Apple Homepod Wireless Smart Speaker
FROM CONCEPTION THROUGH launch, the Apple Homepod speaker was six years in development. That’s a long time to bring to fruition something as ubiquitous and seemingly simplistic as a wireless tabletop speaker. If we account for the many poor examples of the breed, we can acknowledge that a truly excellent wireless speaker might require some extra time to create...but six years? The Homepod was so long in coming that the “smart speaker” with builtin voice assistant that it eventually became hadn’t yet been invented
(by rival Amazon) when the project was begun. Which, I’m certain, delayed it even further.
This lengthy R&D, however, is why you’ll hear Apple promoting the Homepod, first and foremost, as an extraordinary audio product— because that’s what it was conceived to be: a small wireless speaker like none that had come before. And the bar was already high. Even six years ago, Apple knew how to make an excellent, if more conventional, tabletop speaker. The boomboxsized and short-lived ipod Hifi, launched in 2006, was an extraordinary product for the time, costing the same as the Homepod today ($349, then an exorbitant price tag) and delivering critically acclaimed sound quality that lived up to its name.
With Homepod, Apple again sought to invent a remarkable lifestyle speaker, this time in the more compact size essential to our times, and in so doing largely reimagined what could be done with the tabletop category. Inside Apple, Homepod is considered so significant an achievement and the message of its sound quality so important that the firm uncharacteristically invited press to tour its previously shrouded audio lab before the launch—to communicate the resources and expertise brought to bear on the project. These were indeed impressive, and I’ve been to a few speaker labs in my day. I stood wide-eyed in the largest anechoic chamber I’ve seen, as well as a variety of other acoustic measurement spaces developed specifically for this project.
The speaker product that emerged from all of this is a stout little cylinder standing 6.8 inches tall and 5.6 inches wide, with rounded top and bottom edges. It weighs a substantial 5.5 pounds and rests atop a round, silicone isolation foot that made for a bit of bad press when it was quickly found to leave white marks on some wood furniture finishes, sometimes in as little as a half hour. Apple acknowledged the issue and said the marks fade over time or can sometimes be removed with furniture cleaner. (I had no such issues resting Homepod on my dark-wood desk for lengthy periods, but be forewarned. I’m sure matching Homepod doilies for those with fine furniture won’t be far off.) The acoustically transparent fabric mesh grille around the speaker has a foam-like underlay, so the speaker offers a kind of squishy, tactile feedback when you grasp it that almost makes it huggable. There are no connectors of any kind, just a supple, nicely braided non-removable power cord. Overall build quality and fit-and-finish are outstanding.
The speaker comes in two colors: white, with a matching highgloss top panel, and the Space Gray featured on my review sample, with a black gloss top.
With no hard-wired connections, you get content into Homepod solely via your Wi-fi network, from which it can play files from an itunes music library in Apple’s icloud, an Apple TV streamer on the same network, the Apple Music streaming service—a $9.95/month add-on—or via Airplay from your iphone or other Airplaycompliant source. Let me emphasize a
critical point: Beyond Apple Music, you cannot use Siri voice commands to call up music or programming from any of your other favorite music services on the Homepod—no Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, iheart Radio, Tunein, et al. You can still boot each service’s app on your iphone, ipad, or Mac and Airplay them over to Homepod, but aside from play, pause, and volume there’s no Siri control, so you can’t use voice to request artists, songs, or playlists. (However, you can ask Siri to tell you what’s playing or about the artist while listening to thirdparty services.)
Given that the research says music listening is the number-one thing folks are doing with these smart speakers, that pretty much locks you into an additional $10/month subscription with Apple Music if you’re not already using that service. Outside of Apple Music, Siri does support podcast bulletins from a number of news services including NPR, CNN, Fox, NBC, ESPN, and some others. I was also able to call up a live stream of WNYC, my local NPR station, but not of CNN (which Tunein would support were it available here).
This Apple-centric approach— without even a universal Bluetooth option and with the requirement of the Apple Home app to set the speaker up—isolates the Homepod market to IOS and Mac users. No surprise there. But the lack of any wired analog or optical input also precludes the speaker’s use for day-to-day television viewing, though it is said you can (somewhat inconveniently) port video sound from an Apple TV to the Homepod. I didn’t have an Apple TV around to try it and check for lip-sync issues.
