SIMPLY THE BEST-SOUNDING SMART SPEAKER ON THE MARKET – IF YOU’RE WILLING TO BE LOCKED INTO APPLE MUSIC
Apple’s late arrival in the smart speaker market means it’s playing catchup with Amazon and Google – but the HomePod might be special enough to persuade Echo or Google devotees to switch.
It doesn’t look particularly assuming. Actually, it looks rather bland. A fabric mesh (in either white or “Space Grey”) covers the entire exterior, save for a black plastic blob on top. Neither branding nor controls are visible – the only physical connector is the power cable. Address it with “Hey, Siri!”, though, and a familiar luminescent circle appears on the top surface to show it’s listening. Touchsensitive volume controls also appear on the same surface as needed.
Not blown away? Start playing some music and you just might be. We don’t just mean that the HomePod is loud – although it certainly can be. On paper, its maximum volume level of 77dBA may look merely average, but unlike most speakers it doesn’t distort at all even when pumped up to ten, making it feel much more powerful than its rivals.
What’s really stunning is how vibrant, arresting and perfectly controlled everything sounds. Apple’s custom speaker arrangement gives dance music an irresistible driving kick; indie rock grinds and roars as it should; and the timpani in Verdi’s Requiem have a palpable impact. Even at moderate volumes, the HomePod has a muscular musicality that easily outshines anything else this month.
Perhaps the cleverest part is that the HomePod can listen in on its own output, and automatically apply acoustic processing as needed to ensure you get the best sound no matter where it’s placed. If a nearby wall is producing nasty resonances in the mid-range, the HomePod will adjust those frequencies to compensate. Treble getting muf ed by a nearby curtain? Again, the HomePod will sort it out.
The upshot is that you can stick the HomePod carelessly on a shelf, or in a corner, without the slightest regard for its acoustics, and get an effect that sounds like a high-end hi- system. All that’s missing is a stereo soundstage – and The bland design belies the vibrant, distortion-free sound
Apple’s working on adding that feature right now. Once it’s available, we suspect there will be no shortage of audio enthusiasts queueing up to buy HomePods by the pair.
For the rest of us, the HomePod isn’t quite such a straightforward proposition. First of all, $500 is a heck of a lot of money for a device that does the same basic job as the everyday Amazon Echo. Sure, the difference in audio quality is night and day – but whether it’s worth the gaping price gap will depend on your priorities and your disposable income.
Then there’s the uncomfortable question of compatibility. Alexa and the Google Assistant will both work with either Android or iOS, and you can happily use either to access Spotify, Net ix and so forth. The HomePod, by contrast, works only with iOS – Android users are shut out – and services such as Spotify, meanwhile, get treated very much as second-class citizens. You can kick off Spotify playlists manually from your iPhone (using Apple’s proprietary AirPlay transport), but if you’re looking for voice control of streaming music, you’re limited to your own purchased iTunes songs, plus Apple Music and Beats 1 radio – assuming you have obediently paid for your subscription. There’s not even a Bluetooth option for playing tunes from a nonApple phone or laptop.
If that doesn’t put you off, there’s one last consideration to bear in mind: compared to its established rivals, the HomePod is a somewhat limited device. As be ts its design, it’s at its strongest when it comes to musical functions. Siri does a superb job of picking out new music you’ll like, or assembling killer mixes within a given genre or era.
For general smart speaker duties, though, the HomePod lags behind Amazon and Google. You’ll look in vain for features such as phone calls and multi-user voice recognition. It works with smart home devices only to the extent that Siri can control them via HomeKit, and right now you can’t even use it to control an Apple TV. Oddly, there’s also no manual microphone-mute control: you can tell Siri to stop listening, but then you have to use the Home app on your iPhone to enable it again.
What you make of all this will depend on what you want from a smart speaker. If you’re looking for a convenient voice hub that will work with your Android phone, Spotify account and mishmash of smart home devices, the HomePod clearly isn’t a good t. It’s almost insolent how pointedly it refuses to integrate with non-Apple services.
If you’re primarily a music fan who’s already devoted to the Apple way of doing things, however, the HomePod will likely make you vastly, qualitatively happier than any of this month’s rivals. It’s not perfect, and it’s far from cheap – but you’ll be loving the sound of it long after the expense is forgotten.
$499 • www.apple.com/au
An opalescent circle shows that the HomePod is hanging on your every word