Apple HomePod hands-on review

This Apple Music speaker’s smarts don’t quite match its sound

28 January 2018
by Stuff Staff

Apple is so late to the smart speaker party it’s rung the doorbell at 6am and woken up the sofa surfers dozing in your lounge.

Or maybe, just maybe, the HomePod is simply fashionably late, like the iPod and Watch before it.

Those tech icons both watched their rivals hit the tequila a bit too hard, before becoming the life and soul of music players and smartwatches.

Can the HomePod do the same for smart speakers? It’s got its work cut out – since it was announced in June 2017, we’ve seen the Sonos One arrive with built-in Alexa, plus a flood of new Amazon Echos and Google Assistant speakers.

And after spending an hour in its company at a demo room, I was left feeling that, despite its superb sound quality, it’ll be playing catch-up with the likes of Sonos, Google and Amazon for a little while yet…

DESIGN: SOFT MACHINE

The HomePod is a 7in tall cylinder that is both charming and unremarkable.

Its soft mesh fabric gives it a friendly and homely feel, while the white and space grey colours mean it’ll blend in nicely with pretty much any decor (aside from your Angry Birds wallpaper).

The result is a speaker that is eminently more strokable than an Echo or Sonos. But also one that’s not hugely distinguishable from the furry speakers Libratone has been making for years.

On the top you’ll find some three basic touch buttons that you can use with, gasp, your fingers. Next to these is an LED waveform, which lights up when you summon Apple’s assistant with ‘hey, Siri’. You can also turn the mics off in the HomePod’s settings.

And that’s about it, externally. All the clever stuff is hidden underneath the HomePod’s knitted jumper, and this where things get interesting…

SOUND QUALITY: PUNCHING ABOVE ITS WEIGHT

So where does the HomePod stand in the great choir of voice-controlled speakers? From my demos, it’s right up there with the best.

In pure hardware terms, it’s more powerful than a Sonos One and more in the ballpark of a Sonos Play:3, which needs an Echo Dot for voice control.

Of course, you can also plug an Echo Dot into any speaker with a line-in for voice-controlled music. But of the speakers with integrated voice assistants, Apple’s is the best I’ve heard so far.

The most impressive thing about the HomePod is the sheer size of its soundstage. I was played a variety of tunes, from Ariana Grande to Gregory Porter and Ed Sheeran, and each time was impressed by the sense of space between the various instruments and vocals.

Whether it was a bass drum kick, crisp vocals or a muted guitar note, each layer sounded cleanly separated and as if it was emanating from various parts of the opposing wall rather than a 7in speaker.

It didn’t seem to matter which type of room we were in or where I was standing either. The HomePod automatically adjusts to its surroundings (unlike Sonos Trueplay, you don’t need to scan the room with your smartphone) and maintains an impressively consistent sound.

Still, there is a big caveat to the HomePod’s musical talents – while you can play the likes of Spotify on it via Airplay, its voice controls only work with Apple Music. And as much we like Apple Music, that’s a big limitation.

Right now, another one is that you can’t yet combine two AirPods to create stereo sound or a multi-room music setup. That’s coming ‘later this year’ with Airplay 2 and our demo of the stereo setup was impressive, but it still leaves the HomePod looking a bit undercooked compared to a house-wide Sonos system.

SMARTS: NEXT-GEN SIRI NEEDS MORE FRIENDS

Having an Apple Music subscription isn’t the only necessity for the HomePod – if you want it to control your smart home, you also need gadgets that are HomeKit compatible.

Granted, that list is growing nicely, but it’s still nowhere as long as the number of accessories that play nicely with Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant.

Siri has come on a long way with the HomePod though. You can ask him or her the news, which in the UK will initially come from three sources: BBC, Sky News and LBC.

You can also ask Siri to do what have now become smart speaker staples: send or read Messages and Whatsapps, set reminders, find out what the traffic’s like on your commute, or ask if you need to take an umbrella today.

I particularly liked its speakerphone integration too, which lets you fling an incoming or outgoing call to the HomePod so you can chat while unpacking your shopping.

But while Siri’s conversational tone and repertoire have improved significantly, the HomePod’s hearing skills weren’t always faultless. On a few occasions, it either misheard or didn’t pick up a request. Whether or not these were just pre-release bugs, we’ll find out in a full review soon.

Siri does also have some neat musical tricks, patiently answering questions about what album’s playing, when the song was released, and even broader ones like ‘who’s playing at the Brit Awards this week?’ Like Spotify’s Discover Weekly, your ‘New Music Mix’ will be tweaked according to what you play and the songs you tell Siri you like.

We’ll need a bit more time with the HomePod to find out if Siri is now the ‘musicologist’ Apple claims it is, but the early signs are promising – again, as long as you’re an Apple Music subscriber.

APPLE HOMEPOD EARLY VERDICT

This is really the crux of the HomePod – for Apple Music subscribers who want a high-end smart speaker, it’s shaping up to be a cracking choice. Which is good news, because it’s also currently the only choice.

For everyone else, it’s currently just too limited compared to the many alternatives from Sonos, Amazon and Google.

There’s no doubting the HomePod’s sound quality – only Sonos’ pricier offerings like the Play:3 and Play:5, and potentially the US-only Google Home Max, can compete. It’s in a different league to the Google Home and Echo 2nd gen, although the Echo Dot does let you add voice control to any premium speaker via a line-in.

The question for iOS fans is whether that’s worth the price tag or potentially switching to an Apple Music subscription. With multi-room music and stereo pairing not available until ‘later this year’ Apple is, like the original Apple Watch, asking you to buy into the HomePod’s potential.

Unlike smartwatches in 2015, the difference here is that there are already some fantastic, versatile smart speakers out that work with equally fantastic music streaming services. We’ll bring you our final verdict on the HomePod very soon.

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