This is what a $349 speaker sounds like
Apple’s brand new HomePod sounds good. I know. I heard it. Or rather should i say I experienced it and, in my limited acoustic opinion, the sound the 7-inch capsule-shaped speaker produces is best described as stirring.
Apple gave what might charitably be called a very brief, canned demo of the brand new speaker/home assistant during its Worldwide Developer’s Conference Keynote on Monday. From my vantage point in the middle of the cavernous McEnery Convention Hall in San Jose, California, it was impossible to draw any conclusions. I thought its sounded okay, but mainly recall being thankful it’s not called the Siri Speaker.
Later in that day, though, I had a private audience with Apple HomePod. It was like a little listening party, but without the hors d’oeuvres.
There were, in this party, what you might called a pair of unwilling guests: an Amazon Echo and Sonos Play:3. Each device is capable of producing room-filling sound and is smart in its own way. Amazon is backed by the cloud-based assistant Alexa and Sonos connects to WiFi and through it to other Sonos speakers, as well as its associated app, which connects to almost any music service you can think of.
HomePod and Echo, obviously, will ultimately be more direct competitors. Each connects into your smart home and associated devices to manage your lights, appointments, and basic queries via their cloud-connected digital home assistants.
I didn’t see that side of HomePod. Instead, I could only focus on the exquisite sound coming from behind the speaker’s seamless 3D mesh fabric.
Of course, Apple’s HomePod is more than just the sum off its audio parts (a seven tweeter array, an excursion woofer pointed skyward and a six microphone array), it’s a technology solution to high-quality audio. It’s apt that sitting atop all those speakers is Apple’s A8 chip, managing the sound mix and quality.
The first step in that is Apple HomePad figuring out how to play audio properly for its environment. Unlike Sonos, which requires a smartphone’s microphone input for its Trueplay room analyzing technology, HomePod, which you do have to plug into an electric outlet, builds spatial awareness by playing 360-degree audio while the built-in microphones listen. That’s right, the Apple HomePod starts by entertaining itself.
The feedback it gets from that first listen is used to adjust the audio and ensure the it properly fills the space.
Like every other speaker I’ve ever listened to, Apple HomePod is loudest when you stand right in front of it, but I did notice that, no matter where I walked in my small listening room, the sound was consistent. It didn’t bounce oddly off one wall or another, dip into a whisper in a corner or even behind the couch in the center of the room. There was a sort of aural balance.
The other thing all that technology does is separate most audio into the front and ambient sounds. Front sounds are the lead vocals and primary instruments. Ambient sounds are pretty much everything else: backup vocals, or an audience in a live recording.
HomePod even handles the two channels differently. It tends to shoot the main audio straight out and ambient might be bounced off a nearby wall.
The intelligence extends to Apple HomePod groups — buy two and they automatically adjust into two channel stereo. Buy more and they will adjust yet again, while also configuring themselves for proper room play.
In my brief experience with HomePod (basically five songs across four genres), I heard some very good audio.
It wasn’t just loud — filling a room with sound good or bad, is easy — it was rich. The highs were sharp, but not broken. The lows were deep, sonorous, but not chest-thumping.
On Sia’s The Greatest for example, Sia’s vocals soared, but i could still hear the mix of overlapping voices that enhance the songs’ overall soundscape.
Nora Jones’ Sunrise maintained the song’s paired down essence of her exquisite vocals and piano backup.
A classic song with a far less complex mix sounded warm and true and one of Kendrick Lamar’s beat-heavy tunes showed off the HomePod’s bass prowess, I also listened to a live recording of the Eagles’ Hotel California on a pair of HomePods. I noticed that the audience cheers primarily came from one speaker, along with some ambient music sounds and the mains came from the HomePod almost directly in front of me. I did not feel like I was at the live concert, but I was still impressed with the audio quality.
By contrast, the in-room Sonos Play:3 and Echo didn’t sound so good, They were sometimes flat or muddied or sounded tinny, at least as compared to the HomePod in that setting. I do not consider this experience conclusive, but I will admit that the differences were not subtle. I wonder how the HomePod would compare to a powerful Sonos Play:5.
There is, though, an instant limit with the Apple HomePod: It’s designed for Apple Music users. The app will stream content from your Apple Music library (which is in the cloud), but the app doesn’t support any other music services. If you want to stream anything else, you can use another device and AirPlay 2, which will arrive this fall in iOS 11.
Apple obviously has something here with its $349 HomePod. It’s a very good speaker, if very expensive. As for its other skills, like controlling smart home devices and being the first desktop, omnipresent, physical manifestation of Siri, the jury is still out. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive.