With better quality options now appearing from elsewhere with the £199 Sonos One and £399 Google Home Max and many speakers from traditional speaker companies like Bose coming with Alexa or Google Assistant built-in does Apple have what it takes to challenge an already crowded market with the HomePod?
A stylish and simple design
- 172 x 143mm, barrel shaped, 2.5kg
- Mesh covered for 360-degree sound
- Flattened top with touch controls and Siri waveform
The cylindrical speaker covered in a mesh fabric – which Apple created specifically for the HomePod – promises to put music at the forefront of the experience. The 7-inch tall speaker comes in either white or space grey (pictured) and features an array of speakers within its shell to create a well-rounded balance of treble and bass regardless of where you place it in the room.
A single detachable power cable (although we wouldn’t recommend you try and detach it) comes out just above the base, while a touch-sensitive display panel on the top shows volume controls when needed, as well as a glowing rainbow of lights when Siri is responding to your commands or questions – called the “Siri waveform”.
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Sadly, those Siri lights aren’t always clear enough to be seen from various positions around the room. Amazon solved this problem with a clean light ring around the top of the Echo and Echo Plus, while Google angled the top of Google Home. Apple’s approach? You can have an audible beep, very much like Alexa, to ensure you know that you are expected to give a command, but in the time we’ve been using it, Siri’s voice response is so good not being able to see when it’s listening probably isn’t as important as other smart speakers.
There are resemblances to the company’s cylindrical Mac Pro computer, although it’s not as big or as shiny. Like Google Home and the Amazon Echo, this is a speaker that is designed to sit in any environment, be it the bedroom or the kitchen, and it’s a design that works from all angles when it comes to the sound performance – but more on that in a bit.
HomePod is a self-tuning speaker
- Sound adapts based on speaker placement
- 6 microphones
Turn the speaker on and it will automatically tune itself to maximise the performance based on its position in the room.
Unlike Sonos that requires you to wave your phone around to create a better “sound landscape” using its TruePlay technology, Apple says that the speaker sends out an array of sounds and then uses the six built-in microphones to hear how those sounds reverberate around the room.
When freestanding in a room, HomePod beams consistent 360-degree audio throughout the room. When against a wall or on a bookshelf, the included Apple A8 chip (the same chip that powers the iPhone 6) analyses the music and appropriately beams direct energy and centre vocals into the middle of the room, while reflecting the ambient reverb and backup vocals against the wall for dispersion into the room.
It means that you should have the “perfect sounding” speaker whatever room you’re using it in, and it won’t matter if you place it on a table in the centre of the room or in a corner. The sound will be adapted to make sure you get the best results out of it.
During our testing we’ve listened to it in a number of different rooms around the house and it sounds great wherever we’ve put it. Up against the wall, in a corner, in the middle of the room all produce the same performance. Likewise, rooms with plenty of carpet and fabric faired equally well as rooms with lots of hard surfaces, and even a patio in the garden. Fascinatingly the speaker features an accelerometer that when sensing it’s been picked up will go through the same re-tuning process all over again.
The only time the sound performance did change was when it was placed it on coaster to try to stop the white marks we mentioned above. That then caused a drop in the quality, presumably because it doesn’t resonate as effectively.
Adding a second HomePod to create a stereo pair is equally as easy. Plug it in, find the pair via the Home app and Apple does the rest. The stereo pair works a charm and isn’t just about making things “louder”. We tested it on a number of songs that play with a left and right channel and it immerses and engulfs you in sound. It’s glorious.
How do you set-up Apple HomePod?
Like Apple’s other recent products all you have to do to set-up the HomePod is turn it on and put your iPhone near it. A setup screen will appear, you say yes to a couple of questions and then moments later you’re good to go having added the HomePod to your Wi-Fi, added all your HomeKit accessories, and logged you into Apple Music. It couldn’t be easier.
The bottom line is it takes less than 2 minutes, which is a great start.
Apple Music at the heart of the experience
- Only supports Apple Music
- Radio is available but limited, and doesn’t include the BBC yet
- Only supports AirPlay 2
As it stands, the HomePod can directly connect with Apple Music or play tracks you’ve “iTune Matched”.
While iTunes Match is an option (£21.99 in the UK), as is AirPlay 2, without an Apple Music subscription the HomePod is very limited when it comes to playing music.
There is no Bluetooth support.
You can access a number of radio stations through iTunes, like Capital FM or Apple’s own Beats 1 and later this year with the introduction of iOS 13 Apple is adding TuneIn radio support.
At the moment saying “Hey Siri, play me Radio 1” just isn’t possible, but will become available in the autumn.
Yes, you can AirPlay the radio or Spotify from your iPhone or iPad, but that defeats the point, especially for a smart speaker that you just want to talk to.
If you are an Apple Music subscriber, then all is good in the world of Apple and the HomePod. You can gleefully call on any one of the service’s 40m+ tracks to play instantly, or have Siri create a band radio station just for you.
Then there are the numerous editorially-driven playlists, genre-based stations, mood-based stations or activity-based offerings. You can go further still, with commands like “Hey Siri, play some upbeat R&B” or “Hey Siri, play this year’s Grammy Nominees”, although these sorts of things aren’t unique to Apple Music. In the 6+ months we’ve been using the HomePod we’ve found ourselves simply saying “Hey Siri, play some music” and sure enough a collection of varied tunes comes streaming back. If, as is sometimes the case were not in the mood for what Siri has suggested, you can simply say “Hey Siri, play something else” and the tempo and style quickly changes.
Apple Music has most tracks you’ll want to play, unless your music tastes are incredibly niche, and for the most part the playlists and radio stations are very good. In the worst case you can always say “Hey Siri, skip” or if you want to improve things, actively tell Siri that you like what you’re listening to – “Hey Siri, I like this track” and the service learns as you listen. Thankfully you can turn off “Use Listening History” if you suspect that your kids will destroy your refined music taste with Disney or The Greatest Showman”, but then you do lose that personalisation feature for yourself – again something that is being addressed in iOS 13.
Controlling the music without your voice at first will seem somewhat clumsy though. The problem seems to come about because Siri on your iPhone is also keen to play you music rather than just being a remote control for your HomePod. In fusing control of two devices, some of the clarity seems to have got lost.
To use your iPhone as a remote for the HomePod – or even to see what is playing – you need to go deep within the Apple Music app, not select the button that seems the most obvious choice, but select another almost hidden button (you can also access it via the Control Center via yet another hidden button). It’s from here you can then control the music on your HomePod from your iPhone or iPad. The experience has been made easier thanks to the introduction of AirPlay 2 meaning you can stream music to your HomePod and still watch YouTube videos at the same time without that blurting over the house.
AirPlay 2 has also introduced multiroom and this is incredibly easy. In the app it’s a case of simply ticking the box to add or remove more rooms. You can also do this via a voice command as well.
Hearing you from all corners of the room
One of the key things the Apple HomePod has going for it, is that it can hear you pretty much regardless of where you are in the room, or at any volume. Say “Hey, Siri” and the speaker jumps into life. We’ve yet to have it where the speaker hasn’t flashed ready to hear our command, even when we’ve said “Hey, Siri” under our breath. That’s something that can’t be said for the Sonos One or Echo.
It might not get the answer right, or give you the answer you want, but those six microphones inside certainly do a great job listening out for what you’ve got to say.
Apple HomePod sound performance
- 4-inch up-firing central woofer
- 7 tweeters
- Adaptive software to reduce distortion
We’ve tested the HomePod alongside rivals from the Echo and Google Home family, as well as Sonos speakers and we’d say that the HomePod beats all of them in terms of sound performance, making this the best sounding speaker of its type.
It’s coped admirably with every track we’ve thrown at it from Daft Punk to Cyndi Lauper, Hans Zimmer to Drake. Heck, it’s even made the 1987 Bruce Willis album The Return of Bruno sound great. No easy feat.
Where the HomePod excels is in not only capably delivering a thumping bass line when needed, but also producing quality mid-tones and treble too. Artists like Gregory Porter and Norah Jones sound sublime, while pop tracks from Ed Sheeran or Demi Lovato arrive in a way that is a far cry from the Beats sound experience. Because of the design there’s no “sweet spot”: the music simply engulfs you wherever you are standing or sitting in the room. It’s very clever, and very apparent, especially on acoustic live tracks.
While it’s clear that the HomePod enjoys being played loud, remaining distortion-free as you turn it up, it still does a good job at low levels without losing the definition of what it’s playing. Add a second and the stereo pair is equally more than the sum of its parts. It might have set you back £700, but it certainly sounds like it should be more.
It’s not just the smaller smart speakers that the HomePod beats in terms of performance, but more expensive ones too. It’s certainly comparable to the non-smart Sonos Play:5, a £500 speaker. Put simply, you’re unlikely to be disappointed with the sound of the HomePod and this is a key strength.
HomePod as a smart speaker beyond music
- Siri able to handle contextual searches
- Full HomeKit integration
- Messages, calls and reminders
Beyond being a great speaker, Apple has used an A8 processor to manage a lot of the heavy lifting and power Siri. It means that, like the Echo and Google Home, the HomePod offers a personal assistant: Siri. Like other Apple devices, you can ask Siri questions, issue smart home commands and so on.
Beyond basic music controls, Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like “Hey Siri, what song is this?” to “Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?”
But the smart speaker bar has been set high and the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant are slowly taking over all forms of connected devices and integrating with lots of services, so the offering beyond the music is a lot more important than it might once have been.
It also means Apple can push updates to the speaker. To update your HomePod to iOS 12 and benefit from the new multi-room and stereo pair features that come with Airplay 2, as well as making and receiving calls, multiple timers and finding out song lyrics, you have to go into the Home app on your iPhone or iPad. To check you’ve got the latest update once your iPhone or iPad has been updated, go to the Home app, then tap on the Location arrow in the upper right-hand corner. From there, select Software Update if you’re keen to make sure you’re on the latest version.
