Apple HomePod Review: Smart Speaker for the High-End?

This should have been a great product

The Apple HomePod is a head-scratcher of a product. In many respects, it seems to be a me-too offering, perhaps even a place-holder for something that will come later. Perhaps it’s a platform that will one day “grow up” into whatever promise it’s supposed to be offering.

As a die-hard Apple fan, I want to love it. Hell, I want to even like it. But I don’t get it. And I’m not sure you should, either.

Why an Apple HomePod?

Our friendly neighborhood pediatric eye surgeon and Part-Time Audiophile Editor, Doctor Karavitis, thought it was high time that someone from the audiophile community took a serious look at the new “smart speaker” segment. I had no idea what a “smart speaker” was or what it was supposed to be, so — as should be obvious at this point — I said “what a great idea”.

A long, long time ago, I bought a full Sonos system — a speaker for the kitchen, an interface for my home theater system, another speaker for the dining room. I used it, primarily, with Pandora — and it was fine. Background jazz during dinner, some house-filling classical music during day, first wave or classic rock when folks came over. Easy peasey, lemon squeezy. Again, it was fine.

I say that, not in the sense of the dog-in-a-bowler-hat sitting in a room that’s on fire “This is fine”, but just that — the Sonos system sounded “fine” for casual “I want something on while I’m doing something else” music. This opened the door to the occasional moment when something truly nostalgic (or awesome) would come on, and someone would break into spontaneous song, dance, or a spastic combination of the two (with twins, this was a constant threat). Good times.

But, and I almost hate to say it, the sound quality was never more than “meh”. There are some caveats to that, and I’ll get to them when I turn to the Sonos One review, but for now, it’s worth laying that out as a baseline. Which is why the Apple HomePod was interesting — whatever else others might think of the smart speaker category, this offering from Apple was supposed to, at least, sound good. I recommend the Wirecutter review and the review on The Verge for some coloring up and some contrast (see links below). But I will also note that our sound-quality focused friends over at Stereophile also felt it worthy of a look, so perhaps you’ll indulge me as I explore that aspect of the smart speaker segment here.

What’s a smart speaker, anyway?

For the rest of us that have been living under a stereo-pair of rocks, the “smart speaker” is not much of a revolution. I kinda wish it was. If this “Next Big Thing” is just Siri attached to a rather run-of-the-mill loudspeaker, then I am clearly missing something.

Turns out, “Home Automation” is at least part of that something. The total addressable market for home automation is north of $40B at this point, so it is hardly surprising that every tech company is looking for a piece of that pie. Smart speakers, at least to my naive understanding, may well be angling for “the interface” part of that market. Talking to the Holodeck would be kinda neat, and yes, now that you mention it, Scotty, “the keyboard” is “quaint”.

Plugging into a network with a bunch of devices that are friendly to the ecosystem means that you can use your smart speaker to manage them. And I’m certain that this would be far simpler than any app could be … Okay, no, not really. But getting questions answered while in an argument, or queuing up a specific song while assembling pizzas with your 11-year-old-twins, is kind of fun. Side note: “tell me a joke” is, by far, the #1 use my kids have for smart speakers.

Tell a joke, create a reminder, turn off a light, set a timer, use it as a speakerphone — none of this is a problem for the Apple HomePod. More complex stuff — checking for a slot on your schedule, creating a repeating event, verifying that the phone number you just got was for the pizza joint on this coast and not the other coast, &c … well, that’s not what any smart speaker is for. It could be, one day. Probably will be. Just not yet.

So, do you have a bunch of network-enabled outlets or lightbulbs or an online thermostat? Want to get some? Then the right smart speaker might be a fun addition to the mix. Do you have absolutely none of that stuff? Then this may not be your segment.

The Apple HomePod smart speaker

Apple HomePod and Siri

The biggest challenge with the Apple HomePod is Siri. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Siri is really the only way to get the HomePod to “do” anything at all, much less do most of the cool things the smart speaker market thinks you want to use your smart speaker for.

