Should You Buy the Apple HomePod?
I love playing vinyl, but since my collection doesn't include every album ever recorded (yet), I often turn to streaming. Right now I run an audio cord from my receiver and rest it next to my record player. It's a crude setup but helps give quick access to Spotify's endless music arsenal when I just want to plug my phone into my stereo and listen.
One alternative to my current method would be to just buy a badass Bluetooth speaker. There are all sorts varieties on the market but I've yet to find one that grabbed me enough to invest in it. The Sonos range sounds like it's far and away the best bet, and I've often just figured it'd be an inevitable investment. Now I'm not so sure.
This week Apple announced a new product— it's first shot at a smart speaker for the home— the (somewhat unimaginatively named) HomePod. The Apple HomePod is available in black or white, looks fairly unobtrusive, and features a seven-speaker array of tweeters, a four-inch upward-facing subwoofer, and an Apple A8 chip, according to The Verge. "It also boasts something called 'spatial awareness,'" says The Verge, "which allows it to automatically tune the sound to the space that the speaker is in." Another interesting aspect is that you can link multiple HomePods together wirelessly for stereo sound.
HomePod also has Siri-functionality as a home assistant, and Apple made a point to call out its security on the system, saying it won't constantly be listening to your conversations and sending that data to its servers. That's been a concern of other home assistant systems, and Apple says what data is received will be “encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier.” And naturally, HomePod is connected to the Apple Music streaming service, which will give users quick access to its impressive library, including its solid radio station Beats 1. Spotify subscribers like me, who are interested in the system, will probably consider switching to Apple Music if we end up grabbing a HomePod.
And, so far, the Apple HomePod reviews are stellar. Journalists were given demos of the HomePod, and here are some highlights.
"The audio wasn't just loud — filling a room with sound, good or bad, is easy — it was rich. The highs were sharp, but not broken. The lows were deep, sonorous, but not chest-thumping.
"A classic song with a far less complex mix sounded warm and true and one of Kendrick Lamar’s beat-heavy tunes showed off the HomePod’s bass prowess, I also listened to a live recording of the Eagles' Hotel California on a pair of HomePods. I noticed that the audience cheers primarily came from one speaker, along with some ambient music sounds and the mains came from the HomePod almost directly in front of me. I did not feel like I was at the live concert, but I was still impressed with the audio quality."
"The HomePod however, sounded crisp and bright no matter the musical genre flowed through it -- it rendered the Eagles as well it did Kendrick Lamar. As a reminder, there's a huge woofer and seven tweeters inside, all meant to make audio sound as vivid as possible no matter where you are in a room. It works. The PLAY:3 was generally very good, but audio felt remarkably closed-off when I wasn't sitting right in front of it. (Note: It's unclear whether the PLAY:3 was tuned using Sonos' Trueplay technology, which can make a big difference in sound quality.)
"And the Echo? Well, I'll put it this way: If listening to the HomePod was like listening to a CD, then audio through the Echo sounded like AM radio. In my experience it's excellent for audiobooks, but if given the choice, I'd rather have the HomePod pump out my jams."
Engadget also called the HomePod "incredible," and said that the reviewer "did eventually hear (a HomePod) next to a Sonos PLAY:3 and an original Amazon Echo. Musically, it blew them both out of the water."
The Verge tempered that take, though:
"We also heard the sound quality up against an Amazon Echo and a Sonos Play:3 — obviously the HomePod came out on top — but I’m not sure how much credence to lend to that part of the demo. For one thing, the audio from the Echo was playing over Bluetooth. Now I have zero problems saying that the HomePod sounds way better than an Echo, but it’s still not a direct comparison. As far as the Sonos is concerned, I’m not 100 percent sure it was tuned using Sonos’ TruePlay room tuning. The Sonos Play:3 isn’t really the best-sounding Sonos speaker, but I know it can pull off better audio than what I heard today."
At $349, the HomePod is much more expensive than other home assistants on the market today, but in the same ballpark as many leading smart speakers. Given the combination and quality of features available in the HomePod, this seems like a fair asking price. As for if it's worth a purchase, the HomePod isn't out until December, so it'll be a while before we're able to really judge independently. If the reviews are any indication, though, the HomePod sounds like an extremely tempting purchase.
Regardless, this is an interesting development from Apple, and one that makes its 2014 multi-billion dollar purchase of Beats, which seemed head-scratching at the time, appear a bit more prescient in retrospect.