AP­PLE HomePod

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.

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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.

Smart fea­tures

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.

Smart home

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.

Stream­ing mu­sic

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.

Sound qual­ity

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.

Con­clu­sion

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...

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