Review: Apple HomePod — Part 1: Audio Performance | iLounge

Review

Review: Apple HomePod — Part 1: Audio Performance

B
Recommended

Company: Apple

Model: HomePod

Price: $349

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Guido Gabriele

Pros: An acoustically great personal speaker that uses advanced DSP and other technologies to adjust to a room’s settings. Good Siri performance and tight integration with Apple Music, iCloud Music Library, and Apple Podcasts. Solid AirPlay performance. Ability to interact with primary user’s Messages, Reminders, and Notes and some third-party apps via Siri.

Cons: Clearly intended solely for those in the Apple ecosystem. Requires an iOS device for set up. Direct internet streaming limited to Apple’s media services. No wired audio inputs. No Bluetooth audio support. Siri assistant only works for a single primary user and requires iPhone in proximity. Limited Siri app support. Stereo pairing and multi-room audio support not included at initial release.

On June 9, 2017, during their WWDC Keynote, Apple announced the HomePod. On stage, Phil Schiller said that the HomePod was a “breakthrough home speaker” that would “revolutionize home audio.” These are lofty claims. Apple didn’t limit themselves to just smart speakers, but would instead revolutionize home audio in general. This promised revolution has made the HomePod is one of the most challenging products we have yet reviewed — not because it’s particularly hard to describe (it’s a bass-heavy smart speaker) or to use (voice commands, a tap interface, and AirPlay), but because of the weight that Apple’s promise carries. Most products — especially speakers — promise big, but the HomePod has had the unique effect of setting expectations just as big. Since its launch, audiophiles that normally wouldn’t touch a smart speaker are writing exhaustive reviews and comparing the HomePod to $90,000 stereo systems. Publications that had previously given only the most superficial of audio reviews are writing about acoustics, room correction, and speaker measurements. Does the HomePod warrant this attention? Does it live up to expectations? Does it revolutionize anything? Our attempt to answer these questions will be split into two parts — sound and smart features. We’re starting with the HomePod’s raison d’etre: audio performance.

The HomePod’s physical design is relatively similar to smart speakers, but it’s a significant departure from Apple’s other products. Where MacBooks, iOS devices, and the Apple TV are clad in aluminum, glass, and gloss plastic, the HomePod is almost entirely soft. Most of the HomePod is covered in a woven mesh, its cable is sleeved in fabric, and it sits on a soft (but apparently wood-staining) silicone base. The only real cue that this is an Apple product — other than its generally clean design language — is the touch surface on top of the speaker; a small set of colorful LEDs swirl in a soft glow to indicate when Siri is active, flanked on either side by plus/minus volume controls. At 5.5 pounds, the HomePod is hefty for its size. This is not to say that its weight matters — it’s not meant to be a portable speaker — but it does telegraph the density of technology within.

In the HomePod, Apple has taken its war on ports to the extreme: the HomePod features no input ports at all. We think many users would have liked a USB port to plug and charge devices and, perhaps, stream music from an iOS device over a wire, but it appears that Apple intends that users charge their phones elsewhere and not interact with the HomePod so directly. More importantly, though, the HomePod requires an iOS device to set up, and will natively stream only from Apple Music’s collection or your own iCloud Music Library, limited to an upper rate of 256 kbps AAC either way. We criticized this kind of restriction when we found it in other smart speakers, and Apple doesn’t get a pass. Sure, you can stream audio from any app to the HomePod via Airplay (Bluetooth streaming is conspicuously absent here), but it’s clear that this decision is more about ecosystem lock-in than simplicity. In this regard, the HomePod is a step in the wrong direction — never before have speakers discriminated between sources of music and we think making speakers “smart” should not mean that they come burdened with the manufacturer’s content deals and competition for paying subscribers. This is the ugly side of the revolution that we hope users are not quick to accept.

Apple intends for the HomePod to be controlled primarily through voice commands. We think that Apple’s insistence that users speak their musical desires may be an unwelcome adjustment for some. No doubt many users will be perfectly happy controlling the HomePod with voice and, in our testing, we found that Siri responds dutifully to commands even over loud music. Still, we think it’s a missed opportunity to not to include an iOS app that can control the HomePod more directly — unless you’re an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscriber, using the HomePod provides the same user experience as any other AirPlay speaker.

