Now that the initial hype and excitement about HomePod is behind us and we’re over the “OMG it’s shiny and new” phase, we can take a serious and real world look at Apple’s entry into the smart speaker market. The first wave of reviews, after a week or even just a weekend of use, were all pretty much the same: HomePod sounds great and Siri sucks. After spending two weeks using and abusing my HomePod, I’m ready to tell you how it works in the real world and if it’s worth getting one for yourself.
Apple announced HomePod nearly a year ago at its 2017 Worldwide Developer Conference as the company’s first smart speaker with Siri voice control. It was originally planned to ship in December, but that got pushed out to February 9th, 2018, and some promised features aren’t available yet.
HomePod looks like a single bookshelf speaker, but if you take a hacksaw to one you’ll find a seven speaker array, six beam forming microphones, and a high excursion woofer.
Here’s what that means: The seven speakers are evenly spaced in a ring so they can push sound out all the way around HomePod’s body. The six microphones are also evenly spaced around the body so they can focus on your voice from any direction, and analyze the room’s acoustics.
When you set your HomePod on a table or shelf in a room it “listens” to the sound as it plays songs. It takes about a single track for it to create a sound map of the room based on where it’s sitting and adjust to best fill the space. If you move your HomePod somewhere else in the room it’ll recalibrate for its new position.
Apple said you can put HomePod anywhere in a room, then later on quietly clarified that saying the speaker needs at least 6-inches all the way around to effectively build its acoustic map, and shouldn’t be placed on soft surfaces like carpeted floors. Based on my limited understanding, that’s so HomePod has the space it needs to bounce sound off surfaces and get useful information back. Turns out even Apple can’t break the laws of physics.
Dave Hamilton and I both encountered an interesting problem with an easy fix: objects near your HomePod can have a very real affect on where it pushes sound. In Dave’s case, it was a large salt shaker, and in mine it was the end of my TV’s sound bar.
HomePod echolocation (loosely speaking) interpreted the objects as a wall and redirected sound away from them. For Dave, that meant most of his HomePod’s sound was directed out the side farthest from him, and for me it meant the left side of my living room was effectively an acoustic dead spot.
Dave moved the salt shaker and I put a stack of books under my HomePod, and after giving our speakers a little shake to trick the built-in accelerometer into thinking we moved them, they recalibrated and the sound balance was much better.
HomePod Audio Quality
Here’s the deal: Audio quality is absolutely subjective, regardless of how much you pay for speakers or headphones, and what features they include. It doesn’t matter if you’re into KEF, Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, Beats, or some no-name cheap mono speaker you picked up for a few dollars. If you like it, that’s good enough. Anyone that tells you otherwise, or shames you for what you like, needs to shut up and mind their own damn business.
Should you care about the acoustic waveform tests audio pros did after HomePod came out? Sure, if that’s your thing. I’m not into reading sound graphs while listening to music, and I don’t need audiophiles giving me validation for the kind of sound profile I prefer. I’m guessing most people are in the same boat, so let’s talk about listening to music on HomePod makes me feel.
I like how HomePod sounds. I like it a lot. In fact, after two weeks it’s my go-to streaming music device. Before HomePod my Amazon Echo with external speakers was my primary streaming music setup, and while I still like that, I find myself calling out to Siri instead of Alexa when I want to hear some tunes.
I like HomePod’s clarity, how I hear much more of the subtle nuances in songs compared to my Echo setup, and how it fills my living room with a stereo-like sound even though it isn’t a stereo speaker system.
I like how Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon wraps around me, how Dave Brubeck’s Take Five practically sounds like a live concert in my home, and how I’m suddenly listening to The Beatles a lot more than I usually do. I also like how classical music sounds clean and crisp, and it’s like I’m sitting with the band when listening to bluegrass.
Even though HomePod is versatile enough to make me smile when listening to pretty much anything, the bass in ambient music is so overpowering that I won’t even consider streaming it. Occasionally other songs have overpower lows, too, but not so much that I catch myself saying, “Siri, stop” just to make it go away. That’s reserved exclusively for ambient music.
Sometimes highs feel a little too brash for me, and mids could be a little clearer in some tracks, as well. Still, it’s clear Apple designed HomePod to handle a wide range of musical styles in hope of making this the home speaker of choice for as many people as possible.
You can use your HomePod as a speaker with your Apple TV thanks to AirPlay, but that was a little disappointing to me. HomePod sounds good with TV shows and movies, but doesn’t have enough clarity for dialog. You have to turn the volume up almost to 100% and voices still don’t punch through the way they should. I’ll be sticking with my sound bar and its dedicated center channel for my Apple TV.
As Dave Hamilton pointed out, HomePod early adopters are beta testing for Apple. That means we should see improvements through software updates as Apple collects more data about how we’re using the speaker.
Next up: HomePod, Siri, and more