Apple’s OG smart speaker is back and it's better (but not by much) than when it was first released
- Sounds superb
- Siri is very responsive
- Useful temperature and humidity sensors
- HomePods still can’t play BBC radio natively
The original Apple HomePod was not one of the American tech company’s more successful ventures. It might have sounded amazing when it launched in 2018 but it was widely criticised for Siri’s lack of smarts, and the immaturity of the HomeKit ecosystem didn’t help.
Apple took stock and discontinued the HomePod after introducing the more affordable HomePod mini in 2021. It’s now back and, surprisingly, doesn’t look all that different. In fact, unless you had both speakers side by side, even seasoned HomePod owners would struggle to tell the difference between the two. That’s because most of the significant changes are inside rather than on the exterior.
Apple HomePod (2nd generation) review: What you need to know
Let’s focus, however, for a moment on those very tiny physical differences, and there are three of them. First up, the new speaker is slightly smaller and squatter than before. The display on the top now stretches to the edges of the glossy surface, and the speaker’s power cable is no longer captive, meaning you can replace it with something longer if the rather short one included in the box doesn’t reach where you want it to.
The more interesting changes, as I’ve already hinted at, are inside. The new HomePod now has integrated temperature and humidity sensors. There’s support for the new Matter smart home interoperability standard. The speaker houses new, upgraded silicon – an Apple S7 chip borrowed from the Apple Watch line – which Apple says allows the HomePod to up its game when it comes to computational audio.
Finally, the new HomePod also now has the same U1 Ultra Wideband chip as the HomePod mini, which means you can transfer music that’s playing on your iPhone to the HomePod simply by bringing the two into close proximity.
Alas, as well as some improvements, Apple is bringing some downgrades with the HomePod 2. The Wi-Fi support has dropped from 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) to 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) instead of moving up to the latest Wi-Fi 6 technology. I haven’t noticed any degrading of performance over the original HomePod, but those wanting to position the speakers further away from their wireless router could experience issues.
Elsewhere, Apple has made more minor cutbacks, reducing the number of internal microphones from six to four and the total driver count from eight to six. Fortunately, neither of these changes appears to have had a detrimental effect on voice pickup or sound quality and the HomePod’s high-excursion woofer remains in place, producing deep but balanced and well-controlled bass.
Apple HomePod (2nd generation) review: Price and competition
In the US the Apple HomePod has had a price reduction of $50 but, for various reasons, that translates to a mere £20 drop in the UK (to £299). Still, that’s not a bad considering the first HomePod was launched almost five years ago. Taking inflation into account, the Apple HomePod 2 is much better value than it was back then.
Unfortunately, it’s still expensive in comparison to its main rivals in the wireless smart speaker space. The Amazon Echo Studio, also now into its second generation, costs £219 at Amazon – a full £50 cheaper than the HomePod. The Sonos One costs £159 and even the upcoming upgrade to that – the Sonos Era 100 – is £20 less than the latest HomePod.
Meanwhile, if the ultimate in sound quality isn’t important to you and all you need is an ecosystem-specific smart speaker, there are plenty of smaller speakers available to you, including the 4th generation Amazon Echo (£110), the Nest Audio (£89) and Apple’s very own HomePod mini at £99.
Apple HomePod (2nd generation) review: Sound quality
The sound quality produced by the Apple HomePod is very impressive. Compared with the Sonos Move, which remains our favourite smart speaker overall, it’s just as enjoyable with plenty of well-controlled bass and loads of spacious detail.
The HomePod lacks some body in the upper bass registers and misses out on overall richness compared with the Sonos Move, but that’s more of a difference in tone than any kind of inferiority. There’s nothing bad about the way this speaker sounds.
And it goes up a whole level when you start feeding it Spatial Audio in the form of Dolby Atmos-enabled tracks from Apple Music. When switching between lossless and Atmos and plain old lossless, the difference is clear, with everything from electronic music to classical gaining an extra dimension.
Delving into Apple’s Electronic Spatial Audio playlist, I picked out Yuné Pinku’s “Night Light”, a track on which ethereal synths already create an enveloping soundscape; enabling Dolby Atmos pulled all of the various elements of the song apart, making them sound less compressed, less congested and less two-dimensional.
Elsewhere on the same playlist, the vocals on “Conveniency” by Nia Archives gain greater texture and richness, while on Hummingbird’s “My Heart”, the deep bassline that kicks in at 1min 37secs sounded deeper and cleaner in Spatial Audio. After switching to Apple’s Classical Spatial Audio playlist there was an even more pronounced benefit, with Holst’s “Jupiter” presented with a huge amount of extra depth and resonance.
Spatial audio is best enjoyed with two HomePods in stereo, however. Although there’s a noticeable difference between Atmos tracks and non-Atmos music with only one HomePod in your setup, the difference is less palpable.Buy now from John Lewis
It’s also worth noting that the HomePod plays along beautifully with other Apple services and devices: notably the Apple TV 4K, which can pair with a single HomePod or pair of HomePods and play TV audio through them.
