlay audio content to HomePod from iPhone, Mac, and Apple TV (e.g. Overcast, Spotify, Netflix, etc.).
  • Acts as a HomeKit hub, just like Apple TV.
  • Maybe don’t set it on wood tables.

If you set your expectations around these points, it’s easier to understand exactly what you’re getting when you shell out the $349 for one.

Design

HomePod is the nicest looking home speaker on the market. It’s a rounded cylinder adorned in an acoustically-transparent fabric mesh, with a touch-sensitive glass surface sitting atop.

Apple doesn’t refer to the top surface as a screen, so let’s not call it one. It does contain LEDs that light up the plus and minus volume buttons, along with the purpleish-blue dancing orb to indicate when Siri is listening.

The same mesh is applied to the power cord, making for a nice harmony of materials.

Apart from Apple’s common design language, a few elements are highly reminiscent of other Apple products. For instance:

  1. The shape and roundedness of the cylinder itself resembles the current Mac Pro.
  2. From a top-down view, the glass and mesh look an awful lot like the crown on Apple Watch, don’t they?
Left: HomePod. Right: Mac Pro.
Left: HomePod. Right: Mac Pro.
Top-down views of HomePod and Apple Watch crown.
Top-down views of HomePod and Apple Watch crown.

Compared to Echo and Google Home

The Echo line and Google Home speakers pale in comparison. Echo Plus and Echo Dot are very cold in their design, although the new standard Echo is probably the most appealing. It sports similar fabric as HomePod. On the other hand, every time I see a Google Home, I can’t help but think of an essential oil diffuser (not a compliment).

Setup and Playback

Setup is a breeze, although some folks have had issues. Simply plug in your HomePod and bring your iOS device near. This has become the standard for setting up Apple products; something that began with AirPods back in 2016. With HomePod, Apple took it one step further in a way that really surprised me. After the initial connection, Siri talks to you about HomePod basics, including personal settings (being able to access Messages, Reminders, and Notes), while your iOS device displays complementary information in tandem. It is a really clever use of both devices, and something I hope Apple will use more often. It almost made them feel alive.

After set up is complete, you can change any HomePod settings in the Home app. For those familiar with the app, it’s not a big deal. For those using it for the first time, however, it can be confusing. You need to 3D Touch or long press on HomePod’s tile in order to bring up alarms and details. Under details, you can change settings such as the Apple ID HomePod will use, Siri settings, location services, and more.

You can also control playback from the audio widget in the iOS Control Center. Simply 3D Touch or long press the audio widget and find the HomePod tile below. It works nicely, but iOS now shows available Apple TVs in this section, so this area might become a little crowded depending on the amount of devices you have.

HomePod playback control inside Control Center.
HomePod playback control inside Control Center.

Sound

I’m not an audiophile per se, but I love great sounding audio. I don’t have thousands of dollars in headsets or other audiophile-level components, but I know good audio when I hear it (at least to me).

On that note, I’ll preface this by saying that sound quality is largely subjective. While there are objective standards, the vast majority of people just know what they like based simply on what they hear. It’s a fickle thing. What may sound good to you may not sound good to me, and vice versa. I listen to mostly rock of all kinds, so the music I listen to doesn’t have a ton of bottom end. To put things in perspective, here are just some of the songs I have played on HomePod:

  1. Pink Floyd — Time, Money
  2. Rush — Tom Sawyer, The Big Money, Limelight
  3. The Dear Hunter — Blame Paradise, Shake Me (Awake)
  4. Royal Blood — Figure It Out

Overall, HomePod sounds great! Taking into account its small footprint, the sound it produces is downright impressive. Whenever you plug it in, it will auto-sense the room it’s in, including walls, barriers, toddler toys all over the place — you get the picture. From there, HomePod tweaks its audio profile to deliver the best sound for any given space (according to Apple).

In my experience, the overall audio profile is well balanced. The mids and highs are seriously crisp, while the bass is carefully managed, yet impressive for a speaker this size. HomePod doesn’t place too much emphasis on one aspect or the other.

