Apple HomePod review: Smart speaker edges Amazon and Google with stunning sound

Even without its smarts, the audio quality justifies the price

David Phelan
Technology Critic
Tuesday 06 February 2018 14:45 GMT
Introducing the Apple HomePod

The Apple HomePod is Apple’s smart hi-fi speaker, with a big emphasis on hi-fi quality audio.

So how does it look and sound, and exactly how smart is it?

We’ve been using the HomePod for the last week.


It’s a solid, substantial gadget with a squat cylinder design. It manages to be good-looking without dominating, perhaps because it’s so compact, which means that you can put it in most rooms and barely notice it’s there. It comes in two colours: white and space grey.

The mesh finish is a soft-touch cover that’s pleasing to the touch and acoustically transparent. It feels approachable because of this soft finish. And it feels pretty heavy when you pick it up.

Although it’s certainly portable, it’s not lightweight. The base is designed so there’s no vibration when you’re playing music. On top is a flat circular lid which is white or black according to the finish you’ve chosen. At rest, this is blank. There isn’t the slightest evidence that there’s a circular touchscreen hiding there at all. But say the magic words ”Hey Siri”, and the display appears, with a multi-coloured swirling image that changes in timed response to what you say. Then it vanishes utterly again.

If you’re playing music, all that you can see are the plus and minus symbols which allow you to control volume, which track’s playing and so on by touch.

It’s the best-looking smart speaker I’ve seen, though the Sonos One is a handsome gadget, too.

Its small size, by the way, does not prepare you for the powerful sound it’s capable of producing, but we’ll come to that.


This is blissfully simple, better than on rival smart speakers and, frankly, most consumer electronics in general.

Anyone who’s used Apple’s AirPods wireless headphones knows that just bringing the headphones near to your iPhone is enough to connect the two. Here, when you first plug the speaker in, you hold an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch that’s running the latest version of software (iOS 11.2.5) next to it and, well, that’s it.

It will transfer your Apple ID to the speaker, along with elements such as naming the room you’re going to place it in. If you’ve already set up the Home app on your iPhone, for instance, and have named rooms there, these appear as options for you to choose from.

A bonging noise tells you that your account settings are being transferred, such as your iTunes account, Apple Music account - if you have one - and so on.

This means the HomePod knows your music preferences, from when you set them up with Apple Music originally. So, when you ask it to play music for the first time, it’ll choose from stuff it thinks you’ll like.

It also transfers other things like Messages, Reminders and the like – but for these particular services to work, your iPhone or iPad has to be present on the network. In other words, if other family members are listening to music while you’re out, they can’t access your messages and so on. Unless you leave your iPhone at home.

It’s a quick, effective setup and you can choose which Siri voice you like from the options, male and female, from the UK, US and Australia.

Siri will then speak for the first time and, oh my, it’s jolly. It’ll cheerily invite you to say, “Hey Siri, what can you do?” and explain that not only can it turn on lights and chat about the weather, it can play music too.

The whole process takes less than a minute. Siri is always upbeat, but thankfully not quite as pleased with itself as in these first few seconds. To be honest, I’ve heard Siri in US English as well as UK and it has at least adopted a little British reserve for our shores.

A word on how Siri sounds generally: the latest iOS 11 software saw significant improvements in how realistic, how human, the voice assistant sounds. The sound quality on the HomePod is so precise, so open, so detailed, that it sounds clearer than ever. This is good, but just occasionally the clarity of the sound can expose the fact that it’s a virtual, rather than a real, person.

It’s a bit like the way Rory Bremner sounds near-identical to whoever he’s imitating, but he’s ultimately still an impersonator, not the real thing. Siri does an good impression of being real, mind you.

Using HomePod

Apple found that most people using smart speakers, even the smallest, least hi-fi capable devices, were using them for playing music above everything else. So, while recognising the importance of being able to relay the latest weather or turn the heating on and off, Apple’s intention was to make this a speaker with, first and foremost, exceptional hi-fi audio quality.

When you first play music, the HomePod makes use of the fact that there are six microphones snaking around its barrel-like shape. As it’s playing, those microphones are listening to the room, how the sound is reflected, whether it’s sitting in the corner, against a wall or wherever.

Apple calls this the HomePod’s spatial awareness. Other speakers can listen to the room, too, like Sonos does with a system called Trueplay. This involves using an iPhone or iPad to listen to a series of test sounds as you walk slowly round the room. It works well – you can really hear the difference when you turn the Trueplay tuning off again – but Apple’s self-monitoring system is smoother.

Once that process is done, it can then adjust exactly which of the seven tweeters plays what.

So, as it’s playing, the Apple A8 computer chip inside the HomePod analyses the music to work out what’s the main vocal, what’s background vocals or applause or whatever, and can direct those elements accordingly, so the main vocal is coming right at you and the background sounds are beamed backward against the wall behind the speaker, say.

It makes this analysis and adjusts what’s sent where on the fly, live, during the playback of every track.

The microphones are also listening out for your spoken command. In a week of testing, Siri heard me perfectly every single time, even over loud music.

