A Geeky Musician’s First Weekend with HomePod

9 minute read
| Quick Look Review

I’m a musician and a geek. That’s not really rare. Math is frequently at the core of those two things, and often relates them. There are a lot of people like me in that regard. What makes me somewhat unique is that I’m a musician who can still hear. For the past three decades I’ve obsessively worn earplugs or, as time went on, in-ear monitors. I wear them not just when I’m on stage, but when watching others perform. This has paid off immensely. Four years ago I had my hearing tested and I was told I had the hearing of an 18-year-old. I can (usually) still hear the “mosquito sound”.

But none of this matters to you, dear reader, because your hearing is most certainly different than mine. Your preferences are different than mine, both in terms of types of music you like to hear and also how you like to hear it. Listening to music is an emotional experience, not just a functional one, and that means our personal preferences are legitimate metrics when evaluating audio quality.

Throughout this I’m going to remind us both of that. Deal? Good. You and I are in this together.

SOUND

Let’s talk about the sound, shall we? HomePod sounds great. If you’re not picky about sound, stop reading and skip to the next section. If you really like to standardize on Apple hardware that is almost guaranteed to work in your home tech Apple ecosystem (iCosystem? ;), stop reading and skip to the next section. The HomePod sounds great.

If you’re picky, though, welcome to the club. So am I. We set up the HomePod here in our kitchen and it immediately offered to start playing a playlist based upon my Apple Music preferences. The first song up? The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” Let’s just say I know this track very, very well. The first thing I noticed? WHOA, MOAR BASS. The HomePod immediately felt like the out-loud equivalent to the signature Beats headphone sound. Lots of extra low-end added to the signal like HomePod felt it had something to prove.

The good news was that this boost to the low-end didn’t negatively impact any other parts of the spectrum. Things were clear on the high end, and clear – if perhaps a bit overstated – in the high-mids. Guitars and snare drums sounded a little “honky” to me, but that was only when I was intentionally being picky. After a moment or two of being overly-analytical, I routinely found myself happily getting lost in whatever song that was playing. Everything is there, and you can hear it all very clearly. No question, this thing sounds great.

Comparing this to the Alexa-powered Sonos ONE (MSRP US$199) and the Google Assistant-powered JBL Link 500 (MSRP $399), the HomePod still sounds great. It doesn’t get quite as loud as either of those two on the top end, but to HomePod’s credit it didn’t break up at the top of its range, either. The Sonos ONE had trouble at max volume with Pink Floyd’s “Young Lust”, with compression “pumping” being quite audible as each kick and bass hit happened. Backing it down one “notch” of volume addressed this, and it was still louder than the HomePod.

The HomePod, even at its loudest, is never “too loud” by my standards. I moved it to our 15×25 living room and at full volume it was certainly “loud enough” on studio and mastered live tracks. But when I started playing a live audience recording of a solo Trey Anastasio show, with just him and an acoustic guitar, it was not possible to get the HomePod to go up to “loud enough.” The problem was in the recording level, for sure, but HomePod lacked the headroom to compensate for it. I had no issues with the Sonos or JBL speakers getting this recording loud enough.

The HomePod, however, has tweeters all around it, not just front-facing, and that gives it a big edge over these other “smart” speakers. Combining those speakers with a similarly-spaced microphone array, and HomePod figures itself out when in a new location. An on-board accelerometer allows HomePod to sense when it has moved, and it recalibrates to its new environment. This generally worked quite well for me, with HomePod clearly having a front/back/left/right to its decided orientation.

I did unintentionally trick HomePod, though. When I placed it on my kitchen counter, there happened to be a salt shaker about 6 inches in front of it. I thought nothing of it until it sounded like HomePod was aiming its audio away from me. Putting my head down and facing the top of the speaker it was immediately obvious that this was exactly what was happening. Vocals were being sent away from the “front” of the speaker, and towards the side with the cord.

I spun the speaker around, aiming the cord at my preferred listening location. After it’s auto-recalibration, the HomePod was again directing sound away from me. Finally it hit me: that salt-shaker was reflecting sound back at HomePod’s microphones, and that seems to have made HomePod “decide” that there was a wall there.

Nothing I could do would fix this, other than moving the salt shaker and jostling the HomePod enough to trigger another re-optimization. As soon as I did that, all was well.

