Apple’s first smart speaker is finally here. Tom Wiggins finds out if the HomePod’s sound quality can make up for the lack of Spotify support and high price tag.
Ever since Amazon’s Echo revolutionized voice control in the home, Apple die-hards have been wondering when the company would offer their Siri-powered alternative. It’s taken a few years, but Apple’s entry into the smart speaker market is finally here in the shape of HomePod, a Siri-enabled, Wi-Fi speaker that can be controlled almost entirely with your voice.
Unlike the various Echo devices or Google’s Home, the HomePod is designed for playing music first and answering queries about the weather second. Available in white or dark grey, it’s about the size of a melon, making it larger than it looks in pictures but much smaller than the sound it pumps out. Setup is easy, though you will need an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch – the first of a few caveats that come with owning a HomePod.
The second – and biggest – thing to flag up about the HomePod, is that without a $10-a-month Apple Music subscription you won’t get the best out of it. You can still use it to play music from your phone wirelessly over AirPlay (including from Spotify) and still use Siri to pause, skip and ask what’s playing, but direct voice requests for particular songs or albums can only be completed using Apple Music (or songs uploaded to your iCloud Music Library).
If you are an Apple Music subscriber, you’ll be using Siri far more to control the HomePod than you do your iPhone. There’s a screen on top you can tap to play or pause, with touch-sensitive volume buttons on either side, but it’s really there just to show when Siri is listening. Talking to the HomePod is an easy habit to get into, at least from a technical point of view. There are six microphones inside, so even when facing away from the speaker with music playing you shouldn’t have to raise your voice for it to hear you, and it turns the volume down when you say ‘Hey Siri’ with music playing.
Siri is generally quite good at knowing when you’re addressing it on the HomePod and on your iPhone – unless you’re holding your phone at the time, in which case it will still briefly wake up when it hears the magic words before realizing it’s not needed. Most of the time it’s not a problem but if you’re scrolling through Twitter and want to put some music on, things might get confusing.
In general, song or album recognition is excellent, though I did get Bonnie Tyler when I asked for Bon Iver a couple of times. You don’t necessarily need to know the name of what you want to listen to: ask for the first or latest album by an artist and the HomePod knows which one to play, although it can’t understand anything in between. It even knew I wanted to hear ‘Wool’ when I asked for “the Earl Sweatshirt song featuring Vince Staples”, though it was less successful when I wanted to hear Thundercat teaming up with Michael McDonald on ‘Show You the Way’. If there are two songs with the same title and it initially picks the wrong one, saying “play a different version” should deliver the track you want.
Siri’s pronunciation of artists and song titles can also leave a lot to be desired (anyone heard of a DC punk band called Fewguzzi?) but that’s just a quirk of text-to-speech services. It’s more likely to be a problem when it comes to your own requests. Good luck getting it to play any specific song off Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered, for example, and you’ll need to brush up on your Icelandic if you’re a Sigur Rós fan. It also has a few occasional unexplained blind spots, such as ‘Krimson’ by Warpaint, which it insisted wasn’t available but happily played when I asked for the album it’s on instead.
With other smart speakers these kinds of hiccups are irritating, but generally easy to put right by firing up the accompanying app. The problem with the HomePod is that it doesn’t have one as such. The pre-installed Home app is used for modifying its settings, while controlling what’s playing involves a convoluted method using the Music app; bring up the ‘Now Playing’ screen, hit the AirPlay logo and as long as both are connected to the same Wi-Fi network you can choose what you want to play via the Apple Music interface. It’s not the elegant or streamlined process, but it’s a workaround for the issues that currently exist when using only your voice.
However, whether you’re playing directly from Apple Music or via AirPlay, the HomePod sounds fantastic. Apple’s managed to pack a dedicated woofer and seven tweeters inside, which means there’s impressive separation of the frequencies and a controlled thud to the bass. Give it something well-produced and it really sings, with vocals that sound natural and forthright. Everything’s given its own space to breathe and it has far more texture than you’d get from other smart speakers – but at $349/£319, the HomePod is significantly more expensive. There’s good dynamic range too, meaning you don’t have to pump a track like Mogwai’s ‘My Father My King’ to hear the start and get deafened by the crescendo.
Part of the HomePod’s power comes from the A8 chip inside, the same chip that powered the iPhone 6. One of the A8’s primary tasks is to use the HomePod’s microphones to listen to itself and ensure it sounds as good as possible, no matter what you’re playing and where you put it. This means you can place the HomePod on a table in the middle of a room (though not on a wooden one) or on a bookshelf in the corner and it’ll tweak the sound to give you the same performance. The A8 also means you can use the HomePod as a speakerphone, ask it to send and read out messages for you, set reminders and, if you have smart home gadgets that are compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, use it as a hub to control them all.
The ‘smart’ side of the HomePod is a little undercooked right now but its musical performance makes up for it; it’s easily good enough to be the only speaker most homes will need. That makes it easy to recommend, though not without highlighting those typically Apple requirements to get the best out of it: an iOS device and an Apple Music subscription. The former is nothing new: there were plenty of speaker docks that were designed to be used with iPods though they always had separate line-in connections for non-Apple devices (not that anybody owned anything else back then). Streaming demands no such physical limitation.
Support for other services could be added at any time, though Apple wouldn’t comment when asked if there were plans to do so, and the fact that Spotify still isn’t supported via Siri on an iPhone doesn’t bode well. If you’re happy with that and want an excellent-sounding speaker that just so happens to be voice controlled, the HomePod won’t disappoint. As smart speakers go it’s not the brightest, but it sets a new bar for sound quality that’s going to be very hard to beat.
Tom Wiggins is a freelance journalist. Find him on Twitter.