Ap­ple Homepod Wire­less Smart Speaker

Pod power.

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - by Rob Sabin

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.

In­side Homepod

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.

Setup

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.

Lis­ten­ing

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.

Speaker Smarts

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.

Con­clu­sion

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.

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