What is the Apple HomePod?
It’s most useful to think of the HomePod primarily as a high-performance wireless speaker that is voice controlled, and to consider its “smart” features as secondary. When you set the HomePod up, you must pair it with an iCloud ID, a free account that serves to manage many of Apple’s services, and you must set it up using a compatible iOS device such as an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch (the specs include a list of compatible devices). You’ll also need an Apple Music subscription if you want music that isn’t already in your personal library—Apple Music is currently the only streaming service the HomePod can rely on for voice control. After a brisk setup process (see below), you control the HomePod almost completely by voice, saying “Hey Siri” to initiate a request or a command. It has a glossy plastic top with a colored light that alters when Siri is triggered. You also get basic touch controls consisting of volume-up and volume-down buttons plus a system of taps: one to pause or play, two to skip, three to go back a track on an album.
In addition to playing music, you can use the HomePod and Siri for a limited set of clerical tasks such as setting timers or dictating notes and reminders. Siri can also access weather reports and news briefs, and speak results for a range of queries; I had no trouble finding the nearest grocery store, the closest coffee shop, the starting time of the Olympics opening ceremony, or the score of the Super Bowl (Fly, Eagles!). You can also dictate and send text messages to other iPhone owners, and use the HomePod as a speakerphone during calls. The HomePod can stream music when your iOS device is out of range too, though that blocks access to Messages, Notes, and Reminders until you return.
As a speaker, the HomePod is capable of remarkable sound, and thanks to some technical wonderment it can equalize itself based on not only the song you’re listening to but also the ambient conditions of the room you’re in. The result is powerful and intense but balanced sound without distortion.
It’s not especially obvious, but the iOS Music app performs as the companion app for the HomePod; Control Center also allows quick access to controls for play, pause, next, and previous. At any time you can see what’s playing on the HomePod and select new tracks or stations by consulting the Music app and choosing the HomePod from the AirPlay menu below the Play/Pause button. The system works, though it’s not terrifically intuitive—we didn’t notice this until a reader alerted us.
What we like about the Apple HomePod
Setup is nearly instant and effortless: The procedure is unlike that of any non-Apple smart speaker I’ve used, and it’s essentially the same process as for pairing AirPods. After you update to the latest iOS software, placing an iPhone or other iOS device near the HomePod causes a window to pop up with a picture of a HomePod and a Set Up button. A few presses later, and the HomePod vacuums up Wi-Fi passwords and Apple Music settings, offers a quick voice-command tutorial, and that’s it. Unlike with an Amazon Echo, where you must download an app, pair the device, log in to your Amazon account, and then get into every streaming service you use, it all happens here in one extremely polished step. This is how all consumer tech should work today.
The audio quality is for real: The most vaunted feature of the HomePod is the speaker itself, which Apple stuffed with loads of sophisticated audio components—seven tweeters, a high-excursion subwoofer, and six microphones—as well as, to make it all work, one of Apple’s own A8 chips, like those used in iPhones. The result is that the HomePod can dynamically tweak its playback on the fly based not only on the song you’re listening to but also on the dimensions of the room. What that means to non–audio geeks is that if you close your eyes and listen, even walking around the room, you don’t get echoes or a sense of enclosing walls; instead there’s a broad soundstage producing faint guitar plucks and subtle voice qualities. Both in my testing and at an Apple-hosted speaker shootout in which a HomePod, a Google Home Max, a Sonos One, and an Amazon Echo (2nd generation) were demonstrated playing the same music, there was just no comparison: The Home Max lacked bass punch and detail and sounded compressed; the Echo was a welterweight and sounded tinny, as if it had been placed in a can or box; and the One was a very close second but lacked the HomePod’s precision. At home I placed the HomePod in a kitchen with hardwood floors and lots of windows and 10-foot ceilings, a living room with carpets and furniture, and an office space with all kinds of boxes and crap stacked all over, and it really did magically fill the room with precise, detailed, powerful sound. Unlike the Sonos, which tends toward far too aggressive bass punch, the HomePod walks the line just right. This is the best current speaker for Apple Music, and it’s a big upgrade over a Bluetooth option. Since the release of AirPlay 2 in May 2018, you can stream audio from the HomePod to multiple compatible speakers, too—but as of this writing, the AppleTV is the only other compatible device available.
