By John Gruber
Atoms: We are mostly sold out... but there is more!
I’ve been testing Apple’s new HomePod for the last week or so, and this is the first product review I’ve written that could be accurately summarized in the length of a tweet, and an old-school 140-character tweet at that: HomePod does exactly what Apple says it does, doesn’t do anything more than what Apple says it does, and costs $349. There.
To wit, Apple says HomePod:
All of this is true.
Apple’s product names are sometimes inscrutable, but other times are perfectly sensible. AirPods and HomePod are such a case. The two products are very much siblings: they play audio wirelessly and are controlled via Siri and a few simple touch controls. What AirPods are for your own ears, HomePod is for your home. Even the setup process for each device is similar. In the same way that you begin the pairing process for AirPods by opening their case a few inches from your iPhone, you set up HomePod just by plugging it in and then bringing your iPhone (running iOS 11.2.5 or later) near the HomePod.
If you have a room in your home or workspace where you would like to listen to music from Apple and/or podcasts, and you care about audio quality, you should absolutely consider HomePod. If you’re looking for something else, you probably shouldn’t.
Siri-driven content from non-Apple sources. Spotify is the service most people seem to be talking about, but for now at least, nothing works through “Hey Siri” with HomePod other than content from Apple. HomePod works fine as an AirPlay speaker, but in loose terms, I would say playing audio via AirPlay is to native “Hey Siri, play …” support on HomePod as web apps are to native apps on iOS or Mac: better than nothing but clunky compared to the real deal. (I should add here: when playing content on HomePod via AirPlay, you can, as you’d expect, say things like “Hey Siri, pause” or “Hey Siri, set the volume to 65”.)
It is unclear at this point whether third-party “Hey Siri” playback support is the way Apple wants HomePod to be, simply something they haven’t gotten around to yet, or still up in the air internally (like native apps on iPhone back in 2007). I’d sure like to see some sort of native SDK (PodKit?) for HomePod. Some people seem convinced that HomePod doesn’t support external services through “Hey Siri” out of competitive spite toward Spotify. I would say that’s certainly possible, but I’m not convinced. Not supporting Spotify might sell some number of new $10/month Apple Music subscriptions, but supporting Spotify properly would sell some number of $349 HomePods that wouldn’t otherwise be purchased. Apple makes money from both hardware and services, and my gut says they’ll make the most money by making HomePod more useful, even if that means opening up an SDK that allows for competitors to Apple Music. (Plus, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that Apple Music is set to overtake Spotify in U.S. subscribers, it doesn’t seem like Apple Music needs any help.)
Any sort of hardware input, such as line-in audio. This means you can’t connect HomePod to anything to use it as a “normal” speaker. This seems to greatly bother some people, but it should surprise no one in the aftermath of Apple’s removal of headphone jacks from iPhones in 2016. HomePod is very much a “skating to where the puck is going to be” product, and Apple has believed for years that when it comes to personal audio, the puck is heading toward a wireless world.
Support for promised features like multi-room audio and pairing two HomePods in the same room to act as a stereo pair. These features both require AirPlay 2, which is obviously late, but “Coming later this year”. If either of these features is important to you, you might as well wait for them.
Support for multiple iCloud accounts and identifying users by their voice. As HomePod stands today, you set it up with one iCloud account, and if you enable the feature where you can create things like notes and reminders by Hey Siri-ing HomePod, that’s the account where those notes and reminders will show up. This is a bummer. Clearly, in an ideal world you should be able to set up multiple iCloud accounts with HomePod and match each account to the respective user’s voice. That’s a hard technical problem to solve, but so too is having a phone verify your identity by your face or fingerprint. And in the case of HomePod, I don’t think this would have to be as secure as Face ID or Touch ID are. In the scenario I’m imagining, you could say something like “Hey Siri, remind me to stop at the bank on my way to work tomorrow” and if Siri wasn’t confident about which household member you are, she could ask.
Another downside: Apple brags about Siri being smart enough to learn your musical tastes. But tied to a lone iCloud account, Siri is only learning the tastes of that user. If you’re worried about your teenager (or perhaps worse, young child) polluting your personal Apple Music profile with songs you don’t like (a very likely — if not near-certain — scenario for many families), you can turn this feature off. But then nobody in the house gets “smart music”. Apple, as usual, wouldn’t comment on future plans, but I can’t help but think they are hard at work on this. A family device ought to work well for everyone in the family.