On the other hand, the audio hardware inside the HomePod is extremely impressive. An array of seven slightly upward-firing tweeters encircle the bottom of the HomePod; these are balanced mode radiators which, as we have seen in other products, can potentially reproduce a wider frequency response than traditional dynamic drivers of the same size. Above those are six microphones, a custom-designed high-excursion four-inch woofer monitored by a seventh microphone and, controlling them all, the same A8 chip found in the iPhone 6. All this is in an device about the size of a cantaloupe; it’s amazing that Apple has included this much hardware in such a small enclosure and made it sound even remotely good. The HomePod is full of quality components, but nothing we haven’t seen before — we’ve reviewed many speakers with high-quality drivers, plenty of home audio systems include microphones for sound adjustment, and there is no shortage of speakers with built-in smart assistants. What truly sets the HomePod apart is how it uses this hardware with its sophisticated audio processing software; the HomePod’s “smartness” is in how it tunes sound to its surroundings in real time.

To appreciate the HomePod’s audio tuning capabilities, we must first consider traditional methods of room correction and treatment. As any audio enthusiast will confirm, choosing the right speakers and amplifiers is only part of the journey — the sound of audio equipment is significantly affected by the room around it. Walls, carpets, and objects in the room can cause unwanted reflections and add gain to certain frequencies while absorbing others. Rooms must be “treated” to reduce these effects, and even well treated rooms will have a limited “sweet spot” where audio sounds best. This work usually requires measurement microphones, diffusers, absorbers, and the skill of an experienced installer (or many, many Google searches). The market has produced some shortcuts; the MartinLogan Forte ships with a measurement microphone and includes software that achieves a degree of room correction without the need for any treatments. The HomePod attempts to automate this process entirely and continuously; if there’s any revolution being staged, it’s here.

The HomePod’s audio intelligence can be broken into three major features: spatial awareness, bass equalization, and loudness compensation. The HomePod’s spatial awareness feature is really a kind of beamforming — as music plays out of the tweeters in all directions, the six-microphone array listens for reflections to detect where walls and other hard surfaces might be. It then divides music into “ambient” and “direct” sounds, projecting the ambient sounds towards the walls, and the direct sounds into the open space, where the listener is most likely to be. The HomePod’s seventh microphone listens to the woofer and adjusts its individual volume to compensate for any gain or loss caused by the HomePod’s surroundings and keep its bass response in proportion to the rest of the music (though, as we’ll discuss below, we take issue with Apple’s chosen proportion). Finally, since the ear is more sensitive to certain frequencies than others, the HomePod dabbles in psychoacoustics, applying equalization adjustments to keep its sound consistent at any volume level.

We tested the HomePod in a variety of scenarios — in the middle of a square room, on a pedestal, close to walls, on soft and hard surfaces, and in tiny nooks. We’re happy to report that the HomePod’s smart audio features, for the most part, work as advertised. After placing the HomePod in a corner or turning it 180 degrees, we could hear the device adjusting its sound to its surroundings after about ten seconds. Its sound signature remained mostly unchanged across most test conditions, at most volumes, and in almost any listening position. This is a real advantage over speakers that lack this technology, but not infallible — placing the HomePod on a bookshelf with hard surfaces on three sides proved more than its beamforming tech could compensate for, producing a dull and constrained sound. Like any speaker, the HomePod sounds best when it has some room to breathe. We also encountered tracks where the HomePod seemed to guess incorrectly about which parts of the music were “ambient” and which were “direct.” Music files aren’t coded this way, so we can only assume that the HomePod is making a guess based on frequency ranges and amplitude; if we’re right, it follows that this task might be easier with some genres (pop music with high-frequency female vocals, deep basslines, and not much in between) than others (male vocals backed by acoustic guitar). Still, we are impressed by the HomePod’s ability to maintain a consistent sound across varying environments and volume levels and, since its hardware allows for control of both frequency response and directionality, we think there’s potential for even further refinement in the future.

As we mentioned above, the HomePod has had the amazing effect of introducing terminology normally reserved for “serious” speaker reviews into the mainstream discussion. We think it’s great that consumers who do not self-identify as “audiophiles” are being introduced to concepts like “flatness” of frequency response, and that more reviewers are measuring speakers the way that was previously reserved only for CPUs and video cards. Still, though we don’t claim to be experts in measuring speakers, we are skeptical about using traditional speaker measurement techniques on a speaker that includes unprecedented levels of DSP and adjusts its EQ in real time. Apple has not published any specifications on the HomePod’s actual frequency response or EQ settings, so we must rely on our ears. A few reviewers have claimed that the HomePod measures flat — a good thing in the speaker world. However we listened to the HomePod and we do not hear flat.

