Apple HomePod review

UPDATED: Putting the speaker in smart speaker – but what about the smarts?

Apple HomePod

Apple is fashionably late to the party… as it always is. However, the HomePod now has a huge job on its hands to usurp the smart speaker status quo, with Amazon, Google and Sonos already living in millions of homes around the globe.

It's very clear that Apple has gone speaker first, smart second with the HomePod – that's evident from the marketing material the world's biggest tech company is putting out and it's also in-your-face noticeable when spending time with it.

The Apple HomePod is a quite brilliant sounding speaker that easily punches its audio weight for its price tag. But it's also a bit of a disappointment too, with gaps on the features front, a more-closed-than-ever Apple approach and a smart digital assistant that is lagging behind its rivals.

We've now spent a few months living with the Apple HomePod – actually two HomePods in glorious stereo union. Read our full updated review to find out exactly what we loved about it, but why it also left us wanting more…


Apple HomePod: Design, build and setup

Apple HomePod review

Apple makes lovely looking stuff; that is a given. And the HomePod is no exception to that rule – it's by far the slickest looking smart speaker out there. It's only diddy, at just seven inches high, but it's a solid, weighty little unit that feels reassuringly expensive.

Even the power cord feels great – I was expecting a Lightning cable, to be honest, but the textured cord, which is integrated into the unit itself, made for a pleasant surprise. One less shiny plasticky cable to hide.

Missing manual: Your comprehensive HomePod guide

The HomePod itself is wrapped in a soft mesh fabric and has a somewhat spongy feel. Up top is a shiny touch surface that can be used to physically control the HomePod – volume up and down, skipping tracks, playing/pausing, that kind of thing. It's not a display; you'll just see the plus and minus signs shown in the image below, if you tap it. It's also where the visual form of Siri lives.

Apple HomePod review

If you say, "Hey Siri," you'll see it light up with a colourful swirl, similar to what you see if you call up Apple's digital assistant on an iPhone.

Actually, the first sign of life you'll see on this touch panel (which can get a bit smudgy if you touch it a lot) is a white swirling light during setup mode. That'll last for about 10 seconds, then you'll hear a noise indicating that your HomePod is ready for pairing.

It's definitely the easiest setup of a smart speaker so far – just put your iPhone near it and you're done. It'll transfer over all your Apple account details, your home Wi-Fi details, the whole shebang. You'll be talking to Siri and getting him/her to play music within two minutes of plugging it in.

It goes without saying that your Android phone can't come to the HomePod party. No way – even with its best jacket on, this is an iOS exclusive shindig and some. You'll find no aux-in port on the HomePod and, although Bluetooth is built in, that's only there for setup; HomePod is not a Bluetooth speaker.


Apple HomePod: The sound smarts

Apple HomePod review

We at The Ambient pride ourselves on being the authority when it comes to the smart home. So we consider ourselves experts when it comes to reviewing smart speakers. We've comprehensively tested all of the big name smart speakers out there, and a whole host of the lesser ones too. Also, during my previous life in the world of general consumer tech reviewing I spent plenty of time delivering verdicts on a huge array of speakers; from budget Bluetooth ones to high-end Hi-Fis.

I'm not going to pretend that I'm an audiophile specialist, who spends his time testing the sound quality of speakers in an echo-chamber, but I think I've got a well-trained ear for judging what sounds good. And the HomePod sounds good. Very, very good.

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I've heard the HomePod side-by-side with the newest Amazon Echo and the Sonos One and it's a much better sound than either of those. But it should be, right, with its Β£319 price-tag? At home I've also pitched it against the Sonos Play:3 and it blows that away too.

There are only so many ways you can say that something sounds good (very, very good). You really need to hear it for yourself. Or trust my opinion. Or trust the opinions of well-respected hi-fi titles who are pretty much all waxing lyrical about the HomePod's audio quality. Or trust this guy on the Reddit audiophile subreddit, who spent hours doing actual measurements of the sound and concluded it sounds better than the KEF X300A – a speaker that's twice the price of the HomePod.

So, yeah, it sounds good. Very, very good.

Apple HomePod review

Apple has absolutely gone to town with the audio tech, packing in seven beam-forming tweeters and a four-inch, upwards-facing, high-excursion woofer. However, it's Apple's A8 chip that is the star of the show. Its advanced algorithms not only dynamically and continuously analyse the music you play – tuning the low frequencies and automatically adapting the acoustics – but the A8 chip also powers the six-microphone-array setup that listens to reflections in the music, from your walls, furniture, books, ornaments and so on, in order to customise the sound output from the HomePod.

For example, if you put your HomePod on a shelf, up against the wall, it will put all the big important sounds front and centre (vocals, lead instruments etc) and beam them out directly to the room; with all the ambient reverb and backup vocals sent against the wall for dispersion. If you stick the HomePod in the middle of the room, with plenty of space around it, it'll do 360-degree sound, with the music evenly split in every direction.

