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PC Magazine

APPLE HOMEPOD SOUNDS GREAT BUT IS SHORTSIGHTED

The Apple HomePod is a high-quality smart speaker for your Apple Music account and iTunes library, with some Siri voice assistant features that help especially with smart home usage. The hardware is excellent, but right now, Apple doesn’t have the broad vision for voice-assisted living that the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant platforms show.

Apple HomePod

$349.00

3.5

Looking at voice platforms as the next world of computing, the HomePod seems very lonely. Alexa and Google Assistant are systems, and they become more powerful as they spread through your house. Your living room Google Home Max is complemented by your kitchen Home Mini, which you use to broadcast, “It’s dinnertime,” to the kids’ rooms. Your bedside Amazon Echo Spot wakes you up to music, and then you tell the Echo Dot in the foyer to turn off the lights when you head out on your commute.

The HomePod is priced, sized, and skilled to be a living-room music speaker for other Apple devices. In that context, the HomePod comes off as more like the Apple Watch or the Apple TV: not a new, core product category but an accessory to enhance your iPhone ownership and make sure you keep paying that Apple Music subscription fee. Since other voice-assisted speakers can’t play Apple Music, the HomePod is the obvious choice for iPhone owners and Apple Music subscribers who don’t want to pay an extra tithe to Amazon, Google, or Spotify.

From an audio standpoint, the HomePod delivers a rich, balanced sound signature that highlights the mids and highs. It doesn’t distort at top volumes, and its bass depth is impressive for its size. The HomePod’s sound can fill a room, but it doesn’t get quite as loud or deliver quite as much deep-bass response as the slightly pricier Google Home Max.

And we can’t recommend it as a broad solution—at least not yet—for people who are considering diving more deeply into home voice assistants. The HomePod plays music. It sounds great. It controls your smart lights. But unlike Alexa and Google Assistant, it doesn’t yet have the ambitions for more.

The HomePod is a small but powerful speaker designed to be used with Apple’s phones and tablets.

DESIGN AND SETUP

The HomePod is smaller than you might think and covered in a mesh fabric, except for the glossy, touch-sensitive top panel. It’s 6.8 inches high and 5.6 inches wide and weighs 5.5 pounds. Sitting alongside the Google Home Max, the HomePod looks rather small; it’s slightly larger and wider than the Sonos One. Regardless of size, all three speakers look like they come from the same Black Mirror prop shop, which is actually an across-the-board compliment.

The only visible controls are volume buttons on top. Tapping the panel in various patterns also works to control play/pause, fast forward, and rewind. An animated LED waveform appears on top when you speak to Siri—this signifies that Siri is listening to you. There’s no mic mute button, but you can say, “Hey Siri, stop listening,” to turn off the mic and tap on the top when you want to turn it back on.

Apple’s commitment to portless elegance goes too far, in our view. The HomePod has no aux input for wired playback. In fact, there’s not a single connection on the speaker. Even the power cable is hardwired, so if it goes bad down the road, you’ll have to send the whole speaker in for servicing rather than just get a new cable. 9to5Mac says, after seeing an internal Apple memo, that a cable replacement costs $29.

Internally, the speaker uses an array of seven tweeters firing in all directions, each one individually amplified, and an upward-firing woofer with its own amplification. The product’s specs list all sort of exotic features (“internal low-frequency calibration microphone for automatic bass correction,” “transparent studio-level dynamic processing”) that basically add up to the same thing: The HomePod uses digital signal processing (DSP) to alter its audio output.

Mostly, this means the speaker limits dynamics and bass response when it’s blasting at high volumes, primarily to prevent distortion. It’s the established norm with wireless speakers in this price range and lower.

Like some soundbars and home theater systems we’ve tested, the HomePod also measures the room it’s in and adjusts the audio according to its acoustics— that’s what that calibration mic is for. All of this, as well as the streaming and buffering of audio, is powered internally by the Apple A8 chip. The mics are sensitive and had no problem hearing us say “Hey Siri” over loud music.

To set up the HomePod, you’ll need an Apple iPhone 5s or later, an iPad Air or later, an iPad mini 2 or later, or an iPod touch. You can’t set it up without an iOS device, even with a Mac. You also need a Wi-Fi network; it won’t run without Wi-Fi.

Setup is dead simple—easier than with Amazon or Google and far easier than Sonos. Just wave your phone near the speaker, and it’ll borrow your phone’s settings and get going.

 

 

 

PLAYING AT HOME

The HomePod is designed to be used with an Apple Music subscription. Without a subscription, it can play Beats 1 radio, music you bought from Apple, podcasts in Apple’s library, or anything via AirPlay. If you have an iTunes Match subscription but not Apple Music, it can also play the uploaded or matched music in your iCloud Music Library. It does not have Bluetooth or a 3.5mm input. (The speaker itself has Bluetooth but uses it only for pairing.)

Technically, the HomePod supports HE-AAC, AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, and FLAC music. But all those formats are processed through AirPlay or Apple’s cloud.

