A four-sentence HomePod review (with appendices)

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Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.

As a smart speaker, it offers best-in-class voice recognition, vastly outstripping the ability of other smart speakers to hear you trying to trigger a command at a distance or while music is playing, but its overall flexibility is stymied by the limited command sets that the Siri protocol offers.

Buy a HomePod if you already have Apple Music or you want to have it and you’re in the market for a single incredibly over-designed and radically impressive speaker that will give you really great sound with basically no tuning, fussing, measuring or tweaking.

That’s pretty much it for my review. Everything from here on out is details…but I love details and if you do too, let’s talk about some.

Appendices

A collection of information about various aspects of the HomePod’s creation and how it works in real life.

The reviewer:

Speakers are likely the pinnacle of “subjective hardware”. Listening environment, experience, vocabulary, taste and the natural ear of the reviewer are all going to differ in some small way from the potential owner. That means that no matter how many reviews you read if you’re not already going to buy one and sound matters to you then you should go find one to listen to at least once in an Apple Store or elsewhere.

I also think that means that reviewing the reviewer is sort of necessary to read a review like this in the proper context.

As for me, I come at this thing having sold high end audio equipment for around 7 years about 15 years ago. During my time in the home audio business I spent countless hours listening to and learning about loudspeakers of all kinds from $50 bookshelf models up to $20,000 Meridian systems. In the service of, hopefully, becoming educated enough to make proper recommendations for buyers. And, of course, to get that sweet 5% commission. My interest in audio extended back further and has continued to this day, though I’m no one’s specialist. I’d consider myself a moderately educated listener with a solid ear and a taste for the finer things. Though it’s important to note that my particular poison was always centered around home theater, and less on the ‘let’s sit in a room and listen to Vangelis and stare at each other’ end of the spectrum. Though that can be nice.

The above review and these end notes were written with that very moderate audio experience and admittedly very subjective viewpoint in play.

Build quality:

Apple took this Very Seriously Indeed™️. To prove just how serious, it took groups of journalists on the first-ever tour of its audio lab near its headquarters in Cupertino. The lab featured a dozen anechoic chambers for testing components of the HomePod, including one enormous one sat atop 28 tons of concrete. I’ve actually visited audio testing labs before and stood in these curiously sound-deadening chambers that allow you to isolate the smallest variation in tone of a speaker, and much of what Apple showed is standard operating procedure for development of a new loudspeaker.

But slathered on top of that is a bunch of typically Apple extra-mile jelly. Apple says that its largest test chamber is one of the biggest in the US, on a pad, suspended from the outside world with nothing to pollute its tests of audio purity. Beyond testing for the acoustic qualities of the speaker, these chambers allowed Apple to burrow down to account for and mitigate the issues that typically arise from having a high excursion subwoofer in such a small cabinet. Going even further, there are smaller chambers that allow them to isolate the hum from electronic components (there is a computer on board after all) and make attempts to insulate and control that noise so it doesn’t show up in the final output.

Put simply, when a sub booms as much as this one does, you’re usually guaranteed to rattle some components around. That’s that bzzzz sound you get when a speaker is turned up loud, or a car in front of you has a loose license plate frame and has Culture II on blast. Thanks to an excessive amount of testing and engineering, the HomePod contributes none of its own vibration or hum to the audio — even at maximum volume on super thumpy tracks. Very high marks on this aspect of the build quality — marks that translate directly to sound quality.

I’m not going to wax rhapsodic about the fabric covering the HomePod, though Apple is very proud of it being “transparent” to audio. This means that it theoretically has next to no effect on the sound passing through it, which can be an issue with cheaper speakers. Most decent quality speakers are covered with better materials, though at the lower end many are simply pulled over with something that looks decent, which can muddy sound. I’ll leave it to someone else to skin a HomePod and compare the output. I can say that it’s attractive and relatively stain resistant though. I have kids, so sue me.

The top display is the absolute bare minimum needed. Two volume buttons and a multicolored swirl that represents Siri. Compared to the button and icon rich surfaces of the Amazon Echo, Sonos One and Google Home Max it’s, well, very Apple-y.

Sound quality and comparatives:

The sound that comes from the HomePod can best be described as precise. It’s not as loud as some others like Google Home Max or as bright (and versatile) as the Sonos One, but it destroys the muddy sound of less sophisticated options like the Amazon Echo. To genuinely fill a large room you need two but anyone in a small house or apartment will get great sound from one.

I’ve been testing the Home Max, Sonos’ One and the newest Echo alongside the HomePod in order to get some basic frames of reference but also, in the end, to figure out where it’s supposed to fit.

The HomePod was the “best” sounding. It’s nuanced and subtle with great separation and clarity across all kinds of music. The One, for instance, had decent mid range but an overly bright high end with just the out of the box calibration. At maximum volume, the One became shrill and painful where the HomePod maintained balance.

The Home Max sounded pretty good, and because it has double the subs, with similar excursion (22mm vs. the HomePod’s 21mm) that pushes about the same amount of air, it’s really thumpy. They are downward firing though, vs upward, and I think that, along with the relatively standard enclosure, could have something to do with how pushed together the sound is. It definitely got a lot louder than the HomePod, which was a common theme in my testing — HomePod sounds great but is just not as loud as other speakers. The Home Max held the shape of the sound well up to max volume, which was more room filling as a single unit than a single HomePod alone.

But the Max falls very much into the ‘crowd pleaser’ sort of speaker. It’s loud and bassy and does a decent job of that. But it’s not very sophisticated.

All of the other units, from the Echo to the Sonos to the Home Max failed at providing a truly separated sound. That’s where the HomePod excels, and it’s thematically appropriate. It takes a metric butt-ton of engineering work coupled with a lot of restraint not to just make this thing loud and angry. Instead, care was taken to craft a sound stage based on the position of the speaker in the room and the components of the tracks being played.

The HomePod will even listen to the audio that comes back to determine the audio signature of the surfaces off of which it’s reflecting. In a reductive way, the HomePod is sensing what kinds of surfaces make up your room and compensating for them to eliminate echo and unwanted reverberation and to determine what slices of audio are best served by playing off of their nature. It does this by sending out and separately considering seven different sources of audio from each speaker and listening back to those. Each one can be treated as a separate entity and tweaked to play different segments of an audio track depending on its position close to a wall or away from it.

All of that processing that is being done by the A8 chip on board is why there is no EQ on the HomePod. Where would you even start “tuning” something that is making continuous and ongoing adjustments with every track and environment? I love a good bunch of sliders as much as the next person, but I also understand why they’re not here.

The HomePod has a single, upward-firing shock dampened sub. While the Home Max definitely bumps, it also requires the use of a separate rubber pad that you have to place like a bass trivet to prevent unwanted vibration while it’s on a surface. The HomePod transmits so little of the movement from the sub cone through the body that it’s in no need of anything more than the integrated rubber foot. It’s not as much boom, but it’s much better utilized.

That sub has a very impressive amount of movement to it (subs are generally categorized by how much air they can push) that is maximized by a custom multiband compressor that brings the cone right to the edge of how far it can be pushed without going over the edge into buzz. This fine tuning in real-time effectively uses what a normal sub would reserve for a ‘margin of error’ to stretch the range of tones available for use in playback.

In an apartment, the HomePod could not be louder and more room filling. But at home, in a 20×30′ great room with carpet on the floor, I did find myself wishing for it to be louder. This should be solved once Apple ships FullRoom — its support for two HomePods to be used in tandem but not in stereo. That’s coming soon, followed at a later date by the “multi room” function which lets a bunch of HomePods synchronize to play the same audio everywhere. But for now, small- to medium-sized rooms are fine, big rooms you may find the HomePod a smidge under powered.