The top panel has integrated touch controls with LED indicators beneath it. When the speaker is idle, the panel is totally opaque. Activate Siri with the “Hey, Siri” wakeup call, and a smoky, bottle-cap-sized blob of swirling rainbow colors appears in the center and pulses to your voice and to Siri’s response. While music or other programming is playing, “+” and “–” icons appear, which can be tapped or held for manual control of volume. (You can also ask Siri to simply raise or lower the volume, or to set the level to a number from 0 to 100, with or without the word “percent.”) A touch-and-hold anywhere on the panel brings up Siri to await your command. You can tap once anywhere on the touchpanel to pause or play your selection, double-tap to skip ahead a track, or triple-tap to skip back.
Two key Homepod benefits have been promised for later this year via firmware updates. Multiroom audio, including the ability to direct different streams to different rooms, is awaiting Apple’s delayed rollout of Airplay 2. Likewise, the ability to do stereo pairing with two Homepods is also on the way.
Stacked up inside the Homepod’s cylindrical casing is a totem pole of cutting-edge technology run by sophisticated software, all intended to squeeze the absolute biggest sound possible from what is admittedly a very small package. Starting at the top is that touchpanel and the powerful Apple A8 processing chip used to power both the audio signal management and the speaker’s smart functions. This is the same processor Apple uses in its iphone 6 phones. Directly below this is a 4-inch upfiring high-excursion woofer designed just for the HomePod; the paper cone offers 22mm (0.87 inches) of peak-to-peak movement, extraordinary for such a small driver. Its output is monitored by a dedicated microphone; more on this shortly.
Below the woofer, on a supporting structure, is a band of six far-field microphones mounted in a full 360-degree pattern around the speaker. These mics are used for both Siri voice control and for room correction, about which I’ll also say more in a moment. Below the mics, near the base of the unit, is a circle of seven 1-inch aluminum dome tweeters, each driven by its own dedicated Class D amplifier and mounted to its own folded-horn waveguide to help control directionality of the sound. The end result, once processing is applied, is that the speaker has something akin to an omnidirectional radiation pattern.
The Homepod uses all this stuff to give itself what Apple calls “spatial awareness.” Within a few seconds of playing the speaker from any new location, the circumference microphones have fed signals back to the A8 chip so it can detect reflections and establish the distance to room boundaries. Based on this, the speaker knows, for example, if there’s a wall behind it or a pair of walls in the guise of a corner, and how far away it is.
It then uses the individually addressable tweeters to create three directional “beams” of sound: one emanating out of what it has deemed the front of the speaker and a pair fanning out toward the rear of the speaker. Although the Homepod is a mono speaker, the processor monitors both channels of the incoming stereo signal to determine what should be heard directly from the front and what constitutes ambient information that is best bounced off the back walls to create a more spacious and open sound. Move the speaker by even an inch, and its built-in accelerometer will detect the motion and recalibrate. Meanwhile, the woofer’s dedicated microphone is correlating the cone’s
From concept through launch, the Homepod was six years in the making.
output with what’s coming back from the room mics and issuing corrections to achieve maximum bass with minimum distortion. Compare the ease of this transparent process with the (albeit very effective) Trueplay sequence used to room-correct a Sonos speaker, which takes about three minutes and requires you to walk around the room with your phone while it listens to tones from the speaker.
The A8 processor, as if it didn’t already have enough to do, is also listening at all times for the “Hey, Siri” wakeup words and applying echo cancellation and other sophisticated processing to allow you to be heard from extraordinary distances for a product like this and over the sound of potentially loud music. I tested this function with the speaker situated on my desk in my basement office while playing hip-hop at 75 percent volume. After stepping through an open doorway to the rear of my listening studio, 25 feet away, I barely had to raise my voice to get Siri to respond to the wakeup call. Anything closer required nothing more than a normal speaking voice to get her attention through the rap lyrics.
After jumping through an almost laughable number of screens and steps a while back to introduce an Alexa-enabled Sonos One to my system (review at soundandvision. com), setting up the Homepod was a breath of fresh air. It was done before I knew it. First, you boot up the Apple Home app on your iphone or ipad and power up the speaker by plugging it into the nearest wall outlet. The app detects the signal via a dedicated nearfield setup-only Bluetooth connection, picks up the Wi-fi network information from the phone, then quickly steps you through just four additional screens to (1) select a room name; (2) enable Personal Requests; (3) transfer over your itunes, icloud Music Library, and existing Apple Music settings from your phone; and (4) activate a free trial on Apple Music if you’re not already subscribed.