HomePod and HomeKit
When you aren’t asking about music you can control all the HomeKit-enabled devices in your home, turning on lights, creating scenes, and HomePod instantly has access to all your existing HomeKit-enabled devices, routines and scenes.
Within 3 minutes we had Siri controlling our Philips Hue lights and turning off an Elgato Eve Smart Plug. Like Apple TV, the HomePod can act as a home hub, providing remote access and home automation through the Home app on iPhone or iPad, meaning you can then control your devices from out of the house.
HomePod’s HomeKit skills mirror the experience on an iPhone or iPad, but at times feels light years behind Amazon and Google’s offering. While Amazon is busy adding Skills on a daily basis and getting others to do the same (there are 30,000 and counting), Apple offers virtually no third-party support aside from messaging apps.
Surprisingly, there is no support currently within HomeKit to get the HomePod to play a sound or music on a given instruction. There are plenty of reasons Apple should add this, for example, letting HomePod play a sound when a HomeKit enabled alarm goes off, or someone pressing a HomeKit enabled doorbell to play a sound, or even a HomeKit-enabled Scene that plays a tune as you walk in through the front door just like in Back To The Future 2. There’s no support for this on Echo either – one for the developer wish list.
HomePod has at least fixed one problem from launch – multiple timers. As of iOS 12 that’s now supported.
You can see a full breakdown of how the three systems compare in our comprehensive Apple HomePod vs Google Home vs Amazon Echo: What’s the difference? feature.
Making calls, sends texts, and creating reminders
The HomePod is tied to a single Apple iCloud account and that allows you to send text messages, add or create Reminders, Lists, or Notes and hand off a call that you’ve started on your iPhone to the speaker. You can’t have multiple users.
On the messaging front, Apple offers support for iMessage, SMS messaging, as well as third-party apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Skype, Linked In, and textPlus. On the Reminders/Lists front the HomePod supports Evernote, Things 3, Remember The Milk, Picniic, Streaks, and OmniFocus 2.
The integration is seamless on the messaging front. Although initially you couldn’t make phone calls via HomePod, with iOS 12 you now can. The experience is simple and easy, although we’ve found the sound will only come through one speaker even if you are using a stereo pair. Because of the excellent mic, sound quality at the other end works perfectly, although you’ll have to emotionally get used to talking to something across the room. Only you’ll know if that’s something you can do.
If giving anyone with a voice the ability to send messages or add things to your reminders lists sounds a little too dangerous in your home or office, you can turn the feature off. The settings are buried within the Home app.
Hey Siri, you might actually be the problem here
Let’s cut to the chase: we said that the bar had been set high for smart speakers by the likes of Amazon and Google. Apple had time to perfect Siri and the HomePod experience, but sadly, that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Siri, while sounding okay on the iPhone, doesn’t sound like a native English speaker on HomePod. Compared to Alexa, Siri sounds horrid. Words are hacked together, things aren’t pronounced correctly, and everything sounds abrupt. There’s no fluidity or conversational flair. It’s a talking computer without personality.
It’s not that Siri can’t turn off the lights, play a song or answer a simple question, it’s just there doesn’t seem to be the same magic, the same show-off moments. Ask Alexa to sing you happy birthday and it’ll jump right to it, bringing a smile to your face, ask Siri and you get the excuse that it’s just a speaker. Oh, maybe it isjust a speaker?
It’s this lack of intelligence that makes everything feel a little disjointed if you look at the HomePod as anything more than a streaming music speaker. It’s as if HomePod exists as a singular entity within the Apple eco-system rather than the conduit for all Apple’s devices. It feels like it has to be owned by your iPhone, in the same way you would a pair of AirPods, rather than being the heart of your home and music you’ve been waiting for. And that’s a little disappointing. That’s very different from the experience Amazon or Google are selling.
We suspect that much of what we don’t like will be fixed and refined over the coming months if not years. Some 18 months in and we’ve seen some updates; phone calls, multiple timers, lyric support, but no huge leaps in Siri’s performance.
iOS 13 and HomePod
The HomePod is due to get better with new features being added when Apple rolls out iOS 13.
One of the big features that will enhance the experience is support for multiple users. The HomePod will be able to do detect different voices and therefore access that users playlists, reminders, and calendar appointments.
iOS 13 for HomePod also brings in handoff allowing you to quickly “handoff” music playing on your iPhone to the speaker simply by taping their phone near the top of the HomePod. Doing so will see the audio passed from the phone to the HomePod so users can carry on listening on the speaker. Likewise users will be able to transfer the music from the HomePod, including phone calls, to the iPhone when they head out.
There will also be greater integration with Shortcuts, although Apple has still to detail what shortcuts and functionality will work. It is hoped/expected that you’ll be able to instigate a music playlist on a given command.
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