The HomePod was announced in June 2017 in what many thought was a truly lackluster introduction. Apple’s usual promises of “this is going to be the greatest thing of all the things we’ve ever thing-ed” (not an exact quote, for sure) didn’t feel any different from their typical announcements; because Apple is often criticized as being behind the times compared to other hardware manufacturers, no one was expecting anything too great. Tim Cook claimed this new product would “re-invent home music,” and that it would be a really great speaker before it was great at anything else.
After the fall release of the HomePod was pushed back to 2018, I had hoped it was due to some huge breakthrough with Siri, who is far from the best voice assistant available. An Apple smart speaker, like any other Apple device, ought to be able to do basic things really, really well. And, it would make sense—since Google, Amazon and even Microsoft have already released (or partnered with other hardware manufacturers to release) their own smart speakers that have been generally accepted as being decent products.
I’m no stranger to Apple, and I’m not afraid to admit my own “fanboy” status for their products. And, I’ve said it before—whether or not Apple still maintains their status as a truly innovative company, it’s hard to argue that Apple’s products are anything but high-quality devices. We’re all still waiting for a big, awesome, innovative thing for Apple to do, even the fanboys, but in the meantime we get great products at a premium price tag. It’s what we signed up for.
So, naturally, when I received the email to preorder the HomePod in late January, I did it before I even got into the shower that morning. A couple weeks later, I was picking up and unboxing this exciting “new” product. The unboxing, by the way, was everything you’d expect from Apple—simple packaging, minimalist in nature, no frills and high quality materials (where else is all that markup going to go?). The HomePod was released in two colors: white and space grey; I opted for the white model to change things up a bit from my usual dark color scheme choices.
The speaker itself is small, misleadingly so, and covered by a cloth mesh material that almost feels squishy when you touch it; it feels almost brittle to me, like I don’t want to permanently dent the mesh (side note: I didn’t). In true Apple style, the speaker is entirely free of any physical buttons or ports, except for a single power cable that appears to be built in to the speaker; I found out later that with enough force the power cable is removable and therefore modular in case of any damage. The cable itself has a nice braided-cloth feel to it, which is a nice departure from the standard Apple rubbery cable.
Setting up the device was simple, and can also be for you as long as you have a device running iOS. So, iPhone, iPad, even an iPod Touch is required to get you set up; no other means of connecting, even with a Mac running the latest Mac OS. That puzzled me. But, because I have a plethora of iOS devices (note: fanboy), setting up took all of a minute to move all my settings to the speaker. And, that’s worth noting here—just like any other smart speaker I’ve used, a single user’s assistant settings need to be copied to the device. Alexa is nice because it’s slightly more family-oriented and is more of a “house helper” in many cases than she is a “personal assistant;” but with Siri on the HomePod, all of my Siri settings, my messages, my Apple Music, my reminders and notes—that’s what I can access with the HomePod…and, if I so choose, so can anyone else in my house. There is no distinction between voices, at least not yet; this means that my wife can ask to hear my latest messages, but can’t add groceries to her own shopping list in Notes.
“Ah, but who care’s about the setup? Tim Cook said it was going to be a great speaker…IS IT???”
Yes, it’s a really, really good speaker; for it’s size I’d argue it’s the best sounding speaker I’ve ever used. 7 tweeters each with their own amplifier, an upward-facing woofer, a 6-microphone array that listens to the environment and an A8 Fusion chip (you know, the one that powered the iPhone 6 and 6 plus) that processes all that data and adjusts the sound so that no matter where you are in the room you get the same listening experience—all these things work together in a very, very compact package that makes listening to [Apple] music extremely enjoyable. I would call it a bit bass-heavy, admittedly the woofer’s position and direction are a bit unique in the space and make for an unexpected listening experience, if you’re into that sort of thing. In general, it has a pretty level sound profile and does a great job preventing distortion at even 100% volume. As far as speakers are concerned, this one is top notch, and Apple kept its promise on that front.
Consider, though, what you are able to listen to on HomePod (natively); here’s a list:
- Apple Music
Yep, that’s it. No Spotify, no support for third party apps (at this time). Fortunately, I’m an avid Apple Music subscriber (note: fanboy), so that’s no big issue for me. And, if I really wanted to use Spotify or some other streaming service, I could by using AirPlay from my iPhone, iPad or Mac. But there’s no means of connecting any other devices outside of Apple’s ecosystem to this device (screw you, Android). There isn’t even an available aux port (shocker) to wire-in to the speaker and play off some other device, so, if you’re not an iPhone user, this is likely not the product for you.
And finally, there’s Siri. I think most iPhone users who actually utilize Siri have become numb to her shortcomings, and so for us the HomePod is exactly what we experience anywhere else. I liken it most to the Siri experience you get on Apple CarPlay, which is a sort of slimmed-down version of the already slim offering that is Siri. The onboard microphones of the HomePod means that she can hear you well, even with the volume all the way up, but her ability to hear you and her ability to actually be a good digital assistant seem to be mutually exclusive.
The price tag is, well, very much what is expected from Apple. $349 is not an insurmountable amount of money, and although it’s a bit on the high end for a speaker, it’s a really great-sounding speaker. But with no third-party app support, and no support whatsoever for Android users, Apple’s target audience seems very limited. It almost doesn’t make sense from a business perspective, at least in my opinion.
Then there’s the “what’s to come” category that complicates this even further. All of the major issues—third party app support, the inability to just use it as a bluetooth speaker, the down-the-road feature of linking multiple HomePods to create stereo surround sound or a multi-room entertainment system, and the questionable state of Siri’s abilities: these are all things that can change in the blink of an eye with a single software update. Sure, it will probably take multiple updates, but the point is, this is a device that can be improved easily without needing to buy a new one, which is another thing that strays from Apple’s typical approach to anything.
Many of the HomePod reviews I’ve seen and read drone on and on (and on) about how terrible Siri is, and while she’s better than she was a year ago, she’s got a long way to go before you can call her good. And most importantly, this isn’t a review about Siri, it’s a review about a smart speaker. All things being equal, it’s a great speaker, and it has every bit of the dysfunctional, unimpressive Siri built into it. A poorly performing Siri doesn’t make it a bad speaker, it doesn’t even make it a bad smart speaker. If you’re used to Siri, and you’re in the Apple ecosystem enough to make it worth it, this isn’t the worst speaker purchase you could make. It is the traditional first-gen Apple product, performing well at base functionality with its fair share of shortcomings and disappointments.
But it does sound really, really good.