Gear Patrol received an early invitation to test and listen to the HomePod, Apple’s newest and — arguably — most unique product it’s sold in years. After a delay this past holiday season, Apple’s HomePod has gone on sale (now) and will ship February 9th. The big question for us at Gear Patrol: is it worth $349?
Upshot: Yes, it sounds as good or better than you would expect from a $350 speaker, particularly at low and high volumes, which is where smaller devices struggle. We’ve listened to a lot of devices in this price range and the Apple HomePod’s priority is clear: high quality audio. For those who want a more affordable smart speaker — the HomePod is not for you. However, if you’re considering a premium audio device from companies like Bose, Sonos, B&O, Ultimate Ears and Bowers & Wilkins, then your decision just became harder. If you want great audio, privacy, and are committed to the Apple ecosystem then you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better sounding, more integrated speaker.
Who It’s For: Apple device users who want to bring seamless, high-quality audio into their home. Also, users who aren’t really in need of a wealth of voice-activated capabilities. If you want a device that’s well-integrated with Apple Music, iTunes and iMessage, then the HomePod is your speaker. It’s worth noting that the HomePod also works in its basic form (speaker with volume and play controls) with Spotify and Tidal via AirPlay.
The Good: The Apple HomePod sounds great. In a highly respectable move, Apple has done very little engineering with software to make the HomePod sound better than it is. Apple called out a specific goal when designing the HomePod: to interfere with audio reproduction as little as possible. Some brands brighten highs or deepen bass to artificially make their speakers sound better. I wouldn’t put it past Apple to presume they used the same kind of detailed research and development method used in creating the iPhone’x portrait mode lighting mode. The HomePod definitely had a profile more in line with an analog tube amp: overall warmth to its audio, accurate midrange and a controlled fall-off towards the bottom of the bass range.
The sound stage is deep for such a small device and the separation (the ability to hear individual instruments, details and vocals) is superb. There’s no rattling or distortion that we could hear in our early look, which is a testament to the HomePod structure’s design. And in case you’re wondering about the frequency range, we asked, and Apple told us that the HomePod’s range is 40Hz to 20kHz.
The effect of combining seven individually-amplified horn tweeters and a high excursion top-firing woofer (22mm total) works well. Apple notes that the HomePod separates out direct and ambient energy in music (think: applause and surround). It fires ambient audio towards walls while more directly focusing primary audio forward. The science is complex, but the effect is that whether you’re standing directly in front of the HomePod or in a far-off corner of the room, the sound is the same. Note: this type of technology isn’t a new concept, but the execution by Apple in the HomePod is impressive in real life.
The iMessage and phone integration hasn’t been widely touted as far we can see, but it’s well integrated and the voice dictation will make sending iMessages much easier and convenient. We’re firm believers that iMessage is Apple’s killer app, and now with HomePod integration iMessage becomes even that much more robust. Another nice addition for you note or list makers is that HomePod’s dictation capability integrates with Apple Notes well.
We had a chance to audition the upcoming stereo pairing feature of the HomePod. Running a pair of HomePods sounds significantly more robust. We were impressed with the spatial quality of having two HomePods working together in a stereo pairing.
Setup is a cinch too. Just plug it in, hold your iPhone close and in a few seconds you’re done. If you’ve setup your AirPods or a new Apple TV then you’ll know how quick this process is. All your preferences automatically sync including any Siri and privacy settings.
What to Watch Out For: The HomePod isn’t “cheap”, but Apple doesn’t play the bargain game. And while the inevitable comparisons to the Echo will happen, the devices are quite different in terms of audio performance. And to be clear, the Apple HomePod sounds much better than the Google Home Max.
Apple hasn’t fully rolled out the feature set on the software front. AirPlay 2, stereo-pairing and multi-room audio are coming in an upcoming software update but not available today.
We’re not certain how multiple users will use the HomePod together in harmony, particularly in busy households with several iPhones and iPads. That’s a general point of concern we’ve noticed across all smart speakers though, but multi-device management means that one user will have a more robust integration while a significant other will just be relegated to using the HomePod only as a speaker. It will be interesting to see how Apple conquers this down the line.
