Technically the best-sounding smart speaker, the Apple HomePod is a compact marvel that automatically adjusts its sound based on where you put it. Double-up in a stereo pair and, pound-for-pound, you can't get better. Yet, for all the audio brilliance, Siri lags behind its smart assistant competition, and there's too much focus on Apple devices and services to make this a smart speaker for the masses.
- Excellent audio quality
- Well priced
- Comparatively small
- No audio inputs
- Captive power cable
- Review Price: £279
- White or space grey finishes
- Built-in power cable and power supply
- AirPlay 2 compatible
- 172 x 142 x 142mm 2.5kg
- Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ac Wi‑Fi
Two years on, the Apple HomePod remains the company’s first and only smart speaker, although we’re rumoured to get a new one in 2020.
Since launch, it’s had several updates, introducing new features, but the core of the product remains, delivering some of the best sound of any Wi-Fi speaker. An Apple-centric approach and lack of inputs slightly detract from the fun, particularly in mixed households.
Related: Best Smart speakers
Apple HomePod design — Compact and reassuringly heavy
Available in space grey or white, the HomePod is as good-a-looking a product as you’d expect to come out of Apple. Covered in soft-touch material, the speaker looks fantastic whether you have it out on display or tuck it away on a bookshelf.
For all the audio prowess the speaker promises, the HomePod is surprisingly small (172 x 142 x 142mm), and not much bigger than the current Amazon Echo 3rd Gen. Weight comes as something of a shock, with the speaker weighing a hefty 2.5kg, making it rather brick-like.
Weight is mainly due to the internals: a custom amp, seven 360-degree tweeters and one massive subwoofer. The signs that this is anything but a bog-standard Wi-Fi speaker are all here.
Power is provided by a single captive cable, which is a bit of a shame, as if this gets damaged, you’ll have to send the entire speaker off for repair.
Features — Tonnes of options for Apple fans but little for everyone else
As an Apple device, the HomePod requires an iOS device to set it up and manage it via the Home app, which is also the place for your HomeKit-compatible smart home devices. If you’ve only got Android devices in your home, there’s no alternative way of configuring the HomePod. Chances are, if you’re interested in the HomePod, you’ll have Apple devices.
Configuration is super easy: just plug in the speaker and put your phone in the same room, and you’ll get a pop-up telling you that there’s a HomePod ready to be configured. It all takes a matter of minutes, and the HomePod will be connected and running your network.
Here’s where things are either completely brilliant or rather annoying. Apple has built the HomePod to work with its own streaming service, Apple Music. If you’re a subscriber and like Apple Music (I do), the HomePod works brilliantly.
From the Apple Music app (iOS or macOS), you can select your HomePod from the drop-down list and control the music playing and volume directly. And, if you’re listening to Apple Music on your phone out and about, when you get back home, you can just tap your phone to the top of the HomePod and transfer your music to carry on listening. That’s really neat, and it’s a trick that applies to phone calls, too, letting you transfer from your handset to your HomePod.
Cleverly, if you’ve got multiple HomePods, then each one can have a different track playing using the same Apple account. As you’d expect, you can also group multiple HomePods if you want multi-room music.
Using Apple Music, you can use Siri voice control to manage playback, searching for tracks, pausing and skipping. Voice search works about as well here as it does on other smart speakers, which is to say that you’ll end up with a fair amount of random music playing; I much prefer to find the track I want to play using an app.
So far, so good, but what about if you use Spotify? Well, you have to go into the Spotify app, use the pull-down menu and select your HomePod as the AirPlay 2 destination. Same thing for Tidal. Casting is fine, and you can even do something different on your phone while casting music but there are some oddities. For example, I found that stopping the stream and switching to a different app, such as YouTube, ended up with sound being sent to the HomePod.
And you can’t play different tracks to different HomePod speakers using the same streaming account, nor can you transfer music from your phone to HomePod if you’re not using Apple Music. If you’re primarily a Spotify or Tidal user, you’ll be better off using a different system, such as Sonos, which lets you link one account and play different tracks in each room simultaneously.
This being an Apple product, you can link your Apple TV to your HomePod using it as a kind of soundbar. I say kind of, as only audio from your Apple TV is played through the speaker. If you watch regular TV or play a Blu-ray, for example, you only get your standard TV sound. Similarly, you can direct audio from your Mac to the HomePod using AirPlay.
It’s a touch frustrating that there’s no way of connecting external devices to the HomePod. While there’s Bluetooth 5.0 built-in, this isn’t used for connecting devices and is for set up and smart home devices. And, there are no analogue or digital sound inputs, so if you wanted to hook up a turntable you’re out of luck; well, unless you go for a more complex option of directing audio through a Mac first of all.
Beyond voice control, the entire top surface of the HomePod is also a touch-sensitive control. There are dedicated volume up and down buttons on it, but you can use the control in the same way as a button on a pair of headphones: tap once to play/pause, tap twice to skip forward a track and tap three times to skip back a track. You can also tap and hold to activate Siri without having to say the wake-up word.
