Apple HomePod review: First-class audio, but Siri still falls behind

Updated: How does Apple's debut smart speaker compare in 2020?

Apple HomePod
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Apple's HomePod was fashionably late to the party, as is the Apple way. But with Amazon, Google and Sonos already living in millions of homes around the globe, Cupertino had a big job on its hands to usurp the smart speaker status quo.

It's very clear that Apple has gone speaker first, smarts second with the HomePod – although over time the features have gradually filled out.

Update: HomePod Mini review

The Apple HomePod is a quite brilliant sounding speaker that easily punches above its weight in audio quality for the price. 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 spent more than a year with the Apple HomePod – actually two HomePods in glorious stereo union – and so we've revisited our initial review to better reflect how the HomePod stacks up as 2019 nears its end. Here's the full review.

Apple HomePod review

Apple HomePod: Design, build and setup

Apple makes lovely looking stuff, and the HomePod is no exception to that rule. While it hasn't won everyone round, it's still one of the slickest looking smart speakers out there. It's only diddy, standing seven inches high, but it's a solid, weighty little unit that feels reassuringly expensive.

Even the power cord feels great. Is that a weird thing to say? When we first unboxed the HomePod we half expected a Lightning cable to fall out, but the textured cord, which is integrated into the unit itself, made for a pleasant surprise. One less shiny plasticky cable to hide.

Rivals: HomePod v Sonos One

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

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

Actually, the first sign of life 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 your HomePod is ready for pairing.

Pairing this thing is a breeze – 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 asking Siri to play music within two minutes of plugging it in.

Showdown: Apple HomePod v Google Home Max

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. There are Android workarounds once setup is done, but they're really not worth it.

Apple HomePod review

Apple HomePod: The sound smarts

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.

We've also got a well-trained ear for judging what sounds good, and we can tell you this much: the HomePod sounds very, very good. We've heard the HomePod side-by-side with the Amazon Echo and the Sonos One and it's a much better sound than either of those. But it should be, right, with its $349 price-tag? We've also pitched it against the Sonos Play:3 and it blows that away too.

Ambient guide: Apple TV tips and tricks

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 have all waxed 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.

And obviously none of that has changed. What has changed is the competition. The HomePod might not be a big seller by the standards of the smart speaker market, but we don't doubt it's encouraged Amazon and others to up the game in sound quality. The new Sonos Move is a smidge better than the HomePod to our ears, and its possible the new Echo Studio may have it beat – although that one's still a TBD.

Apple HomePod review

But Apple has absolutely gone to town with the audio tech in the HomePod, 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 analyze 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 customize the sound output from the HomePod.

Little and large: Apple HomePod vs HomePod Mini

For example, if you put your HomePod on a shelf, up against the wall, it will put all the big important sounds front and center (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.

Every time 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.

The good news is that the HomePod actually sounds best, in our 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

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).

Multi-room and stereo setups are also supported through AirPlay, and it's one of the HomePod's best features. We've tried a pair of HomePods set up in stereo and it sounds fantastic, but we love being able to connect with non-Apple speakers too.

Now that many other manufacturers have enabled AirPlay 2 on their speakers, the HomePod plays nicely with a wide range of options. Want to play music through your HomePod, Sonos, and Bose speakers at once? Have at it.

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.

Apple HomePod review

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 review

Apple HomePod: Apple Music, Spotify, radio and more

For a long time, you needed to be all-in with Apple to get the most out of the HomePod, but Apple has gradually un-walled the garden. Android users still aren't advised to enter, but you no longer have to be exclusive with Apple Music to maximize the HomePod.

You can stream Spotify, Deezer, Amazon Music, Pandora and a whole lot more on a HomePod using AirPlay.

The HomePod can do everything that any other regular AirPlay speaker does, so if your favourite streaming app is on iOS and has an AirPlay option then you can beam over your tunes. That does, of course, mean getting out your iPhone or iPad to get things started.

It means no "Hey Siri, play Biffy Clyro on Spotify" or "Hey Siri, wake me up at 9.30am with XFM", as there is with Amazon's Echo speakers or Google's Home speakers – both of which even let you set Spotify as a default ahead of their own in-house streaming services.

Siri may not be as smart as it is during Apple Music sessions when it comes to answering questions or offering up alternatives, when using Spotify or other alternatives over AirPlay – but that's not to say Apple's digital assistant goes mute. You'll have no issues with basic playback controls and Siri can still relay band and song information (from Wikipedia) most of the time.

Apple HomePod review

With Siri for Apple Music and Spotify, 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.

You'll also be able to play from your iTunes library, with all the Siri music smarts on offer. We actually stretched Siri pretty far on this front – we've got some rare live Oasis MP3 recordings catalogued within our 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, owing largely to Siri's limitations more than the HomePod. "Hey Siri, play some indie music" has resulted in, "Okay, here's some Bollywood radio." 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 we were hoping for.

But it's something we've noticed get better over time, as Siri has grown in competence as a DJ.

Apple HomePod review

Apple HomePod: Siri as an assistant

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.

When we first reviewed the HomePod we described Siri's chat as "pretty lame." However, we've seen a few improvements to help make Siri sound less robotic. The cadence and pronunciations are still somewhat off, but we have noticed an improvement in its modulations over time (particularly in British English), and with iOS 13 Apple is improving it with more natural text-to-speech, but this is still a work in progress.

Another big gripe we've got with Siri is its inability to make the right choice. And by that I mean what device it operates from. We had to turn off the Siri wake word on our iPhone when trying to control the HomePod as the iPhone kept trying to respond instead.

Apple HomePod review

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

On messaging, beware that – as long as your iPhone is connected to the same network as your HomePod, i.e. 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, however, has been significantly improved over time. You can now ask Siri to make a call or answer an incoming one. Once the feature is enabled, you can simply say, "Hey Siri, call Jennifer" or "Hey Siri, answer my call" (however incoming calls will only ring on your phone and not the HomePod). You can also transfer calls to the HomePod from your iPhone, which is handy, and soon you'll be able to simply by tapping the phone on the top of the HomePod – but this won't be live till towards the end of 2019.

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 can act as a HomeKit hub. In fact, 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).

And as a smart home controller it works well – although Siri can be infuriating in a way that we don't ever experience with Alexa or Google Assistant. Again, this is usually down to the assistant misunderstanding what we're asking.

On the whole, Siri is decent for smart home controls but the pool of compatible HomeKit devices is still much shallower than its rivals. HomeKit pairing has become much simpler though, and changes to the Home app, including some new ones with iOS 13, have made the HomeKit experience better overall.

Automation and scenes are also basic in comparison and Apple 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."

A future update to iOS 13 promises to bring this function however, and to any AirPlay 2 speakers, so you can have your HomePod play music when you tell Siri "good morning," for example. Multi-user support is also imminent, and will let the HomePod recognize different users by their voice. - something Amazon and Google smart speakers already do.

Apple HomePod
Despite some finessing, the Apple HomePod feels half-baked. It's annoying because Apple 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… but that all just adds to fact that the HomePod doesn't quite feel like a finished product.
  • Fantastic audio quality
  • Super slick design
  • Improved Spotify integration
  • Siri is lacking
  • Still single-user
  • Several big features MIA

TAGGED    apple home    smart speakers

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