HomePod review

Back in February 2018 Apple joined the rush of companies producing smart speakers that respond to voice commands with the HomePod, a Siri-powered speaker that boasts top audio quality as well as smart functionality. But was Apple too late and is the HomePod smart enough?

Apple made the unusual move of pre-announcing HomePod back in June 2017, promising that the speaker would be available by Christmas 2017 (and failing to deliver on it). But the HomePod is out now, having launched in the UK, US and Australia on 9 February 2018. It later arrived in France and Germany, and launches in Spain and Mexico on 26 October. (If you're interested in what features the next model might offer, take a look at our HomePod 2 rumour roundup.)

Pre-announcing the HomePod meant that there was a lot of talk about Apple's smart speaker in the run up to the launch, but rather than building anticipation as to which smart features the HomePod would offer, it became obvious early on that Apple's focus with the HomePod was primarily audio quality. When it launched, the HomePod was a speaker with the benefit of some Siri features built in, rather than a voice activated assistant that just happens to play music. 

The main challenges facing HomePod are people's expectations of what a smart speaker should be able to do (and whether Apple's smartspeaker is capable) and the fact that a lot of people already own an Amazon or Google smart speaker. When it launched HomePod Apple was banking on the fact that people want a good sounding speaker, and that they are happy to spend a lot of money to get one.

For Apple, it's a case of audio quality first and smarts second, but is that really what people want?

In our review of Apple's HomePod we'll assess sound quality and audio quality, also looking at the stereo options that became available with a software update in June 2018, and other new features that came to the device when iOS 12 launched in September 2018 including enhancements to what you can ask Siri on the HomePod.

Price

The HomePod costs £319 in the UK and $349 in the US. That's a lot more expensive than its already well established rivals, in part to reflect its superior audio quality. The Amazon Echo (more info) is priced at £89.99/$99.99 and the Echo Plus (more info) is £135.99/$149.99. While Google Home (more info) is £129/$129.

The HomePod has the advantage that its sound quality is considerably better than any of those (as you will see if you read on), but even with that benefit, it is unlikely to justify the extra $250 over the Echo for a lot of people. Not that the price is completely without parallel: its closest rival is actually the Google Home Max, which costs $50 more at $399/£399 and also prioritises sound quality - and finally launched in the UK back in August 2018 (you can buy it in the UK here).

On the other hand, most people willing to spend that much for sound quality probably already have a great sound system - and soon they will be able to hook it up to the upcoming Echo Input, which will let a music fan turn any speaker into Alexa powered smart speaker for a fraction of the cost of a HomePod - smart functionality for just $35. A more expensive option for premium stereo equipment is the upcoming Echo Link and Echo Link Amp which will upgrade an existing speaker for $200 or $300. These new products will launch in 2019.

For everyone else, the cost of getting a smart speaker doesn't even have to stretch to the price of an Amazon Echo. There's also a £49.99/$49.99 Echo Dot (more info) or a £49.99/$49.99 Google Home Mini (more info). We have compared the HomePod to the other smart speakers out there in our round up of Best Smart Speakers here.

Apple also has competition in the form of the Sonos One, which offers high-quality audio and voice control (via Amazon's Alexa, plus compatibility with Apple Music) for just £199/$199 and often at a discount at Amazon - read Tech Advisor's Sonos One review if you'd like to learn more.

HomePod Design

HomePod controls

It seems to us that when people see the HomePod for the first time their reaction is predictable: they either say that it's bigger, or smaller, than they imagined. Standing at 172mm tall, it's about the three quarters of the height of a bottle of Evian, and at 142mm wide it has a larger diameter than a CD. It's the kind of size that means it will fit nicely on a shelf.

The HomePod is almost entirely covered in a "seamless 3D mesh fabric" that is acoustically transparent (which means it won't impede a sound wave). At the top is a touch-sensitive display used to control the speaker (when you don't feel like taking to Siri). You'll also see a Siri waveform here when the personal assistant is hard at work.

For the most part we like the look, although we have to admit it looks a bit squat compared to Amazon and Google's more slender equivalents. Still, it's attractively simple, and has that comfortingly Apple-y sense of meticulous design.

The HomePod comes in two of Apple's favourite colours: white and Space Grey. That white isn't a stark white either, but a creamy sort of white that will fit nicely in a modern, or a magnolia, setting. (Find out how the HomePod design compares to the Samsung Galaxy Home).

