Alex McEvoy | Society Staff Writer | email@example.com
Sometimes it’s hard to determine while using the HomePod whether a feature is intentionally missing or is a victim of what seemed to be a hectic development schedule. That might be the key takeaway of the HomePod at the moment. Every feature is either absolutely perfect and impresses immediately or an embarrassing failure for Apple.
HomePod is Apple’s latest move in its continued strategic push into audio. If AirPods are Apple’s idealized vision of audio on the go, then HomePod is the same but for audio in the home. It’s just a shame that the AirPods will possibly stand up as one of Apple’s greatest products in recent memory and the HomePod will fall well-short of that.
I’ll start with the messaging that Apple has been providing. HomePod is about music first and foremost and Siri just happens to be the way to control it. This is counter to the narrative going on at Amazon or Google where the assistant is taking center stage in their line of smart speakers.
When it comes to music, HomePod excels. In fact, I’m fairly comfortable in stating that the HomePod will be the best speaker that most consumers have ever owned. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since it’s demanding a $350 price tag, but that $350 delivers an exceptional soundstage from a package that is only slightly taller than an iPhone.
The secret to HomePod’s sound quality is in the speaker’s brain, the Apple A8 chip. We last saw the A8 as the system on a chip for the iPhone 6 and now its powering the HomePod’s advanced sound processing.
That advanced sound processing is a best described as something akin to echolocation. Using an array of seven microphones, the device listens for its own sound waves and then analyzes how they return to determine where it is in comparison to walls and ceilings. Using this data, it intelligently separates different tracks of music. It sends vocals down the middle of the soundstage and then separates instruments into the left and right channels. Finally, it calculates how much bass to send up and out of the top of the speaker.
The results are impressive to say the least. It can’t hold a candle to a dedicated stereo system with speakers nearly five times its size, but, to a certain extent, that doesn’t really matter. I found myself preferring the HomePod because the friction between me wanting to play music and music actually playing was so much lower than turning my entire sound system on. That brings us to the biggest contention point with this speaker: Siri.
Siri is for the most part the only means of interacting with HomePod. There’s always AirPlay and the capacitive touch surface on the device, but you’re really supposed to be barking orders at this thing. For the most part, Siri is actually really impressive when we’re dealing with music. It understands me and reacts fast, although not as fast as it may be idealized in advertisements.
So far, Siri hasn’t failed me with the simple command of “Hey Siri, play me some music.” All of the music it’s chosen has been something I’ve enjoyed and has offered a tasteful balance between artists that I’m familiar with and ones I’ve never heard of. Let’s end the music curation discussion here because honestly it isn’t that informative to the larger HomePod discussion as much as Apple wants to claim it is. You can get the same Siri ‘musicologist’ on your iPhone, iPad and Apple TV. So if you’re curious if Siri can work as a music assistant for you, try it out now.
Let’s talk about where HomePod disappoints. There are two major pain points, in my view. We’re now two months out from release and quickly releasing one year since it was announced and AirPlay 2, a headline feature, is still missing.
AirPlay 2 is a marquee feature of HomePod that will allow stereo pairing of two HomePods and multi-room streaming across a home. Those are exciting features but the best aspect of AirPlay 2 is that it will allow Siri-controlled music listening across AirPlay 2 speakers in general. For example, Sonos will add AirPlay 2 support to their line of speakers and a user could say to their HomePod to play music across the house and HomePods and Sonos alike will play the same song.
That’s an amazingly exciting vision of home audio. No discrimination by manufacturer; instead users can mix and match speakers to their hearts’ desire. This is an important selling point for Apple’s ecosystem as a whole because their only offering of home audio sits at $350. Sonos on the other hand has speakers ranging from $150 – $500. This gives a lot for freedom to the consumer to outfit rooms with appropriately priced speakers and not lose connectivity.
But we’re still sitting here with no AirPlay 2 and Apple can still be criticized for offering a single expensive entry point into their ecosystem whereas Sonos can rightfully advertise their diverse collection of speakers. For example, Sonos ran a promotion for their new Sonos One speaker with Alexa support when the HomePod came out. Two Sonos Ones for $350. That’s two speakers working in stereo with each other in a single room and two rooms of pretty good audio for the same price as an objectively half-baked speaker.
The second major pain point is the assistant part of HomePod. This is Siri, yes, but it’s more productive to think about the back-end of the product instead of just criticizing Siri as a whole. We’ve seen that Siri can be very good in certain domains like music. But there are some domains that are absent for no discernible reason on HomePod or are implemented in such a disastrously strange way, so I’m not sure how it made it into the final product.
Apple is going to say that Siri is a home assistant in HomePod and that means it can control HomeKit devices very well. That’s true. HomeKit is a fantastic ecosystem that I strongly believe is leagues ahead of Amazon and Google’s offerings. But there is more to being a home assistant than turning the lights on and off.
Let’s consider the very reasonable situation of someone listening to music in the kitchen in the morning. Their phone is in their bedroom so they decide to ask Siri on Homepod what their calendar looks like. Siri responds that’s not possible on HomePod. This user then asks for their messages. That’s possible. The user then asks Siri to start a timer for their morning tea. Done. They then ask Siri to start a second timer to know when to wake up their kids. Siri responds that it’s not possible to have multiple timers.
The Siri domains on HomePod are just straight up strange. Missing huge domains such as Calendars while having Reminders. What’s even stranger? The HomePod is connected with the account of who set it up, though that’s not the strange part. HomePod does not discriminate based on voice. So if you have the setting turned on, any person can walk up and access your messages or reminders. They can then read or write whatever they want so long as you’re on the wifi network. This is baffling since now anybody with roommates has to turn that feature off. And they don’t have to turn it off because of security fears. Even if you completely trust your roommates, I recommend turning it off and here’s why.
Let’s say your roommate comes home and sets their iPhone down on the table. They’re grabbing a drink out of the fridge and say “Hey Siri, send a message to James that I’ll be over in thirty minutes.” They meant this for their phone, after all Hey Siri has been a key feature on iPhone for four years now. But your HomePod picked that up and is now telling your roommate it can’t do that. Meanwhile their phone is parroting off the message. Your poor roommate has two Siris yelling at them with confirmation prompts or error messages.
This all feels like HomePod is not intended for homes with more than one person. Its features are contradictory to other Apple features and it just feels half-baked. Why doesn’t HomePod have multi-user voice recognition similar to Google Home or to the iPhone that already has pretty passable Hey Siri recognition.
HomePod ultimately is a fantastic speaker and a truly pleasant experience for people who like to sit alone and listen to music without anybody else doing normal things around the home. It’s a delightful little product for those who are impatient and early-adopters of Apple’s usually flawed first-generation products. If you really don’t want a Sonos One for some reason, then wait for Apple to iron out the peculiarities of HomePod and ship AirPlay 2. If $349 seems steep for a home speaker and $199 seems much more reasonable and you can use a third-party app for Apple Music while you wait for AirPlay 2, then buy a Sonos One. Otherwise, Apple junkies, early adopters, experimenters, fools and others like me are welcome to enjoy the stellar sound quality of the HomePod limited to one room and one person.