Indeed, if you have an Apple TV 4K (2nd generation or later) and tvOS 16.3 (or later) installed, you’ll also be able to connect your Apple TV to the ARC or eARC port on your TV and have any of the audio (yes, ANY) that’s piped through your TV relayed to your HomePod or HomePods. This works for TV apps or external video/audio sources connected via your TV’s HDMI ports.
It took me a bit of wrestling with my TV’s HDMI settings and a few restarts, but I eventually got this to work with my TV and it worked well, with impressive sound quality, minimal audio delay and no lip sync issues. I’ve had problems with both on far more expensive bits of TV audio gear in the past, so Apple deserves credit here.
I would, however, hesitate to recommend a HomePod or pair of HomePods as your main TV speakers, however good they sound. I say this because HDMI ARC support is still relatively new to Apple TV and, if past experience with ARC connections in general is anything to go by, it may well turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth. Even in my setup, I sometimes had to turn the TV and Apple TV off and on again to get them to connect.
Apple HomePod (2nd generation) review: Smart speaker performance
The big complaint about the original HomePod wasn’t with audio quality, however, or even streaming service support. Far from it. Most of the issues at the time surrounded the speaker’s smart features – or the lack of them, to be more specific.
To some extent, these weaknesses persist. Siri still isn’t as good at answering general knowledge questions as Google’s Nest smart speakers and you can’t set Spotify or Amazon Music as the HomePod’s default services, meaning you have to use AirPlay to stream music from these platforms – you can’t use your voice.
Worse still, the HomePod and BBC radio playback are still strangers to each other, with no native support for requests such as “Hey Siri, play BBC Radio 4”. There are ways around this via Siri shortcuts, as detailed below, but this is a fiddly process that not everyone will be able, or willing, to work out.
It’s also still true that Apple’s HomeKit ecosystem can’t compete with the flexibility of either Amazon Alexa or Google’s Home Assistant when it comes to third-party smart device support.
Browse the listings of your favoured online smart technology retailer and whichever smart home product you’re looking for – whether that be a video doorbell, security camera, smart lighting, robot vacuum or smart lock – you’re going to have far more choice when it comes to Alexa and Home Assistant support than HomeKit.
However, that’s set to change and the reason is that the HomePod Gen 2 supports the new Matter smart home interoperability standard, a technology that will – eventually – broaden the range of products that the HomePod can connect to.
Specifically, the HomePod can operate as a “Matter controller” and has all the necessary wireless hardware to operate as a “Thread border router”. This means it can both manage your smart home network and also connect directly to Thread-based smart home devices such as smart lightbulbs, smart locks, motion sensors and more, without the need to purchase additional hardware.
There aren’t many Matter-certified devices on the market right now but, with support from Apple, Google and Amazon, the trickle will likely turn into a flood soon, especially as it’s also possible for existing devices to be updated for the new standard. Having said that, the cheaper HomePod mini has the same Matter and Thread hardware inside, as does the Amazon Echo (4th gen) and Nest Hub (2nd gen), so it isn’t unique in this regard.
This isn’t the only area in which the HomePod 2 has improved, either; it has some other smart upgrades, too. Some of these are based on new hardware, such as its new temperature and humidity sensors, which you can build into automations and shortcuts. If you have a smart thermostat that supports HomeKit (or Matter in the future), for example, you don’t need to buy a secondary temperature sensor as you can control the temperature on the thermostat with your HomePod 2.
Alternatively, you could use it to control a basic fan heater connected to a smart plug. I set it up in my home office to switch on when the temperature dipped below 18˚C and to switch off when the temperature rose above 19.5˚C.
The HomePod 2 will also, via a firmware update, soon be able to listen out for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and alert you if one goes off while you’re at work or out and about. It’s a feature Alexa devices have had for some time now but will be nice to have when it arrives.
Other areas of improvement come courtesy of Apple’s steady software improvements. You can now use the HomePod to set multiple timers, although you still can’t name each one; it’s also possible to set up quick automations via voice (for example: “Hey Siri, turn on the living room lights at 5pm”); and Siri voice shortcuts and automations have expanded the capabilities of the HomePod since their introduction, too.
I’ve no problems at all with Siri’s voice recognition performance, either. There’s very little pause after a request is made, unless there’s some problem with internet connectivity, and although there has been a reduction in the number of microphones in this model, the speaker is able to pick up the “Hey Siri” wake phrase in the noisiest of environments.
Apple HomePod 2 review: Verdict
The Apple HomePod (2nd generation) is clearly a better smart speaker than the original. The hardware isn’t much different, aside from its temperature and humidity sensors, but Apple’s steady introduction of new features for its Home and Shortcuts apps means it’s far more capable – more smart, if you will – than it was when it first appeared. Audio quality remains exceptional, Spatial Audio support makes a genuine difference to sound quality and integration with other Apple products such as the Apple TV 4K is superb.
It isn’t perfect, though: it’s expensive compared with its main rivals and, although Matter will improve things, third-party device support is still thinner on the ground than it is for Alexa and Google Assistant speakers. And I still can’t fathom why Apple and the BBC can’t get together and sort out native BBC Radio playback. Surely it can’t be that hard to do.
All things considered, however, the Apple HomePod (2nd generation) is a fantastic smart speaker. It sounds great (especially as a stereo pair) and works perfectly well as a smart speaker, as long as you appreciate its limitations.