Apple has announced that the company is discontinuing the original HomePod, and, for now, it is only available as long as stocks last. At the same time, the HomePod mini will still be sold, and Apple told TechCrunch:
HomePod mini has been a hit since its debut last fall, offering customers amazing sound, an intelligent assistant, and smart home control all for just $99. We are focusing our efforts on HomePod mini. […] Apple will provide HomePod customers with software updates and service and support through Apple Care.
It’s undeniable that the original HomePod was too expensive, and its audio wasn’t ideal for everyone. In my review of the HomePod, I said that “when the HomePod sounds good, it’s great, but it doesn’t always sound good.” This is because it works well with certain types of music – mostly bass-heavy pop and hip-hop – but doesn’t offer any EQ settings. And when you set up a stereo pair, which sounds much better than twice a HomePod, you don’t even have settings to adjust the left-right balance between them.
Apple sold the original HomePod as a device offering superior sound, but the HomePod mini is totally different: it is a smart speaker that highlights the smarts, not the speaker. As a Siri device, it’s small and unobtrusive, and as a music device, it’s good enough for most people.
Just over three years after Apple introduced the HomePod, the company is discontinuing the device. Overpriced, underpowered, a combination of trying to hard and not delivering, the HomePod has its fans and its detractors. My first listening experience showed me that the when the HomePod sounds good, it’s great, but it doesn’t always sound good. One problem with the device is that it is too bass-heavy, and there are no EQ settings, as there are with similar devices, such as Sonos’ excellent Sonos One speakers.
Is it a Siri device, or is it speaker that provides “consistent high-definition sound?” If it’s the former, then Apple is trying to sell this to people who already have at least one Siri-capable device. If it’s the latter, well, Apple’s crack marketing team came out with lots of great adjectives, but the overall opinion among audiophiles is that it’s meh.
While the HomePod has fancy technology, I feel that this is wasted:
Apple touts the HomePod’s ability to adapt to any location. “Equipped with spatial awareness, HomePod automatically tunes itself to give you optimal sound — wherever it’s placed.” This may be true, but it’s a mono speaker; the only adjustments it’s going to make are to the tone of the music, and, perhaps, to the output of the various tweeters (there are seven, in a circle).
And, above all, Apple tried to do too much with the device:
The company was falling behind in the smart speaker market, but they should have realized that they already have that market cornered: just say “Hey, Siri” to your iPhone (or Apple Watch, or iPad, or Mac…) And while their adaptive audio technology is impressive, it fails by not allowing users to choose the type of sound they want. By prioritizing the bass-heavy sound of rap and hip-hop music – the genre they push most in Apple Music – they created speakers that many people find unpalatable.
Curiously, Apple added an interesting feature to the HomePod just a few months ago: if you connect two HomePods to an Apple TV 4K, you can use them to play back Dolby Atmos sound. This is a compelling use case for the devices, but you can get soundbars that handle Dolby Atmos for less than a pair of HomePods.
I think Apple fell into the trap of people who care about audio, thinking that everyone feels like they do. The vast majority of people are fine listening to music on cheap Bluetooth speakers, or ever from their phones, and paying that much for what might be better audio just doesn’t make sense. Yet people will pay the price of the HomePod for headphones, because they are more important when people are on the go: look at the success of Apple’s Beats headphones, and what seems to be a successful launch of the AirPods Pro.
Apple should have some good speakers in its product line; I would be interested in seeing an Apple soundbar, for example, but it would have to compete with Sonos, who has its Beam, costing only $399.
So Apple now has a product line whose only device is a “mini.” I expect this to stick around for a while, as its a part of Apple’s smart home strategy. Perhaps we’ll see another, larger HomePod in the future: maybe Apple is going all out with a HomePod Pro.
Apple’s new HomePod mini is a compact rethink of the more than three-year old HomePod. The original HomePod suffered because of its high price: $349, later reduced to $299; it was for the cash-flush users who wanted sound more than smarts.
