Apple HomePod first impressions: One smart speaker to rule them all?

Apple HomePod first impressions: One smart speaker to rule them all?

We’ve just had our first encounter with the Apple HomePod and we’re very impressed indeed

Hold the front page. The Apple HomePod has just gone on sale and - as coincidence would have it - I’ve just had the chance to try it out for the very first time. I don’t have a review sample to test just yet – that will arrive in a couple of weeks. However, I’ve had a darned good listen to it at an Apple briefing and, so far, I’m impressed.

In fact, this is actually the first time we’ve had the chance to use or listen to the speaker properly at all. When Apple first announced the HomePod at WWDC back in June 2017 our man on the ground, Thomas McMullan, had to fight his way through a crowd just to snap a few photographs, and there was far too much crowd noise to tell how it good it sounded or how well it responded to voice commands.

Today, however, we have a much better idea. Admittedly, the demonstration was carefully stage-managed but I had the chance to have an extended listen to the speaker in a number of different environments: a living room, small office and kitchen and compare it with a number of rivals and thus far, the AU$499 7in-high HomePod looks like a winner.

Sound quality

This is mainly due to how good it sounds and there are a number of factors contributing to this. The first is that the HomePod can adapt automatically to its surroundings using its speakers and microphones to automatically scan its surrounds to find out whether it's on a shelf, in a corner or on a table in the middle of a room.

Mostly, though, it's due to the driver setup inside the HomePod’s softly curved, 7in tall cloth-covered exterior. At the top of the speaker’s housing is a high-excursion, upwards-firing 4in woofer, which is responsible for reproducing the bass and mid tones, while an array of seven tweeters surrounds the base of the speaker in a ring. The HomePod’s microphones, of which there are six, all arranged around the speaker’s middle.

Just as with the Amazon Echo range of speakers, these are capable of picking up the speaker’s wake phrase - “Hey Siri” - from across the room and even when music is playing quite loudly.

This driver setup produces a sound that’s truly impressive for a speaker this small. In the mids and high notes, there’s a crisp sweetness to audio reproduction that most small speakers struggle to reproduce. It’s perhaps not as warm in the mids as I’d like it to be, but the demo was held in a rather bare, modern apartment, so I’d expect a certain brightness to be added by the lack of soft furnishing.

What was most impressive about the HomePod, however, was the amount of bass it was capable of kicking out. And not just the power of it (although that was impressive) but the muscularity of the bass and the quality of it. In back-to-back tests, where we were played the same tracks on “volume leveled” Amazon Echo 2, Sonos One, Harman-Kardon Allure and Apple HomePod speakers, the Apple HomePod won hands down.

It sounded sweeter, with better instrument separation, a wider soundstage and better bass and it wasn’t a fair fight, with only the Harman-Kardon getting close.

Now, this demo was clearly carefully set up to show off the HomePod at its best, but the differences were so noticeable that it’s hard to look past the Apple HomePod as the best-sounding smart speaker around right now. It’s almost certainly better than the Echo Plus and Echo Show, though I’ll confirm that when I get the chance to test them all together.

Sounds smart

This isn’t just a speaker for music, though. It’s intended to take on the best Amazon has to offer in the smart speaker business as well, and I got to see this aspect of the HomePod in action as well.

Again, I’ll report back fully when I’ve had the chance to put the speaker through its paces but at the demo event, everything went swimmingly. The microphone array was able to pick up voice commands even with the music turned up to room-filling volumes. The things it can do, especially when associated with an Apple Music account, are pretty impressive, too, particularly the way you can ask, for instance, about what’s playing right now.

You can ask Siri who the drummer is, for more information about the album or even the producer. It’s possible to ask the HomePod to play more tracks like the one you’re listening to, different versions of it or something completely different. These are capabilities missing from Amazon’s Echo speakers which won’t even let you “play it again” if you choose not to use Amazon Music.

And setup is typical Apple as well. It works, just like AirPods and recent Beats headphones, by simply holding your iPhone near the speaker, at which point you get a popup and a run through of various terms and conditions. What the speaker doesn’t do is work with multiple Apple IDs or Apple Music accounts, mind.

Although you can use it without your phone being present, you can’t switch accounts, which could be a problem if the little people in the house insist on listening to “Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows” on repeat when you’re not at home. Fortunately, you can prevent this from influencing your music recommendations via Apple Music by flicking a switch in the settings.

Otherwise, the rap-sheet of smart-speaker capabilities looks pretty familiar. I was shown the HomePod reading out the news, advising on traffic conditions on the daily commute and carrying out various actions with a single trigger phrase. “Hey Siri, good morning” triggered a “Scene” that turned on the kitchen lights and started the kettle boiling; just like Amazon’s Routines feature.

One area where the HomePod is a little smarter than Amazon’s Echo devices, however, is location awareness. Set the speaker’s location to Office, or Kitchen and other HomeKit gear with the same assigned location will respond without you having to append the location. “Hey Siri - turn on the lights”, for instance, will switch on all the smart lights in the room the speaker is in.

Early verdict

I can’t even come close to providing a full verdict on the Apple HomePod from such a brief encounter but so far it’s shaping up very nicely indeed. It sounds great, looks like it’s as responsive to voice commands as Amazon’s speakers and has a decent range of smart capabilities, some of which outstrip its rivals’.

With a product like the HomePod, however, the true test will be living with it for a period of time. Will it perform as well in a noisy family living room or kitchen? Will Siri be better than Alexa at answering my kids’ random questions and cruel teasing? I’ll answer these questions and more in a couple of weeks’ time.

Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing

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