HomePod sounds great, but you’re locked in [Review]


Apple HomePod volume controls
The HomePod is Apple's first step into the smart speaker arena, but does it emerge victorious?
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

There are boatloads of smart speakers out there, but nothing quite like HomePod.

Like many Apple products that came before it, HomePod is here to revolutionize an industry. It’s certainly not first to market, but Cupertino’s plan is to make all HomePod competitors insignificant. The new Apple smart speaker uses cutting-edge technology that delivers outstanding sound quality to do just that.

You can’t buy another speaker of this kind for $349. That price tag is not exactly cheap, but if you love music, HomePod should be at the top of your shopping list.

Apple doesn’t care about being first to anything. Over the years, the company took a number of already-popular product types and made them even better. It did it with iPod, iPhone, iPad and more. Now, we can’t live without these devices.

Apple aims to repeat that success with HomePod, its first speaker in 12 years (following the great but ill-fated iPod Hi-Fi). HomePod is a speaker first, Apple says — with smart features as an added bonus.

But does it really redefine the category?

HomePod review

HomePod review: Apple design is simple yet perfect.
The HomePod’s design is simple yet perfect.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Awesome design

HomePod’s design is Apple all over: simple, yet elegant. It’s the perfect size for almost any room. Measuring in at just 7 inches tall, with no mechanical buttons or identifying marks on its cylindrical shell, HomePod looks like a smaller, squished version of the Mac Pro.

That’s not a bad thing. You can place it seemingly anywhere and it looks good. It never sticks out like a sore thumb, and its single cable proves easy to hide. There is no polished stainless steel or anodized aluminum — just a custom fabric mesh that not only looks good but improves acoustic performance.

That completely seamless mesh covers almost the entire surface of HomePod. The only other thing you can see is the round glass panel on the top of the speaker. It provides simple touch controls for controlling your music, plus a mesmerizing ball of color that lets you know when Siri is working.

Apple’s attention to detail means even HomePod’s power cord bears a refined fabric finish. This helps it blend effortlessly into its surroundings and prevents it from becoming kinked and tangled.

HomePod’s look is beautifully subtle and understated. Apple wants its audio quality to be the big selling point, not how it looks next to your TV or on your coffee table. Visitors not already aware of HomePod will have no idea it’s an Apple product.

Small but swole

HomePod Siri Speaker review
I thought you’d be bigger.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

HomePod is smaller than you might expect — much smaller than it looks in Apple’s images — and surprisingly weighty at 5.5 pounds. That’s thanks to all the clever technology Apple crammed inside the speaker, including seven tweeters, six microphones and a high-excursion woofer.

There’s also an A8 processor — the same chip found inside iPhone 6 — which takes care of Siri, AirPlay and all the clever features you won’t find in other speakers in HomePod’s price range. It enables real-time modeling of the woofer mechanics, beam-forming, and advanced echo cancellation.

Its weight, combined with a soft base, keeps HomePod firmly in its place. It won’t get knocked over easily, and it won’t vibrate excessively when you play music at high volumes.

HomePod and ‘Hey, Siri’

HomePod Siri display
The HomePod’s display for Siri looks mesmerizing.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Whenever you speak to Siri, or it speaks back, the HomePod LEDs light up. This nice visual cue quickly confirms that Apple’s smart assistant heard you. It’s a surprisingly useful aid, since the beep you may be accustomed to hearing when using Siri is disabled by default on HomePod.

Volume is easily controlled with the touchscreen if you’d prefer to do it manually, while a single tap in the center of the screen will play and pause your music. A double-tap will skip to the next song and a triple-tap will skip backward. These controls will feel familiar to those who use EarPods and AirPods.

But over the past few days, I’ve barely touched the HomePod itself because I’ve found Siri works so well — and is much more convenient. (More on this later.)

Super-simple setup

HomePod review: HomePod setup: couldn't be quicker or easier
Setting up the HomePod couldn’t be quicker or easier.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

It couldn’t be easier to set up HomePod. As soon as you plug it in for the first time and bring your iPhone near to it, a setup card greets you. Then you simply choose which room you’re placing the HomePod in and log in with your Apple ID to transfer settings for things like Wi-Fi and Apple Music.

It’s delightfully easy, like pairing AirPods or an Apple Watch. There’s no tedious typing of usernames and passwords, or having to connect to your router. If you need to change anything at a later date, like choosing another room or changing Siri’s accent, you can use the Home app on iOS.

HomePod audio quality

As I’ve already mentioned, HomePod’s real selling point is its sound. Forget about everything else when you think about dropping $349 on this speaker: Audio quality is what you really need to care about. And just as Apple promised, it’s spectacular.

The speaker sounds best on a flat, stable surface — nothing hollow or too thin. HomePod might be packed with cutting-edge audio technology, but you’re not going to get the most out of it if you stick it on a thin Ikea desk that wobbles when you type.

When I first played it on a flimsy desk in my office, I wasn’t impressed. I moved it to the corner of my living room on a solid TV unit, and it made a world of difference. HomePod’s tweeters sit at the very bottom of the speaker, so a sturdy surface really helps.

HomePod adapts to its surroundings

Once you’ve chosen a good spot, HomePod does the rest. It takes a series of steps to perfectly adjust its sound output to accommodate the room it’s in.

Using its microphones, HomePod detects any nearby walls to determine how sound will bounce off them. It then uses its tweeters to form an array of sound beams assigned to direct and ambient sounds. The speaker shoots ambient sounds at the walls, and focuses direct sounds right at you.

When you play music, HomePod analyzes the left and right channels of your track and decides which sounds should go into which beams. It also measures the reflection of the bass from the subwoofer to ensure that the bottom end doesn’t take over your music.