The $99 HomePod mini is the cheapest Apple device that actually does something (i.e., that isn’t a cable, dongle, case, or accessory). Unlike the original HomePod, it is being sold more for its Siri smarts than for its sound, and rightly so. Apple is hoping that people will buy multiple HomePod minis and place them all around the home, so anyone in a family can use them for Siri requests, and, should they desire, to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks.
Apple’s marketing of this device focuses on four concepts:
The HomePod mini is not a mini version of the HomePod, but a different device entirely. At the same time, it’s the cheapest Apple device that works on its own. It needs the cloud for Siri, and for Apple Music, of course, but at $99, it’s the least expensive Apple product that is not an accessory.
It’s worth considering this when thinking about what the HomePod mini is for. It’s not for music; it’s for the smart home. Apple is way behind Amazon in the smart speaker / smart home space, and, even though just about every Apple user has Siri in their pocket or on their wrist, having a device in fixed locations in the home may lead to more use of Siri and specifically smart home products.
I think it’s safe to discount the first; the HomePod mini is really mini: it’s 3.3″ / 84mm tall. That’s a tad more than 1/2 the height of my iPhone 11. It’s not mini, it’s tiny. It will play music, and sound like an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker, but nothing like the HomePod or other good standalone speakers.
The second point is just another way of saying that it works with Siri. But everyone with an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch already has Siri. Perhaps that’s not enough.
But it’s the third point, “Control your smart home” that is the clincher: this is where Apple is aiming. In the presentation of the HomePod mini, Apple showed a family in a cut-away house on a stage, demonstrating how this device can control the home, and help communicate within the family. (The new Intercom feature is quite interesting.) On the HomePod mini product page, there’s a screenshot of the Home app, with a new Discover tab. This tab is not yet available in the app, and will presumably be added when the HomePod mini is released. It will offer “recommendations on top‑rated accessories that work with HomePod mini, and connect to the Apple Store app for additional details and effortless shopping.”
You can, of course, control your smart home with your iPhone; the HomePod mini is just an interface. But it serves an important purpose: it can be a HomeKit hub, and it is the cheapest device that can serve this purpose. While you don’t need this to control simple smart home devices, you do need it to share your devices across your family, or to control them remotely. Currently, you need either a HomePod, an Apple TV, or an iPad to have a HomeKit hub. The first two devices set themselves up automatically, and you have to turn on specific settings on an iPad for it to work. But the iPad must remain in your home, and not run out of power, in order for it to serve this purpose.
Apple is clearly banking on the smart home as their Next Big Product. While it’s not a “product” as such, and certainly will not rival the iPhone, if Apple can get a large number of users to buy into the smart home idea, there’s lots of money to be made. The smart home needs a killer app to take off; so far, it’s been Amazon’s Alexa, but lots of people don’t trust Amazon. Hence the fourth point: “Private and secure.” I’ve heard from several people already, who are Apple users and have Alexa devices, who are going to buy two or three of these, and ditch Alexa.
Back to the price; $99 is the cost of some of Apple’s watch bands. It’s the cost of the Magic Keyboard. It’s cheaper than the Apple TV. It’s the cheapest product that, on its own, actually does something.
This isn’t to say that it’s cheap; compare it with Amazon’s Echo Dot, which you could get for $19 on Prime Day. That product is a loss-leader to get you into the Alexa platform. Apple would never sell the HomePod mini that cheaply, but perhaps we’ll see it discounted as a bundle with other devices, or why not even for free when you buy, say, a new Mac?
The HomePod mini is a Trojan horse. If Apple succeeds in selling enough of these, they can get a strong foothold in the smart home.
Every new iPhone has a marquee feature that Apple focuses on in its new product announcement. In recent years, Apple has repeatedly highlighted improvements to the camera system, spending the majority of time in their new product presentation showing the beautiful photos that the phone can take. While the camera in the iPhone 12 gets a bump, this year‘s marquee feature is a new mobile technology that most people won’t be able to benefit from: 5G.
