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Apple HomePod review: Great sound, but it's trapped in Apple's world

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Apple HomePod (White)

(Part #: CNETAppleSiriSpeaker) Released: 9 Feb 2018
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The Good Apple's $349 HomePod has excellent bass and consistently superior sound quality across a wide variety of music genres. The speaker is easy to set up and Siri can hear you from across a room.

The Bad You’re stuck with Apple-only audio services when using voice commands and the HomePod only works on iOS. Some key features, including multiroom audio and stereo pairing, aren’t yet available but are coming soon. Siri and HomeKit lack Alexa and the Google Assistant’s polish and device compatibility.

The Bottom Line Apple's HomePod won’t slay Amazon Alexa out of the gate. But if you’re an iPhone user who prizes sound quality above all, you should seriously consider this speaker.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Sound quality 9.0

"Is she here for a pat-down?" a seasoned TSA agent asks a fellow employee as we all step into one of the private screening rooms at the San Francisco airport. 

"No, it's for this thing," she replies, pointing at an opaque bag concealing an unopened Apple HomePod, the company's first ever wireless speaker.

The $349 (£319, AU$499) Siri-powered smart speaker won't reach the public for another week or so. I'm taking this loaner back to the CNET Smart Home for testing, but it's top-secret; no one can know I have it -- yet. It passes inspection and I head to my gate, hyperaware of the camouflaged 5.5-pound speaker I'm cradling like a newborn.

But the HomePod is no fledgling. It's been in the works for six years. That's what Phil Schiller, Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, told me during a tour of Apple's audio lab last week. "Our goal is always to be best. That's what matters most. Sometimes that means you're first; sometimes it means you're not. That's OK. In the long scheme of life it doesn't matter. What matters is doing the best thing."

Fair enough, but Apple is far behind its competitors when it comes to wireless speakers you can control with your voice. The Apple HomePod produces awesome sound across a broad range of genres, making it stand out particularly compared to the $199 Sonos One, Google's $399 Home Max and Amazon's next-gen $100 Echo. Its crazy-fast setup and excellent long-range Siri microphones also make it appealing. 

However, buying a HomePod means you're signing up for a speaker that's limited to Apple's music services, smart home products and operating system. For example, you can't play Spotify and other third-party music services straight from the HomePod. You have to send that audio to your Apple speaker from your phone. You really need to be OK with that to justify buying one right now unless you don't care about anything but its stellar sound quality. Everyone else should wait to see what Apple will add to this promising speaker in the months ahead, above and beyond the already promised stereo pairing and multiroom AirPlay 2 features.

Hey, good lookin'

The fabric mesh-wrapped HomePod, available in either space gray or white, weighs a hefty 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg). It's 6.8 inches tall and 5.6 inches wide (170 by 140 mm) -- petite compared to the 11.7-pound (5.3 kg) and foot-wide Google Home Max. But the HomePod feels surprisingly dense when you lift it, as I learned while carrying it through the airport.

In true Apple form, the HomePod has a sleek, minimal design. It looks good, but not distractingly so, and I'm glad you get a couple color finishes to choose from. We got a white HomePod and while I like how it looks, I can easily imagine smudging it with repeat handling. The HomePod's mesh exterior isn't interchangeable like the Amazon Echo's removable shell. What you buy is what you get. You can, however, clean it with a dry or damp cloth.

The HomePod relies on a single, two-prong power cord, which you can plug into any standard outlet. Apple says the HomePod can go pretty much anywhere in your home, from the bathroom to the garage, either near a wall or in the center of the room. Just be aware that the cord isn't detachable as the HomePod doesn't have a battery onboard, so you might have to hide it under a rug if you want to show it off in the middle of a space.

At the top of the speaker, you'll find a touch display. It isn't a screen, so it can't display high-res text or video content like an Amazon Echo Show or Spot, but it does have integrated plus and minus signs for adjusting the speaker's volume manually. Tap or hold them to increase or decrease volume.

Touch and hold the center of the display to get Siri's attention without having to say, "Hey, Siri." A familiar, blue-green-purple LED status indicator will begin to glow on the display to let you know Apple's voice assistant is listening. Tap the display to play or pause music or to stop Siri mid-sentence. You can also double tap to skip a song or triple tap to skip back and replay a song.

The display glows white to tell you it's ready for initial setup and green during a phone call. You can't place or accept calls directly from the HomePod, but you can use it as a speakerphone when your iPhone ($1,779.00 at Mobileciti Online) is nearby. The various taps and LED status indicators have a slight learning curve at first, but the HomePod is easy to control straight from the speaker.

The HomePod doesn't have a button on the speaker itself to mute Siri, weirdly enough. Both Amazon and Google speakers have dedicated mute buttons so you can manually disable voice control. With the HomePod, you can only decrease the music volume from the speaker itself, which isn't really the same as muting Siri. Instead, you have to use the app or voice control to turn the "Hey, Siri" feature off or on.

I really wish the HomePod had a dedicated mute button. It would be good to have another option beyond having to grab your phone or use voice control.

homepod-gif

You know Siri's listening when you see this. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Apple's HomePod has seven tweeters, all placed in the bottom of the speaker. Each tweeter has an amplifier and a transducer. Six Siri-ready microphones sit above that, followed by the woofer and Apple's A8 chip at the very top.

