Apple HomePod Review: Almost love
I had two listening parties with Apple HomePod, one that was all about music and another that was 75% music and 25% Siri. They were both good and I came away convinced that the HomePod is a stellar audio device.
You can, however, only learn so much about a product in a sterile, on-message environment. I wanted to touch the HomePod, listen to it in my own home and, most importantly, talk to it myself.
Out of Apple’s test environments, the HomePod is just as excellent a speaker as I remember. Its Siri integration, though, is oddly constrained. Understand, there is much about Apple’s first smart speaker attempt that people will love. Unleashed from the confines of an iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple Watch, Siri sounds richer and, in some ways, is smarter than before. It knows so much about good music (thanks to Apple Music) and stands ready to control myriad smart gadgets with just your voice.
But there are confounding limits.
In every other piece of Apple hardware that includes Siri, the digital assistant can access my calendar, but not on the HomePod.
In every other piece of Apple hardware that includes Siri, the digital assistant can access my contacts and initiate a voice or FaceTime call.
HomePod has access to my contacts but can’t do these things and, even more oddly, apologizes for it.
It is with these major caveats in mind that we dive into my Apple HomePod review, a stellar smart speaker with some fundamental, but not crippling, flaws.
It’s hard to imagine a smart speaker or most any other product for that matter, that’s easier to setup than the HomePod. The 6.8-inch-tall, by 5.6-inch wide, 5.5-pound conical speaker arrives virtually alone in its box with just a few round sheets of paper documentation to accompany it.
My speaker is space gray (there’s also a white option). It’s wrapped almost head-to-toe in a slightly squishy, yet resilient mesh fabric. There’s a rubber base with a deep indent, perhaps to assist in the base thump, and a shiny black top. Snaking out of the back is a long gray power cable. There’s no option to run off batteries, since there are none in the HomePod.
Apple’s HomePod requires at least an iPhone 5s running iOS 11.2.5. As soon as I plugged in the HomePod, a simple installation screen appeared on my iPhone 7 — one familiar to any AirPods owner — prompting me to hit Setup. I chose a location, “Lance’s Office,” which it gathered from the Apple Home app. Next, it asked me to setup an Apple Music account. I already used up my free three-month trial, so I’m immediately paying $9.99 a month.
Next the setup asked if HomePod could handle Personal Requests, which includes Messages, Reminders and Notes, but excludes Calendar (it doesn’t mention Contacts). There’s a screen about using Siri on the HomePod and then one about accessing settings for your iCloud account, including Wi-Fi. Doing so meant I didn’t have to manually enter my iCloud user name and password or my WIFI SSID and password.
After that, the HomePod spent a moment silently completing its setup. Then it spoke and told me in Siri’s voice that “you can’t tell, but I’m waving.”
The HomePod, or Siri, never asked me to help it analyze the room for better quality audio and I’m grateful. As much as I love Sonos speakers, I hate the Trueplay system that requires you to wave your phone around the room while it plays a special tone that the speaker can hear and then use to adjust its audio for the space. HomePod simply plays its 360-degree spatial audio (there are 7 tweeters arrayed in a circle around the midriff of the product) and uses its 6 microphones to listen to the audio and adjust accordingly. For what it’s worth, wherever I stood in my mid-sized home office, the audio sounded excellent.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing about the HomePod’s audio quality, which you can read more about here, so I won’t rehash the basic fact that the Apple HomePod sounds like a $349-plus speaker. It blows away my first-generation Amazon Echo and is easily as good if not better than my Sonos Play:1 speakers.
Talk to me
Instead, I’d like to focus on my conversations with Siri on the HomePod.
To start with, the combination of Siri, a vast music library, numerous genre radio stations, my own music library, and a spectacular sound system is a winner. No music request stumped Siri. She always responded with a musical choice based on my specific request, “Hey Siri, Play Elvis Costello” and my more generic ones, “Hey Siri, Play some music.” She also handled tougher ones, like, “Hey Siri, play music that sounds like Ed Sheeran.”
The more generic my questions, the more Siri used her knowledge of my previous music tastes, based on what I defined in Apple Music, my new requests, and my own music library to choose a radio station or tracks. I love that the very first thing the HomePod ever chose to play for me was a tune by Moby ( I have been mistaken for him on occasion).
I was also able to use the HomePod to AirPlay audio content from my phone’s TV app (it’s also capable of doing the same thing from your iPad, Apple TV and the Mac). I played one of the movies in my library as the sound pumped out of the HomePod. The audio is good enough that, when you use your Apple TV, you might consider giving up your soundbar.
As you might expect, I can pause, resume and stop HomePod with my voice. I can also raise and lower the volume. I usually did this via percentage: “Hey Siri, raise my volume by 50%.” Siri never quibbled with the request, she just raised the volume. When I sought to go much louder, she asked me if I was sure because it could get real loud. I said, “Yes,” and the music blasted through the first floor of my home, as the base beat traveled through my walls and outside my house.
Apple HomePod does have a small set of touch controls on that shiny top, which alternated between Siri’s listening animation and a set of static volume controls that I could touch to manually adjust the volume. I could also pause or start the audio with a tap. It’s all pretty convenient.
The walled garden Apple’s built around the HomePod’s music streaming capabilities is somewhat less convenient. While I can talk to the HomePod and access all kinds of music on Apple Music, all other streaming services, Spotify, Pandora, Sirius, are blocked. The only way to play them is through your iPhone and by setting the HomePod as the audio output. I tried this with Sirius. Even after I selected the HomePod as the output, I didn’t hear anything, not until I tapped the plus image on top of the HomePod. The music stuttered a bit and then began playing smoothly.
Considering the openness of Amazon’s Alexa system, which lets third-party companies like Sonos, Sirius, Pandora and others connect their streaming services directly to Alexa and, therefore its Echo players, this seems like a short-sighted decision on Apple’s part. There’s no good reason to do this except that Apple is trying to herd HomePod users to Apple Music.
A smart speaker is, obviously, about more than just music.
Siri and HomePod can answer many general interest questions (often delivering the answers from Wikipedia). It also handled simple math questions. I got good answers for the weather (“Hey Siri, Do I need an umbrella today?”), sports scores and schedules, and the news. Siri defaults to the NPR news report but helpfully offers to let you change the news source to CNN, Fox News or the Washington Post using only your voice. I chose to do the latter and it worked like a charm.
It’s worth noting that I spoke to HomePod in a normal tone of voice and from across the room. Even when blasting music, Siri somehow heard me. On occasion, if the music was really loud, I did have to repeat “Hey Siri,” but never more than once.
Funny side note, at one point during my testing, HomePod seemed to stop listening altogether. I made request after request and got nothing. Finally, my wife informed me that I had lapsed into saying “Alexa.” No wonder HomePod wasn’t responding. This is what happens when you’ve been using one voice assistant in the home for years and you start cheating with a different platform.
HomePod’s Siri helped me set Reminders and even shopping lists, which also go in Reminders and all appeared instantly on my iPhone. I was able to dictate text for new Notes and, yes, send texts. Through the HomePod, Siri’s text-to-speech accuracy is impressive.
When I asked HomePod if I had any upcoming appointments, Siri responded apologetically, “I can’t access your calendar here. Sorry about that.”
I mean, I knew that HomePod couldn’t access the calendar, but the response still stunned me. Why is Apple apologizing instead of enabling? I’ve asked Apple for the reasoning behind the decision, but have yet to get a response.
I was similarly disappointed with HomePod’s inability to make voice calls. Even though HomePod has access to my contacts for texts, it can’t use them to initiate calls. At least, HomePod is an able speaker phone. I used it to call my parents and found the audio good and that they heard me without my having to yell or lean into the device. Still, what I really want from my HomePod is the ability to say, “Hey Siri, call Linda” and have the HomePod initiate a call to my wife. If my Echo can do it, there’s no reason the HomePod can’t, too. Siri, by the way, doesn’t seem very happy about this situation, either. “I wish I could,” she said plaintively when I asked her to make a call, “but I can’t help you make calls on HomePod.”
In my home, we mostly use Amazon Echo for answering general interest questions, telling us about the weather, and playing a little music. Increasingly, though, we’ve been using it to control other smart devices like my Nest Thermostat and my Sonos speaker system.
Apple HomePod has similar smart home control capabilities, but they’re confined to products that support HomeKit. The Apple store lists dozens of HomeKit-compatible gadgets, but I only own one of them, an iDevice dual plug. Sonos and Nest products are not on the list.
I found a lamp, plugged it into the iDevice switch and then set up control in Apple’s Home App. Then I said to the HomePod, “Hey Siri, Turn on the light.” It did it without hesitation and responded just as surely when I asked it to turn it off.
The Home App and, by extension, Apple HomePod can also manage full home automation scenes. A scene is a way of controlling multiple smart home device settings with a single command. For example, you could say, “Hey Siri, it’s movie night,” to the HomePod and your HomeKit-compatible shades might draw, the lights could dim, and Apple TV could turn on.
With just one device, I set up a scene called “I’m here,” and set it to turn on the light when I said, “I’m here.” It worked perfectly. Scenes you set in Home can be accessed through any of your iCloud connected, Siri-enabled devices.
I think Apple made a mistake making the Home App the HomePod’s control center. It’s poorly designed (there’s no real flow) and there’s no central place to learn about and manage all your HomePod activities. Amazon created the Alexa app for this purpose, but then you probably see the issue in Apple’s case. It’s never had a Siri app. Siri is, instead, this free-floating digital consciousness that spreads across iOS, MacOS, tvOS and watchOS, but without an interface besides the rainbow waveform.
I don’t think Apple is inclined to build out a Siri app like Amazon did for Alexa. It prefers Siri’s operation remain a black box for consumers and partners.
Apple’s HomePod is a peerless speaker, but as a smart speaker, it underperforms in a number of key areas, while asking that you pay twice as much as the nearest competitor.
Audiophiles may not be able to resist those sweet, sweet sounds, especially those who already pay for Apple Music, but for those with more average ears and smaller bank accounts, there are, for now, better, smarter smart speaker choices.