HomePod Music

The HomePod is primarily a music player, and the first thing you need to decide when setting up a new HomePod is where you are going to get your music from. Apple’s keen that you fork out £9.99 a month for Apple Music subscription, but that’s not actually necessary. If a lot of your music collection is purchased from the iTunes Store then you will be able to play any of those tracks on your HomePod.

If you have lots of music in your iTunes library that you’ve purchased from other services, or ripped from CDs, another option is to pay £21.99 a year for iTunes Match. If you do this then Apple will either match the tracks you own with the same track in the iTunes Store and allow you to play that on your HomePod, or it will upload the track to the cloud for you to stream.

If you are a fan of services like Spotify or Amazon Music you can use AirPlay to stream directly from your iOS device to the HomePod, and while you will lose out on some of the Siri-enabled voice controls, the playback will sound just as good as anything else played via the HomePod, according to Apple. We have more information about using the HomePod without an Apple Music subscription here. Also, read about the difference between Apple Music and iTunes Match here.

We wondered whether Apple's claim would stand up to tests, assuming that some of the quality could be lost during the AirPlay steaming. We tested by playing a track we’d purchased from Apple’s iTunes Store directly on the HomePod, as well as streaming the same track from iTunes on our iPhone via AirPlay, and using AirPlay to playing the same track from Amazon Music. We’re happy to confirm that there was no noticeable difference in quality, although there can be some latency issues with AirPlay which might be noticeable if you are streaming audio from a YouTube video, for example. This may have been improved somewhat by AirPlay 2, which arrived with the iOS 11.4 update to the iPhone and the associated HomePod software on 29 May 2018, but we still feel that there is a little lag. We’ll discuss audio quality in more detail below.

When it comes to the origin of the music you play on the HomePod, the only real difference is the controls you have access to. If you are using AirPlay to stream a track from your iPhone via a service like Spotify, or from your iTunes library on that device, you can still ask Siri to turn the sound up or down and pause the track, and you can even ask Siri the name of the song. But if you are streaming a track to the HomePod from Apple Music, iTunes in the Cloud, or your iCloud Music Library, for example, you will be able to do more, for example, you could skip forward 20 seconds.

One area where we found HomePod didn’t act as hoped was Playlists. If you subscribe to Apple Music or iTunes Match your music and playlists should be available in the cloud - so, we assumed we would be able to ask Siri to play our playlists. It seems that this only works if you are subscribed to Apple Music. When we tried to access playlists, and add to playlists with only a iTunes Match subscription we were unable to do so. In fact, when we asked Siri to play a playlist, Siri’s response was that it “I couldn’t find [playlist name] in your music”, or “Um, I didn’t find a playlist with that name” and when we asked Siri to add a track to a playlist we had the response, “I’m sorry I can’t add that to your library, you don’t seem to be subscribed to Apple Music”. We had more success with playlists once we had subscribed to Apple Music. (We hope that this was just an error as in theory the speaker should be able to access your playlists from the cloud if you have an iTunes Match subscription).

If you are playing music from Apple's library, you'll be able to tell the HomePod not just to play specific songs or albums, but also to answer a whole host of queries, including when a song was recorded, who it's by, and even who the drummer on a track is. It seems that Siri can share lots of details about the artist and the track that is playing at the tiime. Unfortunatley it tends to forget what just played, so when we asked what the last track played was called, Siri was unable to tell us anything, saying: "I can’t remember the last song you listened to”. And yet, when we asked Siri to repeat the last track it was quite capable of doing so. Perhaps we are being pedantic, or maybe Siri just isn’t as clever as we hoped.

Initially when we got Apple Music up and running the HomePod experience still seemed to be missing something. The first few times we asked Siri to “Play some music” it played exactly the same track from our library, as if it was set on a particular playlist. Maybe it lacked information about our favourite tracks to be able to build up a profile of our music tastes. We hoped it would get a bit more intelligent after a few more days of use, in fact it has taken months of use for it to be a little bit less predictable when we ask it to play some music. This may have been due to a software update or it may just have learned more about our preferences.

There should be no shortage of music to play once you have Apple Music set up - but how easy is it to find music to listen to? It’s all very well being able to ask Siri to play one of 50 million tracks, but does that mean you need to know what you want to listen to? Luckily, you can discover music by asking a few questions.

