According to Apple, the iPod reinvented portable music and the Apple HomePod aims to do the same with our music at home.
You can choose between two colours of HomePod, White and Space Grey. Photographs make it look perfectly reasonable, but in the flesh it looks much more appealing. And while the design is striking enough to make a statement in your living room, the unit is demure enough to blend in.
Design and build
The HomePod is a small, cylindrical unit that stands a couple of centimetres taller than a Sonos Play:1. It’s wrapped in a 3D honeycomb mesh, which Apple claims was chosen because of its excellent acoustic properties.
The top surface of the speaker is touch-sensitive and can be used to control the playing or pausing of music and adjusting the volume with a simple tap.
As you’d expect from Apple, the HomePod isn’t without its fair share of speaker smarts. It contains Apple’s A8 chip, launched in 2014. This is the same chip you’ll find in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and it has one crucial feature: it can recognise its key wake words, “Hey Siri”, so no data is transmitted to the cloud until the device hears them.
When you utter the magic words, LEDs under the top of the speaker glow in the familiar waveform pattern you see on the iPhone.
Voice commands and questions for Siri are picked up by a ring of six microphones that run around the middle of the HomePod, although we didn’t get a chance to try it out during our demo.
You can pair two speakers together or link with other compatible speakers to create a multi-room system. By compatible, we mean the speakers need to feature Apple’s recently announced AirPlay 2 functionality.
The A8 chip is also responsible for painless pairing of your iPhone to the speaker – hold the iPhone near the HomePod and the two devices recognise each other and the speakers are ready to play music in seconds.
It does it in a similar way to how Apple AirPods pair with an iPhone 7, but we’ve been told there’s no W1 chip in the HomePod, unlike the AirPods.
There are seven horn-loaded tweeters running around the bottom of the speaker, firing out. These work in conjunction with a 4in upward-firing woofer in the top half of the unit.
Apple has incorporated different audio processing technology to allow the speaker to tune itself to your particular room layout.
The packed hands-on room in San Jose was too noisy to judge the speaker’s audio capabilities. But, we’ve since had a chance to listen to the HomePod and two rival speakers side by side.
In a controlled environment, we heard tracks played on a Sonos Play:3, Amazon Echo and HomePod.
The Play:3 had been tuned for the room using Sonos’ excellent Trueplay software. The HomePod had also been calibrated using its own set-up software – although we didn’t get to see how exactly the speaker carries this out.
As Sia’s The Greatest played out, the HomePod sounded impressive: strong bass rang out – which was perhaps the overriding audio takeaway for the speaker – but the vocals still seemed sharp and crisp.
In comparison, the Sonos Play:3 appeared uncharacteristically flat, while the Amazon Echo felt almost pedestrian.
We listened to Superstition by Stevie Wonder and DNA by Kendrick Lamar. Both sounded good on the Sonos but appeared punchier and louder on the HomePod. As we moved around the room, the HomePod managed to project in every direction, with no discernible sweet spot.
We also heard a pair of HomePods playing a live recording of Hotel California by The Eagles. The attention to detail was striking, with different instruments sounding discretely realised. Did we feel like we were at the concert? Maybe not, but it did sound powerful.
Whether the seemingly bass-heavy sound can be tweaked through the speaker’s audio processing remains to be seen. If not, the Apple HomePod might not be to everyone’s taste.
But the brief time we had with the speaker was more than enough to pique our interest, and that’s without having a chance to test the Siri integration.
There’s no shortage of competition in the smart speaker market, let alone wireless speakers, and the price point is considerably higher than the Amazon Echo or Google Home. And then, of course, we need to bring Sonos into the equation – so the HomePod will certainly have to perform well on all fronts.
We’ve got a few months to wait until the speaker goes on sale – when we get a review sample, you’ll be the first ones to know whether it’s been worth it.