Audiophiles should remember that when you play your synced music through the cloud from your iCloud library, it will play at 256kbps AAC. AirPlay is 44.1kHz lossless streaming, though, and you can AirPlay any file that iTunes can play. We even AirPlayed from a Windows PC without a problem. If you play from an Android device, though, you’ll struggle; third-party AirPlay apps for Android are unreliable and fall in and out of compatibility.

The speaker won’t work in tandem with others or as part of a multi-room set— yet. Apple says later this year, it will offer the option to pair two HomePods for stereo sound (the way Google allows with its Google Home Max), and to use AirPlay 2 to create multi-room sound stages.

Unlike other voice assistant speakers, the HomePod lets you request songs from Apple only by voice—not from Spotify or other radio services. But you can AirPlay other streaming services from your iPhone or computer. We tried Google Play Music, Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube Music, all on an iPhone X. They all let you say things like, “Next track,” to skip a track, pause and resume songs, and ask the name of a song. But they had a few bugs. YouTube Music would sometimes start in the middle of a song when I said, “Next track,” and Pandora had a noticeable delay in fast forwarding.

 

 

AUDIO PERFORMANCE

On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the HomePod delivers a powerful bass thump that is impressive for its size. At maximum volume, the bass doesn’t distort, and the speaker gets quite loud, though it’s not as loud or powerful as the Google Home Max. The Home Max is able to provide more palpable subwoofer-like depth, but the HomePod sounds more mids- and highs-focused while still delivering some rich, full bass response. At moderate volumes, the bass response is often stronger, as it’s less affected by DSP.

Bass response is one area where the calibration mic probably helps. Where you place a speaker—how close it is to a wall, the vibrations of the surface it’s placed on—can really impact bass levels, sometimes in a positive way but most often not. The HomePod aims to regulate this variable and provide you with consistent bass depth, so that what you hear when you place it in the corner shouldn’t vary wildly from what you hear when you place it in the middle of a room. Theoretically, this is great, but having no control over it at all is bound to drive some audio lovers insane.

Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the HomePod’s overall sound signature. The drums on this track can sound overly thunderous on systems that heavily boost the bass, but through the HomePod, the drums sound more modest—not at all thin but not as heavy as some bass-centric speakers make them. The more obvious bass depth is instead found in Callahan’s baritone vocals, which sound especially full and rich here.

This would make the HomePod’s sound signature muddy were it not for an excellent high-mid and high frequency presence that adds some treble edge to the vocals and lends some additional brightness to the guitar strums and extra snap to the higher register percussive hits. This is a balanced, rich sound signature—Apple’s DSP may not be transparent, but it honors the basic intentions of the mix and doesn’t exaggerate low frequencies or add too much sibilance or brightness.

On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives the ideal amount of high-mid presence, allowing the loop’s attack to retain its punchiness and push through the layers of the mix. The loop also gets some pleasant lower-frequency depth added in, nothing too intense and mostly in the lows and low-mids. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with solid presence, but especially at higher volumes, we get less deep sub-bass from them and hear more of their raspy top notes. In other words, the DSP kicks in and limits the bass response in the sub-bass frequencies.

At moderate volumes, the DSP does less of this, and so the bass can actually sound more full and deep than when you crank things up. The vocals on this track sound crisp and clear and never veer into overly sibilant territory. Generally speaking, vocals sound great through the HomePod across the board. The DSP does a fine job of prioritizing high-mids and highs, and this results in a crisp delivery.

For orchestral tracks, such as the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the lower-register instrumentation gets a modest amount of boosting, but the stage still belongs to the higher-register brass, strings, and vocals. This is one genre that seems to sound less adjusted by the DSP than others—there’s little in the way of sub-bass, but when it appears in the mix, its presence is modest. The lower register strings on other classical tracks have a lovely rich quality to them, and things generally sound quite natural on orchestral tracks across the board.

Playing these tracks via Apple Music versus streaming them, say, from a phone with AirPlay, the difference in audio performance is almost too subtle to mention. When you’re playing high-res lossless files over AirPlay (from an iOS device or Apple computer), you’re technically listening to a higher quality stream than when listening to Apple Music, but remember: It all goes through the DSP, and the DSP can’t be disabled.

Thus the concept of “lossless” as far as the HomePod is concerned must be married to the concept of a somewhat sculpted sound signature—even when your source file is pure as can be, it will be subject to Apple’s sonic sculpting. This is a negative for purists, but plenty of listeners will find the overall audio performance and DSP to be quite favorable.

The only visible controls on the HomePod are the volume buttons on the top, but tapping the top in various patterns controls play/pause, fast forward, and rewind.

GET SIRIOUS

The HomePod uses Apple’s Siri as its voice assistant, although its version of Siri isn’t as powerful as the one in your phone. It’s very, very focused on what Apple thinks you should be doing with it, which is playing music and controlling your smart home.

According to a report from IFTTT, most people use smart speakers to stream music, control lighting, set timers, and get the weather. The HomePod does fine with three out of those four tasks; it’s just lousy with timers.

But that makes sense, at least, considering the HomePod’s size and cost. It’s designed to be a music speaker at the focus of your living room. It’s not supposed to be a bedside alarm clock, unlike the Amazon Echo Spot, or a kitchen timer, or a multi-room intercom system as Echo Dots and Google Home Minis are.