Apple makes impressive claims about the design of its speaker and how that translates to better performance on its website. The tweeters are supposed to provide 360 degrees of consistently good sound, while the microphones (with help from the A8 chip) ensure Siri can hear you over loud music from a fair distance, without you needing to shout. The woofer brings that rich bass. 

The HomePod claims omnidirectional sound through a feature called "spatial awareness." No matter where you put your speaker, a built-in accelerometer (movement and motion sensor) is supposed to kick in and recalibrate based on its location. This helps it determine how to direct sound and should help ensure consistently good sound quality no matter where the HomePod is -- and no matter where you are in a room relative to it. 

Stellar sound quality for its size

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.

Although the Max presented more of a stereo effect, the sound was a little harsh in comparison, and the Max just wasn't able to dig deep enough in the bass. Sonos, meanwhile, sounded more closed off.

homepod-product-photos-16

The HomePod sounds similar to Google's Home Max and better than the less expensive Sonos One. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

On a track like "3WW" by Alt-J, with its deep bass bed, the HomePod has an authority that the Google Home Max and the Sonos One can't muster. Despite the track's weighty synth bass, the Apple speaker never struggled. While the other two were balanced, they lacked heft -- especially the Sonos, which didn't even attempt to reproduce the deep notes.

The HomePod's bass extension sounds great, but it wasn't always as tight as I expected. The kick drum in "Girlfriend is Better" by Talking Heads sounded a lot looser than I've ever heard it before, for example, and resonated a little too long. If you like funk or other styles with a prominent deep bass drum, this speaker may not give you the kind of quick response you're used to.

Most of the time the HomePod and Max sounded similar, with Apple edging ahead for bass extension and balance, though there was one track where the tables turned. "Don't You" by Amber Rubarth, with its rich, reverb-drenched vocals and languid drawl of the violin, sounded crisper on the Google Max. The pitter-patter percussion sounded more immediate on the Google speaker, though the HomePod was able to amplify the boom of the bass drum. Though the Apple device gave a better sense of the hall, it created a distance between the singer and the listener that Google's gadget didn't have.

Unlike the Sonos and the Max, which are typical "directional" speakers that sound better when you listen from the front, the HomePod is supposedly more versatile. Apple talks up the speaker's ability to sit anywhere in the room and create great sound, but I found performance on all sides hit-and-miss.

With the HomePod in the center of the room, for example, I heard distinct wedges of good (and less good) sound around the speaker. Sometimes the front sounded great and the back not so much. Sometimes the best sound came from 90 degrees on either side.

Apple says the speaker adjusts itself based on room position, and as I moved the speaker around I could hear the difference as it recalibrated. Overall I found that the HomePod sounded best placed against a wall or in a corner, which is fine since that's where most people will probably place it anyway.

Sadly I didn't get to test the HomePod against two Sonos Ones, but I hope to rectify this as soon as possible. Since Sonos is currently selling two One speakers for $349 (the same price as a single HomePod) and since a pair of Ones in stereo beat the Max in testing, I am eagerly anticipating this matchup. My colleague David Carnoy liked how two HomePods sounded during Apple's stereo demo, too, so I'm excited to check it out once Apple enables that feature. (More on that below.)

30-second setup, Apple-centric lock-in

Before you can start listening to music on your HomePod, you need to configure it. The good news: It literally takes seconds to set up. Not unlike AirPods, just holding your iOS device next to the HomePod triggers the process. Follow the steps to start playing music and more with Siri on your HomePod.

The bad news: You'll need an iOS device for this. The HomePod and Apple's Home app don't work on Android phones or tablets. Scroll down to the bottom of this page for a complete list of compatible iOS devices.

Your iOS device prompts you on setup to give your HomePod a dedicated location, sign up for Apple Music (if you haven't already) and enable something called "Personal Requests."

applehomepod2

You don't even need to download an app to set up the HomePod.

Screenshots by Megan Wollerton/CNET

That Apple Music prompt is important, because when it comes to voice control, Apple services are pretty much the only game in town. Here's what you can ask Siri to play as outlined on the Audio Sources section of this Apple specs page:

  • Apple Music
  • iTunes Music Purchases
  • iCloud Music Library with an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscription
  • Beats 1 Live Radio
  • Podcasts

What about the Spotify, Pandora, third-party podcast apps or any other audio source? They're all playable on the HomePod -- from iPhone, iPad ($548.00 at Mobileciti Online), iPod Touch, Apple TV and Mac -- but you'll manually need to tap the AirPlay button on the screen of the source device. (Windows PCs running iTunes can also be a music source.) That's a big step down from the Sonos One, which works with dozens of music services, as do the Google Home and Amazon Echo speakers.

It's also important to note that the HomePod doesn't work as a basic Bluetooth speaker, either. So an Android-toting guest or family member won't be able to send any music to the HomePod from their device.

In other words, unless you have an exhaustive database of music you purchased on iTunes, you're going to need an Apple Music subscription. Apple extends a free three-month subscription to Apple Music when you're setting up your HomePod. After that 90-day period ends, the service costs $10 per month for one person (or $15 monthly for a family plan). College students can sign up for just $5 per month, but Apple will ask you to verify your student status. (Those prices in the UK are £10, £15 for family and £6 for students. In Australia it's AU$12, AU$18 or AU$6.)

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