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Apple HomePod review: Not yet ready to take the stage

With HomePod, Apple is entering a big race after its competitors have already completed several laps. Amazon and Google have been iterating on their smart speaker hardware and software solutions for a couple years and have already sold tens of millions of Echo and Home devices.

After missing its initial “late 2017” release date, the HomePod has landed with glaring omissions and limited functionality. Apple’s smart speaker avails itself well with superior audio, but it’s a little startling to see a new product ship late, into a highly competitive market, in such an obviously unfinished and uncompetitive state.

HomePod is tough to recommend, even to Apple enthusiasts, in its current state. Fortunately, HomePod’s woes are related to software and services, so there’s nothing wrong with it that can’t be addressed in future software updates.

Apple design on display

The HomePod is surprisingly small. It’s about the same size as the Sonos One, only slightly fatter. At 6.8 inches tall, it’s only about half an inch taller than an iPhone 8 Plus. And it’s exceedingly well-built, too. Typical Apple design and craftsmanship is evident, from the surprising heft to the soft padded mesh wrap to the over-engineered LCD that pulses as Siri listens to your commands.

homepod solo 01 Dan Masaoka/IDG

HomePod looks simple and elegant, and up close displays a level of craftmanship unmatched by other smart speakers.

There are no physical buttons, just a touch interface on top. There are plus and minus signs to adjust volume, and a glowing, undulating middle area for everything else—tap to play/pause, double-tap to skip forward, triple-tap to skip back, tap-and-hold to invoke Siri.

homepod siri light Dan Masaoka/IDG

The Siri LEDs up top are needlessly fancy, and we love it.

Even the power cord is better-made than its contemporaries, with a nice braided cover. But the cord is a great example of how “Apple design” can serve as both compliment and criticism: the cord is attached in such a way that users are not meant to ever remove it. If your dog chews it up, you have to take the whole thing in for a $29 repair, rather than simply buy a replacement power cord yourself. All to make HomePod look just the slightest bit more uniform and holistic.

homepod power cord Dan Masaoka/IDG

The braided power cord is typical Apple attention to detail, and typical Apple lack of self-servicability.

Another unfortunate but very “Apple” design decision is the total lack of input or output ports. This shouldn’t come as a surprise from a company who said it took “courage” to eliminate the headphone jack from its phones, but you cannot plug anything into the HomePod. I’d love to see a little USB-C plug on the back as you’ll find on the Google Home Max, if only to serve as a charging port.

It may seem trite to think of the design and craftsmanship of a device like this as a marquee feature, but smart home speakers are inevitably placed on shelves, tables, and countertops where they are seen by everyone in your home. When you talk to them and they answer, all eyes are drawn to it. The wide seams, flashing lights, and chintzy plastic of competing products make them look and feel cheap by comparison.

Surprisingly mighty sound

When Apple talks about HomePod, it talks first about its amazing sound quality. With a four-inch woofer, an array of seven tweeters, six microphones, and an A8 processor, it will to listen to your room’s acoustics and analyze the music playing in real time. It knows where the walls are and bounces some sounds off of them, beaming others directly into the room. The high-excursion subwoofer is constantly monitoring its movement to prevent distortion and keep the bass balanced. Apple says it does all this sophisticated processing to sound amazing, all the time, anywhere in the room.

It really does work, too. Apple’s $350 speaker quite often sounds better than the more expensive Google Home Max, and always sounds better than the cheaper Sonos One. I’m not sure how it’s done, but a song like “Fight of the Cosmic Hippo” by Bela Fleck, with is heavy lumbering bass, clear plucky banjo, and riding cymbals manages to keep its clarity and sound stage nearly as well on this little pod as it does on the much bigger and heavier Google Home Max. Sure, Google’s big speaker has more low-end oomph, but it also sounds somewhat constrained and hollow.

Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of technologies that are supposed to use sophisticated processing to expand the sound stage, and they always sound great in demos but fall apart when I get them home to listen to my own music. A track like Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” might echo too much and lose all the subtle little squeaks of his fingers sliding along the guitar strings. HomePod finds a great balance, keeping the live stage ambience but making every subtle sound clear and distinct. OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” is murder on small and cheap speakers, and doubly tough for most audio-improvement algorithms. It can easily turn to sonic mush with the thundering kick drum, high piano chords, crashing cymbals, echoing vocals, distorted guitar, and backing tracks all layered on top of each other at high volume. I’m shocked at how well the HomePod handles it all.

To be clear, if you’re an audiophile with a couple grand invested in a home stereo setup, there’s nothing a little sound pod like this could possibly do to compete. A four-inch woofer, no matter how sophisticated the audio processing is, is just not going to kick you in the chest when listening to Daft Punk on high volume the way your 14-inch subwoofer is. But I am constantly surprised by how consistently great the HomePod sounds, especially for its diminutive size, whether listening to hip-hop, electronic, pop, classical, rock, or blues.

And the HomePod gets loud, too (I measured just over 90dB at a distance of one meter). Even at max volume I didn’t hear much distortion at all, a feat the Sonos One and Google Home Max couldn’t match. HomePod managed to sound great no matter where I was in the room, as advertised. $350 might seem like a high price for a smart speaker, and it is, but it’s easy to spend many times that on home audio equipment. If you think of it as a $350 speaker set, HomePod exceeds expectations.

It should be noted, though, that no amount of fancy audio processing is going to change the fact that the sound ultimately emanates from a single location. You just aren’t going to get real wide stereo separation without two speakers spaced apart. Some other single speaker units or sound bars can fool your ears, but only when you sit right in the sweet spot—move and the illusion is ruined. The HomePod doesn’t exactly sound monaural, and in fact fills the air more than other single-unit smart speakers, but for real stereo you’ll need two (and a future software update).

Walled garden could use a few doors

For all its vaunted sound quality, HomePod makes a frustrating home music device. You can ask Siri to do all sorts of stuff—play albums, playlists, “more by this artist,” mix moods and genres, and so much more—but only with Apple’s own music service. You have to use music purchased through iTunes, or uploaded and matched with iTunes Music Match, or of course Apple Music. You can also play podcasts without a subscription (to either Apple Music or the podcast).

But you can’t use it properly with much else. As mentioned, there are no physical inputs or outputs. That wouldn’t matter much if you could use it wirelessly with non-Apple products, but you can’t. I mean, it’s got Bluetooth 5 hardware, but it’s only used during setup. You can’t use HomePod as a Bluetooth speaker at all, and there’s just no good reason for that.

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