On the HomePod, Siri is a next-level listener: Unlike the experience with Alexa or Google Assistant, which each get caught up in the moment when the music is loud and often can’t hear even shouted requests to pipe down, it’s astonishing to have music cranked to 75 percent on the HomePod and to use a normal-level voice to say “skip” or “pause” and have Siri respond without prodding. Incredibly, this works not just when the HomePod is in the same room—I placed the speaker at one end of a 50-foot-long home and was able to comfortably control Siri through multiple rooms and entryways by only fractionally raising my voice (notably, a skill my kids have yet to master). It’s really stunning.
Similarly, the HomePod, or more accurately Siri, has impressive chops for quickly deciphering which Apple device you’re speaking to and responding correctly, most every time. In a test room with a HomePod, an iPhone, and an Apple Watch, spoken queries intended for the HomePod would trigger the screen of the other devices to light up, but then the HomePod would usually handle the response as intended. (The converse, asking Siri for a function that the HomePod couldn’t handle, such as a calendar appointment, would trigger the nearest iOS device correctly but then cause Siri on the HomePod to apologize too.) As anyone who has spent time with more than one Alexa device will recognize, this intuition on Siri’s part is priceless: The constant misfires of one Alexa device in one room overhearing and acting on a request to another are maddening. (I frequently find one nosy Echo Dot streaming music away in an empty room.)
And another kudo for Siri: It’s often better at understanding requests for songs and albums than Alexa paired with Spotify. That may have to do with the way Spotify and Apple Music each work—in particular Spotify will play the most popular version of a song, which may not be the original you’re looking for—but in my testing I had an easier time getting songs I wanted to hear on the HomePod than on the Sonos One. Because Siri won’t control Spotify, we can’t make a direct comparison.
The HomePod functions as a hub for HomeKit, Apple’s smart-home platform: With this speaker serving as a HomeKit hub, you can use your voice to control HomeKit-compatible devices around your home, including smart locks, thermostats, cameras, and smoke alarms, and also have access to them when you’re not home. (See our guide to HomeKit for a more detailed rundown.) Before the HomePod, the other hub options were either an Apple TV or an iPad, neither of which are as convenient to have plugged in throughout a home to access smart devices that are out of range. Also, what few settings you can manually adjust on the HomePod are found in the built-in Home app on your iOS device.
The HomePod is to my eyes the best-looking smart speaker in its class, from a subjective aesthetic perspective, and is the one you’d most happily have sitting in plain view without its feeling out of place. (However, be careful what kind of furniture you place it on.) It’s smaller than you might expect, and at just 7 inches tall, it’s essentially the same dimensions as a Sonos One. Its glossy top, woven mesh wrapping, and soft silicone base all look and feel high quality—classic even. The power cord is cloth wrapped and supple, and thus is easy to place discreetly on furniture and on the floor.
HomePod’s flaws (but not dealbreakers): HomePod vs. Echo vs. Google Home (Max) vs. Sonos One
There is near unanimity among professional reviewers about the sorts of features that the HomePod is missing or lacking, especially compared with the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Sonos One. The New York Times (parent company of Wirecutter), The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), and CNET, to name just a few, cover those drawbacks in depth.
The most important limitations for most people to know are:
- The HomePod can damage wood furniture: An unhappy discovery after we placed a HomePod on an oiled butcher-block countertop and later on a wooden side table was that it left a defined white ring in the surface. Other reviewers and owners (such as Pocket-lint, and folks on Twitter) have reported the same issue. Apple attributes the problem to the oils diffused between the speaker’s vibration-dampening silicone base and the wood, and suggests wiping the marks off with a damp or dry soft cloth, or else moving the HomePod to a different surface. An Apple representative added over email that “the marks can improve over several days after the speaker is removed from the wood surface,” and that if they don’t fade on their own, you can “try cleaning the surface with the manufacturer’s suggested oiling method”—in other words, go refinish your furniture. This really undermines the design aspect of the HomePod—especially if you were thinking of displaying it on some prized piece of furniture—and it will surely be a sore point for many potential buyers. In other testing, we have seen no visible damage when using it on glass, granite countertop, nice MDF, polyurethane-sealed wood, and cheap IKEA bookcases. We also tested the HomePod in the same place a Sonos One regularly lives—and the Sonos hasn’t caused damage in months of use.
