Apple HomePod full review
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The HomePod is Apple's smart speaker that's controlled using Siri and is designed primarily for high-quality music playback. It launched back in February 2018 with the promise of mutiroom and stereo playback in a future iOS update. That has now arrived and we've updated this review with our thoughts on AirPlay 2 below.
The HomePod isn't merely an AirPlay speaker, though. With Siri built in, you can use it for many other tasks - just as you can with Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant. From checking the weather and sports scores to setting reminders, alarms and timers, Siri is a pretty capable assistant. It can also control all your HomeKit devices, such as lights, heating and switches.
As you'd expect, the HomePod is very much an Apple product. It's designed to work within the Apple ecosystem and it does this exceptionally well. And if you're already well established in this world, the HomePod is a great addition.
iOS 12 update
On 17 September, HomePods everywhere will receive an update to iOS 12. And as with iPhones, the HomePod gets new features too. Here are the main ones:
- Phone calls: you can now ask Siri to make a call, and incoming calls will be redirected to your HomePod when you enable Personal Requests
- Multiple named timers: Siri can now handle several timers, which you can name. "Hey Siri, set a 12 minute pasta timer."
- Lyric search: Ask for a song by saying, "Hey Siri, play the song that goes Chillin' on a dirt road"
- Find my iPhone: Just say "Hey Siri, where's my iPhone?" (Also works with iPad and MacBook.)
- Siri Shortcuts: You can now ask your HomePod to run Siri Shortcuts, which you can set up on your iPhone with iOS 12.
- Nutritional facts: Siri knows about calories and fat so you can ask, "Hey Siri, how many calories in a pint of beer?"
The HomePod used to cost £319/US$349 but in April 2019 was reduced to £279/$299. It's available from Apple and comes in white or space grey.
Even at the lower price it might sound expensive, but you have to bear in mind that the HomePod offers better sound quality than the £199/US$199 Sonos One, £249.99/US$249 Harman Kardon Allure and considerably better sound than the £89.99/US$99.99 Amazon Echo 2.
Good audio costs money, and you could easily spend more than this, such as on the £499 B&W Zeppelin, which is another step up from the HomePod but lacks any smarts.
Check out our list of the best smart speakers for more alternatives.
HomePod features & design
Whether in grey or white, the HomePod is a beautifully designed speaker. It's larger in all dimensions than the Echo 2, a little smaller than the Harman Kardon Allure and roughly the same as the Sonos One.
If you heard it before you saw it, you'd be surprised at just how compact it is. We love the seamless fabric which surrounds the HomePod, feels spongy to the touch and looks as if it's been 3D printed.
On top is a glossy plastic disc which lights up when Siri talks and hides touch sensitive volume controls. Tap the centre to play/pause, double tap to skip to the next track and triple tap to skip back to the previous one. Tap and hold to invoke Siri. It's all completely intuitive, especially if you're already used to controlling music playback with a button on your headphone cord.
The captive power cable is slightly unusual, but aside from the worry it can't be easily fixed if it gets damaged, it's not a deal breaker. It's not hugely long but should be long enough to reach a nearby power socket.
Setup is remarkably quick and easy. As with recent iPads, you just hold your iPhone near the HomePod and it appears on the screen. A few taps later and it's ready to go: Wi-Fi passwords, Apple ID and preferences are all sent wirelessly from your phone.
Which music services does HomePod support?
If you don't have an Apple Music subscription and haven't already used the three-month free trial you'll see the option to try it out. Otherwise, it's £9.99 per month or you can choose to get your music from another source.
Siri can also play music you've purchased from iTunes or music stored in your iCloud Music Library.
There's also Beats 1 radio, which doesn't require an Apple Music subscription, plus the thousands of podcasts available from Apple.
If you already have a Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, Deezer or Amazon Music subscription (or another service) you can play this through the HomePod via your iPhone using AirPlay.
You can then ask Siri to control playback, such as pausing or skipping to the next track. What you can't do when playing music this way is to ask Siri to play a specific album, song or playlist. Until there's proper integration with another streaming service, Siri won't be as useful as with Apple Music where you can say "Hey Siri, add this song to my favourites" or "Hey Siri, play party music from the 80s".
Apple wants HomePod owners to use Apple Music, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Amazon and Google both make their devices work best with their own streaming services, too.
Of course, you can play any audio you like through the HomePod as long as it's via AirPlay. That means you can select the HomePod when you're watching Netflix, iPlayer, YouTube or even when making a phonecall - the built-in mics let it act as a hands-free speakerphone (and the quality and experience is very good).
If you have a supported Apple TV, you can choose the HomePod as the audio output, again via AirPlay.