We asked: “Hey Siri play more by this artist” and “Hey Siri play more like this". You could also try asking “Hey Siri play some classical piano music,” or “Hey Siri what music’s popular right now”. If you don’t like it, just ask Siri to “play the next track”. An update in iOS 12 brought the option to ask Siri to play a track for which you only know a lyric - we had some success with this, but it doesn't always work. Read more about how to play music on HomePod here.

Play iPhone Music on HomePod

What HomePod can do

It's good that you can play music from third-party services on your HomePod, but it’s not a seamless experience and that’s unlikely to change any time soon as Apple doesn’t appear to be ready to open HomePod up to third-party apps.

What we would like to see is an app ecosystem around the HomePod, as is the case with the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV. It is frankly unfathomable that Apple hasn’t allowed third-party developers to plug their apps into the HomePod (beyond requesting that developers with messaging, note taking and list making apps test their SiriKit integration to make sure that the voice-only experience is up to scratch). Even with that request, there’s not really much in the way of third party HomePod extensions.

For example, we’d like to be able to listen to radio stations on the HomePod. We are able to do this on the Amazon Alexa because it works with the TuneIn Radio app. But this is not possible with the HomePod unless you stream them from your iPhone via AirPlay. This may well change, the BBC's Worldwide VP Product Strategy Andrew Webb has said (via this Apple Communities post) that the BBC has the ambition to "integrate with HomePod and allow our audience access to BBC services, but as yet, we know of no plans to allow third party applications to operate via the HomePod/Siri ecosystem."

In terms of third-party apps that do work with HomePod, we’ve been able to send a WhatsApp message via the HomePod, but initially we weren't able to get it to read one to us. Later on, after more extensive use, this started to work, perhaps due to an update on WhatsApp's part.

In terms of Apple app support, you can use the HomePod to access your Messages, Reminders and Notes. Apple added Calendar support in the iOS 11.4 update and it also became possible to make phonecalls via the HomePod after the iOS 12 update. Unfortunately, even integration with those apps isn’t unflawed.

For example, while we can ask Siri to read and reply to Messages we don't hear an alert on the HomePod when one arrives, which seems like it should be part of the equation.

You can ask Siri on the HomePod to remind you to do something - although you have to give it a time to remind you if you want to get an actual alert. For example, we asked to be reminded to go to a doctors appointment at 11.10. Siri on the HomePod told us that this had been added to our Reminders. However, we didn’t get a reminder from the HomePod.

Siri can create a note, and add to the note. You could ask the HomePod: “Hey Siri, create a note To do list” and then ask “Hey Siri, add review HomePod to my to do list note”. The usefulness of this depends on how well Siri is able to transcribe what you said and how much patience you have when Siri keeps creating new notes rather than adding to the one you are trying to edit.

As we mentioned above, since iOS 12 it has been possible to make a phone call from the HomePod - perviously you could use it as a speakerphone - but you first had to start or accept the call on your iPhone before handing it over to the HomePod. Now you don't even need to pick up your iPhone, but you won’t hear the HomePod ‘ringing’ to let you know you have a call to answer, which seems like it would be logical. We’d love to be able to ask Siri “Who’s calling” and then choose whether to answer it hands-free on the HomePod.

You can ask Siri to play a podcast. We asked to play the UK Tech Weekly Podcast and it played the most recent episode. We asked what the name of the podcast was and were told the episode title. However, when we asked “Hey Siri play the previous Podcast”, it didn’t play the previous episode of the Tech Weekly Podcast, instead it played The News Quiz, which is quite a different thing. Equally good, of course.

You can ask Siri to set an alarm. You can also set a timer for 10 minutes, and having done so, ask Siri how much time is left. We were able to set alarms and timers easily. At least, unlike with reminders, Siri played the alarm on the HomePod. Another update in iOS 12 was the ability to set more than one timer, which could be useful if you are cooking in the kitchen, for example.

Siri can tell you about the Weather. You could ask “Hey Siri: Will I need an umbrella today?” for example and be prepared before leaving the house. We asked what the weather will be like on 1 March, which at the time was 10 days away, and we were impressed that Siri was able to give us a forecast. We were less impressed when we asked: “Hey Siri will it stop raining later” and the response was “Yes, there will be rain later”.

You can also ask Maps related questions, such as “How long will it take me to get to work” (which will give you an estimation based on the time it would take to drive to the location you have set as your work address.) It isn’t able to give you public transport directions though, such as when is the next bus to Ipswich. Nor can it give you details about your route, so “How can I get to work” won’t get you any helpful answers.

