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.