The HomePod doesn't have an aux in (or out) and there's no Bluetooth. So it lacks the flexibility of other smart speakers. While anyone in the household can ask Siri to play music, set a timer or do other tasks, they won't be able to play music from, say, Spotify on their Android phone.
There's no voice recognition in the sense that Siri doesn't know who's making requests. Once you set up a HomePod, it pulls information from the Apple ID you used. Siri therefore knows contacts from only one account, making the ability to send text messages and make phone calls useful only to one person.
You can change the Apple ID associated with the HomePod, but this isn't something you can do on the fly: you can't ask Siri to "switch to Miriam's account".
You can share to-do lists and calendars, though, but only one person can use the HomePod to check what the traffic is like on the way to work. Everyone else will have to specify the location when asking, so there are workarounds for certain features.
Apple is late to the smart speaker game, so rivals already have a range of devices, including those with screens, such as Amazon's Echo Spot. It's possible Apple will broaden the range of HomePods in a similar way to offer both cheaper, smaller devices as well as a potential Echo Show equivalent where it could take advantage of its FaceTime video calling service.
With the release of iOS 11.4 comes AirPlay 2, a feature that was announced a year ago in June 2017. This means that – finally – HomePod supports multi-room audio. (You can even connect your HomePod to a Sonos or other speaker.)
If you have more than one HomePod, or other speakers which support AirPlay 2, then you can say to your HomePod or your iPhone, “Hey Siri, move the music to the kitchen” or “Hey Siri, play Abba in the living room”.
HomePod owners need to make sure they use the Home app first to update the HomePod’s software to iOS 11.4 (or later), otherwise it won’t have AirPlay 2 and none of these new features will work.
When updated you can say to your HomePod, “Hey Siri, play Daft Punk everywhere”. To adjust the volume, say “Hey Siri, turn up the volume everywhere”.
In general, Siri on the HomePod does a good job of hearing and responding even if the music is playing loudly – only occasionally failing to respond to your voice. After updating the second of our HomePods to iOS 11.4 we had an issue in the Home app where it said the device wasn’t responding, even though Siri was happy to play tunes on it. However, after a few minutes the problem went away and never reappeared.
Although it's somewhat obscure, it's possible to control what's playing on each HomePod from your iPhone even if you started a song by asking Siri directly on the HomePod. From the Control Centre, you deep press (or long press if your iPhone doesn't have 3D Touch) on the Music controls.
This brings up a list of speakers. Just tap on the HomePod to control and the playback controls appear for the selected device. Apple Music will also control whichever is the currently selected device.
Stereo is another reason to be excited about AirPlay 2, although a pair of HomePods will set you back a not-inconsiderable £558 / US$598 for the privilege.
When you set up a second HomePod and pick the same room as an existing one, you’ll get a new option to set up a stereo pair. We expected this to pop up automatically, but it didn’t: we had to delve into one HomePod’s settings in the Home app, then tap ‘Create stereo pair’.
Then, you can assign left and right channels and swap them if they’re the wrong way round. The HomePods could – in theory – self-assign left and right channels, but they can’t know where you’ll be listening from in the room.
Rather than simply play the left channel from one HomePod and the right channel from the other, they use their A8 processors and built-in mics to do something a bit more special.
When you play the first song after creating the pair, both devices work calibrate themselves in a similar way that a single one would. But the mics, which measure and adjust bass, share this initial information with each other to ensure the same EQ is applied to both.
On top of that, beamforming is used to analyse the music being played and separates and beams the direct and ambient energy independently for both left and right channels. Apple says this gives a much wider soundstage, almost three-dimensional feeling.
That’s more hi-fi jargon than most people can process, so let’s lay it out more simply: a single HomePod sounds great; a stereo pair of HomePods sounds awesome.
What can Siri do on the HomePod?
If you've used Siri a lot on your iPhone or iPad, you'll already know what to expect from the HomePod as the assistant has - as far as we can tell - the same capabilities.
Most people will use Siri to ask for music and control playback, but you can also ask for the news headlines (a new feature added to iOS recently, too), a weather forecast, unit conversion, general information ("How tall is the Shard?") and more.
In the UK, the HomePod will default to the BBC headlines, but when you first ask for the news, Siri will tell ask if you want to switch to Sky or LBC.
With Apple Music, Siri can tell you the name of the song, album and who played the bass on that track. Some information is pulled from web sources including Wikipedia while other data comes from Apple Music itself.
The HomePod works as a home hub, too. This means it can control your HomeKit devices and also allow you to control them remotely from your iPhone.
If you don't own any HomeKit devices you're in the fortunate position of being able to buy only those which support it. Many early adopters of smart home gadgets will find their lights, switches, thermostats and sensors aren't HomeKit compatible which means Siri won't be able to control them.
