Apple’s taken its time to get the Apple HomePod speaker to market, and now it wants to take your money. £319 of it, to be precise. Can Apple’s high-end smart speaker justify that kind of outlay when you can pick up Amazon Echo speakers for £75 today? Let’s find out what our trusted tech reviewers think in our Apple HomePod review of reviews.
Apple HomePod review: sound quality
Anyone who went to the Apple HomePod launch last year came back bubbling about the sound quality. Now reviewers have had time to put one in their homes, have their views changed?
What Hi-Fi say it’s the best sounding smart speaker they’ve tested, although it falls short of perfection. “The HomePod is great at honing in on and delivering the essence of everything you play through it, from Bach to Band of Horses, Bonobo to Bob Marley, The Notorious B.I.G. to Bullet for My Valentine,” the audio experts conclude. “It’s all well and good having a bass driver that can shift some serious air, but keeping it controlled at the same time is a tricky business. The HomePod manages it expertly.”
Expert Reviews’ Jon Bray says the really clever work is done inside the speaker, where an array of six microphones are waiting to not only hear your voice commands but detect its surroundings and adjust audio accordingly.
“Place it on an enclosing shelf and it will sound over-bassy at first, as the proximity of the shelves reinforces the low-frequency sound waves; after a few seconds, though, the HomePod will sense this and rebalance it,” Bray writes. “Move it back to a table in open space and the music sounds thin, but only for a short period while the scan takes place, after which the bass goes back to normal and it sounds brilliant once again.”
The HomePod’s not only analysing surrounding walls and furniture, it’s breaking down individual tracks to work out how best to deliver them through seven tweeters inside the dome.
“To figure out what to play on those direct and ambient soundbeams, the HomePod compares the left and right channels of the song and figures out what sounds are mixed more prominently and what sounds are mixed into the background,” writes The Verge’s Nilay Patel. “Prominent sounds are sent to the direct soundbeam, and background sounds are sent to the ambient soundbeams.”
Apple HomePod review: Siri voice controls
So Apple is doing smart things with the sound quality, but what about the supposedly smart assistant? Here things start to go south. “You can’t ask Siri to look up a recipe,” writes Patel. “You can’t ask Siri to make a phone call. (You have to start the phone call on your phone and transfer it to the HomePod to use it as a just-okay speakerphone.) Siri also can’t compete with the huge array of Alexa skills, or Google Assistant’s ability to answer a vast variety of questions.”
“Siri on HomePod is embarrassingly inadequate,” agrees Brian X Chen in the New York Times. “Siri is sorely lacking in capabilities compared with Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. Siri doesn’t even work as well on HomePod as it does on the iPhone.”
Worse, it doesn’t differentiate between voices, giving rise to some interesting security issues if you’ve set the HomePod to read out your phone messages. “If your HomePod is in the kitchen and you’re in the basement, anyone can just roll up on the HomePod and have it read your texts,” Patel adds. “If you have kids, they can just text anyone at will while you’re in the bathroom and you can’t stop it.”
Then there’s the infamous Apple lock-in: Siri doesn’t want to play nicely with many third-party services. “You can’t ask Siri to play any radio station other than Beats 1,” notes Bray, “and you can’t ask to play music from Spotify, Tidal, Deezer or any other music-streaming platform. It’s Apple Music or bust.”
As TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino concludes, the buying decision boils down to how much of an Apple acolyte you are. “There’s a reason my review is only four sentences: if you don’t like Apple Music, don’t buy a HomePod,” he concludes (on a review that’s a great deal longer than four sentences, incidentally).
“The HomePod sounds great but on the surface, it’s debatable whether it’s great enough to justify the limitations of its smart features when compared purely on those merits and not as a component of the Apple ecosystem. However, if you’re an Apple Music subscriber, the equation instantly plops in the other direction: it’s near useless to buy any other speaker and this one sounds great, so why not.”
Now read this: Amazon Echo Spot review of the reviews