The iPhone 12 also sports a new design, with narrower bezels, and a new, more robust type of glass, as well as being “the fastest iPhone ever,” which is the case every year. Apple also announced the HomePod mini, which is more of a smart speaker with Siri features than an audio device, like its older sibling.
As smart speakers go, Apple’s HomePod has a few points that make it stand out. It has better sound than most Alexa and Google Home devices. There are a number of smart speakers made by audio companies that focus on sound quality, and that include the ability to use one or more of the voice assistants, but the HomePod is the only smart speaker that uses Siri. If you’re in the Apple ecosystem, this is a compelling reason to use it.
In this article, I’m going to tell you what you can do with your HomePod: how you can tell it to play music, give you information, make phone calls, and more.
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).
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.
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.)
I can’t believe I actually have to ask Apple to add stereo-paired HomePods as a Mac sound output device! It’s the most ridiculous Feature Request yet, because it’s absolutely nuts that this isn’t already built into macOS — especially that it isn’t baked into Catalina.
Apple’s own audio apps will happily allow you to select stereo-paired HomePods as a single output device. You can see in the photo above that the Music app sees both my Office and Winter Garden HomePods as a single device.
Not so the Mac itself, however…
I can output Mac sound to Office Left or Office Right, but not to the stereo pair.
So I have the utterly ridiculous situation of having a pair of HomePods on my desk but not being able to use them with my Mac unless it’s through an app that recognizes stereo pairs.
A agree, sort of. On an absolute level, it is very odd, but, do people really want to do that, to have all their audio come out from a pair of HomePods? To be honest, the HomePod isn’t designed to be on a desk so close to the listener; its tweeters are at the bottom, so ideally they should be on stands. (The tweeters should ideally be close to ear level.) Given the way the HomePods work, I’m not sure that putting them on tilted stands, so they are leaning back, would work very well in all situations. I mentioned this in this article, where I also pointed out the inability to use them as general Mac speakers, but here’s how it would look; the HomePods are already bassy, you wouldn’t hear much treble in this position.
You can stream from the Music and TV apps, for example, so if you want to listen to music or watch a movie and hear its audio on a pair of HomePods, that’s easy to do.
New in iOS 13 is the ability to “hand off” music from an iPhone to a HomePod. If you’re playing any audio on your iPhone, just go near your HomePod (or near one HomePod of a stereo pair), and after a few seconds, the audio will switch from the iPhone to the HomePod.
What this essentially does is switch the output from the iPhone via AirPlay to the Home Pod.
As you can see here, the iPhone shows all available AirPlay devices that are active in my home. Music that I was playing on the iPhone (top) then started playing in the bedroom.
As you can see in this interface, you can control a number of AirPlay devices from your iPhone or iPad, sending music to each of them, or controlling playback from Apple Music or your music in the cloud.
What I’d like to see in addition to this is the ability to hand music off from my Mac to my iPhone. If I’m listening to something on my Mac then want to go out, it would be great to pass the music over to that device. It wouldn’t be the same as with the iPhone to the HomePod, which is essentially just playing the music via AirPlay, but it would be more like when you open a web page in Safari, and can then load the same page quickly on an iOS device. Naturally, this would only work with Apple Music or with your music library in the cloud, but it would be a useful addition to the web of Apple devices.
Update: Apple has released an updated version of the software which should resolve these issues.
“Apple today released new 13.2 software for the HomePod with long-awaited features like Handoff and voice detection for different family members, but unfortunately, some users are running into problems with the update.”
This is disgraceful. It’s not just that they don’t work, but that there is nothing users can do. Apple is having them ship them back to the company to get them fixed. All this because there’s no USB port to restore the device.
What a blunder.
(To be fair, it’s not clear how many people this is affecting. As often with this sort of problem, the media attention makes it appear bigger than it is. Mine both work fine after the update.)