Smart Home

★★★★★ £315 • From www.ap­ple.com/uk

Computer Shopper - - CONTENTS - Jonathan Bray

Ap­ple’s HomePod is one of the best-sound­ing smart speak­ers; sadly, it’s not that clever

VER­DICT

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.

LOS­ING CON­TROL

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.

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