The Problems with Apple’s HomePods

Apple released the HomePod in February, 2018, and the device has never seemed to catch on. There have been strong rumors recently about a HomePod 2 coming next year. But there are lots of problems with the HomePod, which Apple needs to address.

The HomePod is expensive. At $349, the price at launch, it was overpriced; at $299, its current price, it’s still not a good value. The HomePod costs $100 more than the Sonos One, which is a comparable, and some would say better speaker. (I think the Sonos One sounds better than the HomePod.) Apple was clearly targeting its core market, people willing to pay more for better products, but this isn’t a product that people are willing to pay more for, apparently.

The HomePod doesn’t have a clear use. 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.

The HomePod doesn’t sound that good. Don’t get me wrong: it sounds fine, but not good enough. It’s better than pretty many Bluetooth speakers, but it doesn’t sound as good as it should for the price. It has a default sound signature that is very bass-heavy, which is not to everyone’s taste. And there are no EQ controls (as you have with Sonos speakers, for example), meaning that you need to adjust the sound on a device that you stream from, such as an iPhone. If you interact directly with the HomePod, then you can’t make any adjustments to the sound. And, one more issue with a stereo pair: you can’t adjust the balance. It’s not always easy to get two speakers positioned exactly where you want them so you are in the sweet spot. (To quote Chris Connaker, from his review on Audiophile Style: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an audiophile product. It’s a me too voice control product that happens to play audio.”)

The HomePod’s fancy technology 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). Apple has an animation on its website showing what the HomePod does, but what does this even mean? It’s a mono speaker.

Homepod

The HomePod is unreliable. To Apple’s credit, the HomePod can hear you say “Hey, Siri,” even with music playing loudly; that’s pretty impressive. But set up HomePods in a stereo pair and be prepared to reset them regularly. After a while, the stereo pair stops working, and music comes out if just one speaker. Sometimes you can simply split the stereo pair and re-create it, but I’ve had to fully reset my two HomePods several times. This could be the fault of the HomePod’s software, or of Apple’s Home app, but it’s not reliable.

The HomePod’s design is mistaken. Who am I to question Jony Ive, right? But think about it: a speaker is generally directional. You point it to where you want the music to be heard. There are exceptions, of course. You may want one in the middle of a room, in which case the HomePod’s seven tweeters in a circle around the base of the device make sense. Sort of. Because you don’t put tweeters at the base of a speaker; ideally, tweeters should be at the level of your ears, because high frequency waves are smaller. Try it at home. Sit next to your speakers, and then stand up; you’ll hear a drop in the high end. In my bedroom, where I have a stereo pair of HomePods, I had to put them on a higher shelf than I would have wanted so I can hear music correctly in bed.

Apple tried to do too much with the HomePod. 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.

And they forgot one thing that might have sold more HomePods: you can’t send audio from a Mac to a stereo pair of HomePods. You can send music from iTunes, but not system audio. So if someone wants to use a pair of HomePods on their desk, as computer speakers, they can’t. Here’s an image from Reddit, showing how it would look:

Imac homepod

There are two problems. The first is that this is only usable with iTunes; you can’t stream audio from, say, QuickTime Player if you want to watch a video, or from Safari if you’re watching or listening to something on YouTube. And see where the tweeters are, there at the bottom of the speakers? That will not sound good in this sort of setup.

Apple should have done the necessary to sell the HomePod as computer speakers, but the design is wrong; even with speaker stands, the tweeters at the bottom mean you would need very tall stands to balanced good sound from that distance.

In any case, the market decides for products like this. The HomePod just seems like it wasn’t thought out for real-world usage. It has powerful technology, which is wasted, and its price is way above what people want to pay.

Apple continues:

With two HomePod speakers set up as a stereo pair, this soundstage gets even wider, delivering room-filling sound that is more spacious than a traditional stereo pair from a speaker that’s just under 7-inches tall. Using spatial awareness to sense their location in the room, each HomePod automatically adjusts the audio to sound great wherever it is placed and sound great together, using an Apple-designed wireless peer-to-peer direct link to communicate with each other and play music completely in sync.