And, notably: Google Home can identify users by voice and supports multiple accounts already, and Alexa can identify users by voice (albeit with lesser support for multiple accounts).
Audio quality is what Apple is hanging HomePod’s hat on, and to my ears, they’ve nailed it. In a side-by-side comparison in a fairly representative residential room during a product briefing with Apple last week, HomePod sounded better than a Google Home Max ($399) or an Alexa-powered Sonos One ($199), and so much better than a second-generation Amazon Echo ($89) that it proved only that HomePod and Echo are at opposite ends of the product category.
Apple claims two primary reasons for HomePod’s audio quality. First, an old-fashioned cause: high-quality hardware. Seven good tweeters arranged in a circle around the base, and one good woofer at the top. The second reason is decidedly, well, new-fashioned: dynamic features that adjust playback by analyzing both the music and the acoustics of the room.
During a small media tour of Apple’s audio lab in Cupertino last week, Kate Bergeron, a vice president of hardware engineering at Apple, told us that the HomePod project started “about six years ago” with the basic question: How much better could a small loudspeaker sound if an advanced A-series chip was put to use to dynamically analyze both the audio and the acoustics of the room?
I believe this origin story. First, “What if we turned ____ into a small advanced computer?” is arguably Apple’s mantra for entering new product categories. AirPods, for example, are tiny iOS-derived computers. So is Apple Watch. And when the iPhone debuted, the notion that Apple got OS X running on a device as small as a cell phone was literally unbelievable. Second, the acoustic performance of HomePod really does seem remarkable. I am not an audiophile, but it clearly sounds “worth $350” to my ears. At home we’ve mostly used it in our kitchen, an acoustically challenging room with mostly hard, echoey surfaces (countertops, cabinets, tile backsplashes, windows) and a high ceiling. Previously, we’ve used a first-generation Amazon Echo in there. HomePod sounds far richer than the Echo, no surprise. It should, for the price.
But what has impressed me most about HomePod’s performance in our kitchen is — somewhat amusingly given the name of the product it’s replacing — the lack of echo. I can say with certainty that HomePod’s hardware speakers are excellent for a $349 product. I can’t prove that its dynamic “adjust to the acoustics of the room” features are making a significant difference, but I believe it. The lack of echo exceeds my expectations. The sound also seems more three-dimensional than seemingly should be possible for one small speaker. (HomePod is both smaller and heavier than I expected.) It does not magically sound like true stereo speakers in multiple locations in the room, but music definitely sounds thicker than what my gut says should be coming out of one speaker.1 I sort of wish there were a diagnostic mode I could put HomePod in to disable the dynamic features and see what it sounds like without them for A/B comparison purposes.
Or perhaps better put: Where shouldn’t you use HomePod? The one glaring answer is in your home theater setup. HomePod is not intended to serve as the audio output for your home theater or TV. As mentioned above, there’s no line-in input. The only input is AirPlay. Apple TV does support AirPlay speakers, and HomePod does work that way. From the main Apple TV home screen, just hold down the Play button on the remote and you can choose from available AirPlay speakers. Choose your HomePod and yes, it’ll work. But that’s only useful if Apple TV is the only input source you use on your TV. I suspect there are very few people for whom that’s true. And even if you do use Apple TV exclusively, AirPlay 1 necessitates a second or two of latency. (More on that below.) HomePod is a standalone device, not a home theater component.
I can see why Apple did this. There’s a wonderful simplicity to HomePod. There is no wonderful simplicity in the world of home theater audio. But that means if you want HomePod in the same room with your TV (and want better audio than what you get out of your TV’s built-in speakers), you still need a separate speaker system for your TV. That seems inefficient.
Otherwise, HomePod seems like a great product for any room in which you might want to listen to music or podcasts from a loudspeaker.
HomePod’s understanding of voice commands is fast and accurate. The most interesting feature is that HomePod can hear your commands while loud music is playing even if you speak at a normal talking volume. This sounds (sorry) too good to be true, but in my testing it works uncannily well. I would go so far as to say that HomePod can understand commands spoken at normal volume while music is playing better than human ears do. It works so well that I’m not sure most people will even think to try it. Intuitively, one thinks one must speak over the music to be heard. And, with Amazon Echo, that’s true. But not so with HomePod. You can’t just whisper to it, and HomePod can’t read lips like HAL can, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that you do not have to yell. Some impressive engineering went into this.
