A Weekend With the Apple HomePod

Last Friday, Apple finally released its delayed smart speaker, the HomePod, making the latest company to enter the smart speaker market. However, it may be more appropriate to call the HomePod a Hi-Fi Network Speaker, something closer to a Sonos Play:1 than an Amazon Echo.

The Setup

Setting a HomePod up is insanely easy – so long as you already have a recent Apple product. If you don’t, you’re going to have a very difficult time with setup, if you can complete it at all. HomePod setup should feel very familiar if you own Apple’s AirPods: just bring your phone close to HomePod, confirm settings import, and done. HomePod does work with iTunes Match and does not require Apple Music. However, it may take several hours before your music syncs over.

The Controlls

HomePod’s controls are very simple – too simple I would argue. While HomePod appears in the Home app, the only controls offered are account settings, alarms, and play/pause (when it works). Volume control is limited to on the HomePod itself, be it using the +/- touchpoints or asking Siri to adjust the volume. Playback is mostly limited to the HomePod as well, be it via Siri or taps on the top of the HomePod. Being used to the Sonos and Alexa apps, I’d really like to see HomePod playback be controllable from iOS. Yes, you can AirPlay to it, but if you start music on HomePod itself, you have no control over it on an iPhone – not even on an Apple Watch.

The Sound

HomePod sounds amazing for a speaker of its size. It is also – by far – the easiest Hi-Fi speaker I’ve encountered to calibrate for a room. Reason being? You don’t. HomePod automatically calibrates itself when moved and continues to calibrate itself with every track as well. It has a dedicated microphone just for the subwoofer to make sure it doesn’t overpower the rest of the sound; good thing when the bass is one of the best parts of the HomePod. Vocals are also exceptionally clear, but at the cost of the rest of the instruments of a track. In testing AirPlay from my Apple TV to the HomePod, the vocals on opening tracks for several shows were very clear, but the rest of the soundstage was mostly lost. Now, to be fair, my Apple TV usually is outputting audio to a Sonos Play:5, which has a dedicated left and right audio channel. HomePod is a mono speaker; for stereo sound, you’ll need to drop another $350 for a second HomePod and wait for a software update later in the year to even be able to create a stereo pair. It’s no wonder Sonos is currently selling two Sonos One for the price of one HomePod. All that said, I would have to disagree with reviews claiming the HomePod sounds better than a Play:5 or a $1,000 speaker (possible notable exception: Bose. Half of the pricetag is for the name after all.) However, the HomePod absolutely leads the market for sound quality from other speakers in its class. It outperforms both the Echo Plus and the Sonos One, but only in regards to sound.

The Smarts… Or Lack Thereof

Siri has always been arguably behind other smart assistants. On HomePod, Siri is very behind. As several other reviews have already pointed out, Siri can’t even set two different timers. However, for me, there is something even more glaring Apple should frankly be embarrassed about. While Siri may be able to update reminders, Siri can’t access my calendar, while my Echo Plus right next to it can. That’s right: Apple’s own product can’t access my iCloud calendar, yet a competitor’s product can. The microphone array on the HomePod is excellent; Siri has no issue picking me up over audio playback, and seems to recognize requests better than my Echo. It may be too early to say for sure though, given how limited Siri’s functionality is right now. My Echo Plus can understand a far more complex command than Siri can, but the Echo doesn’t always get it on the first try. I have yet to need to repeat myself to Siri, other than lowering the volume more or dimming the lights more. What few things Siri can do, Siri does well. Music requests went without a hitch after my library synced over and HomeKit device control works great. While Siri can respond to “I’m Home,” she lacks a response to, “See you later,” and responses to, “Good Morning/Good Night,” are limited to the scene control configured in the Home app. No fun fact of the day like, “Good Morning,” will get you with Alexa.

Final Verdict: Wait.

Unless you are absolutely bought in to the Apple ecosystem and don’t already have a smart speaker, you’re better off waiting for an updated HomePod from Apple, be it updated hardware or software. Siri is far too embarrassingly bad on HomePod for it to qualify as a “smart” speaker in its current state. The HomePod does sound incredible and is by far the easiest high-end speaker currently on the market to setup, but not at a $350 price point.
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