Siri will also help you out with information about local restaurants. Ask: “Is there a Indian restaurant nearby?” for example. Or “Where’s the closest Fish and Chip shop”. It will tell you the road it’s on and the number of stars it’s been given. We found the address details slightly confusing as it would give us the local town, rather than the village or suburb it was located in. You can also ask for the details of the closest restaurant to work, and “What’s a good restaurant in Felixstowe” (worryingly the answer here was McDonalds, suggesting that the local reviews and ratings should be taken with a pinch of salt).

If you are interested in sports then you can ask for the scores of the latest game. We asked: “Who’s winning the Winter Olympics”.

We asked Siri on the HomePod if Black Panther was playing nearby and got the times it is playing at two local cinemas. Randomly we also got details of the times it is playing at a cinema in Coventry, 121 miles away.

Speaking to Siri

Our biggest problem was remembering to say Hey Siri. It’s like the opposite of playing Simon Says with the HomePod ignoring you when you don’t use the magic words.

There’s also a knack to phrasing your question to Siri if you want to get a useful response. Despite Apple’s attempts to get Siri to understand natural language, it certainly seems like Siri is listening out for certain key words and phrases and it will choose to misunderstand you if you don’t use them in the way you should.

One thing we noticed when Apple was demoing HomePod to us was the way that they were careful to pause after saying Hey Siri, at which point the sound would lower and you could be sure that Siri was listening before giving your instruction. It’s good practice, but it isn’t really necessary - Siri can hear you from the other side of the room despite how loud music is playing. But your experience will be a lot better if you give Siri a bit of help when it comes to interpreting what you are asking it to do. In other words, stick to the script. 

Even when we followed the rules, we were frequently frustrated by Siri’s inability to understand what we said. Often it wasn’t even an obvious case of mishearing us, sometimes the results seemed so far removed from what we’d asked for that we were curious about how Siri was interpreting our requests. Read our list of questions you can ask Siri on the HomePod here

It isn't just Siri, though. Talk to any Amazon Echo or Google Home owner and you'll hear the same tales of frustration. Put simply, no current voice assistant is truly intelligent. They merely have the appearance of intelligence. Read our comparison of the Google, Amazon and Apple speakers to see just how good or bad the intelligent assistants in smart speakers are. (Spoiler: none of them are actually that good!)

There are also issues with how Siri speaks to you: we found that Siri’s pronunciation wasn’t exactly spot on much of the time. Given that you can ask Siri for local information about restaurants, and details about bands, we’d hope that it’s pronunciation of names would be a little more accurate. We asked Siri to play "Somewhere over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole just to see how it coped with the name. Perhaps if there was a Native Hawaiian Siri it might have made a better attempt at the pronunciation.

You can ask “Hey Siri, tell me about the singer”, and it will give you the first paragraph from Wikipedia. You can get Siri to continue to read the Wikipedia entry. For all Apple’s attempts to make Siri sound more natural, the voice still sounds very robotic. This is disappointing when compared to Alexa and other alternatives, which sound much better.

Perhaps the best example of Siri's inadequacies came when we we asked "Hey Siri switch off" and got the response "I'd like 'tuh, but I cannot, my apologies".

Sometimes it feels like Siri is still in beta.

HomePod and HomeKit

As for HomeKit devices, the HomePod works with the Home app to control any smart devices in the home, such as turning off lights, or closing blinds. As long as the smart device works with HomeKit you should be able to control it by speaking to Siri on your HomePod.

We have a Elgato Eve Degree gadget for monitoring temperature and humidity, and it worked as expected. Once it was set up in the iOS Home app we were able to ask Siri on the HomePod to tell us what the temperature was in the room where it was located.

Since the HomePod is also a Home Hub, its ability to communicate with the Evo device is not dependent on the iPhone being on the network. It can talk directly to HomeKit devices and allow you to control them remotely when you're out and about.

The disappointment when it comes to HomeKit is that many smart home devices don't support the standard. If your heating is controlled by a Nest thermostat, for example, you are out of luck because that doesn’t work with HomeKit. If you have a house with lots of HomeKit gadgets, the HomePod will slot into your set up nicely. But when it comes to controlling those gadgets you don’t need the HomePod to do so, you could just as easily ask Siri on your iPhone or Apple Watch.

