Hands On: Pitting the Apple HomePod against the Sonos One Credit: Michael Brown / IDG

Hands On: Pitting the Apple HomePod against the Sonos One

Until the arrival of the Apple HomePod, the Sonos One had a pretty strong grip on the audiophile-end of the smart speaker market. However, with the HomePod’s arrival, Apple are swinging for their top spot on the food-chain. They’re betting that if you care enough about the fidelity of your audio experience that you’re willing to pay extra for the best sounding smart speaker, you’ll go with their Siri-powered effort, regardless of the drawbacks and limitations that come with it.

[Related: Sonos One review: Seriously great sound with a serious caveat]

[Related: Which 2018 Smart Speaker Should I Buy?]

[Related: Apple HomePod review: Packs a punch but shirks on the smarts]

Funnily enough, the response to this from Sonos has been one taken in stride. The company have been running two-for-one deals on their Sonos One speaker in the lead-up to the arrival of the their biggest competitor yet and even found the time to release a humorous Spotify playlist to welcome Apple to the smart speaker arena.

playlist PCWorld Australia

Round One - Smarts

As with our comparison of Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant, we decided to play a quick game of 20 questions to put the HomePod’s Siri-powered smarts through its paces.

As noted in our head to head comparison of Alexa and the Google Assistant, there's no strict marking criteria to the questions here. I literally pulled twenty queries that I felt like I'd get at least some kind of answer for. In addition - it's not just about whether the answers they gave were correct, but also whether they understood the question enough to provide the kind of response I was looking for. The idea here isn't to provide a scientifically-accurate measure of how 'smart' each assistant is but instead to showcase their ability to answer the kind of everyday questions that most users might throw at them.

Here’s what the HomePod and Siri had to say for themselves:

  1. Who is the director of the Black Panther movie? “Black Panther was directed by Ryan Coogler.” Correct.

  2. Who was the last Prime Minister of Australia? “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  3. How many books are there in A Song of Ice and Fire? “I wish I could but I can’t look up books here.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  4. How much RAM is there in the Samsung Galaxy S8? “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  5. How many bits in a byte? “One byte converts to eight bits.” Correct.

  6. What is quantum computing? “Quantum computing is computing using quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement. That was from Wikipedia.” Correct.

  7. Is a plastic container microwave safe? “Sorry, I couldn’t find plastic containers microwave safe.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  8. Who was the star of Malcolm the Middle? “I found six: Bryan Cranston, Frankie Munez, Christopher Masterson, Justin Berfield, Erik Per Sullivan and Jane Kaczmarek.” Correct.

  9. What is the difference between water-proof and water resistant? “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  10. What is the population of Tasmania? “In 2016, the population of Tasmania was 509,965" Correct and contextualised. Good work, Siri.

  11. What events are taking place at the Winter Olympic Games today? “Norway lead the Winter Olympics medal count with 28 total medals, including...” Relevant, but not the answer we were looking for.

  12. How much sugar should I put in my coffee? “There’s no need for that.” Umm, OK. Thanks for that, Siri. Regardless, this was not the answer we were looking for.

  13. How much will it cost to fly to Melbourne? “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  14. Who wrote the song ‘Gold on the Ceiling’? “Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney wrote the Black Keys song Gold on the Ceiling.” Mostly-correct, though HomePod did fail to give Brian Burton a nod here when his contributions were recognised by both Alexa and the Google Assistant.

  15. How much sunscreen should I wear when I go to the beach? “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  16. How do I fix a broken lamp? “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  17. When is the new season of Jessica Jones due to start? “I can’t get info about TV shows on HomePod. Sorry about that.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  18. Will peanut butter help my sore throat? “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  19. What is Microsoft’s smart speaker called?  “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.” This was not the answer we were looking for.

  20. Who won the 2015 Oscar for Best Picture? “Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015.” Correct.

Again, You can see how Alexa and Google Assistant fared against the same questions in our comparison piece here.

However, the short version is that Siri scored worse than either assistant - even if we're generous on the Black Keys question.

Who Is The Winner: It’s a tie.

Fundamentally, I am a disappointed and generally-unsatisfied with the state of either device when it comes to smarts. On one hand, Siri comes across as frustratingly limited compared to the capabilities of both the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

However, on the other, the Sonos One currently features zero smart assistants for Australian users. Sonos have indicated that both Google and Amazon’s smart assistants will be coming to the speaker in 2018. Unfortunately, for the moment, that leaves the HomePod looking like a bit of a winner-by-default here despite its rather-significant shortcomings.

Thus, we're calling it a tie.

Round Two - Audio

To compare the HomePod and Sonos One we ran both speakers through a variety of tracks to see which came across better.