Only the HomePod and the Echo provided true unidirectionality of sound, and the Echo is at the absolute back of the pack for audio quality. Walking around the HomePod from one corner of a room to another or around it in a circle is a really incredible experience. The sound does not fall off at any angle, and the characteristics of the audio don’t change. This just works.

Though I found the Sonos bright by default, the build quality is still excellent, and it’s probably a great option for many multi-channel audio enthusiasts. But Apple is not really going after the same people. The ‘it’s a pricey speaker’ argument is really pretty moot here. You’re not powering your home theater with the HomePod. Whole home audio isn’t live at launch either. In the end they’re courting Apple Music subscribers, not Sonos devotees. Sonos also had years to get their act together and has given up a ton of market advantage by dragging their toes with a genuinely unique and lovely product.

As far as separation goes, the Sonos One was quite crisp and definitely louder overall, because there are two of them (for roughly the same price as a HomePod).

But no matter how solid, they could still not create the expansive sound stage that the HomePod did. This was just as evident in tracks like Bodak Yellow as it was in La Grange. But it really kicked ass in live performances, where it felt that the vocals were sitting out in the air between you and HomePod, no matter where you were standing, and the applause and high hats were coming from some place above and behind the speaker — being projected outwards and around. It’s one of the most three-dimensional sounds I’ve heard from any music setup and absolutely the deepest stage from a “single speaker”.

It’s, unfortunately, one of those things where words will fail to do it justice. Suffice it to say that the HomePod is the most sophisticated and acoustically interesting of the speakers, but definitely not the most bombastic.

Siri:

Currently, Siri doesn’t do a lot of “other” stuff that isn’t about audio content. Apple says this is because the vast majority of people use these speakers for basic commands like playing music and setting timers. This has been borne out by studies over the past year. This makes it somewhat acceptable but not ideal that Siri works absolutely fine for music, news, sports and other audio and respectably for the essentially three basic tasks that have been released for it by Apple.

But it doesn’t put it in any kind of smart speaker capability pole position. Apple has a lot of ground to make up with Siri, which is clearly why it is focusing on speaker quality and the streamlined value proposition of it being a conduit for Apple Music.

While you can send texts and take notes and set reminders and handle phone calls begun on your iPhone, that’s about all of the extracurriculars and they’re all focused on single-user experiences. If you’re logged in to your iCloud account, all of the messages and calls are yours and come from you. That’s great if you’re a single dude living alone, but it completely falls apart in a family environment. Apple allows you to toggle these options off as the iCloud account owner and I recommend you do before it all ends in tears. Unless you live alone in which case Mazel, it sounds peaceful.

General information was easily won by the Google Home Max, followed by the Echo and trailed by the HomePod. Siri had a hard time with the length of a blue whale, Echo gave a rote reading of Wikipedia and the Home Max spoke in colloquial language right from the Google brain, making it the most enjoyable to listen to.

Integration and expansion is clearly in the ballpark of the Echo right now. Amazon has, for better or for worse, pursued a policy of open and aggressive courting of all comers with its software strategy. For every ‘hey that’s neat’ implementation of an Alexa command there are a dozen crappy ones — but that’s the case with any new app platform. What matters is that Echo has pushed through the membrane of early adopters and has planted its tendrils in as many pots as possible. The Echo Anywhere strategy couldn’t be any more different from the tack Apple has taken with Siri and it provides Amazon a solid moat. Now it’s a race to see whether Siri can improve as fast as Amazon can make Amazon Music a thing to care about.

Purely musical information and commands was a tighter race, as the HomePod’s ‘Musicologist’ feature was much better at delivering musical information (though stumbled a lot on compilations or best of records) and using linking or combinatory commands to drill down through musical choices.

The smart home capabilities are exactly as they are in the Home app on your phone, which is where the HomePod lives so it makes a kind of sense. Scenes, direct accessory control and device status updates are all here and they work perfectly. These are aided by HomePod’s ability to act as a bridge that gives you access to all of your devices. It will supersede an Apple TV if you have one and replace that function if you don’t. It also acts as a local bridge that can extend access to devices that are BLTE-only and HomeKit compatible, so place strategically if you have some devices that give you trouble currently.

