Apple HomePod review: For ardent Apple fans only Credit: Michael Brown

Apple HomePod review: For ardent Apple fans only

Apple planted its HomePod smart speaker deep inside a walled garden: You must have an Apple-branded mobile device just to set it up, and you can pretty much use it only with Apple’s own services if you want voice control for music. The company then adds insult to injury by leaving its older iPhones, iPads, and iPods outside that garden wall.

Unless you’re an ardent Apple fan who upgrades to new iOS devices with relative frequency, you won’t even be able to set up a HomePod. If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod model that Apple essentially rendered obsolete last fall when it established the hardware requirements for iOS 11, you’re out of luck. You can stream music from various devices to a HomePod using AirPlay, but not until you’ve set up the speaker using an iOS device running iOS 11 or higher. You can read this Macworld article to see which iOS devices are capable of that.

I work out of my smart home with a mix of Android, iOS, and Windows devices. I have seven Apple devices at my disposal: a 5th-generation iPod, a 4th-generation iPad, an older iMac, an older MacBook Pro, an iPhone 5, a 2015-vintage Apple TV, and an iPad Air 2. The iPad Air 2 was the only one I could use to set up the HomePod. I don’t hold onto older gear because I’m frugal, I just haven’t needed to replace any of it. Until the HomePod came along, it’s all been perfectly serviceable for my needs. And it should be still. Streaming music and controlling smart-home devices is just not that taxing. But as they say, Apple thinks different.

HomePod internals Apple

It seems as though this is as transparent as Apple will get when it comes to disclosing what the HomePod is made of.

You’re no longer dependent on Apple devices once you’ve set up the HomePod, but you’ll want a subscription to Apple Music ($9.99 per month) or iTunes Match ($24.99 per year) to take full advantage of Apple’s digital assistant, Siri. There’s currently no way to use voice commands with third-party music services, such as Spotify, Pandora, or Tidal, nor can you use voice commands to play music you own and store on a mobile device, personal computer, or NAS box. Subscribing to iTunes Match provides a workaround to that limitation.

If you do want to stream music from a local client, other music services, or internet radio, you can do so using Apple’s AirPlay technology, but you won’t be able to use voice commands for that. You’ll need an iOS, Android, or Windows app that supports AirPlay, of which there are many. Most Apple users will rely on iTunes, but there are also Android solutions and even a few Windows programs. The HomePod has a Bluetooth radio onboard, but it’s used only during setup—you can’t stream music over Bluetooth. But that’s no big loss, because AirPlay over Wi-Fi delivers much higher fidelity than Bluetooth (although I’m sure Qualcomm would argue that its aptX HD codec can do better). And unlike the Google Home Max and the Sonos Play:5, the HomePod has no aux input and no option for hardwired ethernet.

Unboxing the HomePod

My first thought when I pulled the HomePod out of its box was, “Wow, this is a small speaker.” Considering the price tag, I was thinking it would be more the size of a Google Home Max or a Sonos Play:5. My next thought was that my colleague Jason Cross, who reviewed the speaker for Macworld, forgot to include the power cord when he forwarded the HomePod to me.

Then I realized that the cord—wrapped in a fancy cloth jacket—is permanently attached to the speaker. Having just discovered that my small dog chewed the power cord for my Google Home Max review unit (my Google PR contact laughed and overnighted a replacement), I made a mental note to not leave this cord dangling where my dog could get to it. Replacing the HomePod’s fixed power cable wouldn’t be simple—nor cheap.

HomePod’s fixed power cord Michael Brown

The HomePod’s fixed power cord will be expensive to repair if it’s ever damaged (by a puppy experiencing teething pains, for instance).

The HomePod is an undeniably pretty speaker, with its woven cloth grill, its touchscreen top, and its dancing light show when you utter the “Hey, Siri” wake word. Touching the top conjures plus and minus symbols, so you can adjust the speaker’s volume. A single tap is used to play/pause music, while a double-tap skips forward through your playlist. The HomePod is available in white (the model reviewed here) or Apple’s space gray.

Apple has released relatively few details about what makes the HomePod tick, and the company never answered a raft of detailed fact-check questions that I submitted. So I can tell you the HomePod is outfitted with an up-firing high-excursion woofer near its top, and an array of seven out-firing horn-loaded tweeters circling just above its base. There are no mid-range drivers at all. I can’t tell you what material any of its drivers are fabricated from (or even how big they are).

