HomePod review roundup: not as smart as it could be, but stunning sound

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Apple seeded HomePod review units to a number of websites, embargoed for today, and the first reviews are landing.

There are quibbles. More than one reviewer said that, for a smart speaker, it wasn’t as smart as its rivals. But when it comes to audio quality, everyone was universally impressed. The clear consensus here is that the sound quality isn’t just the best available from a smart speaker, it out-performs many more expensive speakers.

Even What HiFi gave it a full five stars, and based on the rave reviews below, I’m really looking forward to taking delivery of mine and finding out whether the sound really is so much better than I’d so far been expecting …

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CNET said that it struggled to compete with Alexa when it came to smarts, but Megan Wollerton gave the sound quality 9/10.

Siri is behind Alexa and Google Assistant. Apple’s voice AI can’t tell jokes, play games or turn on an Apple TV — or your favorite Netflix show. It doesn’t support making direct calls (you have to transfer it from your phone to the HomePod) or calendar appointments and forget about using it with Android devices. We’re also waiting for two upcoming but not-yet-released HomePod features: stereo and AirPlay 2 multiroom audio […]

Apple is still behind Amazon and Google in terms of third-party integrations. But since HomeKit lives natively in iOS via the Home app, it’s more seamless to operate than competing speakers. There’s no need to enable skills or actions with HomeKit on the HomePod since everything automatically migrates over from your existing HomeKit setup and new smart devices are simply scanned in with a unique code […]

For a compact speaker, the HomePod offers big sound, and in testing I found it pretty much unflappable no matter what kind of music I threw its way. It’s hard to say that about many speakers, regardless of size. From dance pop to guitar rock to orchestral pieces, the HomePod sounded excellent. It’s not a stereo speaker by any stretch — you’d get more “presence” or “you are there-ness” from a set of stereo speakers. But the HomePod is a solid performer you can plonk in your kitchen without having to worry that it might distort at high volume.

The HomePod’s uniform sound across so many different types of music separates it from its two main competitors, the Google Home Max and the Sonos One. Most of the time in our tests at CNET’s Smart Apartment, the Max and the HomePod sounded similar, with both exhibiting a relatively open sound and good extension, while the less-expensive Sonos One sounded slightly more distant.

One of the tracks that created some separation among the three speakers was “Yulunga (Spirit Dance)” by Dead Can Dance. It’s the kind of song made for the HomePod — the combination of airy vocals, deep booming notes and crisp percussion brought out the best in Apple’s speaker. The HomePod made the song come to life from its droning beginning, into the palatial vocal line and beyond.

The Independent said that HomePod was smart enough and the audio quality leaves other smart speakers for dust. David Phelan was particularly impressed by the set up process.

This is blissfully simple, better than on rival smart speakers and, frankly, most consumer electronics in general.

Anyone who’s used Apple’s AirPods wireless headphones knows that just bringing the headphones near to your iPhone is enough to connect the two. Here, when you first plug the speaker in, you hold an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch that’s running the latest version of software (iOS 11.2.5) next to it and, well, that’s it.

It will transfer your Apple ID to the speaker, along with elements such as naming the room you’re going to place it in. If you’ve already set up the Home app on your iPhone, for instance, and have named rooms there, these appear as options for you to choose from.

The audio quality is way better than any other smart speaker I’ve heard, including the Sonos One and Google Home Max (a big, music-oriented speaker not yet on sale in the UK). What’s more, it sounds absolutely as good as, or better than, many decent stereo speaker setups. The wide sound stage and deep fidelity to the music means it has outshone some pretty full-on hi-fi systems I’ve heard. Nothing on the HomePod is muddy, every element is sharp and realised.

All from a single, pretty-small speaker. There’s plenty of bass: the woofer inside shifts a lot of air (and can move up to 20mm, Apple says) and sounds solid and strong. But vocals are also super-clear: rich, bright and detailed […]

HomePod is a gentle improvement on the things Siri could do already and which other smart speakers do. Apart from one thing: the hi-fi playback, which is a giant leap forward. If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, this is easily the most attractive option, in every way. Even if you’re not, there’s still much to enjoy.

