Reviews

A four sentence HomePod review (with appendices)


Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.

As a smart speaker, it offers best-in-class voice recognition, vastly outstripping the ability of other smart speakers to hear you trying to trigger a command at a distance or while music is playing, but its overall flexibility is limited by the limited command sets that the Siri protocol offers.

Buy a HomePod if you already have Apple Music or you want to have it and you’re in the market for a single incredibly over-designed and radically impressive speaker that will give you really great sound with basically no tuning, fussing, measuring or tweaking.

That’s pretty much it for my review. Everything from here on out is details…but I love details and if you do too let’s talk about some.

Appendices

A collection of information about various aspects of the HomePod’s creation and how it works in real life.

The reviewer:

Speakers are likely the pinnacle of “subjective hardware”. Listening environment, experience, vocabulary, taste and the natural ear of the reviewer are all going to differ in some small way from the potential owner. That means that no matter how many reviews you read if you’re not already going to buy one and sound matters to you then you should go find one to listen to at least once in an Apple Store or elsewhere.

I also think that means that reviewing the reviewer is sort of necessary to read a review like this in the proper context.

As for me, I come at this thing having sold high end audio equipment for around 7 years about 15 years ago. During my time in the home audio business I spent countless hours listening to and learning about loudspeakers of all kinds from $50 bookshelf models up to $20,000 Meridian systems. In the service of, hopefully, becoming educated enough to make proper recommendations for buyers. And, of course, to get that sweet 5% commission. My interest in audio extended back further and has continued to this day, though I’m no one’s specialist. I’d consider myself a moderately educated listener with a solid ear and a taste for the finer things. Though it’s important to note that my particular poison was always centered around home theater, and less on the ‘let’s sit in a room and listen to Vangelis and stare at each other’ end of the spectrum. Though that can be nice.

The above review and these end notes were written with that very moderate audio experience and admittedly very subjective viewpoint in play.

Build quality:

Apple took this Very Seriously Indeed™️. To prove just how serious, it took groups of journalists on the first-ever tour of its audio lab near its headquarters in Cupertino. The lab featured a dozen anechoic chambers for testing components of the HomePod, including one enormous one sat atop 28 tons of concrete. I’ve actually visited audio testing labs before and stood in these curiously sound-deadening chambers that allow you to isolate the smallest variation in tone of a speaker, and much of what Apple showed is standard operating procedure for development of a new loudspeaker.

But slathered on top of that is a bunch of typically Apple extra mile jelly. Apple says that its largest test chamber is one of the biggest in the US, on a pad, suspended from the outside world with nothing to pollute its tests of audio purity. Beyond testing for the acoustic qualities of the speaker, these chambers allowed Apple to burrow down to account for and mitigate the issues that typically arise from having a high excursion subwoofer in such a small cabinet. Going even further, there are smaller chambers that allow them to isolate the hum from electronic components (there is a computer on board after all) and make attempts to insulate and control that noise so it doesn’t show up in the final output.

Put simply, when a sub booms as much as this one does, you’re usually guaranteed to rattle some components around. That’s that bzzzz sound you get when a speaker is turned up loud, or a car in front of you has a loose license plate frame and has Culture II on blast. Thanks to an excessive amount of testing and engineering, the HomePod contributes none of its own vibration or hum to the audio — even at maximum volume on super thumpy tracks. Very high marks on this aspect of the build quality — marks that translate directly to sound quality.

I’m not going to wax rhapsodic about the fabric covering the HomePod, though Apple is very proud of it being “transparent” to audio. This means that it theoretically has next to no effect on the sound passing through it, which can be an issue with cheaper speakers. Most decent quality speakers are covered with better materials, though at the lower end many are simply pulled over with something that looks decent, which can muddy sound. I’ll leave it to someone else to skin a HomePod and compare the output. I can say that it’s attractive and relatively stain resistant though. I have kids, so sue me.

The top display is the absolute bare minimum that is needed. Two volume buttons and a multicolored swirl that represents Siri. Compared to the button and icon rich surfaces of the Amazon Echo, Sonos Play 1 and Google Home Max it’s, well, very Apple-y.

Sound quality and comparatives:

The sound that comes from the HomePod can best be described as precise. It’s not as loud as some others like Google Home Max or as bright (and versatile) as the Sonos Play 1, but it destroys the muddy sound of less sophisticated options like the Amazon Echo. To genuinely fill a large room you need two but anyone in a small house or apartment will get great sound from one.

I’ve been testing the Home Max, Sonos’ Play 1 and the newest Echo alongside the HomePod in order to get some basic frames of reference but also, in the end, to figure out where it’s supposed to fit.

The HomePod was the “best” sounding. It’s nuanced and subtle with great separation and clarity across all kinds of music. The Play 1, for instance, had decent mid range but an overly bright high end with just the out of the box calibration. At maximum volume, the Play 1 became shrill and painful where the HomePod maintained balance.

