OK, yes, the HomePod sounds great. After spending a good chunk of the afternoon with Apple’s new Siri-controlled speaker, listening to tunes in the company’s tiny Tribeca apartment meeting space, I’m more convinced than ever that Apple has built an aural triumph in its initial entry to the “smart speaker” space.
What I’m less convinced of, however, is whether customers will care. The success of the Echo Dot — Amazon’s puck-shaped smart speaker that definitely de-emphasizes the second word of that description — tells me that anyone who’s been won over by the category mostly just wants to get the power of voice command in more places. And audio? A glorified intercom will do. Or, hey, just connect your own speakers.
By contrast, Apple approached speakers in typical fashion: It controls the experience from end to end. Apple designed to the HomePod (which costs $349 and goes on sale Feb. 9) from top to bottom, and it made audio a top priority. Close to the bottom of the squat device, beneath the space gray or white exterior, there are seven tweeters, all pointing inward and down, so their sound is directed out of the bottom of the device in such a way that it reaches all corners of a room with equal clarity.
On top is a four-inch woofer that Apple says is capable of 22 millimeters of excursion (peak to peak). That means the HomePod can move some serious air, playing louder and clearer than you’d expect the 7-inch-tall speaker to be able to. The HomePod looks like a chunky monkey in pics, but in person it’s actually pretty cute, looking like a the Mac Pro’s pretty, younger sibling.
Did I mention it sounds great, too? Because it really does: With song after song — from the snare drums of Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” to the rat-tat-tat voices of “My Shot” from Hamilton to the of complex guitar of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the HomePod made them all sound visceral and suitably warm, whether the volume as loud or soft. Apple’s diminutive speaker even made the ubiquitous Disney mega-hit “Let It Go” from Frozen sound fresh, with impressively crisp piano notes and perfect vocals.
Since a smart speaker typically stands alone, it needs to be able to produce audio that sounds good throughout a room. The HomePod is able to scan your room and adjust sound to match the acoustics, and it showed: I was able to enjoy the music it produced wherever I stood in Apple’s demo room, an austere living space with a few bits of choice furniture. Even when I wandered behind a piece of greenery, the acoustics weren’t discernibly changed.
Apparently, even if you pick up and move the HomePod, it’s equipped with an accelerometer, so it’ll know to re-scan the room after you put it down. Smart.
You can pair two HomePods to create a stereo pair. Scratch that: You will, at some point in the future, after Apple updates the software, be able to pair two HomePods as a stereo pair. Apple previewed this ability for me, and the two HomePods filled a huge room with very clear sound with impressive volume. The bass lacked the thump of dedicated subwoofer, but had everything else.
As for how the HomePod’s sound compares with other smart speakers, Apple set up a demo space to match it against the Sonos One, Google Home Max, and Amazon Echo 2, playing the same songs, one at a time. Of course, the HomePod came out on top, though Google and Sonos made it a much closer fight than you might think for an Apple demo.
Siri’s new home
All this emphasis on sound gives you a good sense of what Apple’s line of thinking with HomePod: Music is job one. Siri is definitely a big part of HomePod, but it’s mostly there to facilitate your music experience, able to respond to granular commands about songs, playlists, and the like, as well as natural ones like, “Siri, turn it up.” Siri can also tell you all kinds of things about the song you’re playing: when it came out, who’s playing drums, the band’s history, and more.
The big catch, music-wise, is that the only music service it natively supports is Apple Music. Although you can play other services via AirPlay, you won’t get the granular voice control or extra information on any of the tracks. (My colleague Raymond Wong has lots to say about this.)
Over the last couple of years, Apple has really nailed down the right way to set up new gadgets: Like AirPods, the HomePod uses proximity and wireless tech automatically kick off setup with new devices, and all the user has to do is tap some dialog boxes on an iPhone.
One of those boxes is to approve personalization with the HomePod. What this does is ensure you can use certain Apple services — chiefly Messages, Calendar, and Reminders — with the HomePod. However, if your iPhone leaves the local Wi-Fi network (say, if you left for work), those personalizations would turn themselves off, reactivating when you return. This is smart: My family shouldn’t need to have to endure the minutuae of my life when I’m not there.
One thing personalization doesn’t do, however, is turn on any way for the HomePod to discern individual voices. Unlike the iPhone, where you can set up Siri to respond only to your voice, the HomePod responds to anyone and everyone within earshot (as I discovered by asking Apple reps about hypothetical Siri commands and hearing various HomePods around the apartment respond to my queries).
Since the lack of voiceprint on Amazon Echo devices feels like an oversight, I’m a little surprised Apple didn’t see it as a way to differentiate, though I admit it could complicate the setup process.
The HomePod works with Apple HomeKit, of course, though the only thing it really adds is voice functionality. That’s no small thing, but the Home app already lets you integrate smart home devices into a central hub as well as set up routines where you can do multiple things — like turn on a coffee maker, raise the blinds, and turn up the thermostat — with a single “Hey Siri” command. Now you can do that with HomePod
Probably my favorite touch was the Siri light on top. Whenever you speak the wake-up command, “Hey, Siri,” a circular light appears, morphing and twisting in all the colors of the rainbow. At setup, however, the light is simply white, only becoming infused with color once you turn on Siri (you have the option not to if you just want to use the HomePod as a “dumb” AirPlay speaker). I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, but the closest visual analogy I could think of is the M5 computer from Star Trek:
Another reason you might not want to turn on Siri is the fear it’s always listening. That would be misguided, though: Apple is adamant that, although the speaker is always listening for a wake-up phrase, no audio is actually recorded until it hears the phrase. And even then, any commands that are processed in the cloud are encrypted, Apple says. The company has also talked about its use of differential privacy to ensure any data it uses to improve its services can’t traced back to individual users.
In my short time with the HomePod, I came away impressed with its acoustic power and precision. I liked the design more than I thought I would, too. But in the world of smart speakers — which is where Apple is now competing, despite its desire to make the conversation all about music — those factors are secondary to the simple question, “How much can this thing do for me?”
The HomePod has only just begun checking things off that list. If Apple thinks this is anything more than a good start, it has another thing coming.