I should note that this is both easier and more challenging than it sounds. Sure, you can ask Siri to tell you the weather, the news, answer questions, tell you a joke — even play music. But if you’re one of the many that are likely to fail to crisply deliver your fricatives, any voice-activated system is going to be like playing a round of roulette. Sadly, Siri is no different.

As for me, I don’t hate Siri. Not as an interface. Siri is just tedious. You need to know what you want Siri to do and how to tell Siri to do it before you tell Siri to do it. Then, you have to deliver that command … and cross your fingers. Don’t hesitate. Don’t stop! Or start over. Want to hear something funny? Listen to someone argue with Siri that the song she just picked is the “wrong song”. Love that. But disambiguation is totally a thing — and something that a “playlist” on a tablet sorts out as a matter of course. Good luck.

Disambiguation aside, until you set up your $9.99/month Apple Music service, any argument is going to be short. That’s because you will not have a lot of flexibility in tune selection — what you hear will be up to whatever it is that you care to stream to Apple HomePod from your device. Tidal, Spotify, Pandora — sure, you can do all those. But you have to use AirPlay to get that stream to the Apple HomePod, which means another device because the HomePod isn’t going to grab any of that content for you. And streaming from your device to the HomePod also means not using Siri on the HomePod to help you … so what is the point of a smart speaker, again? It really is Apple Music or … jokes.

To wrap, if you want to know more about Siri, or what you can do with it (or what you cannot), check the Wirecutter review above.

A smart speaker for daily living?

Touch Me, Love me?

I’ve always been a fan of Apple’s industrial design — clearly, someone in the design department cares about aesthetics. Just as clearly, that team doesn’t always sync up with the usability team — the recent deletion of the mini-RCA jack from the latest/greatest iPhone is an excellent reminder that less is not always more, even when it might be for a good reason.

The upside, at least in terms of the Apple HomePod, is that the unit actually looks … pretty good. It’s a little non-descript (there are few actual “features” on the unit itself), but in the case of an audio product (with the usual propensity to instantiate the Platonic form of Ultimate Space Penis™), perhaps less actually means “okay to get put somewhere useful”. Like a desk. Or a kitchen counter, shelf, or cabinet. Smart speaker, everywhere!

The sock that covers the myriad of microphones and “tweeters” (see Jim Austin’s comments on his Stereophile review, quoted above) is lovely, with thick fabric mesh that’s actually fun to touch (your cat, for example, is going to love it). The only problem is that it is non-removable. As for the two available colors, I like to think of them as “I’m going to get dirty fast” and “Maybe I can hide the dirt for a while”. I opted for the latter in the hope that it’s not going to matter.

In other news, the power cord is “attached” — I like to call this “captured” as opposed to a detachable one that Apple includes with every other product and sells for an extra $50. It looks pretty nice, which may be weird to say, but it is wrapped in fabric and will collect dust and dirt with the same alacrity as the speaker-sock. And like the speaker-sock, the power cord will give you exactly the same flexibility in coping with that dirt: none whatsoever.

On whole, the entire contraption looks like a paint roller. A fat one, to be sure, but there really isn’t much to it — aside from the top panel, where the “Siri Cloud” appears when you summon her from the depths of the device and where you will see the mysterious + and – symbols float when music is playing, the whole thing is pretty much featureless.

Roaring Mice

So, now to the reason why we’re all here. What does the Apple HomePod sound like?

The answer: it sounds like my old Sonos. But fatter. Makes sense?

The Problem for Physics (And Design)

There is a mantra in speaker design that goes like this: “there is only so much that you can do.” Because, you know, Physics. The Apple HomePod is a not a huge speaker, so expectations need to be set. Because physics.

But what they did manage to do is rather interesting. Instead of implementing a standard array of drivers (say, a three-way arrangement, or something with a proper sub), they chose to push hard on what they have, with the single 4″ attempting to do the heavy lifting down low and the 7 tweeters doing the everything else )mid-range and up). That is … unusual. And with their software, they’re able to do some fancy tweaks to the sound coming out of the “box” that can do quite a bit to simulate an actual stereo pair of speakers. Some sounds can be sent in the direction “away” from a detected wall (the music), and some can be sent into that wall (the ambient noises); left channel can still go left, and the right channel can still go right. There are seven (!) “tweeters” for a reason.