The Home Max sounded pretty good, and because it has double the subs, with similar excursion (22mm vs. the HomePod’s 21mm) that pushes about the same amount of air, it’s really thumpy. They are downward firing though, vs upward, and I think that, along with the relatively standard enclosure, could have something to do with how pushed together the sound is. It definitely got a lot louder than the HomePod, which was a common theme in my testing — HomePod sounds great but is just not as loud as other speakers. The Home Max held the shape of the sound well up to max volume, which was more room filling as a single unit than a single HomePod alone.

But the Max falls very much into the ‘crowd pleaser’ sort of speaker. It’s loud and bassy and does a decent job of that. But it’s not very sophisticated.

All of the other units, from the Echo to the Sonos to the Home Max failed at providing a truly separated sound. That’s where the HomePod excels, and it’s thematically appropriate. It takes a metric butt-ton of engineering work coupled with a lot of restraint not to just make this thing loud and angry. Instead, care was taken to craft a sound stage based on the position of the speaker in the room and the components of the tracks being played.

The HomePod will even listen to the audio that comes back to determine the audio signature of the surfaces it’s reflecting off of. In a reductive way, the HomePod is sensing what kinds of surfaces make up your room and compensating for them to eliminate echo and unwanted reverberation and to determine what slices of audio are best served by playing off of their nature.

All of that processing that is being done by the A8 chip on board is why there is no EQ on the HomePod. Where would you even start “tuning” something that is making continuous and ongoing adjustments with every track and environment? I love a good bunch of sliders as much as the next person, but I also understand why they’re not here.

The HomePod has a single, upward-firing sub that is shock dampened. While the Home Max definitely bumps, it also requires the use of a separate rubber pad that you have to place like a bass trivet to prevent unwanted vibration while it’s on a surface. The HomePod transmits so little of the movement from the sub cone through the body that it’s in no need of anything more than the integrated rubber foot. It’s not as much boom, but it’s much better utilized.

In an apartment, the HomePod could not be louder and more room filling. But at home, in a 20×30 great room with carpet on the floor, I did find myself wishing for it to be louder. This should be solved once Apple ships FullRoom — its support for two HomePods to be used in tandem but not in stereo. That’s coming soon, followed at a later date by the “multi room” function which lets a bunch of HomePods synchronize to play the same audio everywhere. But for now, small to medium sized rooms are fine, big rooms you may find the HomePod a smidge under powered.

Only the HomePod and the Echo provided true unidirectionality of sound, and the Echo is at the absolute back of the pack for audio quality. Walking around the HomePod from one corner of a room to another or around it in a circle is a really incredible experience. The sound does not fall off at any angle, and the characteristics of the audio don’t change. This just works.

Though I found the Sonos bright by default, the build quality is still excellent, and it’s probably a great option for many multi-channel audio enthusiasts. But Apple is not really going after the same people. The ‘it’s a pricey speaker’ argument is really pretty moot here. You’re not powering your home theater with the HomePod. Whole home audio isn’t live at launch either. In the end they’re courting Apple Music subscribers, not Sonos devotees. Sonos also had years to get their act together and has given up a ton of market advantage by dragging their toes with a genuinely unique and lovely product.

As far as separation goes, the Sonos Play 1 was quite crisp and definitely louder overall, because there are two of them (for roughly the same price as a HomePod).

But no matter how solid, they could still not create the expansive sound stage that the HomePod did. This was just as evident in tracks like Bodak Yellow as it was in La Grange. But it really kicked ass in live performances, where it felt that the vocals were sitting out in the air between you and HomePod, no matter where you were standing, and the applause and high hats were coming from some place above and behind the speaker — being projected outwards and around. It’s one of the most three dimensional sounds I’ve heard from any music setup and absolutely the deepest stage from a “single speaker”.

It’s, unfortunately, one of those things where words will fail to do it justice. Suffice to say that the HomePod is the most sophisticated and acoustically interesting of the speakers, but definitely not the most bombastic.

Siri:

Currently, Siri doesn’t do a lot of “other” stuff that isn’t about audio content. Apple says this is because the vast majority of people use these speakers for basic commands like playing music and setting timers. This has been borne out by studies over the past year. This makes it somewhat acceptable but not ideal that Siri works absolutely fine for music, news, sports and other audio and respectably for the essentially three basic tasks that have been released for it by Apple.

But it doesn’t put it in any kind of smart speaker capability pole position. Apple has a lot of ground to make up with Siri, which is clearly why it is focusing on speaker quality and the streamlined value proposition of it being a conduit for Apple Music.

While you can send texts and take notes and set reminders and make phone calls, that’s about all of the extracurriculars and they’re all focused on single-user experiences. If you’re logged in to your iCloud account, all of the messages and calls are yours and come from you. That’s great if you’re a single dude living alone, but it completely falls apart in a family environment. Apple allows you to toggle these options off as the iCloud account owner and I recommend you do before it all ends in tears. Unless you live alone in which case Mazel, it sounds peaceful.

General information was easily won by the Google Home Max, followed by the Echo and trailed by the HomePod. Siri had a hard time with the length of a blue whale, Echo gave a rote reading of Wikipedia and the Home Max spoke in colloquial language right from the Google brain, making it the most enjoyable to listen to.





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