I don’t think I’ve ever described a tech product as “lonely” before, but it’s the word I thought about the most as I was reviewing Apple’s new HomePod.
The HomePod, whether Apple likes it or not, is the company’s answer to the wildly popular Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers. Apple is very insistent that the $349 HomePod has been in development for the past six years and that it’s entirely focused on sound quality, but it’s entering a market where Amazon is advertising Alexa as a lovable and well-known character during the Super Bowl instead of promoting its actual features. Our shared expectations about smart speakers are beginning to settle in, and outside of engineering labs and controlled listening tests, the HomePod has to measure up.
And 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.
The question is: is beautiful sound quality worth locking yourself even more tightly into a walled garden?
Nothing about the HomePod when you see it in person is what you’d expect. It’s been both smaller and larger than people I’ve shown it to have thought, as it’s so minimally designed that it’s hard to get a sense of scale from photographs. It’s also heavier than it looks, and it doesn’t feel at all like other speakers: the outside is wrapped in a custom spongy mesh fabric Apple proudly told me was developed by its “soft materials team.” I do not know if that team has any cats, but I suspect cats are going to love the HomePod.
The HomePod’s power cord is built in and wrapped in fabric, and on top, there are LED-backlit volume buttons and a “display” that isn’t really a display at all — it’s LEDs under a cloudy glass panel that diffuses them into a single blob of swirling colors. There’s no obvious way to make this area show anything with precise lines, like an interface; Apple told me it was designed to be a touch surface, not to display text. On the bottom is a hard, rubbery material. You need to place the HomePod on a hard, flat surface: most of its speakers fire down, and it sounds pretty bad if you set it on something uneven or soft. But most of the time, it sounds excellent.
I have been incredibly curious about how the HomePod actually works since it was first announced, and it turns out the answers are even more interesting than I anticipated. Apple invited me and other journalists to tour its audio labs in Cupertino with Phil Schiller, hardware VP Kate Bergeron, and senior director of audio design and engineering Gary Greaves. I also spent time talking to some of the engineers who worked on the HomePod to dive into the details, and what the HomePod does while playing music is far more involved than you’d expect.
The HomePod isn’t just one speaker, it’s actually eight of them, all controlled by Apple’s own A8 processor and tons of custom software. There are seven tweeters that fire down and out from the bottom, and a single four-inch woofer pointing out of the top for low frequencies. There is also a total of seven microphones: six around the middle for Siri, and a seventh inside that measures the location of that woofer so Apple can precisely control the bass.
What’s important to understand is that all of these speakers and software aren’t trying to add anything to music; you’re not getting 3D audio or wacky surround effects or anything like that. Apple’s goal is to eliminate unwanted extra sounds you might get from reflections in the room the HomePod is sitting in. It’s then trying to tune to the speaker to sound as neutral as possible in that room, and this process is very, very involved.
When you set down a HomePod and play music, it goes through a number of steps to tune itself. First, it tries to create a model of the room it’s in by detecting the sounds reflecting off walls. It does this in two passes: the first pass builds a model to a high degree of initial confidence, and the second pass refines the model. This happens faster if you’re playing music with a lot of bass.
Then, 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.
In terms of ideas I’m into, a virtual array of soundbeams that points guitar solos at my face is super high on the list.
While all of this is happening, that seventh microphone inside the HomePod measures the position of the subwoofer as the other six mics measure the reflections of bass in the room, and it adjusts the bass output constantly to keep it from overwhelming the rest of the music. I asked Apple directly what the buzzword salad of “transparent studio-level dynamic processing” means on the HomePod spec sheet, and it refers to tuning the bass response in this way: it’s a custom multiband compressor that’s constantly tweaking the bass levels. And because the HomePod knows about the bass driver’s specific position and the sound it’s creating in the room, it can push it right up to the edge of distortion in a way normal speakers can’t.
