Apple HomePod

Is Apple HomePod the wisest addition to your connected home this year?

We always aim to save you time here at Smarthome. We’ll give you a glimpse of the advantages and drawbacks of HomePod before we dive a little deeper.

Benefits

• Stunning sound quality that fills a room. 
• Remarkable mic performance that controls your home with the sound of your voice.
• Designed to blend into any location of your home. 
• Multifunctional: speaker and hub in one package.
• Capability with Siri makes for endless streaming possibilities.

 

Limitations 

• The functionality of Siri is pretty underwhelming
• Although not mandatory, you need a paid subscription to Apple Music to get the most from HomePod, so factor this into budgeting
• Limited control over audio equalization

Set-Up

Another area where HomePod stands out is with the set-up. Compared to laboriously racking up Amazon Echo or Sonos One devices, you’ll be tipping your hat in Apple’s direction.

You’ll first need to run through some simple preparatory steps:

• Activate Apple KeyChain
• Turn on two-factor authentication
• Enable Bluetooth
• Connect to your WiFi router

With the requisite device in place and the groundwork laid, the set-up is practically automatic…

Just hold your phone or device near your spanking new HomePod. Both your AppleID and Apple Music details are winged over so you can sidestep the usual tedium of filling out forms and passwords.

Set-up really is that simple. The only snag you’ll face is perhaps requiring a newer version of iOS on your iPhone. If you’re anything like us and resist those updates for personal reasons, just do it if you want HomePod in the house!

With this approach to set-up alone, Apple has massacred the opposition. The same ease of use extends to using any WiFi network already in place on your phone. Brandish your handset, and you’re away.

HomePod establishes where it is in a room by playing some tunes then listening to the way the sound reverberates around the space. When it determines there’s a wall or obstacle in place, certain sounds are separated and directed optimally. In general, the sound is pinged throughout 360 degrees.

After set-up is complete, you won’t need the iPhone to remain at home for other people to use HomePod. Just deactivate Personal Requests first if you don’t want anyone fiddling with your preferences and settings. You can also prevent what others listen to from polluting your listening history; a nice touch if you’re looking to build out some automated playlists.

Design

As you’d fully expect, the design is subtle but striking. Coming in trademark white and space gray, HomePod is a far cry from those box-like speakers we used to have all around our homes.

Despite standing just under 7 inches tall, HomePod is no lightweight. Remarkably, this unimposing speaker tips the scales at fully 5.5 pounds. Why is this? Well, it’s all about the innards, of course. Both the woofer and 7 tweeters have their own amp while there are 6 mics adding to HomePod’s waistline. Magnets on the drivers complete components built to deliver the sound extravaganza we’ll outline directly below.

The only physical wire you’ll get is the power cable at the back so you’ll want to consider placement carefully. Due to this lack of physical connectivity – remember, we’re dealing with a company who removed the headphone jack! – you won’t be able to hook up any external devices like record players or CD players. 

The mesh covering has a split purpose in mind: fully protecting your expensive little speaker while making sure maximum sound seeps out.

The flat top on the cylindrical speaker has a small 272 x 340 display showing Siri’s waveform once activated.

Integrated touch controls for playing and pausing your music, and manipulating volume are all that’s added to the crisp, clean lines. It’s not marked or branded in any way so it will slot perfectly into pretty much any smart home regardless of décor.

Touch controls serve the following core functions:

• Tap: Play or Pause
• Double-Tap: Next Track
• Triple-Tap: Previous Track
• Touch / Hold: Activate Siri
• Tap or Hold +: Increase Volume
• Tap or Hold –: Decrease Volume

While these buttons are not haptic, the nature of a smart speaker is that you’ll be primarily using voice control so that’s not such a deal-breaker.

So, it’s no surprise that HomePod looks great but is it a case of form over function?

When it comes to the audio, absolutely not!

Audio and Hardware

Perversely, the vast bulk of smart speakers might be plenty smart, but they perform woefully in terms of audio.

Rather than trying to fight Google and Amazon head-on in a saturated smart speaker marketplace, ever-innovative Apple has attacked the opposition from the unprotected flanks instead by placing audio uppermost and delivering a killer blow.

To get the negatives out the way first, we’ll reiterate that there’s no Bluetooth streaming or aux input so if you’re fine with that, you’ll be rewarded with a genuinely room-filling sound. This phrase is thrown about too often, but for once here, it’s an apt description not hollow marketing speak.

Inside the HomePod, you’ll get an A8 chip sat at the top. This was rolled out with iPhone 6 and obviously translates to more than robust power for a smart speaker. The flash storage is fundamentally pointless since you can’t store any music on the HomePod itself. Far more useful are the buffering, acoustic modeling, and echo-cancellation served up by the potent A8 chip.

Just below the chip, there’s a single 4-inch high excursion woofer facing upward. This pushes a great deal of air thanks to a powerful motor, and automatic bass-correction prevents that distorted crunch that can mar inefficient speakers at the low end.

An array of 6 mics sat below make sure Siri can hear your commands even when you’ve got the music cranked all the way up.

Down at the bottom is an array of 7 beamforming tweeters with discrete drivers. Horns push the audio out with great directional precision.

With all that under the hood, it’s no surprise HomePod is such a weighty little unit.

How about that spatial awareness Apple so often talks about? Well, in plain English, the device detects the layout of the room, and makes automatic tweaks to the audio and balance so you’ll get a soundscape optimized to the environment. Independent tests have proved this claim and we can verify you won’t be disappointed in real-life testing either.

