Ap­ple Homepod

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Macworld - - Contents -

The Homepod is Ap­ple’s smart speaker that’s con­trolled us­ing Siri and de­signed pri­mar­ily for high-qual­ity mu­sic play­back. It’s taken its sweet time to ar­rive, but ar­rive it has and our ears have de­cided that it was worth the wait.

Nat­u­rally, this isn’t merely an Air­play speaker. With Siri built in, you can use it for many other tasks – just as you can with Ama­zon’s Alexa and Google’s As­sis­tant. From check­ing the weather and sports scores to set­ting re­minders, alarms

and timers, Siri is a pretty ca­pa­ble as­sis­tant. It can also con­trol all your Homekit de­vices, such as lights, heat­ing and switches.

As you’d ex­pect, the Homepod is very much an Ap­ple prod­uct. It’s de­signed to work within the Ap­ple ecosys­tem and it does this ex­cep­tion­ally well. And if you’re al­ready well es­tab­lished in this world, the Homepod is a great ad­di­tion.

De­sign

Whether in grey or white, the Homepod is a beau­ti­fully de­signed speaker. It’s larger in all di­men­sions than the Echo 2, a lit­tle smaller than the Har­man Kar­don Al­lure and roughly the same as the Sonos One.

If you heard it be­fore you saw it, you’d be sur­prised at just how com­pact it is. We love the seam­less fab­ric which sur­rounds the Homepod, feels spongy to the touch and looks as if it’s been 3D printed.

On top is a glossy plas­tic disc which lights up when Siri talks and hides touch sen­si­tive vol­ume con­trols. Tap the cen­tre to play/pause, dou­ble tap to skip to the next track and triple tap to skip back to the pre­vi­ous one. Tap and hold to in­voke Siri. It’s all com­pletely in­tu­itive, es­pe­cially if you’re al­ready used to con­trol­ling mu­sic play­back with a but­ton on your head­phone cord. The cap­tive power ca­ble is slightly un­usual, but aside from the worry it can’t be eas­ily fixed if it gets dam­aged, it’s not a deal breaker. It’s not hugely long but should be long enough to reach a nearby power socket.

Setup is quick and easy. As with re­cent ipads, you just hold your iphone near the Homepod and it ap­pears on the screen. A few taps later and it’s ready to go: Wi-fi pass­words, Ap­ple ID and pref­er­ences are all sent wire­lessly from your phone.

Which mu­sic ser­vices does Homepod sup­port?

If you don’t have an Ap­ple Mu­sic sub­scrip­tion and haven’t al­ready used the three-month free trial you’ll see the op­tion to try it out. Oth­er­wise, it’s £9.99 per month or you can choose to get your mu­sic from an­other source.

Siri can also play mu­sic you’ve pur­chased from itunes or mu­sic stored in your icloud Mu­sic Li­brary. There’s also Beats 1 ra­dio, which doesn’t re­quire an Ap­ple Mu­sic sub­scrip­tion, plus the

thou­sands of pod­casts avail­able from Ap­ple.

If you al­ready have a Spo­tify, Tidal, Pan­dora,

Deezer or Ama­zon Mu­sic sub­scrip­tion (or an­other ser­vice) you can play this through the Homepod via your iphone us­ing Air­play.

You can then ask Siri to con­trol play­back, such as paus­ing or skip­ping to the next track. What you can’t do when play­ing mu­sic this way is to ask Siri to play a spe­cific al­bum, song or playlist. Un­til there’s proper in­te­gra­tion with an­other stream­ing ser­vice, Siri won’t be as use­ful as with Ap­ple

Mu­sic where you can say “Hey Siri, add this song to my favourites” or “Hey Siri, play party mu­sic from the 1980s”.

Ap­ple wants Homepod own­ers to use Ap­ple Mu­sic, which should come as no sur­prise to any­one. Ama­zon and Google both make their de­vices work best with their own stream­ing ser­vices, too.

Of course, you can play any au­dio you like through the Homepod as long as it’s via Air­play. That means you can se­lect the Homepod when you’re watch­ing Net­flix, iplayer, Youtube or even when mak­ing a phone call – the built-in mics let it act as a hands-free speak­er­phone (and the qual­ity and ex­pe­ri­ence is very good). If you have a sup­ported Ap­ple TV, you can choose the Homepod as the au­dio out­put, again via Air­play.

What’s miss­ing?

The Homepod doesn’t have an aux in (or out) and there’s no Blue­tooth. So it lacks the flex­i­bil­ity of some other smart speak­ers. While any­one in the

house­hold can ask Siri to play mu­sic, set a timer or do other tasks, they won’t be able to play mu­sic from, say, Spo­tify on their An­droid phone.