This suggests that the “spatial awareness” is used to control which tweeters send audio. The HomePod knows it’s, say, a foot from a wall, and can tell that the other HomePod is at a certain direction, allowing it to figure out which way is intended to be the front. This probably doesn’t work if you set two HomePods, say, at ends of a table in the center of a room.

26 thoughts on “The Problems with Apple’s HomePods

  1. Good piece. What’s missing is that you also don’t have balance settings when using two as a stereo pair. That’s a no-go everyone who doesn’t have spacy design lofts, where they can arrange furniture in order to let the speakers be placed best..

  2. You missed my use case. I have three HimePods, a stereo pair in the living room and one in the kitchen. I also have two Airport Expresses, one attached to a replica with old fashioned radio in the dining room (to fit my 1937 built house) and another in the den attached to an amp that drive a pair of indoor speakers and a pair of outdoor speakers (with a switch to drive indoor, outdoor, or both). It’s great to have music playing all around the house, synched perfectly. In combination with Apple Music, I’ve been listening to a lot of music. There is a problem that I think can be traced to WiFi connection issues. Sometimes the HomePods lose track of one another and, even more often, they lose track of one or both of the airport expresses. The software needs to be made more robust so that it can tie everything back together after upsets in power or communication.

  3. I have streamed music from Safari to the HomePods. You are wrong that this can’t be done. Its been a while since I did it, but the problem I found was that I could not stream stereo to a pair of HomePods with Safari.

  4. Most of its problems are software related, solve those and it’s on getting there. Like the Apple Watch, it needs time. (The one thing that really bugs me is Siri being over talkative: when I tell it to turn off the lights, don’t tell me « on it », just do it. Siri doesn’t need to talk on or off action, just shut up! My personal pet peeve. Again it’s just software. ). Hopefully they won’t give up on it too fast, I like my HomePods.

    • “Like the Apple Watch, it needs time”

      Do you mean that like the Apple Watch which is unable to simply display time (i.e. without requiring a user gesture), the Home Pod would also need to be able to simply perform its primary task: which is to play sound wherever the audio source is coming from (device, software, etc.)?

  5. One can easily tailor the EQ whether by using the EQ in the app being used to play music to the HomePod (eg. OnkyoHD player) or going into System Preferences/Music/EQ. The HomePod responds brilliantly in rendering whatever EQ one desires and wants to throw at it, and the resulting sound is outstanding. As to the claim “the overall opinion among audiophiles is that it’s meh”, I’d sure like to know the source of this as the HomePod has been generally well reviewed in many audio magazines for it’s sound quality which blows the doors off other small speakers. I think the author needed to do a LOT more homework before writing the article which would potentially steer buyers away from what is a great sounding product……MEH for this article!

  6. I have a question and maybe you can help me out with this: long ago, I remember reading somewhere that each song came with its own eq in the metadata file and to activate that eq, all you needed to do is put the iPhone on the flat eq option (so you didn’t have to fiddle with the eq when you listen to all types of music on one playlist like I do). Is that true? Frankly I can’t tell.

    • If you have truly neutral speakers, then you don’t need EQ. Each song is produced and mastered to have the EQ that the producers want. However, when you have speakers whose frequency response is unbalanced, like the HomePod, you either accept the excess bass, or you adjust the EQ.

      But there is no EQ in any metadata in any song file.

  7. You obviously don’t like the HomePod.

    I have three (3) and I think they’re great — excellent sound quality with interesting and unique industrial design. Compared to my B&O speakers, the HomePods are excellent value.

    Like my comments, virtually all of what you’ve written is completely subjective — opinion, not fact — really just a personal rant.

    Meh.

  8. So I only partly agree with your points – i’ve got a couple of stereo pairs and a solo one for the bathroom. For a rev 1 Apple product they’re pretty solid and software continues to add features.

    I’ve had them log out occasionally especially after signing in to another HomeKit homes but stereo issues not so much. So I’d agree with a commenter- disconnection could be a Wi Fi issue.

