It’s been a long wait, as Apple pushed back the release of the HomePod, originally announced for the end of last year. There has been a lot of speculation about what a $350 speaker would sound like, and early reviews have been generally positive, but mostly in comparison to other “smart” speakers, such as the Amazon Echo and the Google Home.
I took delivery of my HomePod this morning, and have spent several hours listening to it. As is my wont, I have played music I’m very familiar with in order to try it out. I strongly believe that using special test records to audition audio equipment is wrong; you need to play music that you know by heart, where you know when different instruments come in, how voices sound, and what sort of beat and rhythm it has.
The HomePod uses digital signal processing (DSP) on all the music it plays, whether it’s from Apple Music, iCloud Music Library, your iTunes library, or your iOS device. Unfortunately, you have no control over this DSP. It’s a one-size-fits-all algorithm, which, while it certainly treats different types of music differently, still tries to mold everything the same way. It’s almost as if the HomePod is the stationary equivalent of Beats headphones: decent sound, but too bassy; good for certain types of music, but not all.
Here are some thoughts after listening to a few dozen pieces of music.
I started by listening to Brian Eno’s Another Day on Earth, a song I have listened to more than 100 times. The vocals sound good, they are layered, and the faux surround sound in the HomePod reproduces this very well. But the bass is a bit too strong, and the vocals eventually sound harsh.
On the other hand, the Grateful Dead’s Ripple, from American Beauty, sounded excellent. It’s a subtle, mostly acoustic song, with CSN-style vocal harmonies, and that wonderful mandolin that David Grisman plays that soars over the music. The balance here was excellent, with the voices and instruments sharing center stage.
Another song that sounded excellent was Coldplay’s The Scientist. It’s almost as if Apple tuned the HomePod to play this song. The balance between the voice and music is ideal, and the spaciousness of the music is evident. Another Coldplay song Kingdom Come also sounded great; perhaps their early music is mixed in a way that suits the HomePod, or it’s the other way around.
I naturally tried out some classical music, with mixed results. A Beethoven string quartet – the Op. 95, by the Tackács Quartet – sounded muddy, with little separation between the instruments, and very little space. Purcell’s Fantasias for viol consort by Phantasm also sounded flat and confused, again, with little space. Some piano music sounds good, and some sounds like it’s being played through a tunnel. But Jordi Savall’s recording of Capt. Tobias Hume, Musicall Humours, for solo bass viol, sounds rich and powerful, though a bit bass-heavy.
There’s lots of music that sounds very good, like Bob Dylan’s Cold Irons Bound, the version from the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack (not the studio version from Time Out of Mind). This is powerful roadhouse rock, and the HomePod makes it punch and dance.
Brian Eno’s St. Elmo’s Fire is one of those songs that has a wide range of sounds, and it works well, especially when Robert Fripp plays some searing, fuzzy guitar licks.
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.
If you’re a jazz fan, you might want to try some Miles Davis to test out your speaker. So What on Kind of Blue sounds very good, and, in fact, it flatters the HomePod. If you have the mono version of the album, it sounds even better.
If you want something a bit more aggressive, you can try Bitches Brew. The song Pharoah’s dance sounds very nice, though the separation among the instruments is a bit muddied.
I could go on, and I do, in this week’s episode of The Next Track podcast.
I think by now you see my main point: sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t. I did find that, playing music from iTunes, with the Bass Reducer setting on the Equalizer, much of the music sounded better. There was less booming bass, and more subtle sounds. But no matter what, the midrange is weak on a speaker like this.
What the HomePod needs, of course, is user access to settings like an equalizer, as you have in iTunes or on an iOS device. Not to the broader DSP algorithm, but to the tone sculpting that makes some music sound too bassy, or, at times, too trebly. I hope we see this in a software update, but, for now, when I play back music from a device via AirPlay – as opposed to using Siri to control it – I’ll use the Bass Reducer.
It’s worth pointing out that Siri’s ability to recognize its call even when the music is playing very loud is close to magical. I played the HomePod in my home office, which is about 30 sq. m., and, from the other side of the room, I could say, “Hey Siri, lower the volume,” and it worked every time. I haven’t tried many other Siri commands yet. Siri can tell you who’s playing music; for example, I asked who plays piano on Kind of Blue, and Siri was able to tell me that it’s Bill Evans. I don’t know how reliable this will be for more obscure music, but it’s pretty neat to be able to do that. (Though Siri insisted that Miles Davis played base on the track Bitches Brew…)
As for the volume, the HomePod can be loud. It filled my office, and it didn’t sound like it was trying too hard. And, at lower volumes, I suspect it uses some sort of continuous variable loudness, where the high and low frequencies are increased as the volume lowers to make up for our hearing, which doesn’t pick them up very well at lower levels.
If you want a standalone speaker, and you listen to the type of music that the HomePod plays well, this is a wonderful device. If you are interested in more critical listening, especially of classical music or jazz, it might not be what you want. But this isn’t meant to be an actual stereo system; at least not for anyone who would own a stereo system. It’s meant to be a speaker for those who don’t care that much about sound, or a standalone device for those who do care about audio quality, but want something small and unobtrusive for a specific room. I’d be curious to hear how this sounds in a stereo pair, when Apple makes this possible via software, but I can’t see buying a second one. At $700 for a pair, it’s too expensive. You can buy excellent active speakers for less than that, even some that have built-in AirPlay.
One note about that. If you were interested in using a pair of HomePod as speakers connected to your computer, or on a desk, I’d recommend putting them on stands. The tweeters are at the bottom of the unit, so the high frequencies aren’t directed at ear level. This is less of a problem when it’s in a room a few meters from you, but for close listening, it would sound even more bassy.
So, with this in mind, it’s up to you. Try to hear one, though it’s probably not easy to do so in a noisy Apple Store. This device is great when it really works; it’s just not great with all kinds of music.