E.T. Phone Home(Pod)

When Apple announced the HomePod and it’s price of $349, I was a little put off, hoping for something cheaper that would allow me to plug into my existing speakers. My interest was more on Siri than the speaker/music aspect of it, but I understand their positioning in such a space, they need to be premium. Pre-orders came and went without me, I decided I wanted to hear some reviews from actual people instead of media outlets before deciding. As expected, early reviews as folks unboxed their units were very positive for the sound, but a bit underwhelmed by Siri. The sound has been the big seller for this device, so of course I would hope it would be good, but as more and more folks compared it to fancier speakers, the more interested I became.

Ultimately, I decided it was worth at least trying one out during Apple’s return window and see where I land. I picked one up from the local mall and plugged it in over my mantel. At first I was pretty unimpressed, the sound seemed good, but not amazing. I did quickly realize we were mostly playing music from the ’60s, like the Beatles, which may not have been recorded to really show this thing off. Next we queued up some modern pop songs with a mix of highs, mids and lows to really demo the range. This is definitely where the HomePod shines. It’s not like older music is bad on it, but I realized there is only so much you’ll be able to differentiate from older recordings.

Later that day we tried AirPlaying the Apple TV audio to the HomePod to see how well it works as a sound bar of sorts. It works, with somehow less delay than my other AirPlay speakers even (there is typically a 2-second delay between pressing pause/play and the actual result, but they all stay in sync otherwise). It is more quiet than music on the same device, but it still showed me how much we’ve been lacking from the standard TV speakers. This is something that a proper sound system would probably be equally impressive with, but having none of that, it’s nice to have one device solve multiple problems. There’s a lot of potential for this to be the perfect solution for us when two HomePods can be paired together in stereo.

Finally I had a chance to sit down with it on the evening of the second day and properly compare it to my existing stereo system that I would say is probably the “best” in the house. It’s a custom system I pieced together, consisting of a standalone amp attached to some decent bookshelf speakers and an AirPort Express providing AirPlay input to the amp. While my tests weren’t super thought out, I tried to place the speakers and HomePod in ways that wouldn’t get in each other’s ways but still provide a good test for their typical usage. They say the HomePod needs to play music for a little while to calibrate itself after it’s been moved, so perhaps that explains things, but at first I was a little disappointed. While HomePod was better, it didn’t seem like by much. It certainly fills a room better, anywhere you walk the sound is pretty consistent, but sitting in front of both, the sound seemed only marginally better. I decided to put on an Apple Music playlist, hoping it would have some songs just for this purpose. It wasn’t until the song “Fitzpleasure” by alt-J came on that the difference became incredibly clear. The range on the song really set things apart and made my old system sound hollow and tinny. I hate to use the comparison, but it really was similar to going from a standard display to retina. Hearing the difference, it’s hard to go back to the other1.

One observation I’ve made about this speaker is how it automatically tunes itself for each song. This is something in the past I would have had to do pretty regularly either on my amp directly or via a software equalizer, and is something I really don’t care to interact with. I realize that’s the least audiophile thing to say, but I’m no audiophile 🙂 I think I pretty well sum up the market this device is for, average consumers who just want music to sound good without any extra effort. I don’t want to mess with speaker placement, tucking wires or messing with equalizers. I just want a device I can plug in and have results that work as expected without any tweaking. HomePod definitely does great at that, and not just because it learns your room, but in general because it has a lot of engineering in the DSP to really make a lot happen from a small device.

When it comes to music, HomePod is a winner. It has reminded me of why I ever invested in a decent sound system to start with, not to mention my collection of vinyls. It wasn’t about sound quality as much as just the experience of sitting and actively listening to music instead of passively while doing something else. HomePod makes me want to sit and enjoy music with friends in a way I haven’t in a long time.

HomePod is marketed at having “room filling sound”. The concept seems pretty simple, it just needs to make the room have sound from anywhere. This is actually a pretty tough trick typically, since most stereo systems use two speakers pointed forward. You’ll hear music outside of there, but it tends to very quickly lose its quality as you veer from being directly in front. HomePod has a circular array of tweeters, and using their fancy software and processor, they can adjust the sound based on the room dynamics. This means, typically, anywhere I went in the room after it adjusted itself (which happens during the first song you play) the sound was the same. It’s one of those things you kind of have to experience to really feel it, but it transforms the way you listen to music in a lot of ways.

Beyond all of that, there is of course the Siri functionality. I will definitely say that personally, I’ve been using Siri since my iPhone 4S which I got a few weeks after launch. It has been something I find incredible value in, and the evolution of features over time has only increased that value for me. I know plenty of people like to trash talk it, say it doesn’t work, or that it is “light years behind <Alexa/Google Assistant>”. While this debate is best saved for another time, overall my experience on the iPhone with Siri has been pretty much on par with Google Assistant and in most cases2 far surpasses Alexa. Notice I said on iPhone though.

HomePod Siri unfortunately comes out of the gate crippled a bit more than its iOS version. While 95% of my queries have been fine, there have been a few times where it simply says “I can’t do that on HomePod” or similar, even for something simple like weight conversions. It tended to work after I adjusted the wording slightly, but that’s still unfortunate. They market this device as being a musicologist, and thusly, Siri is ideal for music requests. This has been overall a great success, but I have had it hiccup on requests like “Who’s the drummer in this?” for bands where the answer is obvious, such as the Beatles. It was a more obscure song, but it should still be able to get that data regardless of what is attached to each song. However, this really was only a problem for that song, overall it’s been able to tell me all sorts of random facts about the music, from who plays what, to who wrote the specific song in bands like the Beatles where it regularly alternates.

Another quirky aspect of HomePod with regards to Siri is Apple’s approach to tying in things like messages and reminders. HomePod allows you to set reminders or send messages with Siri, but only if you give permission to, because unfortunately they don’t do any type of voice detection to ensure the wrong user isn’t attempting to read/send messages. This also means these services are only tied to one user for now, but I imagine all of this will change with an update in the near future. Ideally they will provide multiple voice detection (Google already can, and Siri can on iOS) that can tie to each user’s profiles.

An interesting approach they took was forcing these interactions to occur on the user’s phone. Basically, it detects the request and passes it to the phone for processing. This also aids in a kind of security, as these interactions can only occur when the user is on the same wifi. At least this way no one will be reading your messages if you’re not home. I don’t now if they plan to keep this design, but I do kind of like it from an engineering aspect. By separating this out, in theory it only needs to store data about who’s phone to send to, so potentially as they add support for more users, it could simply know how to route to the user’s phone and do the rest. This keeps things secure and private in some ways, but it’s not like there’s much one could extract from HomePod either way. I also could see this being a way they allow users to authorize interactions, using Touch/Face ID when needed, since it all interacts with the phone anyway.

One of the most impressive parts of the Siri experience on HomePod is how well it can hear you, regardless of how loud music may be. I’ve done multiple tests with volume at 100% and am still able to make requests to Siri at what I would consider a normal speaking volume. You certainly won’t be whispering at 100% volume, but I think you can still talk slightly quieter than if you were talking to someone else in the same room at that volume. At 60% you can easily talk lower than regular speaking volume and Siri will hear you perfectly. I haven’t had any mistakes in what it heard me request so far either, which is a common issue people complain about on iOS. Clearly this thing benefits a ton from having always-on power and an array of mics. The internal processing it does with all of the sound definitely helps it pick up these sounds over the other noise, which is super useful for play/pause commands.

(1) As a follow up, I did end up doing some further tuning and concluded that my existing setup is a lot better than I thought initially. The HomePod still does better at the “room filling” aspect, as mine requires sitting in the “sweet spot”

(2) Alexa does have tons of “skills”, but I’ve never known anyone who uses these are more than a party trick, and most of them are clunky even for that. There are going to be a few things each assistant does better than the other, with Alexa’s multiple timers being better than Siri’s single timer, but I’ve learned tricks like using alarms and reminders to solve that ages ago.


Aaron Dippner

Software engineer who loves to nerd out about technology, home automation, gadgets and everything else.

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