And that’s it. You’re done and ready to ask Siri to fire up some tunes or feed you the weather. Of particular note is that second setup screen to enable Personal Requests. Assuming you’re the individual whose iphone was used to set up the speaker, enabling Personal Requests lets you send texts via the Homepod or to listen to Siri read your recent texts—a nice convenience. However, as reported elsewhere, the Home
Pod does not recognize individual voices and thus allows anyone near it to request a read of your recently received messages, or to send a text in your guise to anyone at all. All that’s required is that you have your phone currently connected to the same Wi-fi network. That may not be an issue if you live alone, but if you’ve got kids or a visitor intent on mischief or worse while you’re elsewhere in the house, it could spell trouble. If this is a concern, you can either choose not to enable Personal Requests during setup or disable it at any time in the Home app. Doing so will also prevent you from using the Homepod to set up reminders on your phone.
Once the Homepod is set up, you can use the Home app to tailor its use. For example, you can choose to deactivate the swirling Siri display mentioned earlier; deactivate the “touch and hold” function that brings up Siri with a lingering finger on the touchpanel or toggle on-off the sound effect that accompanies her arrival; or change her accent or turn her into a he by requesting a male assistant. Critically, you can also toggle Siri on and off here for those moments when you want assurance that the speaker won’t come alive and start listening upon hearing its wakeup call. You can also turn Siri off temporarily just by saying “Hey, Siri, stop listening.” You reactivate voice control with the Home app or by manually tapping the center of the display and saying, “Hey, Siri, start listening.”
The Home app is also where you can introduce Homekit smarthome accessories, which are now offered by about 40 manufacturers and include lighting and smart power outlets, motorized shades, thermostats, locks, various environmental sensors, and security and baby cameras (among others). Till now, these required an IOS device to operate, but Homepod allows you to initiate device control or recall stored scenes via Siri. Setting up devices and automation is fairly straightforward. When you introduce a new device to your network, its packaging includes a printed Home-kit ID code that the Home app recognizes and imports with your IOS device’s camera. It then automatically adds it to the network. From there, you can name it, manually adjust it within the app, or use the app to set up scenes that automatically adjust one or more devices when the scenes are activated by the app or Siri. You can also set up “if-then” automation sequences for your devices or scenes based on time of day or activation by a networked sensor you’ve added.
Apple sent along a ConnectSense dual smart outlet ($60) and
Lifx Mini smart bulb ($50) with the speaker for me to try out. This worked out well—my home office is lit by three individual lamps at the three points of my L-shaped desk. Automating them required setting up two scenes, one called “Office
On” to activate the lights and then “Office Off” to extinguish them. From that point on, each morning I just told the Homepod “Hey, Siri, office on” to light the place up and the counterpoint to shut down when I left the room. I also set up an automation sequence to turn the Lifx bulb to 50 percent brightness and change its color to red at 1 p.m. each day to remind me to get up and take some lunch.
I first used the Homepod casually on my desk for a while, before moving it out into my studio for some formal listening. It was auditioned from a distance of about 8 feet on a 36inch-tall speaker stand that put it at just about ear height. My studio is a
After the Sonos One, setting up the Homepod was a breath of fresh air.
pretty wide-open finished basement room (about 20 x 25 feet with short 6’3” ceilings; it’s an old house). The only real boundary near the speaker was my acoustically reflective plasma TV screen positioned about a foot rearward. For test material, I streamed Cd-quality tracks from Tidal using an Airplay wireless link originated by my Mac laptop or my iphone 6S. The same titles played from Apple Music straight into the Homepod sounded fine, but noticeably inferior to my audiophile ear.
I also did direct A/B comparisons with some of the better desktop speakers of similar size, including the Sonos One ($199), the Bluesound Pulse Flex ($299), and the Riva Arena ($249). The Riva is Airplay compliant, but for the first two I tapped into
Tidal to play the same music via those speakers’ native apps. Only the Sonos One is a smart speaker (Alexa), but the Pulse Flex features Alexa control via another Alexacompatible smart speaker on the network; ditto for the Chromecastfriendly Arena but with Google Assistant. I was less concerned with testing the Homepod against other smart speakers than seeing how it fared sonically against my preferred desktop references.
And I must say, the Homepod showed them up pretty fiercely. It proved to have its own distinct voicing against the other three, all of which I’d describe as having relatively neutral balance down to where their woofers start to roll off. They sound more similar than different from a frequency balance perspective. But the Homepod is another animal entirely.
If the Homepod has a dominant distinguishing characteristic, it is unquestionably its bass, which is nothing short of remarkable for such a small speaker: notably articulate, controlled, and almost shockingly deep in a way that I’ve just not heard from anything near its size. I ran some bass test tones, and in my space the SPL meter indicated surprisingly consistent output from 80 hertz right down to 50 Hz; from there, it dropped off quickly and was down 10 decibels by 40 Hz. Apple rates the speaker to 40 Hz (though with no ± decibels spec provided), and I presume closer boundaries and more room gain would have filled in a bit more bottom. But the utter lack of boom or distortion and the profound detail in the bass notes really made me sit up and notice.
What was there, depth-wise, was more than enough to make the other speakers sound embarrassingly lean. Critically, the low-frequency reproduction (perhaps aided by some modest upper bass contouring) seemed to affect the speaker well up into the midrange, where it gave extra body to instruments and vocals and added weight and warmth the others didn’t share. The Homepod’s top end at first seemed a bit reticent against the other speakers, but I was able to hear well into the details of cymbal shimmer and brushed snare, and came to understand that I was hearing a better blend of the full spectrum that allowed the high frequencies their place without commanding undue attention. The overall effect was an incredibly smooth-sounding speaker with an impactful and undistorted bottom end, silky mids, and finely detailed highs. In short, audiophile quality in any reasonable sense of the word.
If I had any complaint at all, it was that, at least in my room at that 8-foot distance, the Homepod delivered less overall maximum volume than the other speakers, something likely related to a combination of engineering decisions. First, the Homepod’s limiting circuitry as engineered by Apple is designed to ensure that the speaker never, ever distorts; keeping that deeper bass reproduction under control likely means scaling back overall output after a point. And despite the number of tweeters utilized, multiple high-frequency drivers ganged like this in a steerable array are known to contribute little more than a single tweeter’s effective maximum output. The Homepod is also said to employ Fletcher-munson loudness compensation, which aims to keep the perceived frequency balance steady no matter the volume played. I measured a max cruising volume of about 70 to 75 db on most streamed tracks with peaks hitting 85 db, give or take a few. That was still plenty loud coming from any small speaker, and I rarely felt I wanted more. The other speakers clearly had more output capability, though.
“Moten Swing” is the opening track on Count Basie & His Atomic Band, Complete Live at the Crescendo 1958, and it starts out with applause and piano played at low volume over the audience chatter and the dining room’s glass and flatware clinks. The stand-up bass and tapped high-hat join, then, at about a minute in, you get a loud and unexpected horn blast that portends the rockin’ jam that eventually builds as the woodwinds and more brass add to the mix. From the first moment, I could tell the Homepod was special. Despite being a mono speaker, its beam-forming array nicely threw the ambient crowd noise out the rear to create a backdrop from which the music emerged. The string bass line was beautifully textured, and there was a nice metallic rattle coming off the high-hat and discernible decay from tapped cymbal. Best of all were the reproduction of the horns and woodwinds, which were delivered with tremendous dynamic impact and well-defined leading edges on the notes. Critically, the HomePod gave the brass a liquidity and warmth—there’s that word again— that made them more dimensional and deliciously palatable to the ear.
The Sonos One on this track sounded very good and also quite natural down to its low-end limit, even throwing a bit of spread on the
The Homepod’s bass made the competition sound embarrassingly lean.
crowd noise, but it was easy to hear how the bass line was less discernible and pronounced, and in direct comparison with the Homepod, I came to hear both the initial horn blast and all that followed grow a bit threadbare and edgy. The Bluesound Flex, though usually outstanding on most music, was overwhelmed dynamically by the uncompressed horn blast near the top of the track and offered less dimensionality generally on piano notes and the brass and woodwinds. The Riva Arena, with its Trillium stereo technology (which uses drivers on three sides to create a semblance of a stereo pair), threw a noticeably more dimensional image than the Homepod. And it delivered the opening horn blast with a more visceral dynamic peak that clearly exposed the Homepod’s limiting at work. But even this speaker, which also delivers good bass for its size, was totally outmatched at the bottom by the Homepod. It, too, made the horns sound less smooth and weighty, and more edgy, by comparison.
I could go on at length with how the Homepod delivered similar revelations track after track. The deep opening bass drum thwacks that open John Mayer’s “Gravity” had not only more texture and noticeable decay than I’ve heard on these other speakers, but on the Homepod delivered more visceral weight and dynamic impact; the Homepod’s smooth midrange, meanwhile, made Mayer’s giant vocal more solid and emotive. Massed strings in orchestral recordings were delivered with a soothing lushness and texture that was more reminiscent of the real thing compared with the other speakers, again perhaps due to the richness of the lower register.
Similarly, Kehlani’s sparse ballad “Honey,” a recent go-to reference track thanks to the finely recorded near-a cappella arrangement (guitar and voice) and the syrupy purity of the artist’s voice, was just magical on the Homepod; noticeably more full-sounding and embodied than the
other small speakers in the mix and with a huskier and more natural voice. The difference between the Homepod and the others was even more noticeable on the title track of Livingston Taylor’s 1973 album, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. James’s less famous brother had an equally mellifluous tenor in his youth, and the closely miked vocal from this cover delivered a clear win for the Homepod, it being the only of the four speakers to render it with its warm chestiness and nasality intact. And when the organ break and its bass line kicks in, the other speakers sounded almost one-notey compared with the detailed depth and note delineation coming from the Homepod.
If you haven’t already gotten the message from all this, here’s the takeaway: The Apple Homepod is, hands-down, the best-sounding speaker of its size I’ve ever heard, and, note-for-note, an absolute pleasure to listen to every moment it’s on. It is, indeed, a remarkable sonic achievement.
As good as it sounds for its class, the Homepod has gotten pretty well hammered in the press for its lack of speaker smarts and general flexibility. Putting aside the aforementioned privacy issue with activating Personal Requests, the biggest limitation by far is Siri’s incompatibility with music services beyond Apple Music. And it goes beyond Apple’s desire for exclusivity
with their service (which Amazon, by the way, does not require with Alexa-enabled speakers). Apple music has no free service tier, thereby forcing buyers to be tethered to a $10/month subscription to simply enable a smart speaker’s most-used feature.
And although Apple Music is a good-sounding service, based on my experience Airplaying Tidal tracks to the speaker (admittedly from an even more expensive subscription), I can say that Apple Music noticeably fails to deliver all the sound quality inherent in the Homepod.
Beyond this, the Homepod— trapped as it is in Apple’s ecosystem—doesn’t have the incredibly rich and growing laundry-list of third-party devices and skills that Amazon can claim and Google seeks now to emulate. Unlike with Steve Jobs’s early vision of having outside developers build apps for the first iphones and allowing that ever-expanding feature set to drive the product to ubiquity, there’s no similar infrastructure here for Siri beyond that for Homekit automation. That could really hurt it in the long run, which would be a shame given what a fine audio product it is.
However, if you’re not yet steeped in Amazon’s Echo world and haven’t become a smart speaker technosnob, you may just find that HomePod does pretty much everything you need a smart speaker to do reasonably well enough (if not with excellence), while delivering the best damn sound you’ve ever heard from a compact speaker during the 99 percent of the time you’re just listening to music and not asking it to tell you the temperature, recite news headlines, or give you the CowboysGiants score. Although Siri doesn’t share the more advanced artificial intelligence of Google Assistant or Alexa or the ability to fire up your Roomba by voice, it still does the basics, offering up weather, traffic, tips on local restaurants, sports scores, podcasts, stock quotes, and general questions about whatever. In other words, the same stuff you can do with Siri on your phone.
As for automation, Homekit is a more limited platform than Alexa but still offers enough add-on devices and sophistication to do what most people want. And I found it extremely simple to set up and use.
In the end, Apple’s Homepod proved itself—to me, anyway—to be the shining triumph of audio engineering the company portends it to be. Assuming you’re an IOS user to start with, your opinion of this speaker will come down to your priorities and where you are on the smart speaker adoption curve. If you’re already deep into Alexa and Google territory in your home, with one or multiple speakers, you may be used to certain features (Audible, anyone?) or music services that simply aren’t available on the HomePod. You’re not likely to swap these out for Homepods no matter how good they sound.
On the other hand, if you’re just dipping your toe into smart speakers and aren’t put off by the monthly commitment to Apple music, you need to ask yourself what you really plan to use your smart speaker for. Are you buying one to get a rise out of your window shades? Or a lift from your music? Although I appreciate a lot of what Alexa and Google Assistant can do and the advancement of those platforms, I fall into the category of people who put the music first. How about this approach: If what you’re looking for is a great lifestyle speaker, skip the whole smart thing altogether and just buy a Homepod to use as an Airplay wireless speaker. If you never even ask it the time of day, it’s still worth every penny of its $349 price. And then some.
The Homepod is, indeed, a remarkable sonic achievement.
The nondescript and softly rounded Homepod nonetheless speaks loudly with its sound quality.
Above, Apple’s audio lab includes a chamber for testing speaker vibrations (top) and a large, long-wave anechoic chamber that fully absorbs deep bass signals.
An X-ray rendering shows key components of the design.
Along with Space Gray, the Homepod comes in an all-white version.
Top: Apple’s Home app takes you through just four simple setup screens. Bottom: The Apple Music app also lets you see and control what’s playing on Homepod.
Colored LEDS behind a plastic lens make for a smokey, swirling rendering of Siri.