- It’s Apple only: You’ll need a recent iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch to set up a HomePod. That means you can’t use an Android device or a computer at all, which is a real limitation compared with Alexa-compatible speakers (including the Sonos One) and the Google Home, all of which work with both Android and iOS devices (and computers).
- It skews toward Apple Music: You can use voice to request music only from Apple-owned services, such as Apple Music as well as iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library. If you want to listen to music or audio from a source besides Apple Music—including Spotify, Audible, Pandora, and Amazon Unlimited—you can stream it directly from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac to the HomePod using AirPlay. But you cannot ask Siri to play those or (a particularly galling gap) streaming Internet radio. Another bizarrely AWOL service is Apple’s own iBooks audiobooks platform. To be fair, AirPlay is a great way to connect, and it’s much better than Bluetooth—you don’t have typing sounds, or text and email pings piped through—even if it’s not as convenient as a spoken command. In comparison, though, both Alexa and Google Home speakers support a huge range of third-party streaming services as well as Internet radio by default, and Amazon devices can stream Audible books.
- It’s limited to HomeKit: You can’t use the HomePod to communicate with non-HomeKit smart devices, like Nest’s Thermostat or Protect smoke detector, Kwikset’s Kevo smart locks, and so on, as you can with Alexa and Google Home devices.
- It’s for a single user: You can’t have multiple accounts linked to a HomePod. That means you can’t borrow a friend’s iOS device, as the HomePod would then rely on their Apple account to stream music. It also means anyone using your speaker will influence your music recommendations, and if you’ve enabled them, can send messages using your account or fiddle with your notes and reminders. Both Alexa and Google Home speakers support voice recognition, which prevents that.
- You can’t make external connections: You can’t simply plug in your HomePod to a stereo or other device, or use Bluetooth audio to stream music from non-Apple sources. This is more of a push, as any Apple device can use AirPlay, a built-in feature of Apple devices, to send third-party audio directly to the HomePod; however, Alexa and Google Home speakers can receive audio via Bluetooth from any source.
- You don’t get thousands of skills: You can’t make calls to phones or other HomePods, or create calendar appointments, or make use of any of the 15,000-plus smart skills (like games, Uber or Lyft requests, pizza delivery, and more) that have powered the popularity of Alexa in particular and the Google Home platform to a lesser extent. You can transfer an existing call to the HomePod to have it act as a speakerphone, but you can’t answer or initiate a call as you can with Alexa.
Should you buy now or wait?
If you’re in deep with Apple’s ecosystem and you’re happy with it—especially if you primarily listen to Apple Music or your own Apple-hosted music library—you may appreciate the HomePod’s excellent sound quality. But there’s definitely a premium, and the Sonos One, which is compatible with both Alexa and Google Assistant, as well as most third-party streaming services, costs just $200, or two for $350 (the price of one HomePod). People with HomeKit-enabled devices will appreciate the way the HomePod easily brings them together, and interacting with Siri to call up music is largely a great and reliable experience.
However, there’s no rush. If your intention is to acquire a home virtual assistant or a widely compatible speaker able to stream Internet radio, Spotify, Audible books, and other content from non-Apple sources—basically, any features that either aren’t present or aren’t available yet—there’s no harm in waiting, or considering other options in the meantime.
What to look forward to
Brian X. Chen, Apple’s HomePod Has Arrived. Don’t Rush to Buy It, The New York Times, February 6, 2018
Nilay Patel, Apple HomePod Review: Locked In, The Verge, February 6, 2018
Joanna Stern, Apple HomePod Review: Super Sound, but Not Super Smart (subscription required), The Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2018
Megan Wollerton, Apple HomePod Review: Great sound, but it’s trapped in Apple’s world, CNET, February 6, 2018
Raymond Wong, 10 things we just learned about Apple’s HomePod smart speaker, Mashable, February 7, 2018