It might not qualify as the smartest smart speaker in town, but Apple’s HomePod certainly puts rivals Google and Amazon to shame when it comes to great sound quality.
At $499 the HomePod is playing in a rather higher speaker space than any of the others reviewed in this issue. Of course you can pick up the entry-level Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot for a mere $79, and they’ll do you OK for spoken word content. But they offer cringeworthy music playback, especially the Echo Dot.
We’ve seen what you get for stepping up to a better Google-equipped device, or the Echo Plus, each with an improvement in sound quality. But they all fall short of the HomePod. Apple’s smart speaker is the pick of the bunch if you want to rock a decent-sized living area.
Setting up the HomePod requires an iOS device with the latest software updates — which makes it clear from the start that if you don’t own an iGadget, then Apple’s smart speaker obviously isn’t the smart choice for your home.
To grab the HomePod’s attention you simply say “Hey Siri” and she’ll easily hear you from the next room. Alternatively you can tap the top of the speaker, which has touchsensitive playback controls, eliminating the need for physical buttons.
During the set-up you’re given the option to grant the HomePod access to “Personal Requests” on your iPhone when it’s within Bluetooth range. This adds the ability to create reminders, notes and shopping lists, as well as to send and receive messages.
The insecurity of sharing
Unfortunately you can only associate one iPhone with the HomePod, which might lead to power struggles in iCentric homes. Access to some features requires authentication via your iPhone, though not so with iMessages. So you’re granting the entire household access because, unlike Google Assistant, Siri can’t recognise individual voices.
And Siri on the HomePod isn’t quite as useful as Siri on the iPhone. You can ask her basic questions, but she can’t check your calendar, because she wants to show you the results rather than read them aloud. It’s the same with many other advanced queries.
As is typical of Apple’s walled-garden approach, Siri is also hamstrung when it comes to accessing third-party services. Unlike her rivals, she can’t order a pizza, call an Uber, check your bank balance or read your power bills.
Talking to Siri on the HomePod becomes more useful when you need a digital butler to boss around your smart home devices.
The HomePod acts as hub for Apple’s HomeKit smart home ecosystem, with many of the big names like Belkin WeMo, D-Link, LifX and Elgato Eve getting onboard. It lacks the Zigbee low-powered wireless protocol support
offered by the Amazon Echo Plus, however, so you’ll need an external Zigbee hub to control gear like Philips Hue light bulbs.
Thankfully you don’t need to worry about brands and protocols once everything is connected. Simply tell Siri to turn on the lights in the lounge room, and she sorts the details.
Apple’s walled garden comes into play again here, with the HomePod only streaming from Apple Music or Beats 1, plus iTunes music purchases or (if you have one set up) your iCloud Music Library with an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscription.
So the only way to play from Spotify, Tidal, Google Play Music, Amazon Music Unlimited (not to mention TuneIn, iHeartRadio, SoundCloud and Stitcher) or indeed from your home iTunes library is to play these on an iDevice or Mac, and then use the HomePod’s AirPlay to send them via your home network. AirPlay is, at least, higher quality than Bluetooth, handling Apple Lossless and FLAC, but of course you won’t have voice control, which would seem to defeat much of the purpose of having a smart speaker at your beck and call.
Siri’s inability to recognise individual voices is also problematic. She treats any music request as if coming from the primary iTunes account linked to the speaker, hampering Apple Music’s efforts to learn your individual taste and limiting access to others’ music.
On the upside, if you own multiple HomePods then people can listen to different music in different rooms even if you only have an Apple Music Individual plan. In the Google ecosystem, you need a Family plan (otherwise each request overrides the last).
Along with requesting specific artists, albums and tracks, you can also ask for stations, genres and moods. When Siri runs out of music you can say “Play me more like this” to create a Pandora-style station on the fly.
For all of Siri’s limitations, the HomePod takes sound quality very seriously. Whenever you move the speaker it automatically recalibrates to match the acoustics of the room, rather than requiring you to do the Sonos Trueplay dance holding a smartphone.
The HomePod is a solid unit, standing 17cm tall and tipping the scales at 2.5kg. It packs a remarkable seven-tweeter array, all horn-loaded around the bottom, with a long-excursion four-inch upwardfacing woofer above. Onboard processing creates a wide sound-stage and aims to eliminate distortion at high volumes.
As a result, and also given the price differential, the HomePod outperforms the Google Home and Amazon Echo speakers on sale locally. Of course Apple, Amazon and Google aren’t the only players in the smart speaker game. We’ve seen one JBL Link, the 10, performing well; there are larger models available and imminent. And we’re still waiting for the $299 Sonos One to work with Alexa and Google Assistant in Australia. (Until then, you can get Alexa working if you trick her into thinking she’s in the US. Alexa will also be able to control any Sonos speaker, so you could use a cheap Amazon Echo Dot to give your Sonos system a smart overhaul.)
Pre-empting this activation, we put the $299 Sonos One against the HomePod, and it held its own sonically remarkably well. The Sonos is a little louder, although admittedly it sounds a tad overblown at full volume. Dial it back to 9 and it’s on par with the HomePod cranked to the max. Both speakers create similarly wide sound-stages, while the Sonos One offers a slightly brighter high-end, the HomePod a tad more low-end punch. Even so, the Sonos sneaks ahead on low-end clarity, and strings like a double bass could sound a little more lifelike.
Link two Sonos Ones in a stereo pair and they understandably start to pull away from the HomePod in terms of volume, bass, clarity and and stereo sepa- ration — even if only placed a foot part. HomePod will also support stereo pairs (and multi-room audio) but not until the AirPlay 2 update due later this year.
Step up to a single $379 Sonos Play:3 and the HomePod starts to sound a little brash, with the single Play:3 speaker offering better clarity, bass and stereo separation than its little brother. As you can imagine, using a pair of Play:3 speakers, or the $749 Play:5, sees the HomePod fall further behind.
It’s no surprise that the HomePod is undoubtedly the one for Apple fans. If you’ve already created an Apple-centric living environment and have been hanging out for a Siri-powered smart speaker, rather than embracing the Google or Amazon ecosystems, well, you probably won’t think twice. If you’re not Apple-centric, however, you’d need to be prepared to defect to Apple Music and an iGadget to get the most from the HomePod.
If it’s the size that attracts you over the others in this issue, it’s worth noting that audio specialists — like Sonos, Harman/Kardon, the aforementioned JBL, and we can expect many more — are rolling out larger speech-compatible offerings. The US$399 Google Home Max is yet to reach Australia’s shores, and will challenge or top the HomePod’s sound, though looks likely also to put a larger dent in your wallet. Meanwhile the growth of Chromecast in everything from portable speakers to high-end hi-fi allows you to voice-direct tunes to them using just that $79 Google Mini.
But of the speakers reviewed in this issue, Apple’s smart speaker comes out ahead on sound quality. The HomePod holds its own when it comes to casual listening up to enjoyably bouncy levels; only if you like to really crank up the volume and savour every note will you hear its shortcomings.
ABOVE: Just below the top control surface sit the main control electronics, including Apple’s A8 processor. Under that is the single four-inch high-excursion woofer, and about halfway down a six-microphone array to capture your voice commands, while...