There’s no voice recog­ni­tion in the sense that Siri doesn’t know who’s mak­ing re­quests. Once you set up a Homepod, it pulls in­for­ma­tion from the Ap­ple ID you used. Siri there­fore knows con­tacts from only one ac­count, mak­ing the abil­ity to send text mes­sages and make phone calls use­ful only to one per­son. You can change the Ap­ple ID as­so­ci­ated with the Homepod, but this isn’t some­thing you can do on the fly: you can’t ask Siri to “switch to Miriam’s ac­count”.

You can share to-do lists and cal­en­dars, though, but only one per­son can use the Homepod to check what the traf­fic is like to “work”. Ev­ery­one else will have to spec­ify the lo­ca­tion when ask­ing, so there are work­arounds for some things.

Ap­ple is late to the smart speaker game, so ri­vals al­ready have a range of de­vices, in­clud­ing those with screens, such as Ama­zon’s Echo Spot. It’s pos­si­ble Ap­ple will broaden the range of Homepods in a sim­i­lar way to of­fer both cheaper, smaller de­vices as well as a po­ten­tial Echo Show equiv­a­lent where it could take ad­van­tage of its Facetime video call­ing ser­vice.

Later in 2018, you’ll be able to use a pair of Homepods to cre­ate stereo sound. Al­ter­na­tively, you’ll be able to place them in mul­ti­ple rooms around the house and ei­ther play mu­sic in sync or tell Siri to play a track on a spe­cific Homepod.

For now, there is but one Homepod.

What can Siri do on the Homepod?

If you’ve used Siri a lot on your iphone or ipad, you’ll al­ready know what to ex­pect from the Homepod as the as­sis­tant has – as far as we can tell – the same ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Most peo­ple will use Siri to ask for mu­sic and con­trol play­back, but you can also ask for the news head­lines (a new fea­ture added to IOS re­cently, too), a weather fore­cast, unit con­ver­sion, gen­eral in­for­ma­tion (“How tall is the Shard?”) and more.

In the UK, the Homepod will de­fault to the BBC head­lines, but when you first ask for the news, Siri will tell ask if you want to switch to Sky or LBC.

With Ap­ple Mu­sic, Siri can tell you the name of the song, al­bum and who played the bass on that track. Some in­for­ma­tion is pulled from web sources in­clud­ing Wikipedia while other data comes ;from Ap­ple Mu­sic it­self.

The Homepod works as a home hub, too. This means it can con­trol your Homekit de­vices and also al­low you to con­trol them re­motely from your iphone. If you don’t own any Homekit de­vices you’re in the for­tu­nate po­si­tion of be­ing able to buy only those which sup­port it. Many early adopters of smart home gad­gets will find their lights, switches, ther­mostats and sen­sors aren’t Homekit com­pat­i­ble which means Siri won’t be able to con­trol them.

Homekit-com­pat­i­ble de­vices can also be more ex­pen­sive than those which don’t sup­port it.

You can ask Siri to send a text mes­sage or call some­one. And if you need to use an­other ser­vice, say What­sapp, you sim­ply say “Send

John a mes­sage on What­sapp” or even “Send

Matt a What­sapp say­ing ‘Do you want to meet for din­ner at 7.30?’”.

For re­minders, Siri will add your re­quest to your Re­minders app on your phone. Un­like Alexa, it won’t give an au­di­ble re­minder from the Homepod at the time you set: you’ll just get a no­ti­fi­ca­tion on your iphone.

Ap­ple needs to work on Siri’s speech, though. Its pro­nun­ci­a­tion and in­to­na­tion aren’t nearly as good as the Google As­sis­tant or Alexa: it sounds more robotic and less life­like than its ri­vals.

A while back, Ap­ple opened up Siri to app de­vel­op­ers so they could al­low users to con­trol as­pects with the as­sis­tant. The launch of the Homepod could prompt some to add Siri to their apps which could bring ‘na­tive’ con­trol for mu­sic

ser­vices such as Spo­tify. It re­mains to be seen whether that will hap­pen or not, though.

Per­for­mance

You’re prob­a­bly most in­ter­ested in sound qual­ity, as this is a speaker af­ter all. The good news is that it’s the best sound­ing smart speaker we’ve heard. By a clear mar­gin. It’s room-fill­ing loud, with no dis­tor­tion at all even at high vol­ume. Bass is ex­cel­lent, and much louder and deeper than you’d ever ex­pect from some­thing this small.

As it’s cir­cu­lar, the main woofer sits hor­i­zon­tally in­side and fires up­wards. At the bot­tom, an ar­ray of seven tweet­ers en­sure mids and highs are pro­jected in all direc­tions. And their lo­ca­tion means sound will also be re­flected off the sur­face you’ve put the Homepod on.

Clev­erly, an on-board Ap­ple A8 chip uses the ar­ray of six mi­cro­phones to lis­ten to the en­vi­ron­ment and ad­just the sound au­to­mat­i­cally to op­ti­mise it for the Homepod’s lo­ca­tion.

This hap­pens au­to­mat­i­cally and in­vis­i­bly, so it isn’t pos­si­ble to hear a ‘with’ and ‘with­out’ pro­cess­ing to check for au­di­ble dif­fer­ences. Nev­er­the­less, the Homepod does in­deed sound great pretty much wher­ever you put it: on a shelf, a side table or on the kitchen work­top.

Bass is also mon­i­tored and con­trolled by the A8 chip to en­sure dis­tor­tion is kept in check. While mids and highs sound the same on var­i­ous sur­faces and in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, bass does seem to be af­fected. When placed on a thick wooden kitchen work­top with ce­ramic tiles, the Homepod’s bass sounded much more muted than when it was sat on a small table in the lounge, fur­ther from a wall. In the lat­ter lo­ca­tion, bass was con­sid­er­ably louder.

Re­gard­less of po­si­tion, the mo­tor-driven woofer de­liv­ers bass fre­quen­cies which many ri­val smart speak­ers sim­ply can­not pro­duce. The Ama­zon Echo, for ex­am­ple, strug­gles with tracks such as Frac­tal’s It­vara and bass is largely ab­sent.

Not so on the Homepod. In our lounge, it coped ef­fort­lessly with the sub-bass with power that you’d as­so­ciate with a much larger speaker.

We’ve lis­tened to just about every genre and the Homepod does a great job with all. If you want to demo the Homepod, pick a sim­ple track with strong vo­cals and a deep bass line. Diana Krall’s Peel me a grape, for ex­am­ple, sounds ut­terly crisp and clean where every nu­ance of her voice and pi­ano can be heard.

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing dou­ble-bass is sim­i­larly strong, but with­out over­pow­er­ing the sound of the bassist’s fin­gers pluck­ing each string.

On busier, more com­plex tracks the Homepod’s pro­cess­ing still man­ages to cre­ate a sound­stage in which in­stru­ments have de­cent sepa­ra­tion and vo­cals are clear. The live ver­sion of The Ea­gles’ Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia is par­tic­u­larly en­joy­able with the bright notes from Don Felder’s 12-string gui­tar ring­ing out.

On oc­ca­sion, tre­ble is a lit­tle harsh.

Play Calvin Har­ris’ This is what you came for and the elec­tronic cym­bals are a lit­tle crashy, and Rhi­anna’s voice quite pierc­ing – ex­ac­er­bated at higher vol­umes of course. How­ever, that’s the ex­cep­tion and for the vast ma­jor­ity of tracks the Homepod sim­ply sounds great.

Siri per­for­mance

A smart speaker must be able to hear you when mu­sic is play­ing loudly, and thanks to some nifty beam­form­ing tech­nol­ogy, the mics can pick up your voice across the room. Siri re­sponds quickly when you call, and if your com­mand is quick – “Hey Siri, turn it up” – it won’t even pause the mu­sic.

If you’re ac­tively us­ing your iphone, Siri will re­spond on that rather than the Homepod, but in gen­eral, it’s the Homepod that re­sponds first. Some­times, Siri will pop up on the phone, then im­me­di­ately hand off to the Homepod. It’s im­pres­sive how it can hear you over the mu­sic, but a cou­ple of times dur­ing our test­ing the Homepod failed to re­spond when speak­ing at a mod­er­ate

level in a quiet room. It could be down to a con­flict be­tween the iphone and Homepod, but we’re hop­ing it’s just a wrin­kle that will be ironed out soon.

Mac­world’s buy­ing ad­vice

Even as a first-gen­er­a­tion prod­uct, the Homepod feels pol­ished in its de­sign, the way it sounds and how it op­er­ates. How­ever, Siri’s voice is a lit­tle too robotic com­pared to its ri­vals and you’re lim­ited to Ap­ple’s mu­sic ser­vices for deep in­te­gra­tion with Siri. The Homepod can con­trol your smart home gad­gets, but only if they’re com­pat­i­ble with Homekit. All of which means that if you’re happy to live in Ap­ple’s ecosys­tem the Homepod is a great pur­chase. Jim Martin

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