Review: Apple HomePod — Part 2: The Smart Speaker | iLounge


Review: Apple HomePod — Part 2: The Smart Speaker


Company: Apple

Model: HomePod

Price: $349

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Jesse Hollington

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.

Once you’ve got your HomePod configured, there are actually three different ways to play music on it. The most obvious and advertised method is to simply ask Siri to play something from Apple Music or your iCloud Music Library. This works in the same way as doing it on your iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV — simply say “Hey Siri, play…” followed by a music-related request, such the name of a song, artist, album, or playlist, or even a station or genre. For example, saying “Hey Siri, play some smooth jazz” will put on an appropriate Apple Music station. You can also make requests such as “play the number one song from 1972” to play music based on historical top charts — assuming that data is available in your country.

It’s actually hard to describe in words the convenience of using HomePod for music playback in this way — it’s an always-on, always-ready speaker that will play whatever you want with no more effort than speaking into the air. The best word we could use to describe the experience is “frictionless.” There are no stereo systems or amps to worry about turning on and no other buttons to press, and in fact it reminded us of the experience of using an iPod classic with Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi — in an era when most other speakers had to be plugged in and turned on, the iPod Hi-Fi provided a unique “drop-in-and-hit-play” level of convenience. It’s a small thing, but like most things Apple, it has a sense of making you feel that this is the way technology should work by invisibly fading into the background.

That’s when it works properly, of course. Using Siri to call up music on the HomePod isn’t any better than using Siri to call up music anywhere else, and it doesn’t always get it right on the first try. To be fair, we’d say we had a 95 percent success rate with most of the song titles and albums we called up, but that five percent failure rate was just enough to be offputting. We should also note that the success rate is also based on whether you consider Siri’s version selections for a song title to be satisfactory — when multiple versions of a song exist, it’s still a crapshoot whether Siri will choose one that’s actually in your library as opposed to another version from the broader Apple Music catalog.

One thing that is worth keeping in mind, however, is that HomePod is not limited to only playing songs from Apple Music; anything in your iCloud Music Library is fair game — even songs that have been uploaded rather than matched. So users with a $25/year iTunes Match subscription can still take almost full advantage of HomePod; about all you’ll be missing in this case is access to radio stations (other than Beats 1). Further, you can also play any Apple Podcasts in your library via Siri, provided you’ve subscribed to them in your Apple Podcasts app.

While Siri is a handy way to bring up existing playlists and albums, if you’re someone who likes to build and curate your own playlists like us that probably won’t always work for you. Fortunately, you can also directly control HomePod from the Music app on iOS 11.2.5 or later or iTunes 12.7.3 or later. We’re not sure Apple has done a good job of making it obvious how this works initially, but it works pretty well once you’ve figured it out. Once a HomePod is on your network, you can switch control over to it entirely from the standard AirPlay menu, where it will appear as a separate panel (iOS) or section (iTunes). Tap on that panel and your Music app essentially becomes a remote control for the HomePod. You can then proceed to use the Music app or iTunes as you normally would, but all play, pause, track, and volume controls will be controlling the HomePod instead of local playback, and Up Next will reflect what’s queued to play on the HomePod. This also works in the “Now Playing” applet on the Apple Watch, although only if you’ve already selected the HomePod on your iPhone.

To be clear, this is not AirPlay — you’re not playing music on your iPhone or Mac and streaming it out to the HomePod, but rather controlling the music stream to the HomePod directly. You can even switch back to your iPhone or Mac library from the AirPlay menu, where you’ll see whatever you were playing last (if anything), and can choose to playback an entirely different playlist on your local device. This same capability has also been added to the Apple TV as of tvOS 11.2.5, so you’ll see your Apple TV devices listed alongside your HomePod in the AirPlay menu.

Lastly, it’s worth an anecdotal mention that HomePod of course supports standard AirPlay. In fact, this is the only external audio input method available to the HomePod. As we noted in part 1, there are no external ports at all, and despite having Bluetooth 5 built-in, that appears to be used only for setting up the HomePod — there’s no support for Bluetooth streaming at all. That said, however, HomePod is a rock solid AirPlay speaker, and was 100 percent reliable in all of our testing — something that we can’t say for any other AirPlay speaker we’ve tried. We also found it more responsive than most AirPlay speakers — there’s still a slightly noticeable lag (which AirPlay 2 promises to fix), but it’s not as bad as we’ve experienced elsewhere.



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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