Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at The Next Track website. You can follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast, to keep up to date with new episodes, and new articles from the website.
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.
Where to begin…? Let’s see; perhaps with that stupid headline? Unless you’ve only ever used an Amazon Echo or a cheap Bluetooth speaker to listen to music, then, no. They won’t. If you have a halfway decent stereo, with halfway decent speakers, you’ve already got stereo, not a single speaker, which is how most people will use the HomePod.
HomePod has what can only be explained by the most balanced audio, not just of any smart speaker but of any speaker I currently own, which includes a number of Sonos speakers and a Bose Home Theatre system.
Right. He’s comparing the HomePod to standalone speakers; which is the fair comparison. But “the best-sounding” speakers? Not by a long shot.
The other thing that really impressed me about HomePod was how great it sounded at nearly every volume level. If you have any experience with speakers, you know that there is also a sweet spot for volume. Too low and you lose almost all bass; too high, you blow out the high end/treble and often your ears hurt as the high-end parts of the audio start to distort and lose clarity
This is one of the more interesting DSP (digital signal processing) elements of the HomePod, and something that will certainly set it apart. I have a Yamaha R-N803D receiver in my office, which features their “continuously variable loudness” feature. This changes the adjustment to bass and treble as you change volume. The loudness control on a received doesn’t just make it louder; it makes certain frequencies louder, the lows and the highs, which we don’t hear as well at lower volumes. But if you use this all the time, then the music doesn’t sound right at different volumes. Yamaha, and some other manufacturers, use this continuously variable loudness to fix those discrepancies in the way we perceive audio. And it works.
I have no doubt that HomePod will compete with the best speakers in your house even if you have an expensive/high-end setup.
Uh, no. Sorry. I don’t think you know what that means if you think a single standalone speaker will “compete” with a real stereo with good speakers. Unless by “compete” you mean, well, I don’t know…
When it came to music, Siri knocked it out of the park. In fact, because Siri is learning about its owner when you ask to play music, when I said, “Play Jack Johnson radio,” she would say, “Sure, here is a personalized playlist for you.” What’s happening is Siri is acting as a “mixologist,” as Apple likes to say, but essentially she is playing DJ according to my music preferences.
I have no doubt, based on reviews by people I know, that the HomePod will sound excellent, in comparison with standalone speakers. But it’s not a replacement for true stereo sound. It will be interesting to hear how two HomePods sound in a stereo pair; because for that amount of money – $700 – you can get a good amplifier and a very good pair of speakers.
A number of people have been wondering why the HomePod will not work with music other than your purchases or Apple Music tracks (as well as Beats 1 radio and podcasts). John Gruber, on Daring Fireball, wonders:
Shouldn’t it work with iCloud Music Library? I get that it might not be able to access songs that only exist as MP3 files on your Mac, but if you have iCloud Music Library, it seems obvious that HomePod ought to be able to access them, no? It’s one thing if it doesn’t work with third-party streaming services like Spotify. But iCloud Music Library is Apple’s own thing.
It is, but… Siri isn’t that smart. You can already see that now; if you try to play music from your iCloud Music Library that isn’t in Apple’s databases, it often fails. For example, I have two King Crimson albums in my iCloud Music Library. If I tell Siri on my iPhone to “play King Crimson,” it starts playing music by that artist; one of four items available on Apple Music: two live albums, one live EP, and one live single. King Crimson, or rather its leader Robert Fripp, is anti-streaming, and I was actually surprised to find that those live recordings are streamable, but no other King Crimson album is.
It seems that Siri is designed to not be able to easily play any music it doesn’t recognize; in the sense that it can parse the Apple Music and iTunes Store databases and find artists, albums, and tracks it knows, but it cannot efficiently parse your entire iCloud Music Library, which could contain, potentially, 100,000 tracks that are not available from Apple. (In practice, for most users, this number is low, but if I were to add my live Grateful Dead collection, there would be thousands of tracks that are not available to stream or to buy from Apple.)
My guess is that Apple has built up language models for the pronunciation of artists, albums, and tracks for music it owns, allowing Siri to traverse a database when trying to match music requests, and doing so for each user’s iCloud Music Library would be onerous, and problematic, since each database would have to be unique. If I were to tell Siri to play “Grateful Dead 5/8/77,” I can understand this might be a problem.
Here’s an example. I have an album of shakuhachi music called The Sound of Zen, by Okuda Atsuya, in my iCloud Music Library. This album is not available on Apple Music, nor is it for sale on the iTunes Store; iTunes uploaded my files.
If I ask Siri to play it – and, the album title isn’t that complicated – it fails.
And if I ask to play music by Okuda Atsuya, well…
However, if I specify an album, such as “Play the album In the Court of the Crimson King,” Siri can play it. So it seems that Siri is limited in how it parses what you say, and is only truly effective when you give it precise requests. (Think of it as a decision tree that narrows down when you add arguments such as “album” or “song;” Siri doesn’t have to search as much metadata.) But because of this need to be specific, I think Apple doesn’t want Siri to seem to fail, so it is limiting what Siri can access when using the HomePod.
Another possibility is that this limitation is present because the HomePod doesn’t have full access to its features when the main user’s iOS device isn’t on the same network. It seems that it will be able to play from Apple Music when that device isn’t present, but that it will no longer be fully linked to an individual’s iCloud Music Library. However, I would find that explanation to be a bit lazy; it wouldn’t be complicated to tell users that there are two scenarios: one, when the iOS device is present, which would allow access to the full iCloud Music Library, and another, when it’s not, which would be limited.
Note that you can, of course, stream music to the HomePod via AirPlay, so you can play any music in your iCloud Music Library or on an iOS device, or even a Mac, but you must initiate the playback manually, not using Siri.
But speakers like this tend to have this shape. Offerings from companies like Sonos are cylinders with rounded corners; Apple just makes it round all the way. At 172 mm, or 6.8 in. tall, it’s pretty much the standard size of these objects, and at 2.5 kg, or 5.5 lb., it’s a pretty hefty device (1.5 lb. more than the Sonos PLAY:1).
Don’t forget, the HomePod is a mono speaker. While you can set up a stereo pair, that’s $700, or much more than the price of a decent amplifier and bookshelf speakers. Sure, you get Siri, but if you’re buying the HomePod, you probably already have Siri in your iPhone.
Apple is fighting two battles here: they’re competing with Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, in the “digital assistant” market, and they’re taking on Sonos and other companies with multi-room audio. While they compared the prices of a good speaker plus an Echo or Home to the price of HomePod, it’s not that convincing. If you buy into this technology, the Echo Dot costs just $50. And if you really like this technology, you’ll want multiple devices, one in every room. Amazon has the right idea there. If you want to put such a device in, say, the living room, kitchen, and a bedroom, it’s $150 from Amazon (without the audio quality), vs. $1,050 using the HomePod.
Obviously, it’s not the same market. The standalone speaker market has many options, from cheap Bluetooth devices to better AirPlay compatible speakers. The advantage to the HomePod would be having synchronized multi-room audio – which already works perfectly with AirPlay – without buying into the Sonos ecosystem, and having Siri, if that rocks your boat.
Apple touts the audio quality of the HomePod:
Place HomePod anywhere in the room. It automatically analyzes the acoustics, adjusts the sound based on the speaker’s location, and steers the music in the optimal direction. Whether HomePod is against the wall, on a shelf, or in the middle of the room, everyone gets an immersive listening experience.
It remains to be seen how well this works. We’ll know in December.