Computer Audiophile Reviews the HomePod

Chris Connaker, who runs the Computer Audiophile website, and who is a regular guest on The Next Track podcast, was initially not interested in the HomePod. It’s not the type of device he would use, he said, but given the amount of coverage it was getting, he decided to buy one and try it out. Here’s his review.

One could raise one’s eyebrows a bit when Chris mentions the reference system he uses to compare his music with the HomePod:

Speakers: TAD Compact reference One CR1 $45,000 (frequency response 40Hz–20kHz, ±3dB)
Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Inspiration Monoblocks $20,000 /pr
DAC: dCS Rossini $24,000
Cabling by Wire World and 512 Engineering ~$10,000

But he also uses:

Klipsch: The Three $499 (frequency response 45Hz–20kHz, ±3dB)

To be fair, you can’t compare the HomePod just to other, similar speakers. You need to compare it to the way music should sound. What you are trying to determine is how much is lost or gained by using that speaker when comparing it to a “real” stereo. In my testing and review, I compared it to my office sound system, which is a Yamaha receiver (£600) and Focal Chorus speakers (£200), with some cables (£6) and banana plugs (£8). So while my system was a bit less expensive than Chris’s, it’s still a pretty good system.

Here’s what he thought about the first piece of music he listened to:

The HomePod shouldn’t come close to my reference system, and it doesn’t. Let’s not kid ourselves. Apple has more money than some countries and has hired very smart engineers, but it can’t change the laws of physics. Starting with the impressive aspects of the HomePod playing Red or Dead, Randi’s vocal is crisp and clear, but has a very slight soft edge. The very fine details for which audiophiles frequently listen aren’t nearly as audible through the HomePod as they are through a true HiFi system. The HomePod has a very nice sound that will likely please most listeners without causing fatigue on tracks like Red or Dead. If I was unaware of the true sound of this track, I’d think the HomePod had done a pretty good job reproducing the vocal portion.

As he says, “If I was unaware of the true sound of this track…” That’s important; for many people, the HomePod may be the best speaker they’ve ever owned, because they simply never owned any good hi-fi equipment. They may find the sound attractive, or flattering, and, if so, that’s fine. But it’s important to put this into perspective: how it sounds compared to the music “the way the artist intended,” as audio buffs like to say.

Chris immediately highlights the main problem with the HomePod:

The HomePod is a bass monster, for better or worse. […] Thumps and booms are pretty much what the HomePod is all about and it’s very clear after a single listen to a track with very controlled bass.

Everyone who cares about how music sounds is saying this; it’s not just subjective. People who are used to the high bass of Beats headphones may think this is normal, but as I pointed out in my first impressions of the HomePod, some music sounds great, and some music sounds pretty bad, because of the excess bass.

For another song, he highlights one of the other issues I noticed:

the HomePod was nowhere near any of the HiFi system on which I’ve heard this song. Closed-in with a jumbled mess of sounds and a haze over the top is how I’d describe this track through the HomePod.

That “jumbled mess” is how a lot of more complex music sounds. Coldplay sounds great, but a string quartet I listened to sounded horrible. A jazz piano trio had no depth, no detail, and many tracks just sounded confused.

I love Metallica’s …And Justice for All album for both the music and the way it sounds. It’s not a favorite of many Metallica fans, but I just love the sounds of Lars’ Tama drum set. The track One features a nice soft-fish guitar intro. On the HomePod this guitar sounds really good and has good tone. I can see many music lovers really enjoying sounds like this. In fact, I wish the entire track sounded as good as this opening sounded through the Pod. I’m frustrated to say, the HomePod just falls apart at the 0:55 mark in the song. The drum sound that I love, that I’ve played for so many people on so many different systems including one a couple weeks ago in New York City, was totally wrong. It sounded like a huge band of upper bass frequencies was missing. I heard Lars’ kick drum, but not all of it. It’s as if there was a filter on the upper end of the drum set and an exaggeration on the very bottom end.

Exactly. A more restrained song I listened to, Brad Mehldau’s cover of the Radiohead song Exit Music (For a Film), showed how drums don’t do well on the HomePod:

“Moving to jazz, I tried out one of my standard test tracks, Brad Mehldau’s Exit Music (For a Film), a cover of the Radiohead song, on The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3: Songs. I love this track because of the subtle way it builds up, and because of the light touch of drummer Jorge Rossy, as he taps the cymbals, creating interesting polyrhythms with the piano. Unfortunately, the cymbals are too quiet, and the bass gets muddied with the piano, turning an intricate song into a flat-sounding piece for piano trio. This was also the case with other Brad Mehldau recordings.”

But, okay, that’s comparing the HomePod to Chris’s $100K system. How about his $500 Klipsch Three speaker?

It has a much more balanced sound than the HomePod. Eddie Vedder’s Society was very enjoyable through The Three as opposed to the HomePod. I A/B’d them for twenty minutes to make sure I heard what I thought I heard. I honestly expected the HomePod to put the Klipsch unit to shame, but that wasn’t the case.

Chris briefly mentions the Siri integration, but given that Siri is only half-baked on that device, even that isn’t a compelling reason to buy it.

His conclusion:

Perhaps some normalcy has now been added to the hysteria. I agree with Consumer Reports. I really wanted to like the HomePod and I wanted [it] to sound fantastic. The truth is, the HomePod is good and I’d recommend it to people who have to have Apple products. If people want a voice assistant, get a voice assistant. If people want a loudspeaker, get a loudspeaker. Splitting the duties provides much more flexibility to purchase the best of both worlds. Google and Amazon offer far better products for voice. With respect to sound quality, there are many other products I’d recommend over the HomePod, starting with The Three from Klipsch.

There are lots of great standalone speakers. The lack in functionality as “smart” devices, but it’s really not clear how many people want these devices. If you’re all in on the Apple ecosystem, it’s a good option, but if you really care about audio quality, it’s far from the best you can get for the money.