Siri and SmartHome — Hints of brilliance but fewer options than other smart speakers
As a smart speaker, the HomePod runs Apple’s Siri voice assistant. The experience is largely the same on the speaker as it is on your phone, which is to say that it’s a mixed bag. Siri has improved in recent years and is pretty good at answering general questions, making phone calls to your contacts, and even giving you traffic updates.
Some tasks will require you to turn to your phone for authorisation. For example, ask what’s coming up in your calendar, and Siri will say that you need your phone to authenticate the operation. You can enable personal requests via your phone to stop this from happening. You can also invite other users to your home, letting Siri recognise up to six different users in order to return personalised results.
It’s slightly annoying that if you have your phone out, screen up, it will respond to your “Hey Siri” rather than the HomePod. It would be so much better if Apple could force the HomePod to take priority.
The HomePod is configured and managed through the Apple Home App, where any of your HomeKit compatible devices appear. Although Apple has relaxed the requirements for devices to be part of HomeKit, there’s still far less choice here than on any rival system and many big companies, such as Nest and Ring, don’t support Siri at all. You can overcome these problems with a Raspberry Pi running HomeBridge, but that’s fiddly to set up.
It’s a shame that support isn’t better as HomeKit is pretty good, not only allowing you to control devices with your voice but also giving you a way of creating automation. For example, you can set up your home so that your Philips Hue lights turn off and your HomePod stops playing when everyone goes out.
As with other smart assistants, you can add your HomePod to a room to make control easier: you can say “turn on lights”, for example, and the HomePod will turn on the lights in the same room as it’s located.
As well as acting as a central voice hub, the HomePod is a HomeKit Bridge, letting it talk directly to Bluetooth devices. Buy the Brisant Ultion Smart HomeKit lock, for example, and the HomePod can talk to it directly for remote control.
Voice control of devices is generally pretty good, and Siri usually gets what you’re asking. If you’re after better support for devices, though, you’ll have no alternative but to buy an Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker instead.
Sound quality — Exquisite sound across all genres
One of the HomePod’s main tricks is that it can calibrate its own sound based on where you place the speaker. Stick it in the middle of a large kitchen, and you’ll get one sound; put the HomePod on a shelf, and it’ll retune automatically. It’s much like the automated version of TruePlay that’s available on the Sonos Move.
What’s most important is that the HomePod sounds amazing in all situations and with all genres of music. It is, hands down, the best-sounding smart speaker of them all. Technically speaking, the HomePod is a mono speaker, but it goes beyond this with the seven tweeters wrapping you in sound; it’s not stereo, but it’s more involving than traditional mono.
Listen to anything, and the speaker handles it with poise and balance, never distorting and never letting any part of a track becoming overwhelming. Listen to OK Go’s bass-heavy This Too Shall Pass and you get the thump of the opening track in perfect clarity, whereas other speakers tend to distort. Switch to John Williams’ Imperial March, and there’s the majesty and menace at the start, but the subtly and quietness from later in the track comes through with the same poise. The HomePod is truly an exceptional sounding speaker.
Sound gets even better when you pair two HomePods together. This gives you proper stereo separation but also boosts sound quality even further, with two tuned smart speakers dishing out the beats. Put on a stereo heavy track, such as the Foo Fighters’ Enough Space, and you get that swirling guitar intro shifting around you.
Step it up to Rage Against the Machine’s Bombtrack, and you get the full anger and attack of that track, with the HomePods booming out at you. The level of bass is truly impressive, particularly given how small each HomePod is.
Pound-for-pound, there’s not a smart speaker that can match the quality of the HomePod, let alone two. The Google Home Max, the nearest competitor, is powerful but lacks the subtly and poise of the HomePod.
Turning to Sonos, pairing a couple of Sonos One smart speakers with a Sonos Sub gets you something a bit different: the overall balance isn’t quite as good, but the Sub delivers more powerful bass and presence; however, you’re looking at spending over £1,000 for the privilege, while two HomePods cost £558.
Should you buy the Apple HomePod?
If I were to judge this on audio quality alone, the HomePod is the best-sounding smart speaker, and two are even better. In fact, they’re so good that they are my speaker of choice in the office, producing a smart, auto-tuned sound that adapts to surroundings perfectly.
Yet, for all the audio quality available, the HomePod is somewhat frustrating. It only works properly in Apple homes, needs Apple Music to really make the most of it, and it lacks any kind of input outside of AirPlay 2. Then, there’s the general lack of support for smart home devices, which makes an Amazon Echo or Google Home better for voice control
If you’re predominantly an Apple home, these issues may not be so much of a problem, but they do somewhat limit the speaker’s appeal. If you can live with the restrictions, then the HomePod is a beautiful sounding smart speaker.
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