The Apple HomePod is a beautifully designed, amazing-sounding speaker but it isn't the best of the smart speaker bunch
- Sounds amazing wherever you put it
- Simple setup
- Seamless integration with Apple Music
- No voice-driven radio playback
- Siri isn't the best digital assistant
- Voice playback limited to Apple Music
Let me get one thing straight from the start. I love the Apple HomePod, but not for the reasons you might expect. I don’t love it because it’s better at controlling my smart lights than the Amazon Echo 2, nor because it’s a better bedside alarm clock than the Echo Spot. I love it because the Apple HomePod is one of the best-sounding compact speakers I’ve ever heard. And, yes, that’s even at £319.
Apple HomePod update: HomePod Speaker gets multi-room audio and stereo mode
Apple’s HomePod now supports multi-room audio and stereo modes: two features that were already available on Echo and Home-branded speakers.
Apple’s fancy speaker has received the iOS 11.4 software update, which includes AirPlay 2 and enables HomePod pairing. The speaker can now be paired with other HomePod devices, or other Siri-powered speakers such as the Bose SoundLink Revolve and the Sonos One. In doing this, you can plonk two Siri-powered speakers in one room for a proper left/right stereo setup or have the speakers blasting in multiple rooms – although both of these arrangements will cost you, with the HomePod priced at £319 a pop.
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To update your HomePod, you’ll have to install the latest software update for the Home app on your iOS device. More details can be found on Apple’s official support page.
Apple HomePod review: What you need to know
This is Apple’s first attempt at a smart speaker – a marriage between digital assistant and hands-free speakerphone, just like an Amazon Echo or Google Home – which makes it quite important.
Instead of Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant, though, it uses Siri to help you control playback with your voice, answer questions and control HomeKit smart-home gear. It connects only via Wi-Fi, not Bluetooth; doesn’t have a 3.5mm input or output; and is about the size of a couple of Stilton cheeses stacked on top of one another.
Apple HomePod review: Price and competition
Of course, this is an Apple product and the Cupertino firm sets its stall out right from the beginning: this is no cut-price Echo. It’s £319, which is 60% more expensive than the most expensive speaker made by Amazon, the Echo Show. It’s also three-and-a-half times more expensive than the regular Amazon Echo, nearly two-and-a-half times more pricey than the £130 Google Home.
Perhaps the closest speaker to the Apple HomePod, in spirit at least, is the Sonos One. Again, though, the HomePod is considerably more expensive: £120 more expensive, in fact. The only smart speaker that comes close in price is the Google Home Max and that isn’t yet out in the UK. In the US, the Max costs $399 to the Apple HomePod’s $349.
Apple HomePod review: Design
The HomePod is a speaker designed principally for listening to music on, more so than any other smart speaker I’ve used, so it’s somewhat appropriate that it’s minimalist when it comes to the design.
It’s 172mm tall, 142mm wide and weighs a hefty 2.5kg. It’s mostly covered in spongy fabric, and only thing that breaks the monotony is the thick, fabric-covered cable sprouting from the rear. On the top is a gloss-black circular panel, subtly curved, that acts as an occasional control surface. Tap it once in the middle to play or pause, tap it twice to skip to the next track, tap the glowing plus and minus symbols to the side to adjust the volume. A multicoloured, strangely fuzzy blob glows when Siri is active; otherwise, the HomePod blends quietly into the background.
All the most interesting stuff is going on inside. The smart stuff is powered by an Apple A8 processor – the same as inside the iPhone 6 smartphone – and the audio engineering that’s gone into this speaker is something else. At the top of the HomePod is a 4in, high excursion woofer, which is monitored by a low-frequency calibration microphone, with the aim of preventing distortion and clipping.
Below it, in a ring surrounding the middle of the speaker, is an array of six further microphones – equivalent to the seven-mic far-field array in the Amazon Echo and Echo Plus – which are used to sense the shape and size of the room and adapt the sound accordingly.
And circling the base of the HomePod are seven horn-loaded tweeters, each powered by its very own amplifier. Apple uses these to “beamform” the sound out into the room to create a more focused and yet broad soundstage.
Apple HomePod review: Setup and sound quality
Setting up the Apple HomePod is a typically Apple experience. Hold your phone anywhere in the near vicinity of the speaker and a small setup window pops up at the bottom of your phone’s display. This then runs you through the various options and usual terms-and-conditions agreements.
With that done, you’re pretty much ready to go. There’s no faffing around with selecting Wi-Fi networks or entering passwords. Everything is transferred across from your iPhone, and you’re ready to go in minutes. Even if you move the speaker to a new location or change your router password, it’s a doddle to get the HomePod set up again. Just tap its icon in the Apple Home app: the details will be transferred again and you’ll be ready to go in a second or two.
