Let’s get this out of the way up front: The HomePod is a $350 speaker that sounds about like a $350 speaker. It does not sound like a $1,000 speaker system. And it sounds noticeably better than a $200 speaker. It sounds exactly like what it is. And if that were all there was to the HomePod, it would be worth buying provided you were in the market for a speaker in that price range.
But even that has some caveats. You can’t plug random devices into the speaker as it has no input ports. You can’t play music over bluetooth. You have to be using a device that is airplay capable. Officially, that means you are limited to Apple products. There are hacks and workarounds if you are on Android and really want a HomePod. But out of the box. This is a device intended for and limited to the Apple ecosystem.
Oh, and if there are two of you in the house, you are probably going to want two of these. I’ll explain later. My point is that this is not some generic speaker designed to neatly slot into your mixed ecosystem, multi-component lifestyle. If you hate the sound of everything I have said so far, stop reading. What follows does not get any better. The HomePod is not for you.
For those who remain, you are in for a treat. If you are looking for a place to park your dollars for a decent speaker to fit well with your Apple-centric lifestyle, good news: There’s no place like the HomePod. Here are a few reasons why:
Designed by Apple
I expected the HomePod to be something like a Bose in that price range - simple to use with very few controls. The speaker would do the heavy lifting and provide good sound whatever the environment and music source. And if that is all you want, Bose does a great job. It removes the need to fiddle with sound. You can just play and enjoy.
But Bose does not do such a great job with industrial design. It is not awful. But it leaves something to be desired. Apple built the speaker to be simple to operate. Just plug it in and tell it to play music. That’s pretty much it. The equalization and balancing of the sound is done automagically without you needing to fiddle with it.
What Apple also did is design it like an Apple product. It has no holes and no buttons. It is either white or grey. It is as minimalist as a speaker in this range can get. And it is beautiful to look at, fitting in perfectly with whatever decor you have going. In every way, this is a great mid-range speaker designed by Apple. That has value for the target audience.
Not that it bears mentioning, but the speaker cover material does credit to Apple’s material science team. Even the power cord has a fabric feel that is unlike anything you encounter in your day to day. Before you even turn the speaker on, you are already taken by the design of the product. Apple knows how to design beautiful and desirable hardware. The HomePod is the latest in a line of successes in that department.
Set it and forget it
There is so little you have to do to set this speaker up, you get a slight thrill when you use it for the first time. It feels like there should have been some additional steps. But there simply isn’t much for you to do.
Bring your iPhone within kissing distance of the speaker and you get a prompt on your phone that starts the process. It is very much like setting up AirPods. If you already have two-factor set up on your iPhone, there are no passcodes to enter. There are only a handful of on-screen prompts to tap through.
Siri starts speaking to you. And before you know it, you are commanding the air to play you music. You are never asked to place it in a certain orientation, or hold up the phone to play a tone, or wait while the speaker reads the room. It does it really fast, transparently, and automatically.
Pick up the speaker and move it to another location in the room, and it retunes for that location in the same way. You never hear it doing the tuning. It never stops or even pauses for the task. It just does it. Once you set it up the first time, there is literally nothing for you to do but enjoy the music.
You don’t have to be one of those captains who shouts orders across the bridge to show you are in charge. Siri is always listening. And she can hear you from across the room when you speak in a conversational tone. There is no need to raise your voice, not even when the music is loud.
One of the knocks against Siri is that she could not understand you as well as Alexa or Google Assistant. But that has never been a particularly fair comparison as those products were made to be heard from across a room. They have multiple, large, beam-forming microphones as opposed to an iPhone with a single, small mic meant to be used up close.
The HomePod has six mics. It was intended to be used from across a room in a noisy environment. When it comes to Siri, you have never felt more heard. She is listening with six powerful ears for voice commands. It is a very different Siri experience than what you know from the iPhone. You can take quiet command of your home audio with confidence that it really will just work.
Sounding off: into the bass-ment
I’m going to take a little time here to talk about the sound that comes out of the HomePod. This is going to take a while. That is because sound is so subjective. And there are so many different types of music to evaluate. I am not even going to try to evaluate them all. But there are a few that I really like, and feel like I know well enough to talk about for the purposes of this review.
From the time that I plugged it in, I have lost hours doing nothing but telling the HomePod to play music from various genres. While doing that, I have been picking it up and moving to different rooms, and in different parts of the room.
The first thing I want to note is that when it comes to bass, the HomePod really brings it home. That is to say, it brings the thump like nothing I have ever heard from something that didn’t have a hefty subwoofer attached. Not only is the bass loud, but deep and clean, not muddy.
The bass is transparent, in that it does not bleed into the other parts of the range. It does not intrude into the treble and mid. That transparency is what you get from separate subwoofers. Apple has accomplished something akin to magic by getting this level of bass from a s small, all-in-one speaker.
While it does just fine in the middle of a room, provided the room is not too big, I think the HomePod really wants to be near a wall to have some surfaces to work with. The base seems more pronounced when near a wall. So if you want to get all the bass you paid for, position the speaker near a wall for best results.
