Apple HomePod Review: Great sonics – but was it really worth the wait?

Score

Pros

  • Stunning sound quality
  • Clever spatial awareness
  • Handsome looks

Cons

  • Siri isn't that smart
  • Frustrating software
  • Restricted to Apple users

Key Features

  • Review Price: £319
  • Airplay compatible
  • Available in white or space grey
  • Size: 172mm x 142mm, 2.5kg
  • Built-in power cable and power supply
  • Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ac Wi‑Fi with MIMO
  • iPhone 5S, iPad mini 2, iPod touch 6th gen or later required
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What is the Apple HomePod?

Apple has entered the world of wireless home audio with the HomePod, a Siri-packing smart speaker with a small footprint. It’s taking on the likes of the Amazon Echo and Google Home, but promises far superior sound quality in the vein of the Sonos One.

It’s a shame then that, for all its audio capabilities, it lacks the slickness we’ve come to expect of an Apple device.

Related: Best Bluetooth speakers

HomePod – Design

The HomePod doesn’t take up much space at all. It’s as comfortable sitting on a side table as it is on a bookshelf, and it doesn’t cramp a space – an important selling point for any smart speaker.

It’s handsome, too, without making a huge design statement. Available in Space Grey or White, it will easily blend into most home decors. Like most AI-powered speakers, the HomePod connects wirelessly. The only cable on show is the power lead.HomePod cable

The power cable is built in, so it can’t be replaced if it were to snap down the line, or if a naughty pet decides that it will make a tasty chew toy. That said, it’s covered in a tough braid that I don’t see splitting without a great deal of effort.

Controls on the HomePod are kept to a minimum. There’s a touch panel at the top that lets you control volume or skip tracks. A single central button lets you turn the speaker on and off, pause, or manually activate Siri.HomePod touch controls

The HomePod is covered in a seamless cloth grille, which Apple claims lets sound emanate without altering it in any way.

The most surprising part of the HomePod’s design is its weight. While it might look small, it weighs 2.5kg. Picking it up is a bit of a shock.

It’s heavy because Apple has packed a lot in – and its weight may be one of the reasons the HomePod has already become a little infamous.

Some HomePod owners have complained that it leaves white rings on wooden furniture. This may be a result of oils in the silicone foot, but I can’t say this has been an issue for me. I’ve kept it on a white gloss surface and on treated oak for several days without a problem.

According to Apple, the ring should disappear after moving the HomePod. A better solution would be to place the device on a small disc of paper or a coaster.

It’s annoying, yes, but no deal-breaker – unless it damages your furniture beyond repair. I haven’t heard of that happening.

HomePod – Specs

The HomePod is teeming with audio goodies that make it sound far better than other AI-powered speakers.

There’s a chunky woofer powered by a custom amp, a 360-degree seven-tweeter array, and a six-mic array for capturing your voice from a distance. The mics work well and pick up voices capably, even at a distance and with music blaring.

The mics also inform the HomePod about the layout of the room. This lets the device decide how best to fill the space with sound.Apple HomePod on bookshelf

The idea is that if you put it in the centre of a room, it will pump out tunes all the way around. Put it against a wall and it will adapt to take the solid surface into account, sending centre vocals to the fore while reflecting ambient reverb and backup vocals against the wall.

There’s even an accelerometer in the HomePod to register when it’s been moved, and to recalculate its position all over again. The result is that you get an optimised audio experience regardless of where you are in the room.

All this, combined with Siri smarts, requires plenty of processing power, and this is the reason Apple packs an A8 processor into the HomePod. That’s the same processor that features in the iPhone 6, and it’s significantly more powerful than those in the Amazon Echo or Google Home. This should futureproof the HomePod somewhat.

The HomePod also comes packing Bluetooth 5.0, but crucially, this isn’t open to all Bluetooth-compatible devices. As already mentioned, you’ll need an Apple device to set up and get the most out of Apple’s speaker.

Apple HomePod – Sound quality

There’s plenty of tech packed into the HomePod, then, but this doesn’t guarantee quality sound. The big question is whether the HomePod can take on the might of Sonos – and, in particular, our favourite smart speaker so far: the Sonos One.

When it comes to audio, the HomePod comes out on top; it sounds even better than the larger Sonos PLAY:3. Where the Sonos can sometimes muddy complex songs, the HomePod keeps everything tight and defined. HomePod specs

My wireless speaker of choice is the Raumfeld One S, because it’s small in size but big on sound. It may be louder than the HomePod at top levels, but it’s nowhere near as crisp – and bass response from Apple’s speaker is streets ahead. The deep and clear bottom end is a particular highlight; you can actually feel it in your gut. It’s incredible for a speaker of this size.

Listen to Basstronics’ ‘Bass I love you too’ on a lesser smart speaker and a whole gamut of low-end disappears entirely, or just buzzes awkwardly. The HomePod manages to express all the frequencies brilliantly.

There’s a surprising warmth and expansiveness to the HomePod’s sound, too – it has a huge soundstage that belies its size. You can hear the intricacies in the sound; there’s none of the audio muddying from which other smart speakers suffer. It’s leagues ahead of Amazon and Google’s offerings – but then it also costs a whole lot more.

HomePod and Amazon Echo

The HomePod next to the original Amazon Echo

Another highlight is the neutrality of the sound. It’s a wonderfully balanced tone. There’s enough weight for vocals and instruments to feel substantial and authoritative, but not so much that the performance sounds thick and cumbersome. It feels very natural.

Even more impressive is that it maintains this natural sound, no matter where in a room you place the speaker. The room-calibrating processing works. Most speakers sound too rich when placed up near a wall, but the HomePod maintains its composure – unless it’s actually touching a wall. There’s no ‘sweet spot’ in which you need to sit to make the most of the HomePod. It sounds crystal-clear wherever you are in the room.