The HomePod must connect to an iOS device, it will not connect directly to a Mac.
The deeper Apple Music integration is a novel feature, especially since the HomePod is a music-focused device – it can dive into the trivia and lore of any song or album it plays – but we’re not sure how much this will actually be used over time. If anything, we see it as another example of Apple’s ongoing alignment with music culture.
Privacy: While Apple is known for their privacy commitment with voice commands (Apple does not store them), they’ve also made it very easy to turn the HomePod into a complete non-listening device through an app setting or a command directly to the speaker.
Insight: The Apple HomePod is a music-first device and a home hub second, but that may change over time. Think of it as a way your iPhone, Siri and Apple Music/iTunes can become a permanent part of your home.
While Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo are direct competitors, they’re far apart in terms of value proposition. The Echo 2’s feature set and pricing are just good enough and just cheap enough which is perfectly in line with Amazon’s mission. Apple on the other hand designs a product that convinces would be buyers to make a larger financial commitment by differentiating a product’s feature set with higher quality components, software integration and build quality.
Smart speakers are at the cusp of wide integration into homes. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, 2018 will be the year the smart speaker war spills into every home. But smart speakers are still not as much of a home entertaining centerpiece as much as, say, a TV is. However, the market is changing quickly – the inevitability of convenience and audio commands are a hard force to stave – and we expect the HomePod (and HomeKit) will be an important entree for users who want their homes managed by Apple devices. The trio of an AppleTV, HomePod and an iPhone + HomeKit devices will make for a strong case to relinquish command of your home’s smart devices to Apple control.
Fun Fact: It’s been over a decade since Apple released a non-headphone audio device aimed at a premium buyer (remember the iPod Hi-Fi, which ironically, also sold for $349 at the Apple Store).
For Amazon Echo or Google Owners: If you own an Amazon Echo or Echo 2, you don’t need to swap unless you’re deeply committed to iTunes or Apple Music. Or, you’re looking for a big step up from your Echo in terms of audio quality. Google Max users will hear similar results for room filling sound, but we give the Apple HomePod the blue ribbon for audio quality and accuracy.
Pro Tip: You can call out the exact percentages of the volume you want to listen to, like 65% or 90%. And for you color nerds, “space gray” looks more like a true black in person.
Test Playlist: We didn’t have the opportunity to test our own playlist, but the songs we listened to included: “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran, “My Shot” from the musical Hamilton, “Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, “Holding On” by Gregory Parker, “In the Waiting Line” by Zero 7, and the popular audio benchmark song, the live recording of “Hotel California” by the Eagles from Hell Freezes Over.
What Others Are Saying:
• “Audio quality is beautifully warm, yet the bass is not overpowering, even though it was still quite rich. If you close your eyes, it’s easy to feel like you’re at a live performance. We could pick out the vocals and instruments clearly. The speaker allows each instrument to shine through; you can hear precise guitar plucks. No, it doesn’t have that crisp sound you’d hear from very expensive high-end speakers, but then again, the HomePod doesn’t cost thousands yet still pushes brilliant sound quality out of a single, small enclosure.” — Julian Chokkattu, Digital Trends
• “Recently, though, I heard Apple’s HomePod again in a variety of scenarios and spaces. It sounded even better, especially when compared to larger Google Home Max and the aurally excellent Sonos One, the HomePod’s separation of sounds and fidelity to original instrumentation is astonishing.” — Lance Ulanoff, Medium
• “Did I mention it sounds great, too? Because it really does: With song after song — from the snare drums of Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” to the rat-tat-tat voices of “My Shot” from Hamilton to the of complex guitar of the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the HomePod made them all sound visceral and suitably warm, whether the volume as loud or soft. Apple’s diminutive speaker even made the ubiquitous Disney mega-hit “Let It Go” from Frozen sound fresh, with impressively crisp piano notes and perfect vocals.” — Pete Pachal, Mashable
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