Bass is super-sharp but also nice and stable. If you’re not used to hearing music come fully to life with subtle reverb and thumping bass that’s also crystal clear, you’ll be truly impressed. If you’re a committed audiophile, HomePod might not live up to your upscale exotica but you’ll still have to grudgingly admit Apple have surpassed themselves with sound quality.

While the layered sound is fantastic, sometimes this can verge on overlapping a little too much. The sound of some instruments tends to become overrun, and sometimes the sound seems slightly cluttered, but compared to the (admittedly low) bar set by smart speakers, HomePod stands alone in terms of audio. HomePod stomps all over Amazon Echo and, although Sonos One is a strong opponent, it simply can’t compete in terms of either power or depth.

Raw volume is loud. So loud, in fact, Siri will ask you to confirm your intentions if you ask for it to be dialed all the way up!

Now you know how your music will sound, how do you set about playing it?

Music Playback

HomePod connects directly with Apple Music, the proprietary streaming service, in the Cloud over your home WiFi network.

If you don’t have an Apple Music account, you’ll be able to link up to iTunes Match or your purchases from iTunes Music.

Beyond that, HomePod is compatible with Beats 1 Live Radio, podcasts and also AirPlay from other Apple devices.

The thing is, you really do need that subscription to Apple Music to make purchasing HomePod worthwhile. We have to hedge that if you have the better part of $350 to drop on a smart speaker and a high-end Apple device to match; this little extra is hardly going make or break your decision.

And, since you won’t be able to play CDs or vinyl due to the absence of an aux input, and you can’t stream using Bluetooth, you really do need to invest that $10 a month for Apple Music.

So this is the main sticking point; you’re pretty firmly locked into Apple’s ecosystem whether you like it or not. You can use Spotify but only if you stream it over your phone, significantly less than ideal. There’s no lossless format either which is a stinger. We will say the regular format is more than acceptable and who knows what Apple has up its sleeve?

If you want to link up a pair of HomePods, you can enjoy full stereo sound thanks to AirPlay2. You can even add in some third-party speakers from Bang & Olufsen to Naim. Using two speakers together is not the most seamless experience. Linking volume is awkward, and there’s often a lag when streaming which is disappointing to say the least.

HomePod delivers a shared Up Next list allowing others in your household to contribute or even give commands as long as they have an Apple Music account.

When you’re streaming from Apple Music, it won’t count toward your device limit, but if you try streaming on two devices, it won’t work and you’ll need to switch streams.

There’s no restriction on that 10 device limit for purchased music either with HomePod which is a nice touch.

If you don’t want cross-contamination with your For You tab on Apple Music, disable the recommendation setting. This will also stop content being automatically added to the Listening To part of your profile. This is particularly valuable if your teens are having a party and you don’t want all that stuff flooding your Apple Music account.

With playback taken care of, how about that all-important voice assistant?

Siri in Your Smart Home

If Apple wins the battle with the audio component of HomePod, it does little to win the overall war thanks to the limitations of Siri.

Grandiosely calling Siri a musicologist on HomePod, the digital assistant can admittedly answer some pretty involved musical queries which is great. You’ll also get recommendations based on your listening history and there are some specific commands for HomePod like “Play something new” and “Who’s singing”. Siri can also serve up music on tap from your iCloud Music Library, iTunes purchases or Apple Music.

What’s not so great is the need to constantly say, “Hey Siri” any time you want anything done. The advantage of this in an age where privacy concerns are prevalent is that you won’t have an always-on speaker in your living room. Once the wake word is spoken, data sent to Apple’s servers is encrypted and your Apple ID is anonymized.

Voice recognition accuracy, on the other hand, is first rate. Whether you’ve got your back turned to your virtual butler or you’re calling from another room, comprehension is near absolute. While a half-dozen microphones might initially seem like overkill, once you’ve experienced Siri in action, you’ll appreciate the heavy-handedness.

Commands are responded to effectively and all natural language is recognized giving you arguably the best dialogue with Siri to date. Designed to be controlled by voice commands, most interaction you have with Siri is intuitive and pretty efficient, expected misfires notwithstanding.

With controls reasonably well baked, you’ll also be able to take advantage of this capable; if limited ,voice assistant to control the IoT devices in your smart home through Apple HomeKit…

HomePod with HomeKit

Much like Apple TV and your iPad, HomePod also serves as a de facto hub for HomeKit. We’ll look at HomeKit in more depth over the coming weeks so we won’t expand too much more on this today.

Suffice to say, Siri can help you control all your HomeKit devices using nothing but voice commands in the full spirit of smart home technology. You’ll also get remote access to your smart devices and appliances, invaluable when you’re not at home.

Operating System

Since it runs a full and robust version of iOS, you can think of HomePod as an iPhone without a display. To achieve this, Apple uses a shell app, called Soundboard.

There’s no provision for any third-party extension and none for external apps either.

Running at the moment on iOS 12.1.1, you’ll get regular updates just like you do with iPhone.

Final Word

Apple HomePod will appeal to a relatively narrow segment of the market but then that’s nothing new with anything produced by Apple.

There’s absolutely nothing that can be said to knock audio performance. As we outlined in quite some detail, HomePod is a wonderful small speaker worthy of its place in any connected home even if you’ve got exacting musical standards.

Without a choice of multiple streaming apps, with so little third-party integration and the absolute requirement for an iOS device, we can only consider HomePod to be a qualified success. If you’re looking for a straight-up voice assistant and you’re not fully invested in Apple’s ecosystem, it’s tough to justify the price tag and pointless to suffer the limitations.

For Apple enthusiasts, though, HomePod hits the sweet spot.

Only you know which camp you fall in!

Come back soon as we’ve got a full slate for our home automation blog to round out this month!