    New yes they are expensive. Until Spotify Is native they are a niche sell, but with antitrust fears surely that will come. I bought only 1 new and paid nearer £200 with a 2 year guarantee for the others – so I find them VFM. And because they are not market leader it is possible to find a discount.

    If you have HomeKit lights and accessories then they do have a clear use over traditional speakers – especially in non dedicated listening environments. E.g great for answering calls when doing chores or cooking. I set alarms, check weather, make calls and control lights daily. Hopefully they will definitively address the grey area about privacy – I’d still trust them over Google or Amazon.

    I think they sound and look pretty great. I don’t want the hassle of amps in every room. The sound stage in stereo for me beats Sonos – especially when placed mid room I.e a kitchen and you are moving around. It’s incredibly spacious and involving – even a single one destroy’s the cheap Alexa speakers my friends rave about – the ones’s that tipsy people at dinner parties yell at unheard. Don’t get me wrong Sonos One sound good too – if you’re standing in front of them ).

    It may be a mono speaker but i’m pretty sure frequencies are pushed differently from drivers around the device depending on proximity to objects – and unlike new Ikea Sonos devices you don’t gave to recalibrate with your phone if you move it.

    Design is subjective, but as a discreet object in a living environment without extra cabling- for me it hits the spot moreso than the lamp, HomePod in a sock Ikea combo.

    Mac to HomePod in stereo? Roger that. Baffling. Would love to use a pair as a rear set of surrounds in a 5.1 set up too..

    Overall I love them and am quite glad Apple are on the back foot and need to keep improving to compete.

    • The area where they do shine, as you say, is in the center of a room. But I doubt that’s how most people use them.

  9. …but the overall opinion among audiophiles is that [anything but their own system] is meh.

    There, fixed that for you

  10. I considered Homepod at first only because of the sound quality is rated #1 out of all Bluetooth Speakers out there by Dozens of Audiophiles and Tech Sites. However too many limitations on hookup. PLus I decided to spend a little more for a Pair of Audio Engine 5s. No one can tell me “Size doesn’t Matter” and Bigger is always Better, ask any Audiophile or Musician. Al these “Short Stuff” style speakers cannot come even close to two separate Stereo Bookshelf sized Speakers Hard Wired to your Mac. Plus, No cutting out when you walk in front of Bluetooth Signals or WiFi Dropouts. If you want the best Sound Dollar for Dollar get a pair of Audio Engine 5s. and No need to buy 2 HomePods that would cost more than the AE 5s.

  11. Right on the spot Kirk. Homepod is one of the biggest fiascos of Apple I can remember.

    Technically, it has all the necessary elements to disrupt the home audio market with a theoretical fantastic audio quality at a fraction of the cost of similarly performing devices. But Apple once again, as in many other products, falls short on that.

    The unit is awfully bad tuned like a boom-box, a surprising fact given the stellar engineering team recruited for its development. The “spatial awareness” concept needed to be complemented to a “listener location awareness” (much easier, could be done by tracking the users iphone or watch position), specially once paired units was possible, but Apple is just worried in filling space with sound, not faithful music reproduction.
    The same spatial awareness could have been done much better once you have two or more HoP working in tandem, as you start to triangulate the room acoustics scanning, allowing a precise map of the acoustic environment. But nothing of that was done. Sad, as every technical aspect of the device could have made it a spectacularly good hifi speaker; in that case, $700/pair would have been a bargain. That level of audio quality was the promise of Apple. Yet, they never figured out why and for what they were making this speaker, in the first place.

    Homepods, and the refusal to improve the almost unusable Apple music, along with insisting to deny lossless streaming, are among my biggest of many disappointments with Apple in recent years.

  12. I suspect that the bottom placement of the tweeters is to allow top placement of the low-frequency driver, which in turn is to leverage wave cancellation from the supporting-surface reflection, as a clever, pure-acoustical way to mitigate the low-mid frequency bump which is the unavoidable adverse side effect of LF boost to extend the LF range.

    Raising HomePod from its supporting surface would change the center point of this LF cancellation, interfering with this design.

    And if this suspicion is right, it’s all the more perplexing that the low-mid heaviness is so bad as to make it distinctly unpleasant to listen to podcasts on the device.

