★★★★★ £315 • From www.apple.com/uk
Apple’s HomePod is one of the best-sounding smart speakers; sadly, it’s not that clever
The HomePod is a triumph of audio engineering – it’s just a shame its smart features aren’t on the same level
LET US BEGIN by saying that we love the HomePod, Apple’s first attempt at an Amazon Echo or Google Home-style smart speaker, but not for the reasons you might expect. It’s not as capable of controlling smart home equipment as the 2nd-generation Echo (Shopper 361), and it’s not a better bedside alarm clock than the Echo Spot (Shopper 363), but it is easily one of the best-sounding compact speakers we’ve ever heard.
The HomePod is 172mm tall, 142mm wide and weighs a hefty 2.5kg. It’s mostly covered in spongy fabric, and its only distinguishing feature is the thick, fabric-covered cable sprouting from the rear. On the top is a gloss-black circular panel, subtly curved, which acts as an occasional control surface. You can tap it once in the middle to play or pause, tap it twice to skip to the next track and tap the glowing plus and minus symbols to the side to adjust the volume. A multicoloured, strangely fuzzy blob glows when Siri is active; otherwise, the HomePod blends quietly into the background.
RING OF POWER
All the most interesting stuff is going on inside. The smart functionality is powered by an Apple A8 processor, the same as inside the iPhone 6 smartphone, while the audio engineering that’s gone into this speaker is outstanding. At the top of the HomePod is a 4in, high excursion woofer, which is monitored by a low-frequency calibration microphone, with the aim of preventing distortion and clipping.
Below it, in a ring surrounding the middle of the speaker, is an array of six further microphones – equivalent to the seven-mic far-field array in the Amazon Echo and Echo Plus (Shopper 361) – which are used to sense the shape and size of the room and adapt the sound accordingly.
Lastly, seven horn-loaded tweeters circle the base of the HomePod, each powered by its very own amplifier. Apple uses these to ‘beamform’ the sound out into the room to create a more focused yet broad soundstage.
Setting up the Apple HomePod is a typically Apple-esque experience in its simplicity. Hold your phone anywhere in the vicinity of the speaker and a small setup window pops up at the bottom of your phone’s display; this then runs you through
The width of the soundstage and its ability to fill even large rooms is truly astonishing
the various options and usual terms-andconditions agreements.
With that done, you’re pretty much ready to go. There’s no faffing around with selecting Wi-Fi networks or entering passwords. Everything is transferred across from your iPhone, and you’re ready to go in minutes. Even if you move the speaker to a new location or change your router password, it’s a doddle to get the HomePod set up again. Just tap its icon in the Apple Home app: the details will be transferred again and you’ll be ready to go in a second or two.
MAKE YOURSELF COMFORTABLE
That’s all impressive stuff, but what’s truly amazing about the HomePod is the way it sounds. It produces masses of bass, but never too much, and it’s always in control. The mids and treble are balanced, well separated and strike the perfect balance between clarity and warmth. And although you won’t be able to experience proper stereo until later in the year, when a software update will allow you to link two HomePods together, the width of the soundstage and its ability to fill even large rooms is truly astonishing.
The most impressive part is how well the HomePod adapts to the space you place it in. By using its microphones to sense how sound waves are bouncing off surfaces in a room, it can tell how to tune the sound to best suit that space. The
result is that you can put the HomePod wherever you like, and it will sound good.
Place it on an enclosing shelf, for instance, and at first it will sound overly bassy, as the proximity of the shelves reinforce the low-frequency sound waves; after a few seconds, though, the HomePod will sense this and rebalance it. Move it back to a table in open space and the music sounds thin, but only for a short period while the scan takes place, after which the bass goes back to normal and it sounds brilliant once again.
All of this takes places entirely automatically, completely seamlessly and without any additional user input. When the HomePod detects it’s been picked up, it performs a scan once you’ve set it down again. This is an improvement on Sonos’ Trueplay system, which achieves a similar effect but via a manual process that involves measuring your room with your smartphone’s microphone. If you move the speaker, you have to do it all again.
THE RIGHT NOTES
We’re also very impressed by the HomePod’s far-field microphone array. It can pick up the ‘Hey Siri’ wake phrase when spoken at normal volume from several metres away while music is playing at a moderate level; in tests against the Amazon Echo Plus, it works just as well.
Unfortunately, while the HomePod’s audio engineering shows touches of genius, that’s far from the word we’d use to describe Siri as a digital assistant.
To be fair, there are some strong points to the HomePod’s voice-driven tech. First, its Apple Music contextual features are fantastic. Being able to ask who’s playing the guitar, who’s singing and even for different versions of a song is extremely useful for music lovers without an outright encyclopaedic knowledge of pop musicians’ movements and history. You can even ask Siri to tell you more about a particular band, and you’ll get a full-on, robotic-sounding music review.
The integration with HomeKit devices is elegant, too, taking advantage of the Home app’s ability to group devices by room to allow you to issue commands such as, ‘Hey Siri, turn off all the lights’, which turns off everything in the room you and the HomePod are in without having to specifically append the location. You can also ask Siri all the boilerplate digital assistant questions, including what the weather is like, what the news headlines are (you can switch between BBC Radio 5 Live, LBC and Sky News), and how the traffic looks on your commute.
However, the rest of the HomePod’s voice-driven capabilities fall severely short of what you might expect, certainly compared with Amazon’s and Google’s equivalent Echo and Home products. The first problem is Siri, which in our experience has never been as good as Google Assistant or Alexa at interpreting what you say. Nothing changes here: Siri works well most of the time, but still makes more misinterpretations than Alexa does when given similar commands.
There are other issue, too: you can’t set up multiple timers at once, for example, only one at a time. You also can’t ask Siri to play any radio station other than Beats 1 (despite drawing from others for news headlines), and you can’t ask to play music from Spotify, Tidal, Deezer or any other music-streaming platform.
It’s not entirely a case of Apple Music or bust, as you can listen to other platforms on the HomePod via the app on your iPhone, but that defeats the point of having a smart speaker in the first place.
And, while the HomeKit integration does work nicely, it’s worth pointing out that the number of devices with HomeKit support is currently far smaller than the number of manufacturers releasing products with Amazon Skills compatibility. You won’t be asking Siri to adjust the temperature on your Hive thermostat any time soon.
FACING THE MUSIC
That doesn’t mean the Apple HomePod is a terrible product; far from it. It’s a stunning example of how engineering and technology can be put to use in new and exciting ways, to improve the way small speakers sound, no matter where you put them. In fact, were this a regular Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speaker, we’d have no qualms in recommending it, even at £319. It really is that good.
That said, good audio quality doesn’t mean that the under-developed smart control component is off the hook. It would be much better if it supported other streaming services properly and smart-home tech more broadly, and if Apple ironed out crazy stuff such as not being able to choose different radio stations with your voice.
The Sonos One (Shopper 363) is ultimately a more successful marriage of premium sound and smart home integration: it’s a great-sounding multiroom speaker with all the flexibility of Alexa, and Google Assistant support is being added in the future, too.