There are tracks where the bass line really punches you in the chest. One of my favorites is Melancholy Blues by Queen. The walking bass line plucks right through your soul. Some tracks present the bass as a violent assault you can feel. A couple of times, I audibly made the noise you make when you get gut punched.
That deep thump is about violently moving a vast quantity of air with a certain frequency and amplitude. You are a giant bag of water. You will be physically effected by the right punch of air. The HomePod punches well above its weight. And you are going to be floored.
Getting that deep thump is mere physics. Getting the right midrange sound is art. Get them both, and you have the HomePod: a physical manifestation of Steve Jobs’ intersection between technology and liberal arts.
Managing the midrange is a near impossible task because so many songs were never mixed with prominent kids in the first place. So all too often, speakers get the blame for bad mixes.
When the kids are in the source, the HomePod really brings them out. If you have a HomePod, request anything from the following link:
The throaty, and sometimes nasally twang of the acoustic guitar commands a space in the room that cannot be denied. Don’t even get me started with the barking banjo in some of my bluegrass guilty-pleasures. However, you absolutely can get me started on the Vitamin String Quartet that plays popular rock with classical stringed instruments. The call of the violin and cello will drive you wild.
That said, I find that some of the music in my collection cries out for better middle management. But that is the case with almost every speaker. The difference is that every other speaker can be adjusted for equalization in software somewhere in the signal chain. The HomePod is simply what you hear is what you get. If the recording is lacking, you can’t do much about it.
Going out on the high note
There are 7 tweeters in the HomePod. You don’t actually need to worry about the tingling symbols, high-hats, and intakes of breath just before the soprano lands the high note. You are going to get it all. I particularly like the string noises in guitar music.
But I have to reiterate what I said about the mix. Not all music was mastered to eventuate the highs. And if anything is going to get lost in the mix, it is going to be the highs. The HomePod is not really a bright-forward speaker. So if the highs are not in the original, the speaker is not going to pull them forward from the mix.
This becomes more evident when watching video.
Lights, camera, sound
The area I found the HomePod most lacking was the area I most wanted it to be strong: video. The source didn’t matter. I found all attempts to play the audio track from videos through the HomePod disappointing. It was just too muddy and compressed to provide a pleasing auditory experience.
It might be that video, especially the streaming variety, is so compressed, the audio suffers. It could be that modern video wants to be stereo even more than music. Whatever the case, the sound was not pleasing. And for me, sound is the most important part of video.
I also found that from my Mac mini, all video had a latency problem. This is likely due to the state of AirPlay. To be blunt, it’s awful. The latency is even apparent when sending music over airplay from an iPhone or Mac. There is a notable lag between the time you press Play and when you hear the music start. All other functions are equally laggy.
I really wanted the HomePod to be a replacement for my Bose SoundLink Revolve serving as my computer speaker and TV speaker. The Bose is connected via USB and AUX. But even when I was using the Bose via bluetooth, I didn’t have any latency problems. AirPlay is worse than bluetooth. And the Bose does a much better job in expressing the mids and highs in video. The dialog is clear. And the background tracks are not muddy.
The Bose SoundLink Revolve is a $200 speaker.
Conclusion: Home Alone
The HomePod, alone, is not a good speaker. It is not a generalist that can serve all of your home needs well. It is great for listening to Apple Music tracks and controlling them with your voice. Things get a little messy when you go beyond that original charter.
You are still going to need computer speakers. And you are still going to need some kind of soundbar for TV viewing. If the HomePod was competent at one other task besides playing Apple Music via voice commands, it would be easier to recommend.
At this point, it is cliché and piling on to say that Siri is a weak link in this product. AirPlay might be even weaker. Siri does not have enough domains of expertise to be truly useful beyond offering tracks. Even then, she is not the best of what’s out there. Where there are multiple songs by the same name, she does nothing to help you pick the right one. That’s a problem when there is no visual interface.
Because Siri is completely different on every device, you run into strange and unexpected limitations. The number of times Siri will kick you back to her iPhone cousin is frustrating and bewildering. You will fail often enough so that you will not even want to try after a while. Even big fans of Siri like myself will quickly get frustrated with Siri, HomePod edition.
So at the end of the day, I find myself home alone without a HomePod. I took mine back for a painless refund. I liked the product enough that I would be willing to try it again in a few months. There are already rumors of a smaller cheaper revision in the works for release later this year.
Even with half the bass and a bit more of a mid boost, a smaller, quieter HomePod could prove a better choice for those of us in New York-sized apartments. When AirPlay 2 arrives, it may be worth getting two speakers as a paired set. I suspect that would solve the video problem nicely.
It would also mean that each of two people sharing a life together can have a HomePod that handles their personal tasks like messages and email: an utterly useless feature right now for at least one of the occupants of a two-person home.
As it currently stands, you have to fit within a narrow grouping of people to get the most out of the HomePod. You have to be all in on Apple. And you have to only want to use it for a single task. If you are that person, you are going to love the HomePod right now. Beyond that, you are going to want to wait along with me for the next iteration with AirPlay 2, a more dynamic, less flat tonal range, and a price tag that makes buying two of them a lower mountain to climb.