Above all, the HomePod creates music which has great, unmissable presence, a rich tone and a wide, impressive soundstage.

The Loop didn’t do a review, but Jim Dalrymple wrote about the work that went into the HomePod’s audio performance.

Kate Bergeron, Apple’s Vice President, Hardware Engineering, said the HomePod project started six years ago—that gives an idea of how long Apple has been testing and working on that particular product.

“HomePod started by us asking a question: What would it mean if we decided to design a loud speaker where we could put it in any room, and that room wouldn’t affect the sound quality,” said Bergeron […]

“We think we’ve built up the biggest acoustics and audio team on the planet,” said Gary Geaves, Apple’s Senior Director, Audio Design and Engineering. “We’ve drawn on many of the elite audio brands and universities to build a team that’s fantastic. The reason we wanted to build that team was certainly for HomePod, but to also to double-down on audio across all of Apple’s products.” […]

The audio team also has some of the best gear in the world to work with. Apple built an anechoic chamber specifically to build and test HomePod. The chamber is non-reflective and echo free, so it is a perfect environment for testing audio.

Apple’s anechoic chamber is a room, built within another room and set on isolating springs so vibrations from the outside are kept out of the testing environment. It’s also one of the largest anechoic chambers in the United States […]

“We went out to hundreds of employees rooms and took thousands of measurements in each room,” Geaves. “That allowed us to characterize each of those acoustic spaces and come up with an average for all of those rooms in terms of reverberation.”

TechCrunch summarized its review in the opening four sentences. Matthew Panzarino said the rest was detail.

Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.

As a smart speaker, it offers best-in-class voice recognition, vastly outstripping the ability of other smart speakers to hear you trying to trigger a command at a distance or while music is playing, but its overall flexibility is stymied by the limited command sets that the Siri protocol offers.

Buy a HomePod if you already have Apple Music or you want to have it and you’re in the market for a single incredibly over-designed and radically impressive speaker that will give you really great sound with basically no tuning, fussing, measuring or tweaking.

[And in some of that detail, on the audio quality …]

In an apartment, the HomePod could not be louder and more room filling. But at home, in a 20×30 great room with carpet on the floor, I did find myself wishing for it to be louder […]

It really kicked ass in live performances, where it felt that the vocals were sitting out in the air between you and HomePod, no matter where you were standing, and the applause and high hats were coming from some place above and behind the speaker — being projected outwards and around. It’s one of the most three dimensional sounds I’ve heard from any music setup and absolutely the deepest stage from a “single speaker”.

It’s, unfortunately, one of those things where words will fail to do it justice. Suffice to say that the HomePod is the most sophisticated and acoustically interesting of the speakers, but definitely not the most bombastic.

The Verge said that the sound is best-in-class, and beats out many more expensive speakers. Nilay Patel was particularly enthusiastic about the beam-forming technology – not so much about it being so closely tied to a single Apple ID.

It creates a virtual array of soundbeams using that seven-tweeter array. Placed near a wall, the HomePod creates three beams: one pointed out the front for “direct” sounds like vocals and guitars, and two pointed at the wall to reflect “ambient” sounds like applause and room noises. This is called “beamforming,” and it’s a nifty, complicated idea; Apple told me it has something like 200 patents for the HomePod.

So the HomePod is using all seven physical speakers to create an array of virtual speakers and assigning those virtual speakers different parts of the music for increased clarity and bass. It’s not trying to create wide stereo separation — later this year, you’ll be able to pair two HomePods for that — it’s just trying to get as much from the audio you’re playing as possible, while eliminating the effects of the room you’re in.