I was surprised how well it sounds in our large kitchen/dining room. Even when moving around the room, I never felt like I was leaving the sweet spot (a common theme I’ve read in other reviews). While the one speaker does a great job, if you like room-filling, all encompassing sound, you’ll probably want to add a second HomePod in larger rooms of this nature. You’ll have to wait a little while to take advantage of that, though. HomePod was supposed to ship with a feature that allows two speakers in the same room to auto-sense each other and act as a stereo pair. The feature has been delayed and is coming in a future update, along with the ability to play simultaneous audio across all HomePod speakers in your house. Not sure if I’d be able to justify the cost for a second HomePod for the same room, but I can imagine it may provide the room-filling experience I’m looking for.

That’s not to say HomePod isn’t loud, because it definitely is. In fact, Siri warned me the first time I asked her to turn the volume up to eleven one-hundred. No distortion at max volume, either. Sadly, there is no way to shape the audio yourself, say via a band equalizer still absent iOS. With machine learning and computational audio taking shape, it makes me sad to think a band equalizer may never happen. Who knows though, maybe eventually our computers will shape sound better than we ever could.

As an aside, it really bothers me that Apple has been over-promising and under-delivering with their software lately. iOS 11 was missing features, now HomePod. It’s not the end of the world, but shipping an unfinished product is not the Apple way. Hopefully this kind of practice will be curtailed soon.

Siri & Smarts

One of the main things that blows me away on HomePod is how well Siri can hear me. This can’t go understated enough, because it’s one of those barriers we need to overcome for voice to be a mainstream computing input. If music is playing on my Echo Dot, I need to really yell at it for Alexa to hear me. Not so with HomePod.

Even at full volume, I can say “Hey Siri” in a normal tone and HomePod will hear me. It’s truly remarkable. Everyone I have demonstrated this to has been amazed. As I get further away, I need to speak up a little bit, but it’s more natural. It’s as if speaking to another person who can discern your speech from background music better than a computer (at least until now, it seems).

As far as capabilities, everything Apple has allowed Siri to do on HomePod, she does well. All the normal stuff like weather, sports, HomeKit device control, and timers are straightforward. We love using it all the time to control the lights, thermostat, and set scenes.

There are limitations, though. The problem here is less about the things Siri can’t do on HomePod and more about the seeming unwillingness to do anything about it. For instance, you can’t initiate a phone call through Siri on HomePod. When you ask, Siri just says she can’t do it. What you can do is make a call on your iPhone and transfer the call to HomePod as an input/output. I really don’t understand this, since you can send iMessages on HomePod as long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network. I also can’t fathom why Siri doesn’t use Handoff to send things to your iOS device if it can’t handle it on HomePod, just like Apple Watch. I have to think it must be a priorities thing that Apple will address down the line.

Apple has made it clear HomePod is a smart speaker second, but I feel as though every time they add a new mechanism to engage Siri, confidence in the service declines ever more. This is especially true with Siri’s feature set becoming fragmented depending on the device. Apple needs to come up with a far better solution than the equivalent of a shrug when Siri isn’t programmed to handle a request on any given device. I don’t know, are we expecting too much from virtual assistants still in their infancy? Probably a little.

Conclusion

Apple has come a long way since the iPod Hi-Fi, its first foray into home audio. HomePod aims to make a big splash in this area, even of it will be viewed mostly as an Echo and Google Home competitor no matter how Apple markets it.

Like any first-generation Apple product, its future capabilities are what make it even more exciting. Apple is selling a great product with the promise of more. Imagine the addition of something like Voice ID, where Siri can discern who is talking and tailor results to that person. The addition of 3rd-party apps and services will be a nice boon for HomePod down the line, especially for more common ones like ride sharing. It will better be able to compete as a smart speaker. Something tells me Apple won’t be quick to allow competing music services to stream directly to HomePod, though. Hell, they haven’t even built in Siri support for that on iPhone yet (sorry Spotify users).

Once Siri capabilities improve and other features are added, I’d love to see a HomePod mini with great sound in a smaller size. I could see a mini version replacing my Echo Dots that we only use for controlling our lights and basic smart features. Price it at $199 and I’d be sold. Selling your everyday consumer on one HomePod at $349 is tough, but multiple? Forget it. That’s where HomePod mini would come in.

Now for the $349 question: should you get one? If you are in the market for a home speaker, are an Apple household, and have an Apple Music subscription, it’s a no-brainer. Even more so if you have HomeKit devices or are planning to install some. You shouldn’t even consider anything else. Moreover, the concerns to becoming “locked in” to one ecosystem is becoming less of a problem as long as you do your homework first. Apple’s ecosystem is a force to be reckoned with, and it will continue to elevate as new products and services come to fruition.