MUSIC QUERIES

I came up with 25 queries to ask the HomePod, Amazon Echo, and Google Home, to check out the difference between the systems.

All three speakers had no problem playing songs by name. When asked to “play 80s new wave music” or “play old-school hip-hop,” all the speakers came up with custom playlists that worked with the genre. Fair enough.

Things got a little odd when I asked the speakers to “play something upbeat,” “play something sleepy,” and “play some quiet music.” For upbeat, Alexa picked a pop playlist, Google picked jazz, and Siri picked funk. For quiet, Alexa gave me Ed Sheeran, Google chose a Janet Jackson ballad, and Siri went with Steely Dan. And for sleepy, Alexa delivered nature sounds, Google had some relaxing electronica, and Siri gave up and played Wiz Khalifa.

Finally, I asked the speakers to “play something I’d like.” Alexa and Google gave up there, trying to find songs by that title. Siri got the intent right but launched into an emo track by Rise Against, which I do not like.

HOME AND KITCHEN

HomeKit is one of the HomePod’s great strengths. You can now control by voice any smart devices and systems you’ve set up through your iPhone, including scenes and zones. We easily turned lights on and off using the HomePod, even with our iPhone turned off.

The HomePod falls short as a timer because it can set only one at a time. You can get around that by setting alarms for specific times of day (for instance, ask Siri what time it is, and then set an alarm for three minutes later), but Amazon and Google both support multiple named timers, which is much smoother.

Siri falls flat on recipes, too. Alexa and Google both read out a range of recipes and ingredients, step by step. Siri just says, “I can’t get the answer to this on HomePod.” Don’t use it in your kitchen.

NEWS AND GENERAL KNOWLEDGE

Here’s where Siri really starts to fail.

The HomePod gets its weather data from weather.com. All three voice systems responded to, “What will the weather be tomorrow?,” “Will it rain tomorrow?,” “Do I need a coat?,” and “Do I need an umbrella?”

In terms of news, the HomePod is more limited than the competition. It’ll play you a news brief from CNN, Fox News, NPR, or the Washington Post. Both Alexa and Google have hundreds or thousands of news sources.

When you ask for calendar events, Siri says, “I can’t access your calendar here.” Alexa has various calendar skills; Google tells you your Google calendar events as long as you don’t have a G Suite account.

As for general knowledge queries, which we’re lukewarm on testing anyway because they feel gimmicky, Google did much better than either Alexa or Siri, spelling the world “querulous” correctly (the other two misunderstood what I was saying) and telling me how many albums Belle and Sebastian made.

Siri also falls way short when it comes to third-party branded skills. Alexa and Google can order you an Uber, for instance, buy you movie tickets, and plug into third-party notes and to-do services. Siri, at least for now, can’t do any of these things.

It really isn’t clear how many third-party services plug into Siri; Apple wouldn’t give us a list. But it’s certainly many fewer than the 2,000 skills for Google Assistant, or the 24,000 for Alexa.

OTHER COMPARISONS

The Echo and Google Home devices can make outbound phone calls; the HomePod cannot, although it can be used as a speakerphone for an existing call on your iPhone. All three devices can send texts.

The HomePod can connect to only one Apple account, and it doesn’t verify voices. (Google Home can automatically respond to up to six different people using their accounts, and Alexa can be asked to switch accounts.) That means when you hook up SMS messaging, anyone will be able to send texts from your phone number through your HomePod, as long as your phone is in range.

Also, unless you tell the HomePod to “turn off use listening history,” everyone’s music selections will be taken into account when you ask for custom playlists, which could add up to some odd results. Alexa and Google Home are much better at balancing the needs of families.

CONCLUSIONS

The HomePod is a sonic success. Purists may thumb their noses at the DSP and overall inability to disable the room-adapting technology in favor of an unadulterated signal, but we can confirm that although the audio performance may be steeped in digital processing, it almost always sounds rich, full, and clear. The speaker is easy to set up and effortless to use, as long as you’re playing Apple Music.

But while the HomePod makes a great living-room speaker for your Apple Music subscription, it’s neither the core of a voice-activated home nor the best smart speaker available. Our Editor’s Choice for high-end smart speakers, the Google Home Max, is larger and more powerful with better volume, better bass depth, a better voice assistant, and more flexibility with music services and inputs. The Home Max can also become part of a household system with various smaller Google Assistant speakers. Apple doesn’t have such a range available. For now, the HomePod stands alone.

We’re also irritated at how the HomePod doesn’t play well with others. The lack of Bluetooth input, aux input, and support for more music services feels to us more like a marketing move to lock you out of non-Apple music sources than a consumer-friendly, quality-oriented choice.

The HomePod feels unfinished, but we wouldn’t count Apple out. The first iPhone felt unfinished, too, with its poor-quality phone calls, lack of 3G, and lack of apps. The first iPod didn’t support Windows. The HomePod is an admirable first try. It’s entering a realm where the competition has been working on its products for years. Let’s see how fast Apple can catch up.

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