Everytime the HomePod is moved, or in fact is turned off at the mains, it checks itself to see where it is and what direction it should be sending out sounds to. Mental, right?

The good news is that the HomePod actually sounds best, in my opinion, on a shelf, with a wall behind it. That's good news because, realistically, who's going to have a speaker sitting on its own in the middle of the room?

Apple HomePod review

When the HomePod launched, you were limited to sound from just one HomePod. Multi-room and stereo setups weren't added until AirPlay 2 arrived in May. For the last couple of weeks I've had a pair of HomePods set up in stereo and you won't be surprised to learn that stereo sound is impressive (very, very impressive).

It did suck that Apple hadn't managed to get such a major feature out for launch, but it's here now and that's the main thing. Plus, when other manufacturers' AirPlay 2 enabled speakers land later this year, the multi-room setup will be even stronger.

Setting up a stereo pair is super simple. When you plug in your second HomePod and you choose to add it to a room where a HomePod already lives, you'll see a pop-up asking you if you want to create a stereo pair. You can also manually group a pair in the Home app and it's easy, with a quick tone test, to make sure you've got your left and right pairing the correct way round. And it is proper stereo, not just an exact match of sound from each – the A8 chips sync and split the left and right stereo channels between the two devices.

On the multi-room front, there's nothing to set up as such – you'll just see the HomePods showing up in the AirPlay speaker list on your iOS device or Mac, and go from there.

You can ask Siri to play music from a certain speaker (or room) by saying something like, "Hey Siri – play Paul Simon in the kitchen," or "Hey Siri, play my 70s playlist in the dining room and the lounge" and you'll be away.

You can even get super complex with Siri, setting up different songs in different rooms – at different volume levels. Something along the lines of, "Hey Siri, play New Order in the kitchen at 80% and my folk playlist in the office at 40%," will not cause Apple's digital assistant any bother. You can group speakers and control playback using the AirPlay button on Apple Music or Control Center too.



Apple HomePod: Apple Music, Spotify, radio and more

Apple HomePod review

In order to truly make the most of your HomePod, you have to go all-in with Apple. It's the most Applely Apple device ever – it's almost like the HomePod wants you to forget that there are streaming services other than Apple Music and that radio stations that aren't Beats 1 exist.

That's not to say that you can't play your favourite radio stations, Spotify, Deezer and the likes on your HomePod – you can, but it's not perhaps in the way you would have hoped for. The HomePod is a great AirPlay speaker. It does everything any other regular AirPlay speaker does so, if your streaming app of choice, or your radio app of choice, has an AirPlay option then you are in luck. But that does mean getting out your smartphone and tablet to get things going. There's no "Hey Siri, play The Verve radio from Spotify" or "Hey Siri, wake me up at 7.30 with BBC Radio 4" on offer here, as there is with Amazon's Echo range or Google's Home speakers (both of which even let you set Spotify as a default ahead of their own in-house streaming services).

Using Apple Music, you are treated to an array of musical delights in real-time using Siri – advanced track controls, song and artist info, alternative versions of tracks, playlist curations and so on – but, using a third-party service over AirPlay, it's hit or miss whether Siri can handle anything more taxing than, "Hey Siri, turn the volume up".

That's actually a bit harsh. On most occasions, when streaming from Spotify over AirPlay, Siri could give me artist and track info (from Wikipedia, usually) and volume controls were fine. But basic stuff like skipping forward, or playing the next or previous track, was buggy as heck.

Apple HomePod review

On Apple Music though, it really is a treat jumping from genre to genre, band to band, using your voice ("Play songs from the 90s", "Play some of The Killers' best songs"), or asking for vague things like, "Who plays the drums in this band?". And even at full volume Siri picked up our commands most of the time.

I also had no issues tapping into our iTunes library, with all the Siri music smarts on offer. I actually stretched Siri pretty far on this front – I've got some rare live Oasis MP3 recordings catalogued within my iTunes library and Siri had no bother finding some very specific requests – "Hey Siri, play Live Forever live from the Hultsfred Festival '94."

It's not perfect though. "Hey Siri, play some indie music" resulted in, "Okay, here's some Bollywood radio" and Genius isn't on board yet, so you can't ask, for example, "Play bands similar to The National". Also, when we asked, "Hey Siri, play something completely different" when listening to a Britpop playlist, Apple's digital assistant said, "Sure, here's some Stone Roses radio," which wasn't exactly the musical tangent I was hoping for.

You can also request podcasts from iTunes but, unless they are super popular ones, Siri does struggle to find them. The quite brilliantly ridiculous Desert Island Dips, for example, was impossible to get playing. I twice got the Desert Island Discs theme tune, twice the BBC podcast of the same name and once a reply from Siri that he was, "Having trouble with desert ill man tips".