This is an important point. HomePod is a speaker with Siri built in. It’s Siri that controls your heating, answers questions, adds to notes, and reads Messages. It’s not the HomePod. These are all things you can do without having a HomePod in your house. Just ask Siri on your iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch.

Find HomePod on iPhone

HomePod sound quality

First and foremost the HomePod is a speaker. Everything else it does is a bonus. Apple’s focus on designing the unit was squarely on audio rather than creating an embodiment of Siri that would run your life from your kitchen (though it can also do that). Some people may be disappointed that Siri’s artificial intelligence hasn’t reached genius level yet, but we don’t that anyone will be disappointed by the sound produced by the HomePod.

Apple told us that HomePod was designed to play music the way the artist intended you to hear it.

Inside the HomePod is a high-excursion woofer with a custom amplifier. In plain English, it means that despite being a relatively small speaker, it can move a lot of air. In turn, this means it can produce a lot more bass and volume than you'd expect.

To do this, there’s a motor driving the diaphragm so it moves 20mm peak to peak - which quite a feat in a speaker this size. There’s also an array of seven beamforming tweeters, each one with its own amplifier. The design allows for “precision acoustics with tremendous directional control,” according to Apple. That means that the HomePod can deliver high-frequency sound in all directions and create depth.

But it's the software running on the A8 chip located inside the HomePod that makes it possible for the HomePod to deliver the highest-fidelity audio. The A8 is the same processor that powers the iPhone 6 and iPad mini 4. Apple explains how “Advanced algorithms powered by the A8 chip analyse the music, dynamically and continuously tuning the low frequencies and automatically adapting the acoustics for the best sound experience.”

Apple doesn’t just adjust the bass and treble according to the track the HomePod is playing though, changes are also made according to where the speaker is located. HomePod's spatial awareness technology sees it scan the space it is in and optimise its audio output to take into account the size, shape, and any obstacles. This will even work if you have more than one HomePod in the same room, and they'll work together to each output the ideal audio for the room (this feature will come as part of a future software update).

As a result HomePod should sound just as good hidden on a shelf as it would placed on a table in the middle of a room. And if you move the HomePod the built in accelerometer will tell it so, and it will automatically calibrate again.

We listened to the Live version of Hotel California by the Eagles and it really did feel like we had the band in the room with us, and the detail was astonishing. The HomePod sounds awesome with just about any genre of music, from jazz to classical to hip-hop and pop. 

Part of what the audio processing does is to separate out the instruments and vocals so you can hear each one individually - if you listen carefully. It also leads to a much cleaner, less muddy sound compared to other smart speakers. Obviously, it's in another league from anything in Amazon's range but as we mentioned earlier, but you can hook up a £49/$49 Echo Dot to a high-end HiFi if you like.

An iOS 11.4 update at the end of May 2018 bought new audio features to the HomePod. Apple's speaker is now be capable of multi-room support and stereo separation, features that weren't available at launch, despite being offered by the competition. The software update also introduced AirPlay 2. We took a look at how this new feature works here: How to set up two HomePods as a stereo pair. It's also possible to set up two speakers in different rooms for multiroom stereo.

HomePod stereo

To size up the competition you might like to read our best multi-room speakers article and our comparison with the other smart speakers on the market here: Apple HomePod vs Google Home vs Amazon Echo.

Whether you are an audiophile or just a music fan, you’d struggle to find a better sounding speaker at this price. Let alone one that also offers smart speaker features. We have some useful HomePod tips here.

OUR VERDICT

If you are looking for a excellent speaker to play your iTunes music, or you have an Apple Music subscription, the HomePod is a good option. With the bonus that it integrates with Siri so that you can control playback, ask questions of the voice assistant, and perform some actions. If you are hoping that Apple’s smart speaker would be smart enough to call you a cab, order pizza, let you know train times, and buy the milk, you’ll be disappointed. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the other smart speakers on the market didn’t do those things, although it has to be said, none of the smart assistants are all that smart.

If Apple opens the HomePod platform up to third parties so that they can make their apps work with the unit (beyond the current restriction to messaging, notes and reminders) and if more home automation products start to work with HomeKit, there may be hope for the HomePod, but until it does the market is going to be limited to the same people who might have bought a iPod HiFi back when Apple sold that stereo. And given that the iPod HiFi managed a year-and-a-half on sale before being discontinued we hope that the HomePod isn’t destined for the same fate.

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