To figure out what to play on those direct and ambient soundbeams, the HomePod compares the left and right channels of the song and figures out what sounds are mixed more prominently and what sounds are mixed into the background. Prominent sounds are sent to the direct soundbeam, and background sounds are sent to the ambient soundbeams. Apple told me the process is similar to what surround sound systems have long done to upmix stereo audio so it plays on all your speakers, but it’s a very different application of that basic idea [but …]

While it’s true that the HomePod sounds incredible — it sounds far better than any other speaker in its price range — it also demands that you live entirely inside Apple’s ecosystem in a way that even Apple’s other products do not […]

I started thinking of the HomePod as “lonely.” It feels like it was designed for a very demanding person to use while living alone entirely inside Apple’s ecosystem. It’s tied more closely to a single iPhone and iCloud account than any other smart speaker, and Siri has none of the capability or vibrancy of what’s happening with Alexa. Apple can try to move mountains by itself, or it can recognize that the HomePod is a little iOS computer for the home and let developers build on it as they have for so long and with such great success with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

What HiFi said that HomePod offered ‘weighty, authoritative sound’ but the mid-range was ‘a little muddled.’

Having started with an entirely clean slate and apparently worked on concepts for years (HomePod has been in development since 2012), Apple eventually settled on having the tweeters at the bottom and the woofer at the top – the exact opposite of the arrangement found in most traditional speakers.

The tweeters fire outwards and are slightly angled upwards, with the intention of not bouncing sound off the surface upon which the HomePod is placed. By avoiding these reflections, Apple can exert greater control over the treble’s behaviour.

There are seven tweeters in total, evenly spaced around the base of the unit. The woofer is close to the top and fires upwards, reflecting mid and bass frequencies off the bottom of that glossy panel so they are distributed equally around the device. It’s an energetic driver too, capable of moving a full 20mm from peak-to-peak, which is extraordinary excursion for a compact driver in a dinky wireless speaker […]

The HomePod has a good grasp of the intentions of a track. At no point in our test do we play a single track that was anything other than absolutely correct.

That’s not to say we’re talking about a perfect delivery, but the HomePod is great at honing in on and delivering the essence of everything you play through it, from Bach to Band of Horses, Bonobo to Bob Marley, The Notorious B.I.G. to Bullet for My Valentine […]

You can revel in bass that’s superbly deep for a little speaker. It is also tuneful, energetic and punchy, putting to rest any fears the HomePod might be a little too Beats-like […] At the other end of the frequency range, the expertly judged treble delivers the snap and detail of the high hat without ever sounding bright or aggressive […]

At the most congested points, the HomePod becomes just a little muddled and some rivals (such as the Ultimate Ears Megablast) offer a little more clarity in their organisation. But for scale, authority, drive and excitement, the Apple speaker is just superb.

The WSJ says that the HomePod offers super sound, but Joanna Stern says it isn’t super smart:

With the Apple HomePod, the cotton that has been in our ears since the arrival of the first smart speaker has been removed. The HomePod sounds far better than the popular smart speakers from Amazon, Google—and even Sonos […]

“Hey Siri, play ‘Tusk’ by Fleetwood Mac.” About 2 minutes into the song, you can hear everything Apple engineered the HomePod to be. The horns surge, the tom-toms thunder, the guitar and bass keep pounding, yet I can also hear distinct band members yelling “Tusk.” I could hear it all while walking around the speaker at my kitchen island […]

There’s a but: Apple’s tuning of the bass. The HomePod’s bass is impressive for the size of the speaker, but in many songs, it’s far too front-and-center in the mix. If we can trim the bass and treble in our cars, why not on your speaker, Apple? […]

But Alexa and Google Assistant not only knew more answers, they could better parse my questions. When I asked, “Who is the prime minister of England?” they both correctly named Theresa May. On the HomePod, Siri only knew the answer when I asked, more appropriately, “Who is the prime minister of Great Britain?”

There are other problems I won’t shut up about: Many people will put a HomePod in the kitchen, yet it can’t set two simultaneous cooking timers. It can’t wake me up to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” either. Echo and Google Home can do both. Apple says it is improving Siri all the time […]

It really comes down to what you want your speaker to do. If you want the smartest smart speaker, this isn’t it. But if you prize music above everything else, the HomePod isn’t a dumb choice.

All in, I can’t wait to hear it for myself.

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