      • I think the tweeters are also trusting in reflections of the supporting surface for wider dispersion. Horns are very directional, this enhances the omnidirectional pattern besides the array of units used. The problem is that this extreme omni directionality is suitable for room filling, but very bad for intelligibility of spoken voices. Once again, an algorithm tracking listener position could lower the volume of the tweeters not facing the listener.

        • That wouldn’t make sense. If they are angled down, then you’d still have to be in a sweet spot vertically to hear them correctly.

          • Well, tweeters are facing down and inward, using the unit base as a diffraction surface. I believe sound is then further spreaded out using the surface of the table where the HoP are located. The whole purpose of using horns, I think, is that (besides a higher efficiency), they have a bigger control of the dispersion patterns. Since they are not tracking the user, but only the room acoustics, that benefit is partially denied.
            Besides that, once you have paired units working in tandem, you may even virtually locate the voice in some specific point in your room. With great imaging speakers, for example the wonderful Kef ls-50, mono recordings seems to be emanating from none of the speakers, but from a virtual third one in between, while the real speakers seem to be dead silent. It is pretty amazing. I was hoping the homepods to achieve that effect on steroids ( they have all the required hardware for that), but tracking the users position in the room would be a must for that, and Apple isn’t doing it.

            • About 15 years ago, I had a pair of Eclipse TD speakers. The sound was like what you said: you couldn’t tell where it was coming from (if it was mono). It was amazing.

              I agree about user position; that’s a big weakness.

            • The Eclipses! I’m jealous.. 🙂 I’ve day-dreamed about them. Keeping in mind the 10X differences in price and overall performance, I think the LS50 have many of the design features of the Eclipses (both free standing monitors with concentric, point source units; non resonant, extremely rigid and curved baffle; narrow front; no diffraction corners; attention to phase coherence; etc), all thought for that spectacular imaging behavior they both have. Can’t imagine what do you have now, that you let those marvels to go away…

  13. Replying to the comment above; we’ve hit the limit for threaded comments.

    I sold them early this year for a couple hundred pounds. They weren’t the expensive ones; I think they were around $500-600 when I got them back in 2014. But they were amazing. I would love to hear their current models, which are another order of magnitude more expensive.

    I recently bought the KEF Q150, which has the same type of driver as the LS50, because I didn’t need wireless. I like them a lot.

  14. #1 Clear use case – AppleTV Premium Speaker 1. HomePod as premium speaker system for Apple TV streaming content. A missed use is the HomePod or duo HomePod arrangement as complement for entertainment system. I use it with YouTube TV and Infuse with great success providing premium sound at the flip of a setting. It is quite fantastic to go from adjusting the lights for movie night with a ‘Hey Siri’ command and then watching content on a streaming service with spectacular room busting sound! Apple unfortunately does not promote this pairing in its marketing. Hopefully it will do so with the arrival of Apple TV+ this fall. Please note it is cumbersome to add the HomePod as a speaker before selecting an app in Apple TV. YouTube TV as a service provides the functionality in their app (which is great, more apps need to do this).
    Other use cases
    HomePod is great for podcasts. You can ask Siri to play the podcast and do things in the house while without touching anything. Podcasting is all the rage now. Where is the marketing?
    HomePod is a great alternative to a conference room phone. Simply flip your call to the HomePod from your iPhone if it is on the same network. Everyone in the room can hear and speak due to the wonderful omen-directional microphone arrangement. It really is a competitor to OWL labs.
    I own a set of Bose speakers, so I know the HomePod may not have the best rounded sound, but the functionality of going between using Siri for podcasting, phone calls, Apple Music and Apple TV has made the Bose chose obsolete and inconvenient as it is only tied to the flatscreen.

    • So you put one HomePod in front of your TV? That must look weird.

      Re podcasts: I think it’s terrible for that. The sound is way too bossy for spoken word, you can’t change the speed (unless you stream from an iPhone), and you can’t easily skip ahead and back.

      Conference calls, on the other hand: that’s a wonderful use case. I never thought of that.

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