What is this thing?
That, in essence, is the question most onlookers have asked about Apple’s HomePod speakersince its unveilinglast summer. The natural inclination is to compare it to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. It’s a speaker with a talking assistant in it , the thinking goes. Apple just wants a piece of that growing pie .
But that doesn’t sit right. Sure, Siri, the assistant at the heart of the speaker, can answer questions, set alarms, and turn off connected light bulbs. But the HomePod costs $350, roughly three times as much as the base Echo and Home devices, it sounds miles better than both, and Apple isn’t nearly as concerned with assisting you through every part of your day and controlling everything in your home. The HomePod is decidedly more “speaker” than “smart.”
You could then think of it as Apple’s first strike on Sonos, the popular maker of connected speakers. That’s a closer analogue but still not totally on the nose. The whole pitch with Sonos is that its speakers are hubs for every music service you care about. They’re also best utilized as a family. The HomePod, meanwhile, is a solitary device for a solitary service. It may become more like Sonos, but Apple has a tendency to keep things for itself, so it’s hard to say to what extent.
Instead, in its current state, the HomePod is something much simpler: a neat accessory for Apple Music subscribers. Just as the AirPods are fun and flashy headphones for Apple diehards to listen to music on the go—albeit ones that still work for those who don't live in Apple's world—the HomePod is a pleasant way for them to listen to that music at home. That’s it. It sounds great, and for most of the 36 million people paying for Apple’s music service every month, it’ll stream music and podcasts with little friction.
It just doesn’t do much more than that, particularly for people who aren’t hitched to Apple’s wagon. The HomePod is not revolutionary; it’s just a fine little speaker for a niche that becomes very clearly defined as you use it. That’s OK, Apple doesn’t have to disrupt the paradigm , or whatever, with every product it releases. Aiming low isn’t the worst—it’s just not the best, either.
The HomePod is a handsome little cylinder. It doesn’t strike me as fashionable the way MacBooks and iPhones do, and it gives no outward indication that it’s even made by Apple. But I’d argue that’s a good thing: the utilitarian look helps it blend in with whatever decor it’s near. It’ll sit on a living room table or kitchen counter without calling attention to itself. It’s decidedly not ugly.
|Specs at a glance: Apple HomePod|
|Size||5.6 x 5.6 x 6.8 inches|
|Speakers and microphones||Seven horn-loaded tweets with custom amplifiers, four-inch woofer with custom amplifier, six-microphone array (for Siri), one calibration microphone (for "automatic bass correction")|
|Connectivity||AirPlay, 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0 (no audio streaming)|
|Supported Audio Formats||HE-AAC, AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, FLAC|
|Supported OS||iOS 11.2.5 or later (required for setup), Mac (via iTunes)|
|Supported Voice Assistants||Siri|
|Supported Voice-Controlled Music Services||Apple Music|
|Release Date||February 9, 2018|
For what it’s worth, the soft mesh fabric surrounding the speaker is pleasing to the touch. Same goes for the thick, fabric-coated cable extending from the back. A circular touchscreen sits on top of the device, but it’s much simpler in scope than the display onAmazon’s Echo Show. There’s a little light pattern that moves whenever you interact with Siri, a couple of capacitive volume buttons whenever is music is playing, and a blank space between those buttons that lets you play, pause, and skip tracks. That’s about it.
The whole thing is small, at 5.6 x 5.6 x 6.8 inches. It’s squatter than a Google Home Max, but a pinch fatter than the Sonos One. It weighs 5.5 lbs, which is again a bit more than the One. There’s some heft to it. It doesn’t feel like a toy.
It is worth noting that the silicone base at the bottom of the HomePod could damage your furniture, though. After complaints from several users, Apple has acknowledged that the speaker may leave white rings on wood surfaces. So, don't do that. I did not have this problem after leaving the device on a marble countertop, but it's a stunning oversight all the same. The company says the rings can heal on their own, but doesn't guarantee it.
Inside the HomePod, Apple has packed a ring of seven tweeters, each of which are individually amplified, along with a four-inch upward-firing woofer to help with bass response. There are seven microphones built in as well, six of which are used to help Siri hear you while the other helps the woofer better control bass. As a point of comparison, the Sonos One has a six-microphone array, two amplifiers, one tweeter, and one mid-woofer. So there’s a bit more going on here.
Above everything in the HomePod is Apple’s A8 chip, which is better known as the processor that powered the iPhone 6. This is used to make Siri go, for one, but it also allows Apple to deploy its brand of digital signal processing (DSP). In simple terms, the HomePod uses the A8 and those microphones to measure the room in which it’s located and the audio it’s playing. Then it adjusts that audio on the fly to avoid distortion and keep a relatively balanced sound profile.
DSP is not a new thing for wireless speakers, but, in effect, the HomePod is trying to dynamically take a track and paint it back in a way that’s tailored to the acoustics of your room. This can be good and bad (and we’ll get into that), but it does make it a bit difficult to definitively talk about the HomePod’s sound.
One mild complaint I have about the device is that it’s not weather-resistant, but the DSP party tricks suggest the HomePod is really meant for the indoors.