The HomePod’s sound signature is dominated by bass and has a somewhat recessed midrange. Some have reported the opposite — that the HomePod’s bass is not boosted — but we suspect that they are referring instead to a lack of recessed treble. The HomePod sounds great with pop, electronic, and hip-hop music, but not so great with other genres. Its bass extension, overall clarity, and lack of distortion are excellent for a speaker of this size, and its sound signature is maintained against all odds (or walls) by the sophisticated — even revolutionary — technology within, but to our ears that sound is inescapably V-shaped. To be clear, that the HomePod produces a colored sound is not a bad thing, and we wouldn’t suggest that there’s any single “correct” sound signature. There’s no such thing as a speaker that produces music “as the artist intended,” and it’s not likely that it would matter to most listeners anyway — people want to hear what sounds good to them. There are, of course, many who seek to build hi-fi systems that faithfully produce the sound of live instruments, but even they are making subjective judgments based on their sensory experience and memory. Everyone is entitled to speakers that sound good to them, and we don’t blame Apple for building a speaker that sounds good with the music that’s most popular with consumers today, but we base our recommendations on breadth of appeal. This is not a speaker for everyone.

Sound signature aside, there are two major limitations on the HomePod’s sound that keep it from competing outside of the “smart speaker” category. First, its sound is small and localizable, with almost non-existent imaging. The HomePod easily outperforms every other “personal” speaker we’ve yet heard, but still sounds like a personal speaker. It fails to produce the truly room-filling, holographic imaging of which any decent 2-channel system is capable; even a pair of JBL LSR305, recently on sale for $160, produce a more convincing image than the HomePod, and it’s easily beaten by the KEF and Amphion bookshelf speakers we’ve tested in the past year. The HomePod’s beamforming works, and it gets loud without distortion, but the HomePod still sounds like a small speaker in the corner. Perhaps worse (but, thankfully, soon to be fixed with a software update), is that the HomePod is mono. Sure, the HomePod is making some adjustments specific to the left and right channels but, despite its 360-degree driver array, the HomePod cannot produce a stereo image; if there’s one aspect of music where “what the artist intended” matters, it’s this — left and right channels almost always contain materially different information, and it’s often integral to the experience. The HomePod crushes these into a single stream of sound, and it’s heartbreaking. It might be fixed with AirPlay 2, but whether a true HomePod stereo will still be compelling at $700 remains to be seen.

Is it fair to compare the HomePod to “true” two-channel or 2.1-channel speaker systems? Many seem to think so — the HomePod seems to have created expectations such that many are comparing it to speaker systems in the five-figure range, and some have said it sounds better than speaker systems “several times” its price. Apple has, to some extent, invited these comparisons from the moment the HomePod was announced. The HomePod, despite all its acoustic sophistication, currently produces only a small, mono sound that doesn’t play well with all genres. To us, this seems at odds with the prospect of music discovery that Siri the Musicologist promises. Traditional speaker systems have never been so limited. The HomePod performs better than other smart speakers but, if we’re honest with ourselves, that was never a high bar. The HomePod deserves to be evaluated at least in the context of traditional home audio products because that’s the arena it’s stepped into.

The HomePod has entered the audio market at a slightly odd angle. Compared to Google Home and Amazon Echo, it easily wins on sound quality, but is more expensive and far less flexible. Compared to traditional speaker systems, it’s less expensive, far easier to set up, auto-adjusts for room features, and has Siri integrated, but falls behind even similarly-priced products with its small, mono presentation and boom-boom bassy sound. Apple promised to revolutionize home audio, and Apple users — us included — expect Apple to deliver on its promises. In our time with the HomePod, we think it could be part of a revolution. Apple has succeeded in automating some of the steps required to build a truly good home hi-fi system (we’d love to see the HomePod’s tech in more products), but not in delivering a product that would replace those systems. To be clear, we are not saying that the HomePod won’t be a success — it likely will be — or whether future hardware or software updates will elevate the HomePod to truly revolutionary status. The iPhone, to the great embarrassment of early naysayers, lacked many of the software and hardware features at launch that would later cement its success. Apple has already announced software features that could address some of our biggest concerns about the HomePod (true stereo imaging), and one would think that it would be trivial to give users some level of EQ control and Spotify integration with a software update. Still, we can only review a product in its current form. Assuming you like its boomy sound and walled-garden I/O, the HomePod is perhaps the best expression of a “personal speaker” we’ve yet heard, but we won’t be selling off our personal systems anytime soon.

In part two of our review, we look at the HomePod’s other smart features: voice control, Siri as a musicologist, HomeKit, AirPlay, and more, and deliver our final verdict.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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