Review of the Apple HomePod: Let the music play
It’s taken its time getting here, nearly two years from its global US launch, but Apple’s entrant in the smart speaker space – HomePod – is finally here. It arrives in a landscape that has, after years of pushing out tinny smart speakers, finally started seeing the likes of the audio-focused Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Studio (Rs. 22,999) and the Bose Home Speaker 300 (Rs. 26,900) dot the scene. And even though it’s late to the party, it makes a sound case (pun intended!) for itself…as long as you’re already somewhat invested in the Apple iOS ecosystem.
Unboxing and setting up the HomePod is a quintessential Apple experience. The HomePod is best described as a stunted cylinder, shorter and more compact than the Echo Studio against which it competes, the sort that will fit in any room setup. The soft, somewhat cushiony mesh it is wrapped with oozes quality, and the whole package – from the glossy touch-panel to the rubber base - feels dense, solid and unequivocally premium. You pull the cylindrical HomePod out of the packing to find a curious lack of buttons or ports around the device. There’s a touch-sensitive panel on the top which has only two buttons marked out (a plus and a minus for volume control), and while you can tap to pause/play/skip music tracks, you’ll likely be using voice (and the Siri voice assistant) as your primary means of interacting with the device.
Now, I’ve set up a fair number of smart speakers over the past few years, and the HomePod setup is by far the easiest I’ve seen yet, with the obvious caveat that you need to have an iOS device with you. Turn the HomePod on, bring the iPhone/iPad/iPod touch near it, the devices will identify each other and instantly transfer your Apple ID, Apple Music subscription along with your Wi-Fi details to the HomePod. No fancy lights - the swirling ball of kaleidoscopic colours when you invoke Siri is the only indication the device is on and ready for your commands.
Over the years, Siri hasn’t had the best reputation when it comes to how ‘smart’ a smart assistant it can be, both in terms of its knowledge graph and the ‘skills’ it packs, to borrow from an Amazon Alexa parlance. Sure, Siri on the HomePod allows you to control the few-and-far-between HomeKit-enabled smart home accessories available today, but it doesn’t have the breadth of local service skills (booking a cab or ordering in dinner, for instance) as Alexa does. It does nail its primary duty of identifying songs you ask for in the Apple Music library and playing them back instantly and hearing you over the loud music when you want it to change tracks. Six microphones placed around the middle listen for your Siri commands, and there’s an additional microphone that gives HomePod spatial awareness, the ability to measure where it is in a physical space and the distance from surrounding surfaces. With this input, HomePod can calculate how close it is to objects or walls and recalibrate the audio, to bias in a particular direction if it’s placed in a bookshelf or play 360-degree audio if its placed on an open table, or even if it’s carried from room to room.
Once it’s placed down, just say “Hey Siri” and the HomePod will get dibs to pick up your command, even if you have your iPhone lying around. What you can’t find on Apple Music, you can stream from your iOS device over Apple’s proprietary AirPlay standard, which works over Wi-Fi. No Bluetooth connectivity or auxiliary inputs, though – HomePod was designed to work strictly inside Apple’s walled garden, and it just doesn’t play nice (or at all) with Android devices.
Any apprehension about this device melts away when you fire off a command to play your favourite music track. That dense little cylinder packs in a dedicated 4-inch upward-firing high-excursion woofer and an array of seven tweeters, each with their own custom amp, and an Apple A8 processor to enhance the audio in real-time. The result is music playback that is nothing short of impressive – not only do you get clear and distinct mids and highs, but there’s a respectable amount of bass coming out of its diminutive size, almost smile-inducing when you first hear it. From Simon and Garfunkel to Camilla Cabello and Arijit Singh, HomePod does a great job at faithfully reproducing each genre, and even does well in the sort of western classical tracks that strain lesser speakers. And it gets plenty loud, even in largish rooms, and you don’t even need to bump up the volume beyond the half-way mark. You can, should you need, pair two of these together for a stereo pair and amp up the music a fair bit more, and the interesting price point (more so, for an Apple product) actually allows for folks to consider such a scenario.
At the price though (Rs. 19,900), it does a fair bit less than the Amazon Echo Studio, but what it does, it does exceedingly well, and to borrow an oft-used cliché for Apple products, “just works”. Some incredible engineering choices lead to audio that punches well above its size and price point, and if nothing else, HomePod has raised the bar for what one should expect to hear from their next smart speaker.
Highlights: Apple HomePod
Pros: Solidly built, clean sonic signature with accurate sound and punchy bass, easy setup with iOS, competitive India pricing
Cons: No Bluetooth streaming, no auxiliary input, Siri lags behind competing voice assistants, only for folks already on the Apple iOS ecosystem, no physical mute button
Price: Rs. 19,900 in Space Grey or White variants
Tushar Kanwar is a Bengaluru-based technology columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar