One of the most interesting new audio categories comes in the form of intelligent speakers. After the surprise blow that was Amazon Echo, it seemed that all the companies were trying to put a speaker in their home. But they did not always sound good. The original Google Home was like the Echo in the sense that it was not built exactly to listen to music, but it was the center of your smart home (assuming you installed locks, thermostats and smart bulbs). But now we are seeing the transition from useful kitchen assistant to the center of your home entertainment system. We’ve already seen the Google Home Max, but there’s also the Apple Homepod to consider.
Unlike Home Max, Apple Homepod is quite small and has some important limitations. But does that matter? Let’s see it in our review of Apple HomePod.
- Someone who owns Apple hardware (iPhone, iPad, Mac). Actually, this part is mandatory. Generally, it’s easier to get the most out of an Apple product if you already have another Apple product. Just look at Airdrop to see an example. But in the case of the Apple Homepod, having another Apple device is basically mandatory. Without a Mac, iPhone or iPad, the Homepod can not be used.
- Apple Music subscribers. If you are an Apple Music subscriber, this speaker is perfect for you. You can ask Siri to play everything, from the new Miley Cyrus song to jams jams, and it will force you to perfection. If you are not an Apple Music subscriber, then read on because getting this speaker to do what you want could be a problem.
- Anyone who does not want Google to track it, but does not care that Apple does. If you are not very satisfied with the fact that Google has a record of everything you ask Google Home, then the additional privacy of Apple Homepod could be the deciding factor for you. Of course, it’s just a little better. They are still recording you, but your queries are assigned a random ID instead of associating it with your account. In addition, the legal implications of having something in your home that is always listening are still being debated. We talked extensively about this topic in our podcast episode entitled “Smart Speakers, A New Legal Frontier,” so be sure to listen if you are interested in learning more about the subject.
How do I connect to the Apple Homepod?
The Apple Homepod is a smart speaker, which means you have to connect it to your WiFi if you want it to work. Once you connect it, you will need a device with iOS 8 or higher to configure it. Go to the startup application and simply follow the instructions to get it up and running. If you are doing this on an iPhone or iPad, the process is perfect and you will do it in a matter of minutes. But if you are an Android user or do not have any device with iOS 8 or later: then you are in a stream without an oar. Unlike Google’s Home Max, which really does not care what phone it has, Apple Homepod needs another Apple device to get it up and running.
Once you sign in to Apple Music, you’re ready, just ask. play a song and force. Which brings us to the second main disadvantage of Apple’s Homepod. It only extracts music from the Apple Music service. If you use any other music streaming service, you have no luck. Also, there is no 3.5mm input on the device, so you can not circumvent this by connecting an audio cable. One way to avoid this is to transmit the audio to the speaker, but again: that’s only if you have an iOS device, since Airplay is not available on Android devices. An interesting feature of Airplay 2 is the ability to synchronize two Homepods and convert them into left and right channels. Unfortunately, we only had one Homepod available, so we could not try this feature on our own.
One good thing about the Applepod Homepod is that microphones do a great job of raising your voice, which is important as it is the main way to control playback if you are not at your fingertips. If the volume was ten percent or 100 percent, he usually picked up my voice in the first or second attempt to say the active word. This is great when you compare it to something similar to Google Home Max, which had trouble picking up my voice when the music was loud, even if I was standing close to it. If you do not feel like using your voice, there is a touch panel on top of the speaker that allows you to pause or play music by touching the center, adjust the volume by pressing the minus or plus signs and even access Siri by pressing hard on the center of the pad.
Which brings us to the construction and design of the Apple Homepod
For the most part, the build quality of this speaker is excellent. It is completely covered by a plush fabric that hides most, if not all, of the plastic from which the speaker is surely made. Basically, I have nothing negative to say about the way this speaker is articulated. And even though the minimalist design seems absolutely beautiful to me when sitting on my countertop or bedside table, the location of the touch screen on top of the speaker was more inconvenient than it was useful. As Gary would say, let me explain.
Every time he says “Hey Siri”, Siri’s graph appears on the touch screen that lets him know that he heard it and is now listening to his next command. It is useful when you are standing next to it, but if you are on the other side of the room it is almost impossible to know if the speaker heard you. More than once I ended up repeating the keyword at the same time that Siri answered my question simply because I did not realize that she had listened to me.
By contrast, the Google Home Max has four lights embedded in the fabric on the front of the speaker that is turned on to let you know you are listening. The Amazon Echo does something similar with its ring of light. Apple’s Homepod basically asks you to trust that it’s working (which is a good metaphor for Apple’s products in general). To be fair, most of the time the microphone captures my voice perfectly well, but a small visual hint would be nice.
But how does it sound?
This is where things get interesting. Like the Google Home Max, the Homepod also has microphones inside that auto-adjust the equalizer depending on how close you are to a wall or other objects so that the sound remains relatively constant during use. If you place a speaker near a corner, the lower end receives a good boost when bouncing. The microphones can hear that this is the case, and then lower the pitch of the bass notes to maintain a reliable sound. As was the case with Google Home Max, I really can not prove that it is doing this. But I can say that whether the speaker is in a corner of my desk or in the middle of a room, I could not hear any significant difference between the two.
The Apple Homepod is not a big speaker, so its low range is not going to be overwhelming like it is with Google Home Max. Nor is it as noisy as the Google Home Max, but both features work in their favor. There is still a sufficiently loud bass where it is quite easy to follow the bass line throughout the song Let It Happen by Tame Impala, but it is not loud enough to hamper the use of any of the voices or other instruments in the lower media. The bass kicks easily under the synths and keeps pace easily, but it’s definitely not as powerful as the Google Home Max.
So it does not look like the Home Max is a monster hungry for drool, but the Homepod definitely seems to be stopping sometimes to put the same emphasis on other elements besides the bass. Voices in the song Send Me to Peach of The Blasting Company is very clear and the background voices of the choir never hide what is happening. When it comes to high levels, the Homepod also shows a good amount of control. The highs definitely seem to be underestimated a bit to avoid hardness, but there is also a slight push in some narrow bands so that the cymbals can still be distinguished even if they lack prominence.
 A good example of this are all the cymbal blocks in the song Step Out by José González, which can be heard clearly throughout the chorus, even if They sound almost muffled compared to, say, a good pair of open hearing aids.
Final Thoughts and Competitors
When it comes to that, I have no problem saying that Apple Homepod is the best smart speaker I’ve ever heard. And yes, that includes the Google Home Max. The Homepod does not have the same bass response that manufacturers tend to lean on, but I personally like it. By keeping things focused with good taste on the quality of the sound and not on the massive tuning, the music is much clearer. The Home Max has a more “consumer friendly” sound with a bigger bass response that I think more people will enjoy, plus the Google Assistant is light years away from Siri.
When it comes to that, the Homepod also has many limitations to recommend to most people. In fact, it is impossible to recommend it to anyone who does not have at least one device in the Apple ecosystem and, unless you subscribe to Apple Music, it will never work as well as you would like. If you’re already into the Apple ecosystem, you might like this speaker. But it’s still worth looking into the Google Home Max or even something like the Sonos One before making your final decision. The Sonos One still provides a good sound, has a reliable ecosystem that supports it and promises support for the main voice aides.
It’s not exactly a smart speaker, but it’s close enough. But heck, if you’re already in the Apple ecosystem: none of this matters anyway. You’re just going to buy the Homepod anyway, right?