The Killers’ cover of “Four Winds” by Bright Eyes

When played on the Apple HomePod, the automatic bass correction here helped give this song a bit more punch than it usually has. In comparison, the sound coming out of the Sonos One was - overall - a lot more more balanced, with the both the vocals and the more subtle background melodies coming across with more clarity. It sounded much cleaner.

Jungle’s “Busy Earnin”

Again, the automatic bass correction and studio-grade dynamic processing on the HomePod gives the sound a really compelling crispness to it. By contrast, the Sonos One didn’t quite pack the same degree of brassy punch, but it delivered a really compelling soundscape nevertheless.

John William’s “Ahch-To Island” from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve listened to the soundtrack for The Last Jedi quite a bit since the movie landed in cinemas late last year and it came across with a really cinematic level of clarity coming from the Sonos One. This quality was most pronounced during the quieter melodies of first half of the track. The HomePod's take on things was a little weaker by comparison, although it absolutely managed to deliver the goods when it came to the thrilling swells of the latter-half of the track.

Snakehips’ “All My Friends”

Both sets of vocals in this song sounded really crisp and clean when played on the Sonos One. There’s a real verve or hum to it that left the air practically humming and captured the energy of the track really well. In contrast, the HomePod delivered a more bassier rendition that definitely had its charms but didn't quite manage to eclipse those of the Sonos One.

Who Is The Winner: Sonos One

Look, to be honest, there's a good chance your mileage is going to vary here based on both your music taste and the environment in which you set up either speaker. That said, based on our side-by-side shootout experience with both products, we’d go with the Sonos One.

There’s a lot of marvelous and exciting audio engineering at work behind the scenes with the HomePod. I am super into and appreciate of all the technical stuff that HomePod is doing whenever it plays music but in a pinch I’d easily pick the Sonos One over it for audio quality.

Round Three - Multiplied

Since you can buy two Sonos One speakers for close to the asking price of the Apple HomePod ($600 vs $500), it makes a weird sort of sense to see what two linked Sonos One speakers sound like compared to the Apple HomePod.

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In terms of the amount of setup involved on Sonos’ part here, connecting two Sonos One speakers together was really minimal. We just plugged our second speaker in, went to the "Room Setup" section of the app and hit the "Stereo Pair" button. A short software update later, we were ready to go.

Once we had the two speakers set up, we threw them and the HomePod against one another for another head-to-head comparison. However, this time, we shook things up a little. Rather than play the same four songs. We opted for the the theme song to to Guillermo Del Toro’s robots-vs-Kaiju film Pacific Rim. Yes, I'm very excited for the soon-to-be-release Pacific Rim: Uprising. No, I won't apologize for it. Giant robots are great.

Anyway, on the HomePod, the guitar riffs and brash horns of the main theme (composed by Ramin Djawadi and featuring Tom Morello) came across with a really compelling sense of energy. Like the buzz you get from the main Avengers melody at the end of the most recent trailer for Infinity War, it sounded just real slick and evocative.

However, by contrast, listening to the same track on a matching set of Sonos One speakers was something else entirely. It made me want to track down a Sonos Playbase and rewatch the whole movie again. You could really pick out every detail that the (awesome) song has to offer. Finally, it felt like the delicious guitar theme behind one of my favorite movies sounded as good just as it does in my head.Now, Apple have said that that they plan to bring a similar stereo-mode to the HomePod later this year. And for what it's worth, we were given an early demo of this feature a few weeks back and thought it sounded really good. However, until that feature gets publicly rolled out, it's tricky to do the kind of side-by-side comparison this feature demands.

So stay tuned. We'll look to update this section of the article when Apple roll out the feature later this year.

Winner: Sonos One (for now).

Again, as incredible a piece of audio engineering as the HomePod is, it flat-out does not stack up against two stereo-paired Sonos One speakers. The difference here is almost as large as the difference between the HomePod and the regular Google Home and Amazon Echo product.

Sonos know their stuff - and you can hear the difference.

The Verdict

By the end of this whole endeavor, an unsatisfying truth became clear. Despite their accessible and clean aesthetics, both the Sonos One and Apple HomePod are actually gunning for very niche audiences.

As we said in our original review of the Sonos One back in October, buying the Sonos One when it currently has no smarts to offer requires a certain amount of faith that both the smarts will come in due time and that the implementation of those smarts will be every bit as smooth as it is in the Google Home or Amazon Echo.

Likewise - there are over thirty million subscribers to Apple Music worldwide. If you are not one of them, and aren’t willing to cut your ties to your current music streaming service, you should probably not buy a HomePod.

Both of these products sound great, but there’s a good chance that the usability concessions being demanded by both Sonos and Apple here aren’t going to be a good fit for you. That said, if you do want to know which one sounds the best - we're giving our endorsement to the Sonos One.

IDG Insider

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