Apple HomePod review: Great sound, but it’s trapped in Apple’s world

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The Good Apple’s HomePod has excellent bass and consistently superior sound quality across a wide variety of music genres. The speaker is easy to set up and Siri can hear you from across a room.

The Bad You’re stuck with Apple-only audio services when using voice commands and the HomePod only works on iOS. Siri and HomeKit lack the polish and device compatibility of Alexa and Google Assistant.

The Bottom Line Apple’s HomePod doesn’t match the features offered on Alexa and Google Assistant speakers. But if you’re an iPhone user who prizes sound quality above all, you should seriously consider this speaker.

Apple’s  Siri-powered HomePod smart speaker produces awesome sound across a broad range of genres, making it stand out, particularly compared to the $199 Sonos OneGoogle’s $399 Home Max and Amazon’s next-gen $100 Echo. Its crazy-fast setup and excellent long-range Siri microphones also make it appealing. Offering multiroom audio and stereo pairing, courtesy of AirPlay 2, helps the HomePod compete with Alexa and Google Assistant speakers.

But it isn’t all good news.

Siri still has a lot of maturing to do before it can compete with Alexa or Google Assistant. Buying a HomePod also means you’re signing up for a speaker that’s built with the Apple Music streaming service in mind. You can’t play Spotify and other third-party music services straight from the HomePod via a Siri command. Instead, you have to send that audio to your Apple speaker from the corresponding mobile app.

You really need to be OK with these limitations to justify buying a HomePod today, unless you don’t care about anything but its stellar sound quality. Everyone else should wait to see what Apple will add to this promising speaker in the months ahead, above and beyond the just-released AirPlay 2.

Hey, good lookin’

The fabric mesh-wrapped HomePod, available in either space gray or white, weighs a hefty 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg). It’s 6.8 inches tall and 5.6 inches wide (170 by 140 mm) — petite compared to the 11.7-pound (5.3 kg) and foot-wide Google Home Max. But the HomePod feels surprisingly dense when you lift it, as I learned while carrying it through the airport.

In true Apple form, the HomePod has a sleek, minimal design. It looks good, but not distractingly so, and I’m glad you get a couple color finishes to choose from. We got a white HomePod and while I like how it looks, I can easily imagine smudging it with repeat handling. The HomePod’s mesh exterior isn’t interchangeable like the Amazon Echo’s removable shell. What you buy is what you get. You can, however, clean it with a dry or damp cloth.

The HomePod relies on a single, two-prong power cord, which you can plug into any standard outlet. Apple says the HomePod can go pretty much anywhere in your home, from the bathroom to the garage, either near a wall or in the center of the room. Just be aware that the cord isn’t detachable as the HomePod doesn’t have a battery onboard, so you might have to hide it under a rug if you want to show it off in the middle of a space.

At the top of the speaker, you’ll find a touch display. It isn’t a screen, so it can’t display high-res text or video content like an Amazon Echo Show or Spot, but it does have integrated plus and minus signs for adjusting the speaker’s volume manually. Tap or hold them to increase or decrease volume.

Touch and hold the center of the display to get Siri’s attention without having to say, “Hey, Siri.” A familiar, blue-green-purple LED status indicator will begin to glow on the display to let you know Apple’s voice assistant is listening. Tap the display to play or pause music or to stop Siri mid-sentence. You can also double tap to skip a song or triple tap to skip back and replay a song.

The display glows white to tell you it’s ready for initial setup and green during a phone call. You can’t place or accept calls directly from the HomePod, but you can use it as a speakerphone when your iPhone ($825 at Amazon Marketplace) is nearby. The various taps and LED status indicators have a slight learning curve at first, but the HomePod is easy to control straight from the speaker.

The HomePod doesn’t have a button on the speaker itself to mute Siri, weirdly enough. Both Amazon and Google speakers have dedicated mute buttons so you can manually disable voice control. With the HomePod, you can only decrease the music volume from the speaker itself, which isn’t really the same as muting Siri. Instead, you have to use the app or voice control to turn the “Hey, Siri” feature off or on.

I really wish the HomePod had a dedicated mute button. It would be good to have another option beyond having to grab your phone or use voice control.

Apple’s HomePod has seven tweeters, all placed in the bottom of the speaker. Each tweeter has an amplifier and a transducer. Six Siri-ready microphones sit above that, followed by the woofer and Apple’s A8 chip at the very top.

Apple makes impressive claims about the design of its speaker and how that translates to better performance on its website. The tweeters are supposed to provide 360 degrees of consistently good sound, while the microphones (with help from the A8 chip) ensure Siri can hear you over loud music from a fair distance, without you needing to shout. The woofer brings that rich bass.

The HomePod claims omnidirectional sound through a feature called “spatial awareness.” No matter where you put your speaker, a built-in accelerometer (movement and motion sensor) is supposed to kick in and recalibrate based on its location. This helps it determine how to direct sound and should help ensure consistently good sound quality no matter where the HomePod is — and no matter where you are in a room relative to it.

The same is true if you use two HomePods as a stereo pair in the same room. The speakers are supposed to take measurements to get a sense of the space they’re in, as well as where they are relative to each other.

Stellar sound quality for its size

For a compact speaker, the HomePod offers big sound, and in testing I found it pretty much unflappable no matter what kind of music I threw its way. It’s hard to say that about many speakers, regardless of size. From dance pop to guitar rock to orchestral pieces, the HomePod sounded excellent. It doesn’t produce stereo sound by any stretch — you’d get more “presence” or “you are there-ness” from a pair of stereo speakers. But the HomePod is a solid performer you can plonk in your kitchen without having to worry that it might distort at high volume.

The HomePod’s uniform sound across so many different types of music separates it from its two main competitors, the Google Home Max and the Sonos One. Most of the time in our tests at CNET’s Smart Apartment, the Max and the HomePod sounded similar, with both exhibiting a relatively open sound and good extension, while the less-expensive Sonos One sounded slightly more distant.

One of the tracks that created some separation among the three speakers was “Yulunga (Spirit Dance)” by Dead Can Dance. It’s the kind of song made for the HomePod — the combination of airy vocals, deep booming notes and crisp percussion brought out the best in Apple’s speaker. The HomePod made the song come to life from its droning beginning, into the palatial vocal line and beyond.

Although the Max presented more of a stereo effect, the sound was a little harsh in comparison, and the Max just wasn’t able to dig deep enough in the bass. Sonos, meanwhile, sounded more closed off.

The verdict

As a small wireless speaker, Apple’s HomePod is strong. Its quick setup, impressive bass and far-field “Hey, Siri” listening range make it a worthy centerpiece for a smart home. Its consistent sound quality solidifies it as a great speaker for everyday use, as well for entertaining on special occasions — especially when you use two HomePods as a stereo pair or for multiroom audio.

But Siri is still behind Alexa and Google Assistant. Apple’s voice AI can’t tell jokes, play games or turn on an Apple TV — or your favorite Netflix show. It doesn’t support making direct calls (you have to transfer it from your phone to the HomePod) and forget about using it with Android devices.

If you and everyone else you live with has an Apple device and you’re sold on having an Apple smart home, the HomePod is worth a close look. It’s also a reasonable option if you simply want a smart speaker with superior sound quality. Everyone else should hold off to see if Apple opens up support beyond the iPhone — and Apple Music — so other folks can also take full advantage of the HomePod.

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