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Apple HomePod listening test: Why one may not be enough

An early listening session with Apple's upcoming HomePod wireless speaker left me longing for not just one HomePod, but two.

James Martin/CNET

Toward the end of my listening preview of Apple's HomePod ($349, £319, AU$499; available for preorder now and shipping Feb. 9), Apple reps gave me a little taste of a feature that won't be available at launch: two HomePods linked together in a stereo pair. Then they cranked Portugal the Man's "Feel It Still" track.

I felt it. All $700 worth.

Until then we'd been listening to a single HomePod in a few different rooms, each of varying dimensions. The company's first smart speaker is the new home for its voice-activated Siri assistant, which you can ask about the weather and use to control various HomeKit-enabled devices in your smart home. But while Apple plays catch-up to Amazon and Google on that front -- both of which have a years-long head start and millions-strong install base -- the focus is on HomePod's early strength: music and sound quality.

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Small size, solid sound

Apple has ventured to create what it feels is the perfect-sized wireless speaker. Compact enough to be placed anywhere in your home, kitchens and bathrooms included, yet big enough to accommodate six microphones for Siri to hear you from afar, along with a 4-inch "high-excursion" woofer, and seven "beam-forming" tweeters in the base to disperse sound in just the right way to overcome the problem all these compact wireless speakers have: a lack of stereo separation.

Powered by Apple's A8 processor (the same brains found in an iPhone 6), there's also some sophisticated software that, teamed with those six microphones, gives the HomePod "spatial awareness," allowing it to sense the size and shape of the room it's in and optimize the sound for it. Walk around the room and the sound will change, but it's supposed to sound good wherever you're standing -- or sitting. The HomePod also works great as a speakerphone, a selling point Apple hasn't touched upon much.

Oh, and while there's no mute button, like on an Echo you can tell Siri to stop listening at any point if you want privacy.

Cutting to the chase, the HomePod seems very good for a small Wi-Fi speaker. I hadn't seen it before so I wasn't quite sure how big it was. At almost 7 inches tall, it's a bit taller than the Alexa-enabled Sonos One (6.36 inches tall) and a bit stouter.

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Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing, introducing HomePod at WWDC in June.

James Martin/CNET

Prior to this month, the only public display of the HomePod's audio chops was a listening test for journalists the day it was announced at WWDC back in June. There a preproduction HomePod was compared to a first-generation Amazon Echo and a Sonos Play:3. This time around, the final HomePod hardware was put up against newer competitors: Amazon's second-gen $100, £90 and AU$149 Echo speaker and the $399 Google Home Max. Google's speaker does not have international pricing yet, but we expect it to be £399 and AU$599.

You don't usually see Apple comparing products side-by-side so kudos to it for running this type of demo. But some worthy products are missing from the comparison, such as the JBL's Link 300 and 500 (which have Google Assistant built in) and Bose's SoundLink Revolve speakers (which can be Alexa-enabled when paired with an Echo Dot).

What I did learn from the demos was that the HomePod is capable of playing quite loud for its size, and it has a little more bass and a slightly more defined overall sound than the Sonos One. It trounced the new, improved Echo, which sounded recessed and off-key in comparison -- but considering the Echo's cost, that was hardly a surprise. My gut reaction was that the HomePod sounded more natural and tonally rich than the larger Google Home Max.

This was a controlled environment with carefully picked tracks and fixed volume levels, to be clear. We heard Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees," Zero 7's "In the Waiting Line" and The Eagles' "Hotel California," an audiophile favorite that I don't ever need to listen to again.

Through it all, I didn't think the rooms we were listening in were ideal for evaluating a speaker like the HomePod. The ceilings were very high and some of the rooms were pretty cavernous. There were times I felt the HomePod hadn't fooled me into thinking it was a big speaker and I only heard it pushed up to higher volume levels a couple of times -- on one bass-heavy Ariana Grande track, our host took it up to 90 percent volume and it held together pretty well. Mostly I heard it at 65 percent or lower. That said, the speaker did manage to produce a good amount of bass at lower volumes.

The HomePod is designed to sound good with all types of music (yes, we did hear Disney's "Frozen") and I like the fact that there aren't EQ settings to play around with. When you're dealing with a speaker this compact, it needs all the help it can get from its software to smooth everything out and keep from distorting.

In reviewing these types of wireless speakers I've found that performance can vary from track to track and when we get our own review sample, we'll see what it can do with tracks we like to use and know well. 

Hey Siri: You sound pretty sweet

It's also worth mentioning that the only music service you can control with your voice is Apple Music. For Spotify and other services, you'll need to use AirPlay from your iPhone to the speaker with your phone as a remote. And of course we do mean iPhone or at least iPad; unlike an Apple TV, you'll need an iOS device for setup. 

Ultimately, my initial impression is that the HomePod sounds very good for the type of speaker it is and it certainly stacks up well against the competition -- some of it less expensive, some of it more. But like all compact speakers, it has its limitations and the HomePod left me wanting for true stereo sound. Which is probably why the only time I got truly jazzed during the demo was when they paired the two HomePods together and delivered some real separation. 

And all that fancy spatial awareness and room optimization? I still found the sweet spot was sitting in the middle of the couch 8 to 10 feet away, the speakers at close to ear level -- just like regular stereo speakers.

Of course, there are plenty of Apple HomeKit-based smart home features to discuss, but we'll do that in our eventual full review.

HomePod, Apple's $349 Siri-enabled speaker, hits Feb. 9: What you need to know about Apple's answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

HomePod has one thing AirPods need next: Just take the HomePod's controls and graft them on the AirPods, please.