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HomePod review: Sounds great but limited information and home control

  • Posted by admin on February 14, 2018

Based on the early reviews, Apple’s HomePod sounds amazing. It’s so good according to some that it rivals audio equipment priced nearly three times the $ 349 you’ll pay Apple for a  HomePod. And in my testing, I agree: Apple has engineered an excellent sonic experience from a single unit. Plus the microphones are nearly flawless at hearing your voice commands regardless of how loud you’re playing music.

Is the speaker worth $ 349 when you can spend a similar amount on other smart speakers? That’s a difficult question to answer for a few reasons. Generally speaking, if you’re all in on iOS and Apple Music, plus you don’t mind waiting for Siri to get smarter, you’ll be happy with a HomePod. I qualify on the first part of that equation, but not the second. And to be honest, I’m not sure the HomePod sounds that much better than some other speakers that have more smarts.

By that I mean most of the “smarts” in the HomePod are in the sound experience. The device automatically configures itself for optimal sound when you first set it up. And HomePod repeats that algorithmic optimization whenever you move it. That’s smart. Does it really solve a problem though?

Credit: Apple

Yes, the intelligent configuration is impressive. It’s also easier than the process used on my Sonos One speakers: The Trueplay Tuning requires you to walk around your room as the Sonos app listens to tones from the speakers. This manual effort takes about a minute and, just like the HomePod setup process, it only works on Apple iOS devices.

Here’s the thing though: How often do you physically move speakers that plug into an outlet? Not that often, if at all after the initial setup. While Apple has made this process “magical”, it’s not something you do daily. HomePod will also dynamically adjust music in real time too, although I haven’t heard much of a difference with this feature.

Additionally, I did a bit of a blind listening test with my family and one of my tech-savvy friends, mainly because I didn’t really prefer the HomePod audio over a pair of Sonos One speakers in most cases. That may seem like an unfair comparison because the HomePod is a single unit, while a pair of speakers are obviously two units. So why the comparison from an audio standpoint? Because both setups cost the same: Sonos dropped the price of a Sonos One pair to $ 349 for a limited time.

I set up the listening tests using the same songs in various genres directly from Apple Music and at the same sound levels. More often than not, the Sonos Ones were the preferred option. Note that I’m not saying the Sonos “won” for a specific reason. While the HomePod may technically be the better device for accurate sound reproduction, it’s more important which speakers deliver the sound the listeners prefer. It’s subjective based on taste and hearing capabilities. David Pogue performed a similar blind test on video and nobody chose the HomePod as the overall winner either, further illustrating this subjectiveness.

To my ears, the HomePod is better in the lower, bass frequencies and is impressively good at bouncing sound off walls with its seven tweeters to create an immersive stage. One HomePod is surely better than one Sonos One. Add a second Sonos One though, and the stereo separation is clear, plus the mid-range and high frequencies are more nuanced to me. Again, this is subjective to my ears; I recommend testing any speaker with your preferred music genres.

Unfortunately, most of the “smarts” end there for HomePod and for that you can blame Siri. The best way I can put it is: Siri is fragmented between iOS devices and HomePod. You’d think everything Siri can do on an iPhone or iPad could be done on the HomePod. It’s not even close.

Sure, the HomePod has the basics. Obviously, Siri is super for voice control of specific music or for suggesting playback based on an activity. As I’m writing this review, I asked Siri to “play music for studying” and she was up to the task: I have some easy listening and acoustic hits playing. She knows the weather, the time, can set reminders, and can tell when my soccer team (technically, my English football club) plays next. And of course, she can control any HomeKit device in the home. This all works great.

Want to know your next Calendar appointment or want to create one? Nope. Need to set two timers with Siri? Sorry, she can only handle one at a time. Oh, and although HomePod works for speakerphone calls initiated from your phone, you can’t start a call from HomePod.

Perhaps the most baffling omission though is in regards to HomeKit. In the iOS Home app you can create routines to group different HomeKit devices together and make them do things with a single Siri command. HomePod appears as a device in the Home app but you can’t include the speaker in a routine. I do this with my Google Home by telling it I want Relaxation Mode and it turns the lights on at 25% in my office while also firing up an acoustic playlist on the Sonos One. That can’t be replicated on HomePod, at least not yet.

Apple says that more features such as multi-room audio and stereo pairing of HomePods is coming later this year. I suspect Siri will be improved as well for things like calendar access and the ability to recognize multiple users. The latter is another big omission for me because HomePod is tied to a single iCloud account, meaning even if the calendar features were available, they would only work with my calendar account. My family would be out of luck, unless of course each person had their own HomePod. (That’s not happening.)

Circling back to the beginning, I do think iOS users with Apple Music and HomeKit devices will be thrilled with the sound and home control of HomePod, provided they can wait for Apple to address some of the gaps in Siri’s smarts. Just remember that HomePod only works with Apple Music (for now) and that it doesn’t work at all with Android phones even though it has a Bluetooth 5 radio inside and there’s an Android version of Apple Music. I wouldn’t be surprised if HomePod stays iOS only for a long time, or for good. So you’d better be sure you won’t switch away from iOS if buying a HomePod.

For me (and my ears), a pair of Sonos One speakers sounds very comparable to HomePod at the same price. They also work with dozens of streaming music services and have the more capable Alexa built in now with Google Assistant coming later this year. My HomePod was purchased out of pocket with our site reimbursing me; if I was spending my own money, I’d pass on HomePod for now with a wait-and-see attitude as Apple improves the smarts of its smart speaker.

We’ll keep using the HomePod over time to assess new features and functions as they become available. In the meantime, comment below or call in on our IoT Podcast Listener Hotline at 512-623-7424 if you have HomePod questions. 

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

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