High-quality audio is the signature feature of Apple’s new HomePod. Apple execs brush off “Siri so stupid” concerns by emphasizing the sound quality of the device.
So the big question is: Will the HomePod be love at first listen? I just unwrapped one of the new Apple smart speakers, and my ears now have a little bit of a crush on HomePod.
I’m no audiophile — I would never spend thousands of dollars on speakers, tube amps and gold wires. But I am a music lover and a musician. I’ve listened to tracks played back in studios large and small. I ventured into numerous high-end audio stores during a brief dalliance with audiophilia. And I’ve swooned at the sounds emanating the speakers of a friend who did spend thousands of dollars on truly impressive gear.
Is HomePod audio quality enough for audiophiles?
Music possesses the ability to transport you. Reproduced properly, it can tickle your ears and send a tingle up the back of your neck as the hairs there stand at attention.
I’ve gone to see bands in unbelievably awesome venues (and some crappy ones, too). While on the road one time, I vividly remember stumbling into a concert hall as a symphony rehearsed — one of the finest musical experiences I’ve ever enjoyed. The air breathed as the violinists lifted their bows before drawing them across their strings, and the room seemed to darken as the timpani rumbled to a heart-pounding roar.
The HomePod delivers some of this magical musical experience — and builds in some sweet extras for listening to music in the digital era.
First the bad news. At $350, there’s no way HomePod is going to compete with $85,000 speakers (as some have suggested). No matter what wild claims Apple execs make about the awesome sound quality, it’s still a 7-inch, 5.5-pound speaker. Its seven horn-loaded tweeters and single high-excursion woofer can’t possibly move the amount of air that larger speakers can.
HomePod fills the room with stunning sound
However, the HomePod punches above its weight. It truly does fill a room when cranked up. In fact, it sounds better across the room than up close. It sounds fine sitting on a desk by an iMac, but this speaker is ready to party.
To my ears, the highs sounded extremely clear, the midrange barked a bit and the bass punched through with plenty of power. It didn’t sound bass-heavy, like some lesser speakers, but the mids proved a bit annoying, especially when listening up close. That touch of midrange harshness varied depending on the song, and in some cases it didn’t bother me at all. On other tracks, it was a bit of a drag. Maybe there’s a way to adjust the equalization, but I can’t find that info immediately in Apple’s HomePod User Guide.
The HomePod supposedly adjusts itself to whatever environment it finds itself in. Maybe Apple’s software will take care of all the audio tweaking, leaving you with no options for tuning it for your own ears, environment and listening habits. That would be very Apple-like, and kind of a shame.
HomePod setup and Siri
Then there’s that Siri-fied secret sauce. As with AirPods, Apple worked wonders with HomePod setup. You simply turn it on, unlock your iPhone, and agree to import your Apple Music and other settings. The speaker instantly greets you with a sunny message: “Hi, I’m Siri. Welcome to HomePod. You can’t tell, but I’m waving!”
Audio prompts show off some of HomePod’s Siri-powered features. You can check the news, weather, etc. But it’s mainly about delivering Apple Music. In fact, Siri can’t wait to queue up a personal radio station, just for you.
Mine started with Steely Dan. When I heard “FM,” I felt that little tingle on the back of my neck — an echo of that symphony-induced sparkle from years ago.
Siri then continued playing a string of tracks — some embarrassing, some not — cobbled together from my hours of listening to Apple Music. Apparently I love Steely Dan, Jimmy Buffett, ZZ Top and R.E.M. (Nailed it, Siri, although I’m bummed you didn’t get to Black Sabbath, Frank Sinatra and Nine Pound Hammer.)
Siri knows how to listen
HomePod also boasts very impressive listening skills. Its six-microphone array picked up my colleague Leander’s voice when he requested a tune, even as HomePod cranked out “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones from across the room.
As a longtime Amazon Echo user, this blew me away. Leander was talking quite quietly, and the music was blasting away. Siri heard him — and even deciphered his thick British accent, which sometimes proves difficult even for me.
In our initial tests, we ran into some problems. For instance, Siri didn’t recognize a song request when I asked for “The Glenn Miller Band” (I guess I was supposed to say “Glenn Miller and His Orchestra”). And some voice commands didn’t work out exactly right the first time. As with the Echo, this will undoubtedly get better over time as I start to understand key command phrases.
Overall, Siri performance seemed just fine — and the mic’s ability to ferret out voice commands blew me away. It’s at least as good as the first-gen Echo that sits on my kitchen counter.
HomePod first listen: Plenty to love
We’ll continue testing the Apple smart speaker in coming days and weeks, and we’ll publish our favorite features (and biggest complaints) as we spend some quality time with HomePod.
But first impressions tend to stick with you. The HomePod sounds plenty good for a $350 speaker — far better than that two-year-old Echo. It also sounds far more refined than your typical Bluetooth speaker (some of which come close to the HomePod’s price, but offer rugged portability that the HomePod lacks). However, it’s not going to deliver the sort of mind-altering sonic excursions you might secretly hope for after all of Apple’s hype.
While HomePod didn’t leave my ears drooling when listening up close, there’s plenty to love about Apple’s surprisingly smart speaker. It rocks the house — and can’t wait to hear what a pair of them sound like in stereo.
This could be the start of something great.