Apple HomePod review: The only smart speaker that sounds good

15 May, 2020 | newsx bureau

Apple HomePod Gadgets

Apple HomePod review: This won't be wrong to say that Apple HomePod is less than a smart speaker but more of a premier sound system for only Rs 19,900 in India. Take a look at the features, specifi...

Apple HomePod review: It can be argued that no one was waiting for it with bated breath like a new iPhone, but regardless, Apple’s HomePod is finally here in India for Rs 19,900. Now, that’s a sweet deal on it considering it launched in the US for $399 back in 2017. I happened to be one of the unfortunate souls who had dropped $800 to get a pair of HomePods in 2018 which gives me some experience and context around what many consider to be Apple’s weakest hardware offering. With its arrival in 2020 instead of early 2018, the HomePod comes in cheaper than even the US and since I’ve used it as my main sound system for watching movies and listening to music, including parties with more than 15 people stuffed together in a room — I am happy to bequeath it the title of the “misunderstood smart speaker”. It’s less of a smart speaker but more of a premier sound system with smarts. And truth be told, it is the only smart speaker that sounds good outside of the Amazon Echo Studio which is almost twice as big and slightly more expensive.

I will not go much into the technical details of the HomePod because most people wouldn’t really care but here are the basics:

  • On the base of the speaker, there are 8 beamforming tweeters, which forms the basis for the mid-range and high-end of the sound spectrum. It’s unusual to have the tweeters on the base, but Apple has done exactly that paired with individually calibrated amplifiers.
  • On the top, there is a high excursion woofer for powerful bass. It is also manipulated with a powerful motor that can move the diaphragm by up to 20 millimeters. This is impressive stuff on a technical level for something as small as the HomePod.
  • As this is a smart speaker which uses Siri to do voice-based commands and activations — there are 6 beamforming microphones that can pick up your voice from far away. And I can tell you, this works, a little too well for its own good.
  • All of this hardware is controlled by Apple’s custom A8 processor. Just for some context, this is the very same processor that powered the iPhone 6. Yes, it may be 6 years old now, but for a WiFi and AirPlay-enabled smart speaker, this is too much firepower. It’s more than enough to power the HomePod firmware which drives Siri, Apple Music and leverages the hardware for computational audio smarts unlike any other speaker on the market.

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This hardware stack makes the HomePod very different from something like an Amazon Echo or even a Google Home. Those speakers have crummy audio components — small tweeters, fewer tweeters, and smaller woofers. At the end of the day, audio is all about physics — there is no getting away from it. Apple hasn’t compromised on the fundamentals. It, of course, is also a much bigger speaker compared to a Google Home or even an Amazon Echo Plus. Then there is Apple’s secret sauce — its custom silicon which is an area of differentiation for Apple over Google and Amazon who use commoditized components for on-device processing and they offload a lot of the computing to the cloud. This is what makes those smart speakers privacy sinkholes while the HomePod parses almost everything on the A8 chip which makes it arguably faster and also more secure as the chip also has a Secure Enclave which encrypts everything.

The A8 chip works in tandem with the beamforming microphones to ensure that the HomePod is able to tune itself automatically giving you the best possible acoustics as it can measure the distance between you (the user) and itself. Other smart speakers don’t do this calibration as well as the HomePod.

But everything boils down to the sound and the smarts depending on what’s the priority is for you. If the sound quality is the priority and you are an Apple Music lover — then you are in for a treat. You can go like, “Hey Siri, play Echoes by Pink Floyd, everywhere” and it will activate all the HomePods you have. In my case, I have three — two paired up as a stereo pair and one more.

Since Apple Music has a vast library of music — over 60 million songs, you can find every conceivable music that’s there. So even if you look at an indie deep house artist from New Delhi like Blot!, you can go, “ Hey Siri, play Paradise Lost by Blot!” and boom, it will be pumping it out. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a song that this speaker can’t play using just voice commands via Apple Music. And by the way, since January the HomePod OS is also optimised for the Indian language which means that you can use Siri in the Indian dialect which works quite well.