The single 4″ midrange driver, sorry, “woofer”, is an up-firing arrangement, sending sound apparently through the cloudy “interface” panel on the top of the unit. The seven (!) “tweeters” are all inward-firing, with sound traveling out to the world by way of an omnidirectional horn that the entire thing actually sits on. Which brings up a point — the Apple HomePod needs to sit on something hard and flat to sound right.

If you like, you can follow Jim Austin’s advice, and stick it on a pedestal the same size as the device itself in order to minimize the reflections, or even hoist it into the air. That kind of placement might make it sound a bit more neutral, but I wonder if that wouldn’t defeat the design. I can’t help but think that the HomePod was intended to sound just a bit thick. Again, think Beats. The point, apparently, is to do justice to the bass-heavy (and relatively compressed) music of the day, and with that goal in mind, I think they did a decent job. Lorde’s “Royals” (off of Pure Heroine) sounds fun. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (off of 21) is going to get toes tapping. Blue Man Group’s “Shake Your Euphemism” will make my twins crack up and, yes, shake their little behinds till they fall right off.

I have no doubt that there are a great many folks that will love the sound of the Apple HomePod especially as a comparison to whatever it is they’re using currently. That’s a good reason to explore it. You’ll be rewarded with fulsome, rich sound. Not reference quality, but that’s not really on offer at this point in the segment. But before I move on, let me offer a word or three about that.

In reference systems, there is a great value put on the “linearity” of the sound. That is, the entire audible spectrum, from 20Hz to 20kHz, ought to present as “flat”. There are two ways this is usually intended, depending on who you talk to. One group will tell you that it ought to sound like the spectrum is all-of-a-piece, with no part of it either too prominent or too recessed. The other group will insist that it not only “sounds like” it but that it also measures that way. Very demanding, those folks.

I do not think they would be thrilled with the Apple HomePod. For one thing, the mid-bass is overblown. Two, there is a lift across the presence region. And, three, there is a roll-off up top. Especially at volume.

I should mention that the actual, playable, output of the speaker is surprising. My sole Apple HomePod fills a room rather handily at 80% volume, and also tends to hold it’s composure while cranking. The trick, if I’m allowed a peek behind the curtain, has to do with the “multipressor“:

The Multipressor (an abbreviation for multiband compressor) is an extremely versatile audio mastering tool. It splits the incoming signal into different frequency bands—up to four—and enables you to independently compress each band. After compression is applied, the bands are combined into a single output signal.

The advantage of compressing different frequency bands separately is that it allows you to apply more compression to the bands that need it, without affecting other bands. This avoids the pumping effect often associated with high amounts of compression.

As the Multipressor allows the use of higher compression ratios on specific frequency bands, it can achieve a higher average volume without causing audible artifacts.

Your iTunes library of modern/compressed music will sound “fine”. Chances are, it will sound significantly better than most modern headphones at the same price level, and also better than just about any other stand-alone single-unit speaker you’ve likely heard (like my not-smart speaker, the Tivoli Model One, for example). And it will sound pretty good way past the levels most other speakers can manage, without distortion. That’s pretty fun. It’s a great party toy, even if it sounds a tad thicker-than-life. My kids didn’t notice and probably could have cared less.

As for me, well, I was a bit less impressed.

The base, or the flare of the horn

Your Room, Corrected

The neat and new-to-me thing that Apple brought to market in the HomePod is best described as “automatic room correction”. This is part of the multipressor discussed above, and It is restricted to the effects that the “bass” has on the overall sound. I use zap quotes there, because while the 4″ driver is capable of output below 80Hz, it isn’t anything anywhere near “flat”. I’m guessing, but I’m thinking that the roll-off starts well over 100Hz and meanders it’s way into a ditch somewhere north of 70Hz. This is not surprising (see “physics”); just worth keeping in mind.