The wild thing is that all of this happens at once, without needing any help from you, within about 10 seconds of playing music for the first time. If you move the HomePod, an accelerometer detects the motion and does it all over again seamlessly. That’s much faster and simpler than something like Sonos TruePlay, a manual process that requires 45 seconds of waving a phone around the room every time you move the speaker, or the Audyssey calibration systems on home theater gear that take forever to set up correctly.
All of this means the HomePod sounds noticeably richer and fuller than almost every other speaker we’ve tested. You get a surprisingly impressive amount of bass out of it, but you can still hear all of the details in the midrange and the bass never overwhelms the music. And it’s immediately, obviously noticeable: set in a corner of my kitchen, the HomePod sounded so much better than everything else that our video director Phil Esposito went from thinking the whole thing was kind of dumb to actively pointing out that other speakers sounded bad in comparison.
Compared to the HomePod, the Sonos One sounds a little empty and the Google Home Max is a bass-heavy mess — even though Google also does real-time room tuning. The Echo and smaller Google Home aren’t even in the same league. The only comparable speaker that came close in my testing was the Sonos Play:5, which could match the detail and power of the HomePod in some rooms when tuned with Sonos’ TruePlay system. But it also costs more, is larger, and doesn’t have any smart features at all.
The Apple engineers I talked to were very proud of how the HomePod sounds, and for good reason: Apple’s audio engineering team did something really clever and new with the HomePod, and it really works. I’m not sure there’s anything out there that sounds better for the price, or even several times the price.
Unfortunately, Apple’s audio engineering team wasn’t in charge of just putting out a speaker. It was in charge of the audio components of a smart speaker, one that simply isn’t as smart as its competitors.
Here’s what’s good about Siri on the HomePod: the microphones are terrific at detecting the “Hey Siri” wake command. It was better at hearing me over loud music than my other smart speakers, and very good at hearing me from across rooms with weird echoes. You can ask Siri to tell you more about the music that’s playing on the HomePod, and it will tell you things like who’s playing the bass on a given track. That’s neat.
But, really, here is the current state of Siri on the HomePod: it cannot set two timers at once.
Apple told me that while researching what most people ask their smart speakers for, it found that music the most popular use, asking for the weather is second, and setting timers and reminders is third. So it’s baffling that the HomePod can’t set more than one timer or name those timers; anyone who cooks with a smart speaker in their kitchen knows how incredibly useful that is.
You can’t ask Siri to look up a recipe. You can’t ask Siri to make a phone call. (You have to start the phone call on your phone and transfer it to the HomePod to use it as a just-okay speakerphone.) Siri also can’t compete with the huge array of Alexa skills, or Google Assistant’s ability to answer a vast variety of questions.
You can’t ask Siri to play something on an Apple TV, as both Google and Amazon’s assistants can do with their respective TV devices. It’s also very inconvenient to use the HomePod as a TV speaker: you can set an Apple TV to AirPlay to it, but it drops that connection when you play music again, and you have go back into the Apple TV’s settings to select the HomePod again every time. There’s no way to get other TV sources like a PlayStation or your cable box to play out of the HomePod at all.
Siri as a smart home controller on the HomePod works fine if you have compatible devices and have done the work of setting up HomeKit, but nothing about HomeKit is particularly simple or fun to use. But that’s basically the state of every smart home system, so I don’t think Apple’s too far behind there.
And, in the worst omission, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t recognize different voices. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you just click yes during all the setup prompts, literally anyone can ask the HomePod to send or read your text messages. Seriously, it’ll just read your texts to anyone if your phone is anywhere on the same Wi-Fi network, which usually reaches far beyond the same room as the HomePod. If your HomePod is in the kitchen and you’re in the basement, anyone can just roll up on the HomePod and have it read your texts. If you have kids, they can just text anyone at will while you’re in the bathroom and you can’t stop it. I tried it with the HomePod behind a closed door and it picked up my voice and it happily read my texts aloud, a nightmare for anyone who lives in a dorm.