For stereo separation, though, the HomePod easily bests every other smart speaker against which I tested it. Listening to the very-stereo-panned intro to Pink Floyd’s “Money” (which is the reason I started playing Pink Floyd for my tests to begin with!), the HomePod really gave a distinct left and right feel up to about 10 feet away. With any song playing, the HomePod has the ability to “warm” the room with sound more than any other single speaker.

That said, for the same $349 as the HomePod right now you can get two Sonos ONEs. By stereo-pairing those two Sonos ONEs together, you get more room-filling sound than a single HomePod delivers.

In reading everyone else’s reviews with many people saying the HomePod sounded better than some of the things I’ve tested here, I set about trying to prove them right… almost hoping that HomePod would come out on top in my tests so that I could join that club. My results were the same, and I tested in several rooms. For me, the HomePod is quieter than the competition and has more low-end than I would prefer. It still sounds fantastic, though, and I most certainly have personal preferences when it comes to audio. You do, too, and if you think HomePod sounds better than anything else in its class, that’s A-OK. A lot of people agree with you, it turns out I’m just not one of them. Still, HomePod sounds fantastic, and it isn’t a bad choice, at all.

LOOKS

When I removed white HomePod from its well-engineered box, everyone in the room – including teenage friends of my daughter – was impressed by its looks. HomePod is understated, simple, and elegant. Feeling it adds to its mystique… the mesh feels rubbery, and it’s much heavier than most of us expected. As before, now is the time to stop reading if your only goal here was to know whether the HomePod is a visual hit. It is. No question there, and I would happily have one in pretty much any room of my home.

HomePod and Sonos One side-by-side

White HomePod and Sonos ONE sitting side-by-side

About an hour later, though, while the same people were all still in the room, I pulled a white Sonos ONE from its box to test that, and you could’ve dropped a pin. Everyone was in awe. That thing is gorgeously-pristine. Like a freshly-painted, bright white fence with clean, well-defined lines, that white Sonos ONE sparkles. We have had a black Sonos ONE for a while, and it looks great, but it’s less visually stunning, at least to all of us here (yes, still including the teenagers).

The JBL Link speakers, well, they look like speakers. They sound great, and they’re not ugly. But they aren’t going to win any design awards, either. HomePod most certainly bests these in the looks department.

I can easily see where some folks might think the HomePod is the best-looking smart speaker on the market. None of us here felt that way, including people that don’t own any of the aforementioned products. But HomePod definitely looks great and I’m sure there are some of you that will feel nothing else looks better. And that’s OK. Remember our deal? Personal preference is A-OK.

CONTROLS

I had a rough weekend. Due to series of events that started with a mid-week slip on the ice, I wound up with speaking being a painful chore for about 36 hours, 18 of which included my first experience with HomePod. Testing a smart speaker without it being able to hear you is… well, a good test, as it turns out.

I couldn’t even get the speaker setup without talking to it. The setup process insisted upon “teaching” me how Siri worked, and there was no obvious way to get around that. I mustered up the strength to push through the muscle spasms and whisper to the thing (this is not an easy condition for a podcaster to experience!). Then, once “Pinball Wizard” started playing, I wanted to change the volume, but was about 5 feet from the speaker. Standing and walking hurt only mildly less than speaking, so instead of getting up I looked all over the place on my iPhone for a way to adjust HomePod’s volume.

I launched the Home app and could at least pause (and resume) HomePod without talking to it. It wasn’t until the next day when digging through the Music app (and, as it turns out, Control Center) that I found I could actually control HomePod in a granular way from my iPhone. And that’s handy. Apple should include this in the “Control” section of their online HomePod manual.

Playing songs on HomePod without using voice control is a little clunky. It’s not immediately obvious that there’s a difference between choosing HomePod as an airplay destination or using your iPhone as a “remote control for HomePod.” And perhaps that’s only interesting to the geeky side of me, though I feel like there are some UX refinements that can (and will) happen here.

SIRI

A lot has been said about what Siri does (or doesn’t do) with HomePod. I found no frustration with Siri, but I was prepped by the fact that I had read most of the Apple PR-machine fueled pre-release-coverage. Their message was expertly controlled, and I was not surprised, upset, nor delighted by Siri in HomePod. It works exactly as I was led to expect and, similar to the JBL Link and Sonos ONE, HomePod is perfectly smart enough to know to filter out its own music and discern your voice, even at high listening levels.

