Is The Apple's HomePod Smart Speaker Worth The Money?

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Apple's entry into the increasingly competitive smart speaker market is here, and while the tech giant likes to claim it's focused almost entirely on the musical experience, via Apple Music, its close ties to Siri and Apple HomeKit make it tough not to compare the HomePod to similar devices produced by Google and Amazon.

Looking simultaneously smaller and chubbier than I expected, the HomePod is a heavy little unit with a bigger shelf footprint than its competition, and it has the minimalist, slightly dusty look of a Hi-Fi speaker. Up top it has little lights to indicate when Siri is listening, and some simple touch controls for volume and pausing.

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Setting the device up is dead easy, you just wave an iPhone or other iOS device near the speaker (if you don't have an iOS device, obviously, you will not be able to use the HomePod), and it connects. Beyond that you'll mostly be using your voice to interact with the speaker, but more on that later.

The main thing to note about the HomePod is that it sounds amazing. I'm confident in saying it's the best-sounding speaker I've ever heard at its size and $500 price range. Capable of playing very loud without becoming distorted or uncomfortable, the HomePod seems to create a stage where the various elements of the sound are separated and occupy their own space, yet the music is definitely as recorded, and doesn't sound artificially enhanced or filtered.

The details of how this effect is achieved get pretty technical, with HomePod using six of its seven microphones to create an acoustic model of its physical location, adjusting the output of each of its seven tweeters and cut down on noisy echoes. It also uses beamforming to play the front stage into an area it knows is empty and push the more ambient sounds into walls.

This doesn't sound like stereo — that functionality is coming to the speaker later via a software patch, if you feel like buying two of them — but rather it allows the most direct sounds like guitar and lead vocals to come through incredibly clear and distinct. It also means the music sounds pretty good no matter where you put the speaker (as long as it's on a hard surface), or from where you're listening. Meanwhile a seventh microphone keeps tabs on the single woofer, adjusting output constantly so it doesn't distort or overwhelm the music.

All this processing is enabled by an embedded A8 chip, the same piece of silicon that was the brains of the iPhone 6, and there's even an accelerometer inside to tell the HomePod when it has been moved, so it can automatically tune itself again if you relocate it.

Yet of course, Apple being Apple, this isn't merely a speaker you can connect to with your phone or a cable and play whatever you like. And unfortunately, despite sounding decisively better than any of the Google Homes, any of the Amazon Alexas or Sonos' similarly-sized One speaker, everything about the HomePod that isn't related to audio engineering drags it down.

It's not controversial to say that Siri is worse than the other two major voice-activated assistants, sounding more robotic and having a lot more trouble understanding natural language, but she's even less helpful in the HomePod.

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The machine is extremely good at hearing the "Hey Siri" command over its own music, but I often found I had to give the command, pause deliberately, and then very clearly state my request for it to work consistently. Even then there were issues. "Hey Siri, turn the music up" resulted in the music being turned off multiple times, which was definitely a buzzkill. When I tried "Hey Siri, turn up the volume", she said: "Turn the volume up, or down?"

Needless to say, there were also instances where asking for a song, album or artist resulted in something completely different being played, in which case you need to maintain your composure enough to calmly say "Hey Siri ... stop".

You'll also need to learn some very specific commands to get the most out of the speaker. For example if you ask for a specific song, HomePod will only play that song and then stop, unlike Google's Home which just continues on with an on-the-fly playlist. To get the same functionality here, you need to interrupt mid-song to say "play more like this".

Music aside, Siri can access weather forecasts and a few local news bulletins, and can control any smart devices you've already set up through Apple HomeKit. She can grab some information from the web, but certainly not to the extent of Google's Assistant, and she's useless in the kitchen, ceding a crucial point to the other two smart speakers. You can ask Siri to set a timer, but she can only handle one at a time. When I asked her to find a recipe or perform a measurement conversion she told me she "can't access that information on HomePod", even though she can do conversions fine on other devices.

Siri can also read out your messages, send messages on your behalf and access basic info from your phone, but I highly suggest you turn this feature off. The reason being Siri doesn't care to differentiate your voice from anyone elses, and will happily access your very personal information for anybody that asks, as long as your iPhone is on the same Wi-Fi network as the HomePod. Apple has been keen to point out to the privacy conscious that, unlike its rivals, it doesn't have anything to gain by collecting user information through its speaker. But this lack of very basic security is boggling, even if it can be mitigated by never using the feature.

The other complication is that the speaker is unabashedly a vehicle for Apple Music. This is the only music service that works seamlessly with the device and that can be accessed by using your voice, which will be annoying even for Apple Music devotees and renders the HomePod pretty limited for people not interested in using the service.

Any app that supports AirPlay can send audio to the HomePod — I tested Google Play Music, Spotify and Pocket Casts and they all sounded great — but at that point you're back to managing the music with your phone and may as well be using the inferior-sounding but substantially cheaper Sonos One.

One of the main advantages of a smart speaker is the "smart" part, but by locking most of its functionality to Apple Music the company has ensured the HomePod's intelligence is relative to how much time a user has spent with that service. Long-time Apple Music users will be able to say "play something poppy" or "put on my metal playlist" and get a good result — and you can even tell the speaker when you like or don't like a song, which will affect your Apple Music profile going forward — but the experience for newcomers is less appealing.


This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.


Comments

    Even being late to market here won't hurt them, these'll sell well to the Apple devotees.

    Given it seems to be the best speaker on the market, at that price, it will sell very well.

    Guests can be invited to use the HomePod, so turning off the ‘for you’ learning function is probably wise if you have people over.

    I have been told that by turning access to Siri "off", all users still have limited access to certain Siri controls. Siri can still be used to play music, but they have no access to any calendars, or emails, or what ever.

    Last edited 10/02/18 9:06 am

    General consensus online seems to be that it's an outstanding speaker but Siri is still behind Google Assistant and even Alexa, which cripples the 'smart' part of 'smart speaker'.

    That said, I've only ever used my Google Home for playing music to keep the dog company, and to set timers.

    I see smart speakers the same way as smart watches, I don't get the need for a device like this. I already have Siri on my iPhone iPad and Mac and even then I hardly use her. Recently stopped using Apple Music and now use Spotify. If I listen to music it's either while I'm at my desk or I connect my iPad to a bluetooth speaker.

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