I wrote about this before I even had a HomePod in my hands (or heard it again in person, after a brief hands-off demo at WWDC), but HomePod and Amazon’s Alexa products clearly were designed with very different priorities. HomePod’s highest priority is audio quality. Amazon’s Alexa products are designed to be affordable voice assistants. It’s telling that after the original Echo, the next product in Amazon’s lineup wasn’t a higher-end product with better sound quality, but instead the even smaller Echo Dot.
We have a few smart home products in our home: lights and window shades. Neither are set up for use through HomeKit yet, so I wasn’t able to test either of them with HomePod (again: yet). We do have them set up for control through Alexa, but no one in the house (me, my wife, or my son) is particularly enamored with using Alexa to interact with these things. Part of it is that at least through the products we own, the verbal interaction with Alexa is stilted. We have to say “Alexa, turn on «name of predefined scene»”. For example, “Alexa, turn on kitchen shades down” or “Alexa, turn on living room shades up”, where “kitchen shades down”, “kitchen shades up”, “living room shades up”, and “living room shades down” are all predefined scenes created in an iPhone app from Lutron, the maker of our shades and light controls. But we can’t just say “Alexa, open the kitchen shades” or whatever else one might say naturally. It’s very much like a verbal command line, linguistically stilted, and generally less convenient and certainly more error-prone than using the hardware remote controls for the shades and good old-fashioned wall switches for the lights.
I’ve seen a lot of commentary along the lines of “Well, of course Apple is promoting HomePod’s audio quality, because Siri sucks compared to Alexa and Google Home as a voice assistant.” I would argue that’s not true across the board, but it’s inarguably true that Alexa and Google Home are far better than Siri at certain things, and if those things are important to you, you probably aren’t even reading this review, because you know HomePod isn’t for you.
Another way to look at differing priorities is this. I think Amazon (certainly) and Google (probably) created their voice assistant hardware as a way to get their voice assistants into your home. Something along the lines of, “We have this great voice assistant technology, we should build a dedicated device for the home that uses it.” With Android, Google has millions of phones out there that can make use of their voice assistant technology. But with Amazon, without dedicated Alexa hardware, who would even be using Alexa?
With Apple, what came first was the product: a great-sounding loudspeaker with dynamically adjusted acoustics. The decision to use Siri as the primary interface came after the decision to make a loudspeaker. It’s the difference between “Let’s make a speaker to get Alexa into the home” and “Let’s use Siri because voice would be the best interface for a home speaker”.
So I don’t really think it’s a hard decision between HomePod and Echo. The harder decisions are choosing between HomePod, the Alexa-equipped Sonos One, and Google’s Home Max. Based on my side-by-side listening experience — admittedly, in a demo set up and conducted by Apple, but in a residential room that I would describe as very typical in terms of its size and acoustics — HomePod does sound better. But I think the decision should come down to ecosystems. If you’re personally invested in the Google or Amazon ecosystem, either for music content or smart home control, and you want “good” audio quality, you’d probably be happier with the Sonos One or Home Max, because the advantages of using the voice assistant native to the ecosystem in which you’re invested outweigh the HomePod’s superior audio quality. (Same thing goes if you’re a happy Spotify user — buy the best sounding device that natively supports Spotify.)
If, on the other hand, you’re heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem, and subscribe to either Apple Music or iTunes Match or have a large library of purchased music from iTunes, HomePod is a compelling standalone product today, and should be a compelling multi-room product when AirPlay 2 ships.
AirPlay 1. HomePod works fine as an AirPlay speaker. But I say “fine” rather than “great” because of the limitations of AirPlay 1, specifically latency. One of the main features Apple is touting about AirPlay 2 is reduced latency and lag, and that’s the worst part about using HomePod via AirPlay today. I’ve listened to a bunch of podcasts on HomePod this week, but after testing the native “Hey Siri, play the latest episode of «insert podcast name»” support just to see how it worked (pretty well), I mostly used Overcast to play podcasts via AirPlay from my phone.2 As I mentioned above, when using HomePod to play content via AirPlay, you can still say things like “Hey Siri, pause” and “Hey Siri, turn up the volume”. But, because of the limitations of AirPlay 1, there’s some noticeable lag. With native (that is to say, non-AirPlay) audio on HomePod, “Hey Siri, pause” pauses nearly instantly. With AirPlay, there’s a wee bit of extra lag — just enough to make you question whether HomePod heard your command properly and take a breath to repeat the command. AirPlay 2 will hopefully improve this — providing a better experience even for HomePod users with just one unit.