When you are playing something through Apple Music or iTunes, you can pick up your phone and control HomePod with that – either by diving into the Apple Music app, or using the music control shortcut in Control Center.


Apple HomePod: Siri as an assistant

Apple HomePod review

When I'm on a run of using Siri, it seems fine at understanding me – or at least at responding to the wake words, "Hey Siri." However, after a period of idleness I'd often have to try and get his/her attention a few times before he/she noticed me. I've even stood right next to the speaker, no music playing, and still been ignored.

I keep mentioning his/her because, unlike Alexa (and Google Assistant in some countries), Siri comes with both male and female voices. I've messed around using both sexes, and different accents too… but there's no getting away from the fact that Siri's chat is pretty lame. Sure he/she says much more in-depth and 'real' things than both Alexa and GA, but he/she says them in such a robotic fashion it doesn't quite work. Siri doesn't seem to have got any better at speaking since going live on iOS six years ago. The cadence and pronunciations are all wrong and it baffles me why Apple hasn't vastly improved this yet.

Another big gripe I've got with Siri is its inability to make the right choice. And by that I mean what device for her to operate from. I had to turn off the Siri wake word on my iPhone when trying to control my HomePod as my iPhone kept trying to respond to queries intended for the HomePod.

On the digital assistant front, Siri can read you the news (and offers alternative sources, which is a nice touch), give you the weather, traffic reports, stock prices, sports results, set timers (only one at a time, mind), offer translations, take notes and so on. And this is all fine. It works fine. Nothing groundbreaking, nothing too broken, just fine.

Where things do go wrong is when you try and get Siri to send a message. With iMessage, and with exact names, she's just about okay. With anything third-party, she buckles under the pressure. If you've got a contact who's also part of a group, forget about it. I almost sent a test message to a stag-party group from two years ago, just because the group name contained the surname of the contact I was trying to send the message to.

On messaging, beware that – as long as your iPhone is connected to the same network as your HomePod, ie you are home – anyone in the house can dictate and send a message to your contacts by speaking with Siri. So, if your kid says, "Hey Siri, send a message to Mr Boss Man saying, 'You're a fat twat'," there's nothing you can do to stop them. Well, you can turn off messaging entirely – that's an option – but that means you cannot then send messages yourself. Not ideal.

iPhone calling is also a feature that needs huge improvements. You can use the HomePod as a speaker, as you can with any paired Bluetooth speaker, but you can't ask Siri to make a call, or even answer an incoming call – you have to physically tap your phone and change the speaker setting during a call.


Apple HomePod: Siri's HomeKit smarts

Apple HomePod review

Siri on the HomePod is the same Siri that's baked into your iPhone or iPad and, if you've been using Siri for HomeKit control on those iOS devices, you'll know exactly what to expect. HomeKit is a much more strict smart home collective than say, Works with Amazon Alexa, and while the Home app is improving all the time, Apple is still a way behind its rivals on the smart home automation front.

The HomePod works fine, most of the time, as a smart home controller – although Siri can be infuriating in a way that we don't ever experience with Alexa or Google Assistant. For two days, Siri would understand and carry out, "Turn off the big office light", from my iPhone but wouldn't do the same from my HomePod. It works fine now but there was no rhyme nor reason for it not to be working for those two days.

On the whole, Siri is okay for smart home controls but, as mentioned, the pool of compatible HomeKit devices is much shallower than its rivals and HomeKit pairing is a faff. Automation and scenes are also basic in comparison and Apple has missed a trick by not including HomePod as a device that can be included in scenes or automation - it'd be nice to get music playing in the morning when I say "Hey Siri, good morning," or have music turn off when I say, "Hey Siri, I'm leaving the office."

One nice touch on the HomeKit front is that your HomePod automatically becomes a HomeKit hub when you get it set up – so no relying on your iPad to always be on (and no need to go out and buy an Apple TV).


Apple HomePod
There's no way around it – the Apple HomePod feels half-baked. It's annoying because the Cupertino giant has absolutely nailed the difficult bit of creating a fantastic sounding speaker, but has fluffed its lines on the smart assistant and ecosystem front. You could argue that it should be judged as a standalone speaker in its price-range and, if it was, it'd get a higher score. But we're living in a new era; an era of multi-platform streaming media, smart home automation and digital assistants. And in that era Apple is lagging behind its two big rivals – Google and Amazon. Sure, HomeKit will evolve and sure, Siri will (surely?) get better – and AirPlay 2 and its multi-room features have improved the HomePod overnight… but that all just adds to fact that the HomePod doesn't quite feel like a finished product.
PROS
  • Fantastic audio quality
  • Super slick design
  • Apple Music integration is great
CONS
  • Siri is lacking
  • Spotify and co. are an afterthought
  • No multi-room at launch

TAGGED   apple   speakers

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