Thanks to its accelerometer, HomePod knows when you move it, and it goes through this setup process again.

Sweet soundscape

HomePod review: How HomePod adapts to your room
Thankfully, there isn’t a sweet spot with the HomePod. No matter where you sit, it sounds great.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

So, no matter where its position or the size of the room, you enjoy incredible sound quality every time. It’s difficult to explain just how impressive it is without sticking a HomePod right in front of you and watching it knock your socks off.

It’s mind-boggling that such a small package can deliver exceptionally large sound. The high end manages to be bright without breaking. The bass is simply a triumph. It’s deep and powerful, but it doesn’t overpower the music and wreck the entire experience.

While a lot of speakers will either under- or over-deliver on bass, HomePod balances it like nothing I’ve heard before. I was worried it would be too heavy because almost all the Beats products I’ve tried are. But HomePod gets it just right, much like the BeatsX earphones.

HomePod sounds best at low volume

HomePod delivers its best sound at lower volumes. It manages to create an amazing soundscape without having to push to the top volumes. But when you do, the speaker still shines.

Very few speakers I’ve tried, especially in this price range, can maintain the same control at full volume. A lot of speakers start to lose composure or crackle and peak at full volume. The HomePod doesn’t

But HomePod never really gets too loud. As I mentioned in my HomePod unboxing video, Apple’s speaker never gets nearly as loud as I expected. It certainly fills your room with sound when there’s little to drown it out, but use it for a party, and I’m not sure a single HomePod will be powerful enough.

AirPlay 2, when it finally arrives, will help by allowing you to pair multiple HomePods. You’ll be able to use them in stereo, with two speakers that take care of left and right channels, or set them all to deliver the same sound in the same way a Sonos system can.

Siri’s listening

HomePod Siri performance
The HomePod’s ability to hear at full volume is one of the speaker’s most impressive feats.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Even at full volume, Siri can hear my commands from across the room. I don’t have to shout at the top of my voice and emphasize every word. It just works. You really must see this in action to appreciate how well Siri listens on HomePod.

Before I continue with Siri, however, I should point out that I’m a huge fan of Apple’s virtual assistant. I use Siri all the time and it works well for me. A lot of people like to point out Siri’s (seemingly) many flaws, but I’m lucky enough to not experience them.

I use Siri every day on my iPhone, Apple Watch and, most frequently, CarPlay. Even with my strong Liverpudlian accent, Siri always delivers.

As I mentioned, I’ve barely had any physical interaction with HomePod. Anytime I want to play a song, I just ask Siri and it takes care of it. If I ask a question? Siri answers it. Send a text? No problem. Siri is great, and I’ll fight that to the death.

Why did Apple handicap Siri on HomePod?

HomePod Siri review
Siri is great. But it could be a whole lot better.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Having said that, I do have an issue with Siri’s limitations on HomePod. Apple implemented a number of ridiculous restrictions that leave Siri nowhere near as powerful as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

HomePod can’t book you an Uber or order you a pizza. You can do these things with Siri on iPhone, but for some reason, not on HomePod. It could have something to do with the fact that HomePod offers no protection from unauthorized purchases.

Unlike other Apple devices, Siri doesn’t differentiate between multiple users. HomePod has no way of confirming that commands are being made by you. This means giving Siri too much power could create all kinds of problems.

For instance, someone else might order a pizza or a taxi that you’ll have to pay for, even though you didn’t want it.

Using HomePod in a shared home

This lack of voice recognition also creates another problem you’ll need to be aware of before using HomePod around other people.

If you allow HomePod to deal with personal requests, it can read and send messages, take phone calls, and more. That means anyone can use your speaker to read your last text or send a new one from your iPhone — and you might not know anything about it.

While this is not an issue for me as I have nothing to hide, it’s a huge problem if you live in a shared home. Fixing this should rise to the top of Apple’s list.

The good news is that HomePod music selections don’t need to interfere with your Apple Music recommendations. So if you have a roommate who loves listening to Chris Stapleton on your HomePod, you won’t see Stapleton tracks appearing on your iPhone when you open the Music app.

HomePod does work alongside other Apple devices to determine which one is best for handling your Siri requests. For instance, if you ask Siri to do something HomePod can’t do, it will automatically hand the request to another device, such as your iPhone, that does have the power.

Apple Music is a necessity

If you’re not an Apple Music user, the HomePod isn’t for you. It’s that simple. Apple Music is the only streaming service the HomePod fully supports. You can stream music from apps like Spotify on your iPhone over AirPlay, but you can’t control them with your voice or ask Siri to play certain tracks.

That’s going to be a major downside for a lot of people. Although sound quality is the big selling point, Siri is the icing on the cake. Its inability to fetch tracks or control third-party music services is a major roadblock that could make HomePod a bust for many people.

When you spend $349 on a speaker, you don’t want to be told how you can use it. The experience shouldn’t be worse because you don’t subscribe to one particular service. And the sad reality is, this is unlikely to change. HomePod almost certainly won’t embrace Spotify, Tidal or any other service.

HomePod review: The bottom line

Apple HomePod speaker review
Amazing bass, how sweet the sound.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

If you’re already invested in Apple’s ecosystem and you love music, then HomePod is well worth your money. It is an amazing speaker with sound quality you won’t find anywhere else in its price range. In fact, you’d have to pay thousands to get the same audio features elsewhere.

I think HomePod will become an even better offering with the release of AirPlay 2, but for now, it’s more than good enough by itself.

The HomePod doesn’t redefine smart speakers — at least not yet — but it is a strong contender for the best out of the competition.

If Apple loosens its grip on Siri, and keeps improving HomePod’s features and functions, this little smart speaker will be perfect.


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