After much anticipation, and speculation that Apple has missed the boat and handed victory to Amazon’s champion Echo, the HomePod smart speaker is finally here. But is it actually any good? And why exactly does it cost four times as much as an Echo?
The HomePod is a voice-controlled speaker that listens out for its wake word “Hey, Siri” and then starts streaming what you say to Apple to interpret your commands and play whatever it is you wish. The fabric-covered cylinder stands an iPhone X-and-a-bit tall (172mm) with a diameter of an iPhone X (142mm), weighing 2.5kg (14.4 times the iPhone X).
It’s quite a lot bigger than Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home, and bigger still than the Sonos One, but it’s also the least assuming. Available in black or white, it has a small gloss touch-sensitive disc on top with light-up plus and minus buttons and a hidden centre display that flashes colour when Siri is listening for you. The rest of the visible surface is wrapped in mesh fabric, with a hidden rubber foot on the bottom.
It looks at home on a book shelf, the top of an AV unit or on the kitchen table, but also doesn’t stand out, until you start playing music.
The HomePod may technically be a smart speaker, but really it’s all about the music and less about the utility of a voice assistant. That’s partly because Apple’s Siri is some way behind Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, both in form and function.
Siri is the only smart assistant that offers a choice of male or female voices, which is a nice change, but is an odd mix of well prepared set pieces of personality intermixed with clumsy text-to-speech smashes the illusion of being anything other than a dumb robot. But you don’t have to take my word for it – Siri is the same on the HomePod as it is on an iPhone.
On the HomePod Siri can set one timer, but not multiple or named timers like Alexa and the rest can; it can control some smart home devices as long as they’re hooked up to Apple’s HomeKit system; it can answer some relatively limited questions and do the usual unit conversions and calculations. You can also set it up so that Siri can send text messages, create notes and reminders, using the iPhone and account of the person who set up the HomePod when it is on the same wifi network. But that means anyone with access to the speaker could send messages pretending to be its owner – there is no multi-user support at all.
Siri is also meant to be able to send messages through WhatsApp and a handful of others, but I couldn’t get it to work – Siri kept saying “WhatsApp couldn’t find” my contact, despite me holding a text conversation using WhatsApp on my phone just fine. Finally, the HomePod can also acts as a giant speakerphone for calls made by an iPhone, which works surprisingly well, but the speaker made a very loud buzzing noise for five seconds at the end of a call and I couldn’t figure out why.
Siri can hear you on the HomePod as well as Alexa on an Echo, even over music and noise such as a cooker hood going full blast. Sometimes it heard me even when I thought it didn’t, because the screen on top is difficult to see from distance, prompting Siri to follow up with an “uh huh?” when I remained silent. I often found that Siri was too loud, though, booming out of the HomePod when quietly listening to music. Its volume is linked to that of the music, but at 20% volume or less Siri was too loud and there was no way to make it quieter.
Siri’s natural language interpretation still lags behind the competition too, particularly Google’s Assistant. Generally Siri is right about 70% of the time, with some amusing accidents when requesting music, such as asking for AM by Arctic Monkeys and getting AM to PM by Christina Milian or, more bafflingly, getting Eye of the Tiger when asking for “Fauna – Original Mix”.
I asked for “Glaciers by Blue Sky Black Death” and got Glass by Incubus, while it took three goes to get Siri to play Euphoric Tape II by the same band, forcing me to listen to snippets of random songs in the process. Once it finally managed to play Euphoric Tape II, it then refused to play either Euphoric Tape I or Euphoric Tape III, always defaulting to the second of the group’s three albums.
Siri normally got there in the end after multiple attempts, but it was certainly frustrating. You can control the HomePod with the Music app on an iOS device, which I resorted to for all but generic requests for genre, playlists or artists, but confusingly there are two ways to send music to the HomePod in the same app.
The HomePod doesn’t support Bluetooth streaming and doesn’t have an analogue line-in, but does support Apple’s AirPlay. You can send audio from apps, including Spotify, that implement AirPlay but you lose any advanced audio control through Siri, limited to volume, pause and skip. Your iPhone or iPad needs to remain on and connected to the same wifi network too, as it is the conduit through which the audio flows.
With the Music app, however, you can also instruct the HomePod to go directly to iTunes or Apple Music to play tracks, which works more like Spotify Connect – your phone doesn’t have to be on all the time for it to continue playing. The trouble is the way you do that isn’t immediately obvious. You have to open the now playing dialogue, tap on the AirPlay button and then wait for the HomePod to show up as a separate bubble below the now playing bubble, which also lists the HomePod as an output but via AirPlay.
The biggest drawback of the HomePod is how locked down it is to Apple’s devices and services. You have to have an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad running iOS 11.2.5 to set it up. It will only play music natively from Apple Music, iTunes purchases or iTunes Match, meaning no radio other than Beats One, and it can only be controlled from an iOS 11.2.5 device. You can AirPlay audio to it from an Apple TV, a Mac or iTunes on a Windows PC, or from apps on an iOS device, including from Spotify or similar, but that’s no good to anyone with an Android device – an issue for any household that isn’t homogeneously Apple.
While Siri may not be the quite up to scratch compared to its rivals, and getting non-Apple Music to it is more difficult, one thing Apple has nailed is the HomePod’s sound. The HomePod sounds genuinely fantastic for anything from hip-hop and EDM to rock and classical. There’s no adjusting the music to your taste – it’s Apple’s way or the high way – but the sound is deep without being overburdened with muddy bass, light without being shrill and with great separation, meaning you can pick out individual voices, instruments or notes easily. Nothing gets lost, while everything remains rich, full of energy and ambience. It even sounds brilliantly full range at volumes as low as 5%, which is something most competitors fail to do.
Apple says its combination of seven tweeters and a woofer, all controlled by its A8 processor, continually adapt to the position of the speaker in the room and the music it is playing. The result is a surprisingly wide and enveloping soundscape from a mono speaker that puts the competition to shame. It sounds just as good against a wall as it does in the middle of the kitchen table. But it’s worth noting that because the sound is less direct, it carries further in directions you might not want it to, which might annoy the neighbours.
The Apple HomePod comes in two colours, white or space grey (black) for £319.
As a simple wireless speaker the HomePod sounds truly brilliant, knocking the socks off most of the competition, including systems costing more. But because it is locked down to Apple-only devices and services it might not be as easy to fit into your existing setup as competitors such as Sonos. Missing true Spotify support will be a deal killer for many, as will the inability to play radio stations and the lack of multi-user support.
As a smart speaker, the HomePod is let down by Siri, which simply isn’t up to the standards set by rivals, but the fundamentals are there. The microphones work, so Siri can hear you, and responses are fast, just limited, meaning it could be fixed. Whether Apple is able to catch up to the capability and quality of Alexa and Google Assistant, remains to be seen. It certainly hasn’t managed to on the iPhone for the last couple of years.
So as it is now, the HomePod is an Apple-lover’s dream speaker; if you treat it more as a voice-controlled wireless music blaster than a Amazon Echo or Google Home competitor then you’ll love it.
But if you want the ability to play Spotify natively, to control more than just the limited number of HomeKit devices, or to simply deliver that advanced voice assistant experience, the HomePod isn’t there yet.
Pros: brilliant sound, can hear you very well, full production at low volumes, choice of male or female voice
Cons: Siri not up to scratch, no Bluetooth or analogue audio in, no native Spotify or radio, no Android or Windows support