Most of my friends are musicians or audio nerds. (Lord help me.) Ever since Apple loaned me a HomePod to test a week ago, I’ve been bragging to my peers that I have the new, highly anticipated Wi-Fi speaker at the house. All of them quickly ask me the same thing: Does it sound good?
I think that question is incomplete. Sure, the HomePod sounds really terrific, and it’s a good purchase if you want a speaker that just plays music. But if you want a smart speaker that not only plays music but also adds convenience and fun to your daily routine through voice interaction, the question you should be asking isn’t just, “Does it sound good,” but also, “Does it measure up?”
The short answer to the second question is no. The HomePod is a marvel of audio engineering, and it sounds better than most of the other smart speakers you can buy for $300 or less. But while the audio quality is spectacular, the smart features—voice control, internet audio streaming, interactions with your other devices—fall far short of what’s expected from an internet-connected speaker. The HomePod’s software is too limited, and the list of streaming services it can connect to is not long enough. Also, Siri’s skills are paltry compared to the more robust array of capabilities you get with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
I can really only recommend the HomePod to people whose homes are already soaking in Apple goods and services. If you ride for iPhone, if you never let your $10-per-month Apple Music subscription expire, and if you’ve retrofitted your abode with HomeKit-compatible plugs, bulbs, and door locks, then you’ll likely find the HomePod’s voice-control features just powerful enough to add a layer of connectedness that fulfills the great promise of The Smart Home. All you people—and you know who you are—go forth and buy one. You’ll absolutely love it. Everyone else? It’s probably not for you.
Small Audio Dynamite
Give Apple a gold star for the HomePod’s design. It’s a funky little blob that stands about 7 inches tall—smaller than you’d think having only seen photos. It’s covered in an acoustically transparent mesh fabric, which you can get in white or Apple’s signature space gray. Inside, situated at the top, is a woofer for delivering hearty low frequencies. At the bottom, arranged in a ring around the speaker, is an array of seven tweeters for pumping out shimmering high frequencies. Smack in the middle is an array of six microphones.
Those mics are for summoning Siri of course, but they’re also for measuring the acoustic characteristics of the speaker’s environment in real time. Place it near a brick wall or a glass surface, and the HomePod measures the sound waves bouncing around, then tunes its audio output on the fly to cancel out reflections, remix the sound, and generally clean things up. This trick is accomplished by use of an internal A8 processor—Apple’s own chip, and the same one it was putting in iPhones a couple of years ago—and it manages to make the HomePod sound excellent no matter where you set it. You can even pull the ultimate speaker-placement no-no and push it into a corner. It still sounds fine.
Those microphones are great for Siri interactions too, and they work better than the mics on every voice-controlled speaker I’ve tested. The HomePod can hear you say “Hey, Siri” in a normal speaking voice, facing the other direction, from 15 feet away, while Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” is playing at 80 percent volume. I tried mumbling my requests, or speaking with my mouth full of bread and cheese, and Siri almost always understood me. This is a nice change from the Amazon Echo, which I usually have to bend close to and over-annunciate to get what I want. But Siri can hear you from up close, from far away, in a silent room, or with the HomePod cranked.