I’ve had a HomePod since it was first released in early 2018. It sounds okay, but there are a number of issues with it. As I said in my review, “sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t.” And the biggest problem for me was 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.
A few months later, I got a second HomePod to combine them into a stereo pair to use in my bedroom. Using two standalone speakers in a stereo pair is practical: you save the space you would need for an amplifier, and you don’t need to run speaker wire to them (you do need to plug both into AC power, of course).
In late 2018, I bought a Sonos One, which is similar in size to the HomePod, but is much less expensive. It turned out that the Sonos One sounded better overall than the HomePod.
So the next step was to buy a second Sonos One and set it up in a stereo pair. I did so recently, taking advantage of post-Christmas sales, and I purchased the less expensive Sonos One SL, which does not have a microphone so does not support Alexa or Google Assistant. I don’t use Alexa, nor do I use Siri on my HomePods, and if you have a stereo pair, you don’t need both Sonos Ones to have microphones anyway.
Note that a pair of HomePods costs $598, and a pair of Sonos One SLs costs $329.
So, it was time to set up the Sonos Ones in a stereo pair in my bedroom and compare them. I placed each one on the same shelf as a HomePod, a few inches away. In the Music app, I set the volume for each pair to approximately what was audibly the same level; the Sonos One is a bit louder, so I lowered its volume until it sounded about the same. (“Bedroom” below is the HomePod stereo pair.)
You can switch from one AirPlay device to another by tapping the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the Music window, and I switched back and forth, starting with my Kirk’s Audio Test Tracks playlist on Apple Music. This is a playlist of music that I am very familiar with, which I use when testing new audio equipment. (I listened to more than just what’s in the playlist, but I started with that.)
Both of these devices use DSP (digital signal processing) to adapt to their locations. The HomePod does this automatically, and with Sonos devices, you use your phone to set up Trueplay Tuning. This involves the odd activity of walking around your room and waving your phone as the speakers play some weird electronic sounds (which freaked my cats out). So in order to test correctly, I set up Trueplay Tuning.
With every piece of music I listened to, the Sonos stereo pair sounded better. There was a more detailed soundstage, a bit more clarity, but above all, the sound wasn’t marred by the HomePod’s bassy sound signature. Out of the box, the Sonos One is a fairly neutral speaker, unlike the HomePod which was apparently designed for bass-heavy music. This means that a lot of music sounds veiled with the HomePod. The HomePods do perform well, in spite of that, and if you like that sound, then you’ll be satisfied.
But there are no EQ settings for the HomePod. And while you can adjust the EQ of an iOS device that streams to the HomePod, this doesn’t affect the sound if you are “streaming” music that’s on Apple Music or in your Cloud Music Library. Since iOS 13, iOS devices hand off the music to the HomePod rather than stream it, so EQ settings don’t affect the playback.
Sonos works differently. Each device – or stereo pair – has EQ settings. They are limited, but you can adjust the bass, treble, and the balance, something that is essentially with a stereo pair. (How is it possible that Apple doesn’t at least let you set the balance for a pair of HomePods?) Here’s the settings that I used for the Sonos Ones:
The Sonos One is a bit lacking at the low end, but a bit of a nudge to the bass makes them sound excellent. I found the treble to be a bit harsh, so I dropped that a notch. And since my position in bed was not dead center of the two speakers, setting the balance was essential.
My testing was all with music from my iPhone and from Apple Music, but the Sonos app offers a number of services such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, Plex, Tidal, and much more. While you can stream any of these services from a smartphone, having them all in the Sonos app makes it easier to access and control them.
There are a number of problems with the HomePod, and one of them, I think, is Apple’s round design. There was no need to make a speaker that sends sounds in all directions. The goal was to send sounds at slightly different times, and with slightly different EQ, to the front and to reflective surfaces, but it honestly doesn’t sound that different from a speaker that just points forward. The only time it would be useful is if you have people sitting around a table, and, outside of phone calls in conference rooms, this is rare.
Given the quality of both of these speakers, it’s clear that for casual listening, you really don’t need an amplifier and speakers any more, especially if you are listening in a room where you don’t want the clutter. We’re in a great time for audio, with the ability to have such a compact system that sounds so good. If you have one of these speakers, I strongly recommend getting a second, if your space permits; stereo sound is always better than the mono you get from a single speaker.
With the price differential, and the added ability of being able to adjust the EQ and balance, the Sonos One is a much better choice for a stereo pair than the HomePod. Of course, you may want to use Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant with your speaker, and if you are locked into one ecosystem, then this is a consideration. Since, however, most HomePod purchasers probably already have iPhones, which they can use for Siri, I don’t see it as being worth paying nearly twice as much for a pair of HomePods.