It doesn’t matter what type of music you throw at it – rock, jazz, classical, pop or hip-hop are all rendered with beautiful clarity and detail.

Take the ramping guitar shredding in Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, which often overwhelms lesser speakers and comes out as noise – but here it has its place. It makes emotional sense and authentically supports Thom Yorke’s vocals without ever threatening to steal the spotlight.

If there’s one criticism to level at the HomePod’s audio performance it’s that top volume is by no means earsplitting. It filled my 5 x 5m room, but venture too far from that – or place it at a noisy party – and you might wish you could turn it up to 11. On the plus side, it sounds as good at full blast as it does at any other volume. There’s no sign of distortion at all.

Apple HomePod – Setup and Siri

Setting up the HomePod is a doddle. Turn it on and then place your iPhone nearby. As long as you have two-factor authentication turned on and Keychain access enabled, the HomePod will get all the settings it needs to work – like Wi-Fi, for example.

Don’t have an iPhone or iPad? Well then there’s no way of setting up the HomePod, so you’ll need to look elsewhere for your smart speaker needs. Apple has locked the HomePod to its ecosystem tightly.

Apple HomePod SiriNon-Apple users in your household can use it, however, even if the iPhone used to pair it with isn’t in proximity. Unlike Spotify you can use Apple Music, via Siri, on the HomePod at the same time that you’re listening on your iPhone. That is handy.

Once set up, you can activate the HomePod by saying, “Hey, Siri”. But this is when frustration hits.

Let’s start with Siri as a smart assistant. The voice assistant was a great feature when it first appeared on the iPhone 4S, way back in 2011. By no means perfect, it did offer a hint at a future where machines and humans would interact in a more natural way.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t moved on much. Yes, Siri can tell you the weather, which football matches are on, and even control some of your smart-home kit. However, placed next to Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant, the original AI assistant feels like a pale imitation.

For starters, you’ll have to use Apple Music to fulfil your audio requests. Sure you can cast Spotify or Tidal to the HomePod through AirPlay via your iPhone, Apple TV or iPad, but that comes with its own set of problems.

If you want to use your phone at the same time then it will interrupt the music and audio from a game, or video will come pumping out instead. On top of that, when your paired iPhone’s screen is on and you say, “Hey, Siri”, it will be the phone’s Siri that activates rather than the HomePod’s.

On occasion, I suffered real issues casting, too. An iPhone 6S Plus was fine, but around 50% of the time, the HomePod would refuse to play Spotify cast from an iPhone X. Both phones run the latest version of iOS (11.2.5), so I couldn’t figure out why it would work sometimes, but not others.

HomePod Airplay problem

The iPhone X shows that it is casting Spotify to the HomePod but no sound is coming out of the speaker

With regards to requests, you also need to be a lot more specific with Siri than you do with other AI assistants. This becomes frustrating when you still don’t get what you want on your third request.

“Hey Siri, play some nursery rhymes”, I requested on behalf of my son. “I couldn’t find any nursery rhyme songs,” was the response. I tried again: “Hey Siri, play some nursery rhyme songs”, changing just one word in my request. On came a great selection of songs for my toddler.

“Hey Siri, play the Doors,” led to a song called ‘Doors’ by an artist I’d never heard of. It was the same when I asked for Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’. It took a couple of tries to get what I wanted. This happened time and time again.

Thankfully, Apple Music’s Genius function begins to learn your likes and dislikes as soon as you start making requests, so the results quickly get better. Not perfect, but better.

Getting the HomePod to work as a smart-home hub also requires very specific commands. Once I’d figured out what I needed to say, the HomePod happily controlled some of my smart-home devices – but not all of them. HomeKit compatibility remains patchy. If you have older smart-home products then they might not work at all with the HomePod.

Another issue with Siri on the HomePod is that this is a speaker designed for Apple households. That means multiple iPhones and iPads. So, on most occasions that I tried to wake up the HomePod with “Hey, Siri,” the phone I’d paired it with didn’t activate, but my work iPhone or iPad sometimes did. This is the sort of usability issue Apple is generally very good at avoiding.

And that’s the crux of the HomePod paradox. It’s the smart speaker to get if you value sound quality, but software grumbles make for a frustrating experience. It made me wish the HomePod was packing Alexa or Google Assistant instead of Siri.

There’s a good reason why Siri on the HomePod may never become as slick or convenient as Alexa or Google Assistant, and that’s privacy. Unlike the Amazon and Google, Apple doesn’t care about your personal data – it doesn’t make money from it.

The big question is whether you value privacy over convenience. In my experience, this is rarely the case, but I commend the idea of a smart speaker that doesn’t try to profile you, or use your data in ways you’re not aware of.

Why buy the Apple HomePod?

If you want the slickest smart speaker around, the HomePod isn’t it. But if you’ve totally bought into the Apple ecosystem and value audio quality above all, then the HomePod is second to none.

The price is a stumbling block, however. Add a little more to the HomePod’s £319/$349 asking price and you can actually buy two wireless Sonos One smart speakers. Individually they don’t sound as good as the HomePod, but they’re not miles off, and stereo pairing makes them very tempting.

Nevertheless, there’s one factor that gives me cause for optimism for the future of the HomePod. Apple tends to evolve software well after launching a new product. AirPlay 2, which will enable multiroom and stereo pairing, is already on the horizon. Another example is how far the new Apple TV and the accompanying tvOS have come since they launched in 2016.

However, as it currently stands, the HomePod is flawed.

Related: HomePod tips and tricks

Verdict

The HomePod sounds so good that I can forgive its price tag, but there are currently too many usability issues to rate it as a great smart speaker.

Score