Each driver has a dedicated amplifier, but I can’t tell you what type of amplifier, or how the HomePod handles digital-to-analog conversion (or what bit depths and sampling rates are supported), or even what type of plastic is used to build the HomePod’s enclosure. I can say the HomePod is strong when it comes to file-format support: It’s capable of decoding HE-AAC, AAC (16- to 320Kbps), protected AAC files from the iTunes Store, MP3 (16-to 320Kbps), variable bit-rate MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, and FLAC.

The HomePod as smart home controller

You can use only HomeKit-compatible smart home devices with the HomePod, but the good news is that the HomeKit ecosystem is becoming increasingly robust—especially after Apple stopped requiring every HomeKit product to have an authentication chip. You’ll find smart light bulbs from GE, LIFX, Philips, and Sylvania; smart switches from Elgato, Leviton, and Lutron; smart thermostats from Ecobee, Honeywell, and Emerson; and smart locks from August, Kwikset, and Schlage. There’s support for more specialized classes of products, too, such as motorized window shades and garage door openers. That said, the marketplaces for third-party devices that can be controlled with Google Home and Amazon Echo smart speakers are orders of magnitude larger, and the types of compatible product are even more diverse.

homepod tested in kitchen Michael Brown

The HomePod being tested in my kitchen. 

If you want to control any of your smart home devices while you’re away from home, you’ll need either an Apple TV or a HomeKit-compatible bridge, such as the Lutron Caséta Smart Bridge Pro. But that’s not an unusual requirement for the modern smart home. I tested the HomePod with a couple of older lighting components—the iDevices Socket and the iHome iSP6 smart plug—and was impressed by how quickly they responded to voice commands issued to Siri.

The bad news is that—unlike Alexa and Google Assistant—the HomePod can be linked to just one user’s account. And since it can’t differentiate between one person’s voice and anyone else who might be in your home, Apple’s smart speaker poses a significant privacy risk to your reminders, notes, messaging, and other personal information.

How I tested the HomePod with music

I tested the HomePod in several rooms inside my home, comparing its performance to a Google Home Max smart speaker and a Sonos Play:5 “dumb” speaker. I started my HomePod listening tests in my 150-square-foot dining room, which doubles as a photo studio. The speaker impressed me with its music-in-the-round capability. With the speaker on the dining table in the center of the room, it didn’t matter where I sat or stood, the sound stage changed little. And it had no problem filling the room with sound without needing to crank the speaker to its full volume.

homepod test locations Michael Brown

This floorplan shows the three locations in my home where I evaluated the HomePod. My most critical listening sessions took place in my home theater.

I moved the HomePod to my kitchen breakfast bar for its next test, which proved more challenging for the speaker. I had the same impressive soundstage experience moving around the larger kitchen (315 square feet), but in my open floor plan, the kitchen flows into a 323-square-foot great room. The HomePod sounded fine within the kitchen’s perimeter, but its output was swallowed up before I reached the middle of the great room.

If the HomePod supported multi-room audio, I could place a second HomePod in the great room to solve the problem, but that feature won’t be available until Apple releases AirPlay 2 and updates the HomePod’s firmware. Both the Sonos Play:5 and the Google Home Max already support multi-room configurations, and both can be paired for stereo today (although to be fair, Google added that feature after launch).

I performed my most critical listening tests in my 247-square-foot home theater. It’s a room-within-a-room design, 13 feet wide by 19 feet long, with 9.75-inch-thick walls: 2x6-inch studs covered by drywall on the outside, decoupled 2x4 walls covered by with two layers of drywall on the inside (with acoustic caulk sandwiched in between), and a 9-foot ceiling with two layers of drywall. The dead space between the walls is stuffed with fiberglass insulation, and the wall where my TV and home-audio gear is mounted is canted by two degrees to prevent the formation of standing waves. It’s a terrific venue for testing home audio gear.

Each of the speakers was placed in my home entertainment center, in front of my flat-screen TV. That puts the speaker 22 inches into the room, 44 inches above the floor (about ear height when seated). My listening position was 11 feet from the speaker equidistant between the left and right walls.

HomePod touch controls Michael Brown

Plus and minus symbols materialize on the top of the iPod when you touch it, so you can control its volume.

Few powered speaker manufacturers provide specs on their amplifiers these days, and I don’t begrudge them that reluctance. Modern amplifiers are supremely efficient, and just looking at raw numbers can be misleading. That said, both the Google Home Max and the Sonos Play:5 get considerably louder than the HomePod; loud enough to drown out Apple’s speaker when either one of them is played side-by-side with the HomePod. To guard against volume levels influencing my opinion of the speakers, I equalized them to the HomePod’s near-maximum volume (I’m happy to report that—to my ear, at least—the speaker didn’t produce any discernible distortion even at max volume).