One interesting note that combines a few things here: I asked Siri, “Hey Siri, turn down the bass” to which she replied, “I can’t control that setting here, sorry about that!” This tells me that there is a setting for tone controls or EQ in HomePod, and perhaps we’ll get access to it some day, either via Siri or something on our iOS devices.

Or who knows, maybe it’s already there and no one’s found it yet?

THE FUTURE

Other than its overall loudness, every single negative or issue that I’ve reported here with HomePod is 100% fixable with software tweaks. The HomePod is currently way over-engineered for what it delivers, and that’s a good thing. Having experienced the benefits of significant software enhancements still being delivered to 8-year-old Sonos gear, I’m very excited about the future of HomePod. The lists of possible refinements and enhancements are nearly endless.

The big questions for me are:

  1. Will other music services ever be natively supported, or is Apple Music it?
  2. What additional controls will HomePod get for audio?
  3. What’s the answer to the HomePod line and home theater? Because AirPlay from Apple TV is not a workable, long-term solution, at least not in its current form.

THE VERDICT & MY ADVICE

Here’s the thing: for nearly seven years, my household audio has been played out loud via Sonos. I now have 13 rooms in my Sonos system, and life is blissful. It would take a lot to switch me to some other audio-out-loud platform, and HomePod doesn’t have most of that “a lot” in its quiver right now. And that’s OK. I don’t think HomePod is meant to convert me. It’s not for me. At least not yet.

But to properly advise you, I have to rewind 7 years to the moment when Sonos first entered our house. Because music had moved into our digital realms, my family had all but stopped listening to music out loud at home. Yeah, we did it occasionally, but it wasn’t a daily exercise because, quite frankly, it was a pain in the ass to do. Setting up Sonos in our home made a huge difference, and returned us to a time when we had music out loud every single day. That convenience matters a lot, and is important to understand if you don’t yet have it.

HomePod very much delivers on that same concept. If you don’t currently have any way to easily play music out loud in your home yet, and you like the idea of living entirely in an Apple ecosystem, then HomePod is very much something you should consider.

To be clear, there are other options, too, and the answer isn’t easy. Sonos went a long time without any competition, but now there are a few things trickling into the market, HomePod and a few HARMAN/JBL options among them. I don’t consider the Amazon Echo or Google Home devices in this category, but that’s only because I am very picky about audio quality. If you’re not, then perhaps those are worth considering, too.

I see HomePod opening up the “audio out loud at home” market in a big way. For many, HomePod legitimizes the concept and, as both a musician and simply a fan of music, I couldn’t be happier.

And hey, maybe HomePod will improve your love life, too?

6 Comments Add a comment

    • geoduck

      Though I was a bit concerned with the limited volume. I want to be able to go Too Loud. Otherwise I might be running it at rated power all the time. I want some headspace.

      • Dave Hamilton

        I wouldn’t worry about running at full tilt all the time. Most speaker vendors do hours-upon-hours of testing to ensure their speakers can run at full tilt for days on end. Sonos showed me their “loud” rooms where they just let these things run, playing the most “energetic” songs at full volume to test this very thing, and I’m nearly certain Apple would have done the same thing with HomePod.

        Honestly, I think that’s probably at least paritially why HomePod tops out where it does. The other is that I think they limited HomePod’s top end just to be sure there was zero distortion or compression happening when you maxed it out.

  1. wab95

    Dave:

    Many thanks for a thoughtful, in-depth and honest opinion. I particularly like the fact that you underscored the subjective nature of your assessment, and qualified it by your background as a musician.

    You’ve given me pause. I’ve discovered that I am particular about sound and being able to adjust it to taste. My preferred genre is classical, but that covers a broad range beyond just the periods (Baroque, Romantic etc), but every setting from orchestral to keyboard and string duets. Our house is reasonably large, but our basement where I have my gym and office, is cavernous, so your comment about topping out (albeit without distortion) also caught my attention.

    In general, I have been happy with Harman/Kardon and Bose speakers, but following your review, I’ve held off my purchase until I can make my way to the Apple Store and hear the HomePod for myself…even though, I know I’m going to buy one.

Add a Comment

Log in to comment (TMO, Twitter, Facebook) or Register for a TMO Account