HomeKit-compatible devices can also be more expensive than those which don't support it.
You can ask Siri to send a text message or call someone. And if you need to use another service, say WhatsApp, you simply say "Send Jon a message on WhatsApp" or even "Send Matt a WhatsApp saying 'Do you want to meet for dinner at 7.30?'".
For reminders, Siri will add your request to your Reminders app on your phone. Unlike Alexa, it won't give an audible reminder from the HomePod at the time you set: you'll just get a notification on your iPhone.
Apple needs to work on Siri's speech, though. Its pronunciation and intonation aren't nearly as good as the Google Assistant or Alexa: it sounds more robotic and less lifelike than its rivals.
A while back, Apple opened up Siri to app developers so they could allow users to control aspects with the assistant. The launch of the HomePod could prompt some to add Siri to their apps which could bring 'native' control for music services such as Spotify. It remains to be seen whether that will happen or not, though.
You're probably most interested in sound quality, as this is a speaker after all. The good news is that it's the best sounding smart speaker we've heard. By a clear margin.
It's room-filling loud, with no distortion at all even at high volume. Bass is excellent, and much louder and deeper than you'd ever expect from something this small.
As it's circular, the main woofer sits horizontally inside and fires upwards. At the bottom, an array of seven tweeters ensure mids and highs are projected in all directions. And their location means sound will also be reflected off the surface you've put the HomePod on.
Cleverly, an on-board Apple A8 chip uses the array of six microphones to listen to the environment and adjust the sound automatically to optimise it for the HomePod's location.
This happens automatically and invisibly, so it isn't possible to hear a 'with' and 'without' processing to check for audible differences. Nevertheless, the HomePod does indeed sound great pretty much wherever you put it: on a shelf, a side table or on the kitchen worktop.
Bass is also monitored and controlled by the A8 chip to ensure distortion is kept in check. While mids and highs sound the same on various surfaces and in different locations, bass does seem to be affected.
When placed on a thick wooden kitchen worktop with ceramic tiles, the HomePod's bass sounded much more muted than when it was sat on a small table in the lounge, further from a wall. In the latter location, bass was considerably louder.
Regardless of position, the motor-driven woofer delivers bass frequencies which many rival smart speakers simply cannot produce. The Amazon Echo, for example, struggles with tracks such as Fractal's Itvara and bass is largely absent.
Not so on the HomePod. In our lounge, it coped effortlessly with the sub-bass with power that you'd associate with a much larger speaker.
We've listened to just about every genre and the HomePod does a great job with all. If you want to demo the HomePod, pick a simple track with strong vocals and a deep bassline. Diana Krall's Peel me a grape, for example, sounds utterly crisp and clean where every nuance of her voice and piano can be heard.
The accompanying double-bass is similarly strong, but without overpowering the sound of the bassist's fingers plucking each string.
On busier, more complex tracks the HomePod's processing still manages to create a soundstage in which instruments have decent separation and vocals are clear. The live version of The Eagles' Hotel California is particularly enjoyable with the bright notes from Don Felder's 12-string guitar ringing out.
On occasion, treble is a little harsh. Play Calvin Harris' This is what you came for and the electronic cymbals are a little crashy, and Rhianna's voice quite piercing - exacerbated at higher volumes of course.
However, that's the exception and for the vast majority of tracks the HomePod simply sounds great.
A smart speaker must be able to hear you when music is playing loudly, and thanks to some nifty beamforming technology, the mics can pick up your voice across the room. Siri responds quickly when you call, and if your command is quick - "Hey Siri, turn it up" - it won't even pause the music.
If you're actively using your iPhone, Siri will respond on that rather than the HomePod, but in general, it's the HomePod that responds first. Sometimes, Siri will pop up on the phone, then immediately hand off to the HomePod.
It's impressive how it can hear you over the music, but a couple of times during our testing the HomePod failed to respond when speaking at a moderate level in a quiet room. It could be down to a conflict between the iPhone and HomePod, but we're hoping it's just a wrinkle that'll be ironed out soon.
Apple HomePod: Specs
- Smart speaker
- Audio sources: Apple Music, iTunes music purchases, iCloud Music Library with Apple Music/iTunes Match subscription, Beats 1, Podcasts, AirPlay
- Dimensions: 172mm tall, 142mm wide
- Weight: 2.5kg
- Audio formats: HE-AAC, AAC up to 320Kbps, protected AAC, MP3 up to 320Kbps, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, FLAC
- Wireless: 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO, Bluetooth 5.0 (cannot be used as a Bluetooth speaker)
- Requires: iPhone 5s or later, iPad Air or later, iPad mini 2 or later with iOS 11.2.5
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