That’s all impressive stuff, but what’s truly amazing about the HomePod is the way it sounds. It produces masses of bass, but never too much, and it’s always in control. The mids and treble are balanced, well separated and strike the perfect balance between clarity and warmth. And although you won’t be able to experience proper stereo until later in the year – when a software update will allow you to link two HomePods together – the width of the soundstage and its ability to fill even large rooms is truly astonishing.
The best thing about the HomePod, though, is how it adapts to the space it’s placed in.
By using its microphones to sense how sound waves are bouncing off surfaces in a room, it can tell how to tune the sound to best suit that space. The result is that you can put the HomePod wherever you like and it will sound good. Place it on an enclosing shelf and it will sound over-bassy at first, as the proximity of the shelves reinforce the low-frequency sound waves; after a few seconds, though, the HomePod will sense this and rebalance it. Move it back to a table in open space and the music sounds thin, but only for a short period while the scan takes place, after which the bass goes back to normal and it sounds brilliant once again.
And all of this takes places entirely automatically, completely seamlessly and without any input from you, the user. When the HomePod detects it’s been picked up, it performs a scan once you’ve set it down again. This is different from Sonos’ Trueplay system, which achieves a similar effect but via a manual process that involves measuring your room with your smartphone’s microphone. If you move the speaker, you have to do it all again.
I’m also very impressed with the HomePod’s far-field microphone array. It can pick up the “Hey Siri” wake phrase when spoken at normal volume from several metres away while music is playing at moderate volume; in tests against the Amazon Echo Plus, it was just as good.
Apple HomePod review: Smart speaker features
The audio engineering behind the HomePod is pure genius but that’s not the phrase I’d use to describe its smart features, powered by the company’s digital assistant, Siri.
Before I get to the negatives, though, let me tell you what I like about the HomePod’s voice-driven tech. First, its Apple Music contextual features are fantastic. Being able to ask who’s playing the guitar, who’s singing and even for different versions of a song is extremely useful for music lovers without a deep, NME-fuelled encyclopaedic knowledge of pop musicians’ movements and history. You can even ask HomePod to tell you more about a particular band, and you’ll get a full-on, robotic-sounding music review.
The integration with HomeKit devices is elegant, too, taking advantage of the Home app’s ability to group devices by room to allow you to issue commands like “hey Siri, turn off all the lights”, which turns off everything in the room you and the HomePod are in without having to specifically append the location. Plus, you can ask Siri all the boilerplate digital assistant stuff, including what the weather’s like, what the news headlines are (you can switch between BBC Radio 5 Live, LBC and Sky News), and what the traffic is like on your commute.
But the rest of the HomePod’s voice-driven capabilities fall severely short of what you might expect, certainly compared with Amazon and Google’s equivalent Echo and Home products. The first problem is Siri, which in my experience has never been as good as Google Assistant or Alexa at interpreting what you say. Nothing changes here. Siri works well most of the time, but I’d say that in the time I’ve been using the HomePod, Siri has misinterpreted what I said on more occasions than Alexa does.
I could get by with the HomePod if that was all that was wrong. The trouble is, there are other issues, too. You can’t set up multiple timers; just one at a time. You can’t ask Siri to play any radio station other than Beats 1 and you can’t ask to play music from Spotify, Tidal, Deezer or any other music-streaming platform. It’s Apple Music or bust.
Well, that’s not strictly true. You can listen to other platforms on the Apple HomePod via the app on your phone, but that sort of defeats the whole object of having a smart speaker in the first place.
However, while the HomeKit integration does work nicely, it’s worth pointing out that the number of devices with HomeKit support is currently far smaller than the number of manufacturers producing products with Amazon “skills” compatibility. You won’t be asking Siri to adjust the temperature on your Hive thermostat anytime soon.
The list of HomePod’s limitations doesn’t end there, either. Even if you did have the money buy two, you wouldn’t be able to pair them up in a stereo configuration (that feature isn’t coming until later in the year). You won’t be able to make phone calls from HomePod to HomePod or from HomePod to phone independently as you can with Amazon’s Echo speakers, either, and you won’t be able to have your HomePod read out upcoming calendar appointments. Nor can you ask it to tell you a joke. The HomePod, it turns out, doesn’t have much of a sense of humour.
Apple HomePod review: Verdict
That doesn’t mean the Apple HomePod is a terrible product. Far from it. It’s a stunning example of how engineering and technology can be put to use in new and exciting ways, to improve the way small speakers sound, no matter where you put them.
In fact, were this a regular Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speaker, I’d have no qualms in recommending it, even at £319. It really is that good.
So, does it really matter that the smart bits aren’t as good as rivals? Yes. It would be better if it supported other streaming services properly and smart-home tech more broadly, and if Apple ironed out crazy stuff like not being able to call up radio stations with your voice.
However, if you view the HomePod as simply a very good speaker with Siri bolted on, you’ll come to the conclusion that it’s a very good product indeed. Just don’t expect to be able to order the weekly shop on it.