The “A” word
Apple’s HomePod vs. the world’s most expensive USB cable
In the wake of Apple’s HomePod release, I’ve seen talk about whether it is or isn’t an “audiophile” speaker. A Reddit post went through an inordinate number of tests to argue that yes, in fact, it is; Chris Connaker of The Computer Audiophile goes into great golden ear detail to call bullshit. (It’s worth noting that since the Reddit post was published and widely shared, the author has walked back some of these claims, as per the edit at the post’s top.)
First off, let’s address the snake oil in the room. There’s a decades-long debate in audio circles between “objective” (if you can’t measure a difference, you can’t hear a difference) and “subjective” (measurements don’t capture everything you can hear in terms of sound quality). While I lean toward the objectivist side, the subjectivists aren’t intrinsically bananas; it’s not hard to find audio components — particularly speakers — with similar measurements that still produce different sound.
The problem that we run into is when subjectivists step beyond “there are things you can hear that aren’t reflected in measurements” and stand firmly on “there are things you can hear which can’t be subject to testing, period, only listening.” This, in a nutshell, is how audiophile came to be synonymous in the popular imagination with rich white guy who buys $550 USB cables. Sure, the fact that nobody can consistently distinguish the sound of that cable from a $5 one might be due to an inherent flaw with the very concept of double-blind testing, but there are other possibilities one could plausibly entertain.
My own definition of audiophile is fairly prosaic: someone who wants a system capable of reproducing the source recording as closely as possible. I found fairly early on that spending a few hundred bucks more here and there in my system made what were, to my ears, profound differences in quality. (I also learned that calibrating and positioning speakers properly makes just as big a difference.)
When reviews talk about the HomePod being “audiophile,” though, they’re not using my definition, and they’re certainly not using the Computer Audiophile’s. What they mean is: “does this sound good?” Does it outperform other audio-systems-in-a-can? Does it have low lows and high highs and, uh, middle mids? Does it fill the room? Does it seem expensive at $350, or is it punching above its weight class? From most reports, it’s damn impressive for a system that’s only $350.
Did I say “Only?” Yes. It’s a lot cheaper than my system, let me tell you. And my system is (ahem) just a wee bit cheaper than Connaker’s: the speakers he used in his reference system were around $45,000 for the pair. He defended this by arguing that he needed a reference system for, well, reference. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I’m questioning how much we truly learn about a Mazda 3 by taking it out on the Nürburgring with our reference Audi R8.
I’ve only heard the HomePod for a few minutes in an Apple Store. It sounded…fine, other than bass so pumped up it verged on the comical. I’d like to hear it in, ah, a less challenging environment sometime. But I knew going in — as did Connaker, surely — that it not only performs automatic room correction and equalization, it “separates the music into direct and ambient sound,” in Apple’s words. There’s a truckload of processing going on here, which is antithetical to what audio purists look for. It isn’t meant for, as audiophiles would put it, “critical listening”; it’s meant to be something you can stick in a corner, shout Hey, Siri, play The Wandering Hearts at, and have not just that corner but the whole room filled with pretty good-sounding music. It’s a “sound first” smart speaker, not a High-End Reference System in a Tube. It’s Apple saying, “Hey, you can have something like Alexa, but have it sound way better,” and it does.
The perennial lament of the audiophile is that the Unenlightened Masses accept low quality sound as “good enough,” and that if only they’d spend a little more they’d understand. And, you know, I did spend a little more, and there’s definite truth here. But while cheap junk is generally still cheap junk, the “midrange” of the audio world like Marantz, Denon, B&W and KEF has gotten great over the last couple of decades. I won’t get into arguments over bit rates and audio formats; if you can consistently hear the difference between CD quality and “high resolution” audio in a blind test, good on you, but most people can’t. (If instead you want to argue that proves blind tests are garbage, well, bless your heart.) Personally, I’m not convinced I can reliably tell the difference between lossless and well-mastered, high-bitrate lossy; I do know that when I stream that (gasp) 256K AAC Apple Music through my stereo, it sounds pretty good.
Ironically, that’s why I have no plans to buy a HomePod. It would surely be more convenient than my setup, but the HomePod is aimed squarely at households that don’t have or want a living room AV system, or want a secondary music-only system in another room. Neither of those describe my living situation presently. But I know people for whom it would be better than good enough.