This is also baffling: iPhones don’t answer to just anyone saying “Hey Siri” once you’ve trained them to your voice, and the HomePod runs a variant of iOS on an A8 chip, which allows for “Hey Siri” on the iPhone 6 when it’s plugged into the wall. I asked Apple about this, and there wasn’t a clear answer apart from noting that the personal requests feature that enables texting can be turned off. I agree: until Apple adds personalized voice recognition to this thing, you should definitely turn personal requests off.
Look, Siri has been behind its competitors for some time now, and the HomePod doesn’t move it forward in any notable way. Two timers and telling people apart when they speak. That’s the bar.
The biggest limitation of the HomePod is how tightly it’s tied to Apple Music. I am an Apple Music subscriber, and I use it as my primary music service on my phones and Sonos system. Apple Music is also growing in popularity: The W all Street Journal just reported that it’s on pace to overtake Spotify in terms of paying subscribers in the US this summer.
In general, however, Spotify has way more subscribers than Apple Music, and the HomePod doesn’t even really know Spotify exists. The HomePod also doesn’t really know that Pandora exists or Tidal or Google Play Music or SiriusXM or TuneIn Radio or SoundCloud or any of a thousand other music services that you might use throughout the course of listening to music in your lifetime. It’s an incredibly frustrating limitation: Amazon owns Amazon Music, but lets you set Spotify as the default on the Echo. Google runs Google Play Music and YouTube, but lets you set Spotify at the default on the Google Home.
You can play music from other services on the HomePod over AirPlay from your phone, but you lose most of the voice controls apart from play, pause, and volume when you do that. (Third-party music apps can be updated to tell the HomePod what track they’re playing over AirPlay so you can ask Siri for music trivia, however.)
Tightly tying hardware to software and services is at the core of Apple’s DNA, so complaining about Spotify might seem ridiculous here. The iPod didn’t work so well with other music stores, after all. But streaming music services really just offer access to music, especially on a screenless device you control with your voice. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying Spotify or Apple or Tidal when you ask for a song; you just want it to play. Apple Music doesn’t make the HomePod better in any particular way — just more limited. I’d bet a lot of serious audio nerds would love to send that brilliant speaker array uncompressed audio from Tidal if they could. You can do it over AirPlay; it’s not at all clear why Apple won’t let you do it with your voice as well.
In any event, Apple Music doesn’t offer any tools to make importing your Spotify playlists simple, and while I think the HomePod sounds amazing, I don’t think it sounds so good that it’s worth that much pain.
If I had to bet, I would say that 99 percent of people will never compare a HomePod and, say, a Sonos One head-to-head in their kitchen. And if you don’t do that, you will never know that the HomePod can put out more bass and clearer mids than the Sonos One. You will instead think that the Sonos One sounds extremely good for its size and price while offering you the ability to use virtually any music service, including Spotify and Apple Music, and working with Amazon Alexa and (eventually) Google Assistant.
That’s really the crux of it: the HomePod sounds incredible, but not so world-bendingly amazing that you should switch away from Spotify, or accept Siri’s frustrating limitations as compared to Alexa.
Apple’s ecosystem lock-in is actively working against a remarkable product with the HomePod, and I say that as someone who uses Apple Music as their primary music service. Sometimes I want to listen to a radio station from TuneIn or SiriusXM; sometimes I want to just let Pandora handle it. Sometimes I want to ask the voice assistant in my house a random question and get a useful answer. And sometimes I want to have people over without remembering to turn off the feature that lets them access my text messages when I’m not in the room.
All of this is why 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.
The HomePod is a remarkable new kind of audio device. It does more to make music sound better than any other speaker of this kind has ever done before, and it really, truly works. But unless you live entirely inside Apple’s walled garden and prioritize sound quality over everything else, I think you’re better served by other smart speakers that sound almost as good and offer the services and capabilities that actually fit your life.