Don’t pause after “Hey Siri”. People seem to naturally think they need to pause between saying “Hey Siri” and issuing the command or query, but in my experience you don’t need to. In this review, I’ve been punctuating directives with a comma after “Hey Siri”, but verbally you can speak without any pause: “Hey Siri what’s the temperature?” This is true not just for HomePod but any other device you own with “Hey Siri” enabled.
“Hey Siri” doesn’t get confused. I don’t know what kind of wizardry Apple engineered to make this happen, but when you say “Hey Siri” to talk to your HomePod, other devices within earshot with “Hey Siri” enabled don’t try to take the command. The home screen on a countertop iPhone does often light up for a moment, but it seems as though HomePod quickly negotiates with the other devices, effectively telling them, “Let me handle this.” This has generally been true for all “Hey Siri” devices in the past year or so, but it’s quite noticeable with HomePod.
Volume. Maximum volume on HomePod is pretty damn loud given its size, but it still sounds good to my ears. When you ask HomePod to turn the volume to 85 or higher (out of 100), Siri will even warn you: “That’s very loud, are you sure?”
Hardware quality. My review unit is space gray, but I saw the white models last week too, and they all look and feel very nice. The power cord is perhaps the nicest power cord I’ve ever seen for any product. The cable is covered with a nice fabric, and it’s very supple. It coils nicely if you’re placing HomePod close to an outlet. There’s no ugly AC adapter or power supply where the plug goes into the wall — unlike the Echo’s, it’s just a normal power plug. My only complaint is that the glossy touchpad atop the HomePod is a fingerprint magnet. I wish it had a matte finish or an oleophobic coating.
Settings in Home app. It took me a few days to realize this, but there are settings for HomePod in the Home app on your iPhone — where by “you” I mean the person whose iCloud account was used to set up the device. In Home, if you just tap the icon for your HomePod device, it acts as a play/pause button. But if you press harder for 3D Touch, or long-press on the icon, it will open a screen where you can see (and manage) alarms that have been set (but not timers,3 oddly) and a button named “Details” that ought to be named “Settings”, because that’s what it shows when you press it. This is where you can do things like change which iCloud account to use, toggle Listening History (so that the music played by your family members isn’t used to build a model of what you personally enjoy), and more. Perhaps it’s simply because I’m unfamiliar with the Home app, but making these settings available only after a 3D touch or long-press makes them feel hidden.
Privacy. Here’s a message I got from a friend the other day:
I think anyone who voluntarily puts these things in their home is completely nuts. Alexa because Amazon will choose to do increasingly-horrible things until they get caught, Google and Apple because they will eventually be exploited into doing horrible things.
I don’t disagree with that, but my take is slightly different. I’d say you are not crazy if you don’t want one of these things in your house. But the future is coming, and it will be listening to us. (And watching us.) I trust Apple more than I trust Google or Amazon. But even so, I’ve had an Alexa in my kitchen for a year. My eyes are wide open to the privacy risks, but the convenience makes it worth it. My favorite thing about HomePod over Echo is that it sounds so much better, but another advantage is that I’m just more comfortable.
During a product briefing with Apple last week before I received my review unit, I did get to hear two paired HomePods playing in stereo in a very open living space. These HomePods were, obviously, running beta software with AirPlay 2. They sounded terrific — easily twice as good as a lone HomePod playing in the same room. I’m guessing that AirPlay 2 will ship sooner rather than later this year, but it must kill the HomePod team at Apple that this feature didn’t ship at launch, because it sounds crazy good for $700 worth of hardware. ↩︎
Because I listen to most podcasts from Overcast using headphones, I want to keep my subscriptions and synced playback status in Overcast’s system. I also like using Overcast’s playback speed controls to gently speed up podcasts. HomePod’s native podcast support is convenient, but works best if you use Apple’s Podcasts app for listening on your phone. ↩︎︎
One of the most common uses for these voice assistant devices is setting timers, particularly in the kitchen. It’s really convenient to set timers — and check on them — verbally. Alexa, however, lets you set multiple timers. HomePod doesn’t. If you try to set a second timer, HomePod tells you that you already have one (and updates you on how much time is left) and asks if you want to replace it. HomePod needs to support multiple timers, and ought to match Alexa by being smart enough to let you name them, so you can ask something like “Hey Siri, how much time is left on the potatoes?” ↩︎︎