Apple uses its own A8 processor to analyze how the speaker is performing in the room, so I let the HomePod play for an hour to do its room-correction thing. That might have been for naught, however, since an onboard accelerometer instructs the HomePod to re-perform this analysis each the time speaker is moved. And I had to move it several times during my listening tests to compare it to other speakers. I did the same with the Google Home Max, and with the help of my 5th-generation iPod, I tuned the Sonos Play:5 to the room using Sonos’ Trueplay software (but I only did this once).

With my wife’s assistance, I performed single-blind listening tests with each of the three speakers. I donned a blindfold and she played the first 90 seconds of Steely Dan’s “What a Shame About Me,” from the duo’s Two Against Nature CD, which I’d ripped, encoded in FLAC, and stored on a NAS box. We used Plex on the iPad Air to stream music via AirPlay to the HomePod, and we used the same app to cast music to the Google Home Max. We used the Sonos app with the Sonos.

homepod tested in home theater Michael Brown

The HomePod being evaluated in my home theater (for reference, the Klipsch center channel below it measures 23.5 inches wide by 8 inches tall).

She replaced the first speaker with the next one and played 90 seconds of the same track, and then replaced it with the third and played another 90 seconds. She repeated this routine twice, randomizing the order in which the speakers played. I picked the Sonos Play:5 as my favorite all three times, with the HomePod placing third. I then had my wife don the blindfold and I performed the same tests for her. My wife picked the Google Home Max as her favorite once, and the Sonos Play:5 as her favorite twice. The HomePod came in third all three times for her.

More details on the listening tests

My testing methodology isn’t foolproof, so don’t let my horserace results lead you to think the HomePod isn’t a good speaker—it’s very good. It’s just not as good a speaker as the Sonos Play:5 or the Google Home Max, both of which are more expensive than the HomePod. It should also be noted that the Play:5 isn’t a smart speaker. As an audio device, the HomePod outperforms Harman’s less-expensive Cortana-powered Invoke smart speaker, and it leaves Amazon’s entire Echo product line in the dust (and that goes for the Sonos One, as well).

The Play:5 and the Google Home Max are more traditional designs, assuming the listener will sit or stand in front of the speaker. As such, neither can match the HomePod’s omnidirectional performance. That said, how likely is it that you’ll place the speaker in the middle of the room? Most electrical outlets are located on a room’s perimeter walls, so most people will place their speaker on a table or bookshelf near or against the wall, diminishing the HomePod’s omnidirectional advantage.

HomePod lights Michael Brown

The HomePod puts on a light show when you summon Siri.

In addition to several other Steely Dan selections, we also listened to cuts from Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly; Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Wild Gods of Mexico,” from the artist’s Snake Farm album; Bruce Cockburn’s “Bone in My Ear,” from his album Dart to the Heart, and Cara Dillon’s rendition of “The Lass of Glenshee,” from the folksinger’s Live at the Grand Opera House release. This last selection was acquired from Bowers & Wilkin’s Society of Sound music-download service encoded in 24-bit FLAC. The other tracks I had ripped from CD and encoded in FLAC.

No matter what type of music I played on the HomePod, I found that it would overemphasize bass response at the expense of mid-range. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering the speaker doesn’t have any mid-ranger drivers. Some people will like Apple’s focus on the bottom end, but the Google Home Max and the Sonos Play:5 were also better at reproducing higher frequencies, such as piano and electric and acoustic guitar. As such, I found those speakers to be more faithful to the artist’s intention.

The HomePod is not ready for prime time

Considering how late to market the HomePod is, it’s very surprising just how far behind the curve this smart speaker is compared to the competition. Perhaps Apple assumes that its brand loyalists don’t mind living inside its walled garden. But not wanting to talk to Alexa or Google Assistant to control your smart home or queue up music because you’re accustomed to talking to Siri for everything else is one thing. Knowing your smart speaker doesn’t sound as good as or have as many features as the older competition is something else.

IDG Insider

PREVIOUS ARTICLE

«Corsair Dark Core SE review: A strong wireless-mouse design, but the software needs work

NEXT ARTICLE

Is your defensive security data-driven?»
author_image
IDG Connect

IDG Connect tackles the tech stories that matter to you

Our Case Studies

IDG Connect delivers full creative solutions to meet all your demand generatlon needs. These cover the full scope of options, from customized content and lead delivery through to fully integrated campaigns.

images

Our Marketing Research

Our in-house analyst and editorial team create a range of insights for the global marketing community. These look at IT buying preferences, the latest soclal media trends and other zeitgeist topics.

images

Poll

Should the government regulate Artificial Intelligence?