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Apple HomePod review

WE’VE NOW SPENT A MONTH with the Apple HomePod, the company’s first attack on the smart speaker market.

Unlike Apple’s rivals efforts, the Siri-powered speaker is focused less on the “smart” and more on the “speaker” side of things. Inside the HomePod, you’ll find a 4in Apple-built subwoofer and a seven tweeter array with precision acoustic horns and directional control. This, in short, means that Apple has its sights set more firmly on Sonos and Bose, than Amazon and Google.

Design
This is by no means the most important thing to consider when buying a speaker, but the Apple HomePod is, undeniably, a good-looking bit of kit. It’s surprisingly small at 172mm tall and 142mm wide, and just as surprisingly heavy at a hefty 2.5kg.

The design is very typically ‘Apple’, to the point where the HomePod couldn’t be much more minimalist; its “seamless 3D mesh fabric” exterior serving to remind you that the device is all about audio.

On the top of the HomePod, you’ll find a touchscreen surface, which displays a light show when you bark the ‘Hey, Siri’ wake word. Touching this shiny surface conjures plus and minus symbols, allowing you to adjust the volume manually. 

The HomePod’s only real distinguishing feature is the thick power cable coming out of its rear, which – thankfully – can be easily hidden behind whatever piece of furniture you choose to plonk the HomePod on.

Don’t choose anything too expensive, though, as Apple has admitted that the HomePod’s rubber base can leave unsightly white rings on wooden furniture. Thankfully, we shoved our HomePod on top of a cheap Ikea shelving unit, but after placing it on our TV stand for a couple of minutes it had started to leave a white ring behind. Thankfully, we were able to remove the mark with a damp cloth, but others might not be so lucky. 

Set up
As we’ve documented elsewhere, setting up the HomePod was not easy. While most will be able to set up the speaker in mere seconds, we didn’t have such luck thanks to an ongoing, unfixed issue with Apple’s ‘Home’ application. We won’t go into too much detail here, but after multiple conversations with Apple about the ‘Error -6722′ problem, it’s clear the firm doesn’t yet know how to fix it.

If, like my iPhone-wielding partner, you don’t have any issues with your Home app, setting up the HomePod is an absolute doddle. Hold your iPhone near the speaker, follow the onscreen instructions and the HomePod will be ready to use seconds later.

Of course, if you haven’t got an iPhone, you won’t be able to set it up at all.

Which brings us to our next point. The Apple HomePod is a product aimed at those already deeply tied into the company’s heavily-walled ecosystem. If you want to use voice commands, you’ll need to have a subscription to Apple Music or iTunes Match. There’s no way to use Siri to control third-party music services, such as Spotify, nor can you bark at the HomePod to play music you’ve got stored locally.

You can use Apple’s AirPlay to stream music from third-party services or a local client, though. While this means you can’t make the most of the HomePod’s baked-in AI smarts, we haven’t noticed any loss of audio quality by doing so.

Siri
Siri itself needs a bit of work. While the HomePod’s far-field microphone array means you can bark ‘Hey, Siri’ from another room and it’ll never fail to pick you up, it often struggles to understand what we’re asking for. Just the other day, barking ‘Hey Siri, play Awolnation’ resulted in the HomePod blasting a playlist of whale music. 

Most of the time, though, it works just fine. ‘Hey Siri, play Beats 1’ never fails to fire up the radio, but if you’re directing more advanced questions at the speaker – such as ‘Hey Siri, remind me to pick up bread tomorrow’ – it tends to get mixed up, and we found ourselves having to phrase things differently so that Siri could understand.

Siri isn’t as advanced as Alexa or Google Assistant yet, either, most-frustratingly in the way that it can’t differentiate multiple voices. What’s more, while it can act as an extension to your iPhone by reading messages and adding things to your calendar, it can only do so with the iPhone used to set it up.  

Audio
And onto the most important bit: sound quality. Apple’s HomePod outclasses all the smart speakers we’ve used so far, and while we’re yet to pit it against the Google Home Max, it’s quickly seen our Google Home become redundant. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the HomePod is its ability to adapt to the space it’s placed in. Thanks to Apple’s A8 processor, the speaker is able to constantly ‘listen’ to its environment and optimise the sound quality accordingly. This means if, like us, you’ve placed the HomePod in the corner of a room, it will still sound excellent.

Related: Sonos One review

Seriously, excellent. We’ve through everything at our HomePod – from Snoop Dogg to Metallica to Taylor Swift – and it hasn’t yet struggled to deliver incredible sound. The HomePod’s bass is incredibly rich and deep, yet it never feels in danger of overwhelming the clear vocals or crisp treble.

The size of the sound is impressive too – especially considering it’s coming from a 7in speaker. Stand back from the HomePod and it can feel like music is coming from different corners of the room. 

In short
The Apple HomePod is, undoubtedly, the best speaker we’ve ever owned; it looks great, sounds fantastic and it packs one hell of a punch for a 7in-tall device.

However, that’s not to say it’s perfect. Siri still needs a lot of work to even come close to matching the advanced AI smarts of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. What’s more, if you’re not already deeply integrated into the Apple ecosystem, this probably isn’t the speaker for you. 

The good
Great design, incredible sound, easy to set up (when it works).

The bad
Siri needs some work, lack of third-party app support.

The ugly
Can mark furniture. 

Bartender’s score
8/10

beer8

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