From my earlier review you will see I was quite impressed with the HomePod but the more I used it the less it seemed like a viable option for my use case of a smart speaker.
The primary issues I found was that audiobooks were not available, not even those purchased through the iTunes store and the only radio station available was Beats1 which while ok to listen to for a little while does not really cover my music tastes. I have a wide range of tastes including Jazz (1940s - Present), Rock (1950s - Present), Metal (1970s - Present), Classical and Folk, very little of this is included on Beats1 and it seems orientated to R&B, Rap and Pop which would be acceptable if the option of other radio stations were available such as Jazz FM, Planet Rock, BBC Stations and Classic FM. I use a smart speaker in my bedroom (being paralysed I use it as a voice controlled entertainment centre) and the lack of these options made made entertainment very limited.
The ability to play podcasts was extremely hit and miss, the HomePod very rarely was able to access the All Unplayed playlist I had set up in the native podcasts application and in order to play a specific podcast the pronunciation and name asked for had to be extremely precise in order for the desired podcast to play.
The inability to adjust the bass/treble proved to be an insurmountable problem. Why do Apple think they have the right to dictate how every piece of audio is delivered? There are several reasons why the ability to adjust the bass/treble (beyond that of pure audio taste) is required. If like myself you want to listen to something at a low level during the night reducing the bass level is a necessity in order to avoid disturbing others in the house, if you live in an apartment heavy bass tends to travel through walls and floors neighbours above and below will probably not appreciate this, many people with hearing problems find bass levels need to be reduced otherwise the audio just seems a muddy mess or even worse becomes very painful and listening to voice requires a totally different level to music. I found the active adjustment that was supposed to be on the HomePod just didn’t work, thus, over time the bass became more and more prominent while no matter how low the volume was Siri’s voice level was extremely loud.
The reviews all stated that the sound quality was outstanding but in my opinion I much prefer the audio produced by Sonos, a system which gives the user the ability to adjust bass/treble levels. All of the above (plus the fact there is no sleep timer on the HomePod) made my decision to sell the HomePod (losing quite a bit of cash) and going back to an Amazon Echo which I can tell to play on my Sonos in my bedroom and therefore have the bast of both worlds, Audiobooks, Kindle Reading, Many Radio Stations etc. and the Sonos sound Quality and adjustability. I also now have a Sonos One in the office which I find much more responsive that the HomePod ever was.
My new setup give the entertainment system that I require, that audio adjustment I require and the other features (sleep timers etc.) that I require. In my view Apple really need to up the game on the HomePod to make it a rival to other smart speakers.
I purchased my HomePod from one of our local Apple Retail Stores on Monday (12th February) only three days after launch and for the first time, in my experience, the Apple Store was nearly empty and on asking if the Space Grey HomePod was in stock the answer was “yes plenty”. Is it a surprise that this product has not captured the public’s imagination like the iPhone, iPad or even the Apple TV? Probably not, firstly, Smart Speakers are still very much in their infancy (even the Amazon Echo has only been available in the UK for about two years) tech geeks are excited about these products and their evolution but until home automation is embraced by tech muggles these items will live on the periphery of home consumer electronics. Secondly, high quality audio is niche market, much of the buying public will throw down £50.00 - £80.00 for an Amazon Echo or Dot and not notice the woeful sound quality but not consider, or not be able to consider, a £319.00 HomePod with superior sound quality, superior build, superior R&D but a few less features (at the moment).
What can the early adopters expect, apart from a much thinner wallet? Unboxing, like most Apple products, displays minimal packaging and instructions, however, the initial set up is so simple that instructions are irrelevant. Set up is initiated by plugging the power into HomePod then placing your iPhone near it (img.1), after a brief walkthrough on the iPhone the HomePod is ready to go. After this the Home app on the iPhone is used for some advanced settings and updates.
The HomePod is supposed to sample the audio properties of the room it is in within seconds (img.2), I found it took several tracks in a couple of different genres in order to settle the bass down. Once the bass had settled down (it was a little distorted to begin with) the sound was outstanding, bass was strong but not overpowering, vocals were right at the front and virtually all of the levels were excellent, the only small thing, which is a matter of personal taste, is that I would have liked a little more treble, there is no ability to alter the bass or treble. To compare the audio quality with the Amazon Echo is ridiculous, the HomePod is way out of that league, however, the Sonos system is a much closer comparison. In my view, Sonos has the advantage of adjustable bass and treble and the ability to create a Stereo Pair (a feature HomePod can expect sometime this year) but the HomePod has a slightly better warmer sound while also bringing the vocals to the front a little better than Sonos. Due to the size constraints and configuration of the speakers neither of these Smart Speakers can outperform my dedicated Onkyo system with CD and Turntable.
Controlling music is extremely easy, providing you have a subscription to Apple Music, I have asked Siri for several artists, genres and albums without any issues. Voice volume control is far more granular than other Smart Speakers I have used, you are able to select any volume between 0% - 100%, the highest I have used so far is 50% but the unit is in quite a small room.
Podcasts work perfectly, I have asked for a number of different podcasts each of which were found immediately. The speech is clear and I felt no desire to have any of the audio levels different. At launch HomePod does not seem to have support for any audiobooks, not even those purchased in the iTunes Store, I’m really hoping this functionality will be added very soon as I feel audiobooks are an integral feature of a Smart Speaker. Radio is extremely limited at launch, only Beats1 is available for streaming, but as the BBC is used for news and sport updates I’m hoping radio integration with at least BBC stations will come soon. The ability to stream from an iOS device to the HomePod using Airplay (Airplay 2 is another feature that is promised for later in the year) partly negates the lack of Audiobook and Radio integration but it would be great to have these controllable via Siri on the HomePod.
I have not set up any home automation yet, however, I do have an Eve Smart Plug which I will be trying soon. A major automation feature that has been ignored is a sleep timer, many people (myself included) use this type of product to go sleep with music in the background and a sleep timer is a vital feature that has been omitted.
A voice feature which is very welcome is the ability to send a text message. Integration with your iCloud account means Siri can access the contacts there and message them, this I have tried and was successful. Siri also has the ability to read back incoming messages to you.
I feel that the HomePod is a superior sounding Smart Speaker which has several vital features missing at launch. If the ability to control and play audiobooks, more radio stations and a sleep timer are added soon, this product will be a major contender in the Smart Speaker market and may not need third party apps and integration to make it a success. At the moment it is is a worthy addition to any home that is immersed in the Apple Ecosystem and wants high quality audio. Is it worth £319.00, in my view yes.