Initial orders of Apple’s new HomePod smart speaker will arrive on doorsteps and in Apple stores beginning Friday in the US, UK, and Australia. Today, reviews were published by several media outlets that have had about a week to test the HomePod. Apple also invited several journalists for a tour of its audio labs in Cupertino with Phil Schiller, hardware VP Kate Bergeron, and senior director of audio design and engineering Gary Greaves.
The consensus of the first wave of reviews is that the HomePod sounds fantastic. Apple has brought its engineering expertise and computing power to bear in a way that reviewers say produces remarkable sound for the HomePod’s size and price.
However, Siri’s limitations and the lack of support for third-party music streaming services also mean that the HomePod’s voice assistant features lag behind those of the Amazon Echo and Google Home. As a result, the HomePod’s appeal will likely be limited to people who already subscribe to Apple Music, use iOS devices, and care about high-quality audio.
Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.
As a smart speaker, it offers best-in-class voice recognition, vastly outstripping the ability of other smart speakers to hear you trying to trigger a command at a distance or while music is playing, but its overall flexibility is limited by the limited command sets that the Siri protocol offers.
Buy a HomePod if you already have Apple Music or you want to have it and you’re in the market for a single incredibly over-designed and radically impressive speaker that will give you really great sound with basically no tuning, fussing, measuring or tweaking.
Nilay Patel sums up what that means for everyone else:
The Apple engineers I talked to were very proud of how the HomePod sounds, and for good reason: Apple’s audio engineering team did something really clever and new with the HomePod, and it really works. I’m not sure there’s anything out there that sounds better for the price, or even several times the price.
Unfortunately, Apple’s audio engineering team wasn’t in charge of just putting out a speaker. It was in charge of the audio components of a smart speaker, one that simply isn’t as smart as its competitors.
That’s really the crux of it: the HomePod sounds incredible, but not so world-bendingly amazing that you should switch away from Spotify, or accept Siri’s frustrating limitations as compared to Alexa.
The HomePod received universal praise for its sound quality, especially in small and medium-sized rooms:
All of this means the HomePod sounds noticeably richer and fuller than almost every other speaker we’ve tested. You get a surprisingly impressive amount of bass out of it, but you can still hear all of the details in the midrange and the bass never overwhelms the music. And it’s immediately, obviously noticeable…
Panzarino says the HomePod begins to lose some of its sonic advantages in large rooms:
In an apartment, the HomePod could not be louder and more room filling. But at home, in a 20×30 great room with carpet on the floor, I did find myself wishing for it to be louder. This should be solved once Apple ships FullRoom — its support for two HomePods to be used in tandem but not in stereo. That’s coming soon, followed at a later date by the “multi room” function which lets a bunch of HomePods synchronize to play the same audio everywhere. But for now, small to medium sized rooms are fine, big rooms you may find the HomePod a smidge under powered.
The HomePod’s acoustics are the result of years of research. The journalists who toured Apple’s audio labs came away impressed.
Apple says that its largest test chamber is one of the biggest in the US, on a pad, suspended from the outside world with nothing to pollute its tests of audio purity. Beyond testing for the acoustic qualities of the speaker, these chambers allowed Apple to burrow down to account for and mitigate the issues that typically arise from having a high excursion subwoofer in such a small cabinet. Going even further, there are smaller chambers that allow them to isolate the hum from electronic components (there is a computer on board after all) and make attempts to insulate and control that noise so it doesn’t show up in the final output.
“We think we’ve built up the biggest acoustics and audio team on the planet,” said Gary Geaves, Apple’s Senior Director, Audio Design and Engineering. “We’ve drawn on many of the elite audio brands and universities to build a team that’s fantastic. The reason we wanted to build that team was certainly for HomePod, but to also to double-down on audio across all of Apple’s products.”
“We went out to hundreds of employees rooms and took thousands of measurements in each room,” Geaves. “That allowed us to characterize each of those acoustic spaces and come up with an average for all of those rooms in terms of reverberation.”
What frustrated most reviewers, however, are the limitations on Siri and lack of integrations with third-party services.
But Siri on HomePod is embarrassingly inadequate, even though that is the primary way you interact with it. Siri is sorely lacking in capabilities compared with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Siri doesn’t even work as well on HomePod as it does on the iPhone.
While you can send texts and take notes and set reminders and make phone calls, that’s about all of the extracurriculars and they’re all focused on single-user experiences. If you’re logged in to your iCloud account, all of the messages and calls are yours and come from you. That’s great if you’re a single dude living alone, but it completely falls apart in a family environment. Apple allows you to toggle these options off as the iCloud account owner and I recommend you do before it all ends in tears. Unless you live alone in which case Mazel, it sounds peaceful.
The HomePod’s Siri integration can also control HomeKit-enabled devices, though it’s worth noting that its capabilities in this area are more limited than an iOS device as noted by Rene Ritchie:
Because HomePod can’t authenticate your identity the way iPhone or iPad can, it can’t be used to unlock secure HomeKit accessories, like locks and garage doors, the way iPhone or iPad can. In that way, HomePod is like Apple TV — it can lock doors, either via direct command or scene or automation, but it can’t unlock them again.
There are also a number of videos available on YouTube and elsewhere that put the HomePod through its paces. Here are some of our favorites:
The initial reviews of the HomePod aren’t surprising based on what we’ve learned over the past several months and already knew about Siri. It’s curious though that none of the reviews demonstrate third-party Siri integrations. The HomePod’s Siri domains are limited, but it should be able to do things like create tasks in third-party task managers. I guess that’s one surprise we can look forward to on Friday.