The thing to remember about the HomePod room correction — it is seamless, automatic, non-adjustable, and continuous — and that, I will admit, is quite slick. Well, maybe “remember” is not the right word because there’s never anything to do about it. Move the speaker and like it or lump it, the woofer output will change. All I can say is “it works”.

Okay, I can say one thing more — if we’re bothering to design any this techno-wizardry, why not add some user-adjustable (or just user-selectable!) curves? This could go a loooooong way toward awesome, perhaps even letting us “cure” our Apple products of their murderous fixation on mid-bass mud. By way of contrast, while Sonos also lets you choose to do room correction, it’s not automatic nor continuous nor adjustable (the LS50W, however, is a total tweaker’s festival). That said, the resulting Sonos curve at least seems to aim at neutral, which is clearly not a target that Apple is shooting at with the HomePod (or Beats, for what it’s worth).

Wrap (it) up

All in all, it is hard to recommend the Apple HomePod. Even on the one strength that the tech reviewers seem to agree unanimously on — its great sound.

It does sound better than a Sonos One (review forthcoming), but the smart speaker features of the Apple HomePod are just not as developed or inter-linked as smart speakers from Sonos or even Google Home (review also forthcoming). Add the required (at least for those of us interested in using it for music) $10/month fee for Apple Music, and you have a very pricey system. Remove it, and you have a dust bunny that tells jokes.

The HomePod seems, to me at least, very like the Apple Watch. It’s an almost-there sort of product, one that has some neat features and unusual looks, but just lacks that “gotta have it” feature that would make it compelling and not just a curio. If you’re an Apple fan, just remember that Apple’s return policy is pretty generous.

If it were my money, I’d seriously recommend something else if you’re hot for a smart speaker. The Google Home Max sounds better. The Sonos Play:5 sounds better, but will need an Amazon Echo Dot ($50) to get the smart speaker stuff, or a Sonos One to be your “control point” for a multi-device/multi-room configuration. Both of the Google and Amazon devices will let you use Spotify; Sonos lets you also use TIDAL and Qobuz.

My recommendation? Skip the Apple HomePod — for now.

You can find it here: Apple HomePod, $350 US Retail.

For more information, check out the reviews. There are a lot.

  • The Verge: “Apple HomePod Review: Locked In” (click here).
  • The Wirecutter: “Apple HomePod Review: It Only Sounds Great” (click here).
  • TechCrunch: “A four-sentence HomePod Review” (click here).
  • Stereophile: “Apple HomePod Smart Speaker” (click here).

Other smart speaker products mentioned:

A Not Smart Speaker Addendum

We ought to rope off this part of the discussion with the usual warning: this is the part of the map marked “Here be Dragons Audiophiles”.

In that spirit, I would be entirely remiss to note that none of the smart speaker solutions mentioned here will ever come close to sounding as good as a pair of ELAC B6.2 speakers (6″ drivers and a front-firing port for relatively easy placement: $299/pair) driven by the matching ELAC EA integrated amplifier ($550) or a PS Audio Sprout 100 (review here), and an Amazon Echo Dot ($50). But that is a $900 package, compared with a single $350 Apple HomePod (or, better, a $700 pair — when that functionality is finally released). Yes, that’s expensive. But you get what you pay for.

If you ever do go on the hike to “Awesome Sound Town” in the Province of Integrated Speakers in the Land of Audio’s High-End, then I heartily recommend a stop at the Temple of KEF for some time with the KEF LS50W speakers (review here). Add in an Echo Dot, and you can even talk to it. Yes, the LS50W are priced just over $2k/pair — but again, a  pair of Apple HomePods would be $700, so the comparison isn’t quite the stretch it might seem to be at first glance. And, for the record, if the HomePod was the only other choice in this category, I’m not sure that the extra money for the KEF’s wouldn’t be well and wisely spent.

If “compact” is your thing, I’d just note that a few years ago, John Richardson explored some personal audio solutions from Audioengine and Peachtree — he preferred the Audioengine, I preferred the Peachtree (the Deep Blue is now in version 3). All of those solutions sounded better than the Apple HomePod.

As always, your mileage may vary.