They are also aided by the fact that Siri detection works like pure elven magic on the HomePod. I fully believe that there is nothing as detrimental to the success of voice computing as feeling like an idiot when you ask your personal assistant to do something out loud and it doesn’t respond or gives you some non sequitur. Makes you feel powerless, silly and embarrassed. The exact opposite of what voice commands should do.

The fulcrum of adoption of voice first boils down to the ability to detect and respond reliably.

I tested it up to 40 feet away and around corners in a hallway while music blasting and speaking at a normal volume and it worked really well. It’s very, very impressive.

It’s not infallible, but the iOS software running on the A8 uses blind source separation to recognize and separate two kinds of ambient noise. This could be running water or a washing machine that is ‘on’ when you initiate a command and noises like clinking plates that happen while you’re speaking. It’s able to isolate and ignore these to better recognize your commands.

As a side note, Siri auto detection between devices in close proximity is great. If your HomePod is in the room but your phone is right in front of you, your phone will trigger when you say Hey Siri, but quickly go dormant and the HomePod will take the command. In the hundreds of commands I gave HomePod, my phone only accidentally grabbed the command away from HomePod once. Whatever they did here works well.

It’s also worth noting that Apple has been obsessive about keeping Siri commands on the device unless they’re sure you want it going out to the cloud. Apple listens to a rolling block of a few seconds of audio at a time locally on the device with the A8 and only with high confidence that you actually said Hey Siri will it start recording a command to broadcast. It will then send that snippet completely encrypted and anonymized from your particular HomePod. Apple knows what you said at that point and uses it to train its voice algorithms, but there’s no way to connect it to you. You can also disable Siri with a tap at any point to make it stop listening.

Details:

If you’re the kind of person that rolls your eyes at someone getting giddy about a power cord, look away. The power cord on the HomePod is aces. It’s got a pliable, braided exterior and a flexible sheath that gives it a super tight turning radius for routing through corders or brackets. It almost feels like a pre-worn pair of jeans. It’s massively better than the bog standard hard plastic cables or skinny DC power cables that come with the vast majority of smart speakers. Good job cord team.

Moving from place to place with the HomePod isn’t necessarily a primary use case, but it was a nice surprise to set up the HomePod once and move between my work, apartment and home without having to change a thing. When you plug it in at a new spot it will fire up and connect to any network known to your phone within seconds. It’s really fast and seamless.

Business justifications:

The business justification for HomePod is Apple Music. This seems crystal clear once you use the playback and the Musicologist features. There are 36 million people worldwide using Apple Music and 39 million people in the US alone that own a smart speaker. Apple Music is the perfect lead generation mechanism for this first wave of HomePod sales and a way for Apple to monetize Apple Music along its primary axis: hardware.

Given the above numbers, Apple currently makes a little less than $1B in revenue a quarter on Apple Music. It would need to sell around 11 million HomePods over the next 12 months to equal that revenue. And each one of those purchases would essentially guarantee retention for further periods of Apple Music subs.

There’s a reason my review is only four sentences: if you don’t like Apple Music, don’t buy a HomePod.

The HomePod sounds great but on the surface, it’s debatable whether it’s great enough to justify the limitations of its smart features when compared purely on those merits and not as a component of the Apple ecosystem.

However, if you’re an Apple Music subscriber, the equation instantly plops in the other direction: it’s near useless to buy any other speaker and this one sounds great, so why not.

As the owner of a collection of shoes that is large enough to be known to cause visitors to exclaim “Imelda Marcos!” and pass out, I am the last person to make generalizations about what people feel it’s worth spending their money on. But if you own an iPhone, an Apple Music subscription and at least one HomeKit device, then you are the target market for a fantastic sounding $349 speaker that works best with all of that stuff.

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