Known to take its time with new tech, Apple’s first-ever smart speaker evaded India longer than most global markets. It’s finally here, but is it too late to the party?
Audiophiles are a tough bunch to please, especially if a tech company tried to court them. But Apple ensured that it did its homework before embarking on the seemingly insurmountable task. World class anechoic chambers, multiple sound labs and the best engineers in the business toiled for many years before stamping the half eaten Apple on the bottom of the HomePod, out of view. But the moment you start playing your Apple Music tunes, the sound will leave no doubt in your mind about which smart speaker you’re listening to.
While the Amazon Echo Studio made it to the market before the HomePod in India, there isn’t much of a debate as to which set the tone for the form factor. The HomePod is a beautifully made, super-dense cylinder of sound. The number of hardware parts form the bulk of the weight, but it’s also the construction of the cabinet itself that lends it an almost zero-vibration chassis. The Devialet Phantom Reactor costs ten times as much for a similar build quality, making HomePod actually feel like fantastic value for money!
All Siri, sorry Android
The clean, uncluttered design approach is typically Apple and the only indication to the HomePod ready for action is the swirling ball of colour on the glossy top panel. Siri is the primary form of interaction and also the reason for the delay of its launch in India. Touch controls and iPhone can get the job done too. While Siri can even read out and send iMessages for you, there’s an easy setting to stop that once you’re out of the house with your iPhone. The existing members of the house can still use HomePod for music, Podcasts or via AirPlay with their own devices, so security is thankfully high. Also, Siri in this case isn’t as sensitive to wake up accidentally like Alexa is on Echo devices. A total of six microphones (and a dedicated bass-EQ mic) is always listening for ‘Hey Siri’ commands and is even more responsive than an Echo Studio across the room, with loud music on.
If you have multiple Apple devices, it’s intelligent enough to wake up the HomePod first and nails it. Thanks to its big, A8 brains, the HomePod always knows which room you’re in, so when you instruct Siri to switch on the lights or play music, it won’t illuminate the garage or flood the bedroom while you lounge in the den. Instructing your music to jump rooms with you is as easy as uttering the magic words. One of the major chinks in its armour is its closed wall approach. Get an Android device next to it and the HomePod snubs it like peas on pizza. Only for Apple devices and without Bluetooth support means you have to rely on AirPlay or your home Wi-Fi network. No aux or ethernet ports here either.
Also, although smart, its skills are definitely no match for Amazon’s Alexa, yet. Sure, if you use any of the HomeKit compatible light bulbs, thermostats or LED strips, you might be able to make some use of it, but it doesn’t just order Pizza or call you an Ola cab if you start getting chatty. On the upside, though, the diction resolution is a world of improvement over the earlier Siri versions; even the speech style is a lot more conversational now, modulations et all. It’s one of the primary reasons why Apple didn’t rush bringing the HomePod to the Indian market – they wanted to ensure that, especially on a product that relies so heavily on Siri, it absolutely had to work. Every single time.
And it mostly does, given its KRA is finding your desired music on Apple Music’s vast library and serving it in an instant. Recovering time was under 3 seconds from command to the song playing, and unlike Alexa, it doesn’t bore you with ads or a monologue on metadata. Siri’s ability to hear you over loud music is also quite remarkable. And don’t worry, if you have multiple Apple devices in the same room, the HomePod will get the first priority to get the job done. Unless, if you make a wrist flick at the same time as saying Hey Siri and you’re wearing an Apple Watch. Or if your iPhone is active at the same time… but those are exceptions and not the rule, so the everyday experience is pretty seamless and elegant enough, as you would expect from Apple.
Whether black or white, the mesh fabric is perfectly stretched around the core and gives the HomePod a sense of purity and purpose. It’s acoustically transparent so as to not muddle the frequency response from the array of seven folded horn tweeters around its base. A 4in top-firing LF driver maintains an even low-end response no matter where you’re seated, and the DSP ensures it sounds rich and weighty at any volume. This isn’t a tin-can by any measure and very impressive for its size.
Aiming for an accurate tonal balance, the A8 chip and the studio level dynamic processing give the HomePod a refined sound. There’s heft, authority and consistency of spectral balance across most places in the room. Even at lower volumes, it preserves the details and nuances superbly. Even if you’re using just a single HomePod, it senses incoming stereo signals and the phase differences between the left/right channels to create a direct and ambient sound field from its multiple tweeters, adding spatial dimension. Now, since this is a dynamic algorithm and evaluates the music with regards to vocals and instruments in real time, there could be “dead spots” in certain locations around the room where the vocals aren’t directly aiming at you, but the ambient sounds or instruments are. It’s a matter of getting used to and also if you’re extremely critical, aiming the “front” of the HomePod directly at you if you like a more forward-sounding tonal balance. Since it is a uniform cylinder of mesh, presumably the portion directly opposite the power cord is the dead centre position as this is also where I experienced the most amount of vocal energy centered at.
Changing placement in and around the room doesn’t seem to upset the otherwise even-handed tonal balance as the built in sensors quickly adapt to their new location and apply the requisite EQ settings automatically. Especially in the bass region, the HomePod exhibits an unbelievable amount of control and poise, with zero vibration transmitted to the surface it’s resting on. It’s no surprise there are no feet or tiptoes for the HomePod. It doesn’t need any! Adding another HomePod will undeniably widen the soundstage; the system is intelligent enough to divert correct channel information to the Left or Right HomePod and at the same time use the 7-tweeter array to ensure the appropriate direct and ambient sound separation within each speaker. The resulting sound won’t be what audiophiles are used to, but it’s not wrong either. The presentation is lively, engaging and warm. The only real area it gets beaten by its hi-fi counterparts is the reach and throw of the sound. It doesn’t project into the room like a pair of bookshelf speakers would. The HomePod sounds its best when seated close to the unit, within a 6ft radius. But, the potential of an absolute killer Dolby Atmos system with 7 or 9 HomePods is very enticing, given how easy Apple can make it to use with an Apple TV 4K and maybe a wireless sub. One can only hope!
While one HomePod sounds pretty fine, using AirPlay 2 with another one to make a stereo pair will be tempting for anyone serious about sound. The combined output and room-sensing intelligence means you may never miss a ‘proper’ hi-fi system, if you only rely on Apple Music. Sure, you won’t get the same level of depth or dynamic scale as you would in a pair of bookshelf speakers placed on stands, mated to the right amplifier, used with the right DAC and perfectly positioned in the room. But you see how complicated all that starts sounding in comparison to the plug and play (and get 70% of the results) nature of the HomePod. Looking visibly meeker than the Amazon Echo Studio in dimensions, the HomePod impresses from the moment you unbox it, let it pair itself to your iPhone and start belting out the tunes. Besides a tiny bit of congestion in the midband, I found the sound to be surprisingly audiophile-friendly! It’s all about the music, not about the tech now.