Apple HomePod, a connected speaker is about to come to market, after being delayed by over a month. It is not the first to the market, and it will definitely not be the most versatile. However, you can bet your last dollar, that it will play music, and play it very well. In fact, there won’t be a sweeter sounding connected speaker in the market. It might sound so good, that for a few days you might forget about your expensive, warm sounding and fantastic vintage hi-fi system. Why do I say all this?
Because for the past few days, I have been listening to the HomePod. I will let a true and real audiophile to do an in-depth review and abstain from quality comparisons. However, to my amateur, if somewhat sophisticated ears, the HomePod is a superlative in quality compared to some of its competitors, especially from Amazon and Google. Next to it, Alexa speakers sound downright shrill. Google’s speaker feels as if it is suffering from a sore throat.
Only the Sonos Play One connected speaker feels like a contender — not bad considering that it costs about a half of what Apple HomePod will cost. (Two Play Ones cost $350, while HomePod is listed at $349.) Sonos, of course is also the most polyamorous when it comes to streaming music support, connecting directly to almost all of the music services, and thus being more valuable as a result.
As someone who is already part of the Apple ecosystem — I own MacBook, iPad, iPhone and AirPods — it took me roughly five minutes to set up the HomePod. I tried to mimic the basic consumer experience and placed the speaker on my kitchen counter — which is open on all sides and hence makes for a hostile environment for speakers. The reflections from walls and other surfaces made my Sonos speakers uneasy and I had to move them around for better sound.
I simply plugged the HomePod, and as per the instructions placed my iPhone X next to it. A screen popped up on my iPhone that allowed me to send my credentials to the speaker. These included my Apple ID, and WiFi details. It also made the device part of my HomeKit. The device uses what Apple calls “spatial awareness.” From the review literature:
Equipped with spatial awareness, HomePod automatically senses its location in the room and adjusts to give you optimal sound—wherever it’s placed. Simply plug in HomePod and start listening to music. The microphone array in HomePod listens to the reflection of the music off neighboring surfaces, and senses if it is against a wall, on a bookshelf, or freestanding in a room. When freestanding in a room, HomePod beams consistent 360° audio throughout the room.
When against a wall or on a bookshelf, the A8 chip analyzes the music and appropriately beams direct energy and center vocals into the middle of the room, while reflecting the ambient reverb and backup vocals against the wall for dispersion in the room.
The end result is an incredibly wide soundstage with a feeling of spaciousness and depth. The entire process happens automatically and takes just seconds. Each time you move HomePod, even slightly, it uses the built-in accelerometer to detect a change in its location and readapts to the environment.
For most of what they claim is true — I tried the HomePod in different locations and while sound stage changes a bit, it doesn’t sound very different to an amateur. I didn’t have an Apple Music subscription, but I have iTunes Match so I can stream some music from Apple. However, my first action was to AirPlay my favorite music tunes from Spotify. I have the premium version of Spotify, and the high-quality stream sounded perfect. Well, almost as perfect as a 384 kbps stream can sound. Next, I AirPlayed my FLAC files using the FLACBox app on my iPad.
And boy that is when I realized Apple had built something spectacular. The hi-res version of Peter Gabriel’s So sounded almost like my CD player. The mid-range and vocals were smooth and silky. The bass — thanks to a top firing woofer was tight and filled the room without sounding jarring and rattling the cutlery. Next up: Moon safari by Air. My FLAC collection is in love with its new friend.
HomePod shines when you are pumping volume between 30-70 percent of its capacity. The higher volume (near its supposed peak capacity) was good, not great. I felt that at lower volumes it lacked the punch and clarity. When played with poorly encoded streams — such as some Internet radio stations, it feels lackluster. At the very top end of the volume it again sounded too loud, though the sound doesn’t crack or rattle. But those are minor sins from a speaker that is about six-inches tall.
The HomePod is right in the Apple’s wheel house. It is beautifully designed — they even made the cover from a special fabric they created in order to get better acoustics. It has tight integration of its chips, hardware capabilities, and software. HomePod also shows off their ability to integrate services into their offering.
Just as the iPhone X is good enough to give point-and-shoot cameras a run for their money, and leave high-end cameras to their own devices, HomePod will clean-up the music speaker market. Album after album after album — the more I listened to the music, the more I realized — Apple’s competitors aren’t really Amazon or Google, but instead they are going after the designer speaker makers like B&O and Bowers & Wilkins. Google is trying to sell advertising, not a speaker. Amazon speakers, first and foremost are way for it to sell more goods, and not make an amazing sound experience.
The computational acoustic technologies will essentially give pink slips to some of those expensive boxes. Consumer audio, much like consumer photography is not about the hardware— it is about the software, hardware and the marriage of services. Apple’s ability to marry silicon, design and software gives it an edge over its rivals. They designed the tweeter array, a woofer with a 20-mm throw, a special material to wrap the speaker and not to mention an chipset powered by its A8 chip.
Which brings me to the integration of HomePod with Apple Music and Siri. Even though Apple Music streams are encoded at 256 kbps, they sound more lush and alive than Spotify and match the quality of my FLAC streams. Apple’s ability to integrate and optimize its hardware, software & service from the ground up (aka from chip level) makes then squeeze more performance out of their hardware.
It was one of the reasons I wanted to try out Apple Music, even though I loathe the idea of giving up on my musical history on Spotify and how it informs my listening. I wanted to see how well integrated Apple’s beleaguered voice command interface technology, Siri was with HomePod.
To be honest, in the past Siri has been a bit of a disappointment — and despite my best efforts, it has failed me on the phone, including on the AirPods. I turned it off — because, well I don’t need random inanimate technology to remind me that my accent doesn’t sound like the American accent. With much trepidation, I asked Siri to play Body Funk by Purple Disco Machine – it delivered.
Siri on HomePod did everything I asked her to do — including volume control, even when the music was blasting. (FWIW: Siri still is sub-par on the iPad Pro and iPhone X.) Apple, clearly, has done lot of heavy lifting and created an optimized version of Siri for Music on HomePod. It is good enough that I had forgotten that there are touch controls to play, or play the next (or previous) tracks and raise or lower the volume.
Also it is private, Apple claims.
Siri on HomePod is equally as private and secure as it is on our other devices. The detection of “Hey Siri” happens on device, so nothing is sent to Apple until that trigger is detected and the Siri waveform lights up. At that time, the request is sent to Apple using an anonymous Siri ID, and, of course, that communication is all encrypted.
For me privacy is enough of a concern to not have Alexa or Google Home devices in my apartment — I don’t want them listening to me. Yeah, it is old fashioned, but I like Apple’s stance: make and sell devices and services, keep things private. Why should I make it easier for Google (to target me for more advertising) and Amazon (to make me buy more stuff I don’t need) by giving away my data. (Plus they do suck at playing back music.)
Will I buy it? Not yet. What is stopping me? My only reason to not instantly upgrade will be Spotify, which has used my past listening data to create a magical hold on me. I will also wait for the software upgrades to create speaker pairs and give multi-room capabilities.
And when that happens, this is a no-doubter. For the first time in ten years since I have owned and loved my beloved Sonos, I am inclined to spend my money on the HomePod and switch loyalties. I have found the HomePod is really a big upgrade over the Sonos speakers which sit in the kitchen, bathroom and my bedroom. At nearly $349, this isn’t a cheap connected speaker, but there isn’t anything cheap about this. It will be a great addition to any home.
PS: I will be blogging about HomePod over next few weeks, but for now, think of this is an amateur music lover’s reviews. I will link to other reviews over on my link blog, Om.blog