This is the ultimate stage for Apple Music which can play music at 320kbps in the Apple-designed AAC format. The sound quality is astoundingly good for something that’s so small — bass is powerful and cutting, the highs are sharp but not shrill while the mid-range is smooth and balanced. Of all the smart speakers in the market I’ve tested, the HomePods have the most well-rounded sound which works well with just about any kind of music.

 Some of the songs I tested for the review process are as follows:

  • Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by The Jimi Hendrix experience
  • Sirius by the Alan Parsons project
  • Echoes by Pink Floyd
  • On the Run by Pink Floyd
  • Lunar Howl by Karajimo
  • Paradise Lost by Blot!
  • Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk
  • Paper Trails by Darkside
  • Technically, Missing by Gone Girl Soundtrack
  • Every day is the same by Nine-inch nails
  • Master of Puppets by Metallica
  • Rootha Yaar by Midival Punditz
  • Cowgirl by Underworld
  • Even Less by Porcupine Tree

For me, I used to use the Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin Air before the HomePod. I replaced the Zeppelin with the HomePod and then augmented it with a second one to form a full stereo pair. Today, I have three in one room — even though the third one can’t be added in the stereo pair, if I use Apple Music exclusively, I can get all three speakers to be synchronized in harmony forming a prodigious sound system.

From an audio perspective, the HomePod is not competing with a Google Home or an Amazon Echo or even a Sonos for that matter, it is competing with the likes of Bose, Harmon and Kardon and Bowers and Wilkins.

And mind you, since it has AirPlay, you can use any service — Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube Music, Prime Music — basically whatever floats your boat. This also means, if you have an Apple TV, you can use it to power the audio experience for it and watch movies on your favourite video streaming services.  In the case you have a stereo pair as I have, you will need to reset the audio source on the Apple TV every time to switch it on, but this cumbersome experience is worth it. That’s how powerful a wireless audio speaker the HomePod is.

HomePod also works pretty decently as a smart speaker — it can tell you the latest cricket scores which I often checked on it. It will even tell me scores for football, of course, none of that can be tested right now, but it works. It also works as a hub for controlling your smart home — you can say, turn off lights or change the colour of the lights if you have something like the Philips Hue hooked up.

The major failings of the HomePod come up in the core knowledge domain. It will do the basic things but it can’t do high-level stuff by plugging into third party services. For instance, I can’t tell the HomePod to order me a game from Amazon or book me an Uber. It is also a weirdly closed-off system — for example, stereo pairs of HomePods will work with your iPad, Apple TV, iPhone, but it will not work with your MacBook or iMac, you can only use one at a time. And it goes without saying that you can’t play music from an Android smartphone — if you’re an Android user, this is not for you, even if you have Apple Music. My recommendation will be the Amazon Echo Studio for such a user unless you want to use it just with voice which is doable but I wouldn’t be comfortable with that paradigm.

Should you buy it?

The best way to think about the HomePod is that it’s a high-end sound system that starts at Rs 19,900 — it’s a very good value at that considering all the other things it can do. If you work within Apple’s self-imposed constraints, it will mesmerise you. However, there is one major stumbling block — its over-dependence on wireless audio as there is no headphone jack, it even doesn’t have buttons save for the touch controls for volume. This means that in the case that Apple dumps AirPlay this product will get redundant and already it can’t work with Android or any dumb screen without an Apple product in the middle. There are obvious advantages to this — for instance, there is only one cable — for power, but it’s far from perfect for everyone.

The good news is that Apple has shown stupendous support for AirPlay which has proven to be more robust than Bluetooth as it leverages WiFi as well. Even my 10-year-old Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin Air works painlessly and sounds peerless as always. This is important for an audio product — especially an expensive one — they last a long time, sometimes multiple decades. I don’t think I’ll be using the HomePod in 2030 but I can imagine using it at least for another 5 years and that’s something you can’t say about the current crop of smart speakers from Google and Amazon.