If you pick the HomePod up and move it, an accelerometer recognises this and it will do its room-measuring thing again. It’ll also do it if you’ve unplugged it.

Audio quality

That’s the technology: so, how does it sound? Tremendous.

The audio quality is way better than any other smart speaker I’ve heard, including the Sonos One and Google Home Max (a big, music-oriented speaker not yet on sale in the UK). What’s more, it sounds absolutely as good as, or better than, many decent stereo speaker setups. The wide sound stage and deep fidelity to the music means it has outshone some pretty full-on hi-fi systems I’ve heard. Nothing on the HomePod is muddy, every element is sharp and realised.

All from a single, pretty-small speaker. There’s plenty of bass: the woofer inside shifts a lot of air (and can move up to 20mm, Apple says) and sounds solid and strong. But vocals are also super-clear: rich, bright and detailed.

Apple’s HomePod development has lasted a long time, more than six years, so you’d have hoped the company would have got it right by now. This is a single module, so it would be easy to assume that it’s a mono speaker. In fact, though Apple doesn’t refer to it as stereo, it does pay attention to the distinct left and right channels of a stereo track and uses them to create the sound you hear.

Later in the year, with an upcoming software update, it will be possible to connect two HomePods as a stereo pair. I’ve heard this in action and it’s extremely effective, sounding superb. For now, though a single HomePod can deliver brilliant sound.

Those seven tweeters – beam-forming, Apple calls them, to indicate their collective ability to push particular sounds in specific directions – create a wide soundstage, especially considering it’s all coming from one unit. The audio doesn’t sound as though there are speakers behind you, this is not surround sound. Nonetheless, it is persuasively good wherever in the room you are sitting or standing in relation to it.

What you can play

Apple Music is skilfully integrated with the HomePod so it can create an impromptu series of tracks for you, whether you say, “Hey Siri, play acoustic pop” or “Hey Siri, I’d like to listen to Stephen Sondheim”. It also has access to podcasts, so it responds well to “Hey Siri, play the latest episode of The Archers.”

But there’s no radio app here, unlike on Amazon Echo, for instance, so you can’t just ask it to play Radio 4. Well, you can play the Apple-owned Beats One radio stations, but not UK radio. Let’s hope this changes as, for me, it was the biggest downside of the HomePod.

If you hear a new track you like, you can ask Siri to add it to an existing playlist of yours, something I’ve found quite useful. You can also interrupt at any time to ask Siri what you’re listening to or to be told more about the artist.

What if you’re a Spotify subscriber? You can launch Spotify on your iPhone, say, and once you’re playing a track you can transfer it to the HomePod speaker using AirPlay.

This works well, but obviously you don’t get the voice control capabilities here, apart from changing volume and so on. You can also use AirPlay to throw other tracks from your iPhone or iPad to the HomePod, or for other people in your home to play, they just need to be on your Wi-Fi network.

As such, though HomePod definitely works best if you’re an Apple Music subscriber, a lack of subscription is not quite a deal-breaker.

Other smart features

Siri can do more than play a song or 40 million. It can answer all those questions you can ask of it on the iPhone, like the current time in Peru, the exchange rate for the dollar, or Justin Timberlake’s height. It can calculate the square root of 240, recite a tongue-twister and tell you the weather.

Amazon Echo users, especially younger ones, have delighted in the fact that Alexa can sing them happy birthday and tell them jokes, but these were not Apple’s priorities, it seems. That’s not quite fair: ask Siri “What’s the meaning of life?” and she has a raft of answers, such as the Python-derived “It’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya,” which sounds great in British English on HomePod. It’s like they baked disdain into the silicon especially.

And these kinds of details are the ones that Apple could add easily. Already, the HomePod works exactly the same as the iPhone to reveal sports scores, for instance.

Siri has always been good at the follow-up question, long before other electronic helpers learnt the trick.

And then there’s smart-home Siri. If you have HomeKit-compatible equipment, you can control it from the HomePod just as you can from the iPhone or iPad. Siri will switch on the living-room light, raise the central heating temperature, lower the blinds.

You can create scenes using the Home app on iPad or iPhone and then, by telling the HomePod it’s movie night, it’ll dim the lights and turn on the Apple TV while you make the popcorn.

Other virtual personal assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, have smart-home skills that are more wide-ranging, just because more products seem to be available for those platforms. Apple has previously insisted on a particular hardware compliance to protect privacy, which has excluded some manufacturers or products. However, a forthcoming iOS update is likely to make this security connection happen through software, which may make many products suddenly compatible.

As mentioned above, if your iPhone pings that you’ve received a text, HomePod can read it out to you. Sending a WhatsApp message to a contact is satisfying, especially if you remember that you can dictate punctuation, too. You can use HomePod for calls. Not to make the call, but you can begin it on your iPhone and then transfer it to the speaker.

Rival speakers

The closest audio quality I’ve heard from a smart speaker is the Sonos One, a smart speaker which works with Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant. That is a mono speaker but has an excellent tone. A stereo pair of Sonos One speakers – each of which cost £199 – is more expensive than the £319 HomePod, though not much more. There is, of course, greater stereo separation from two widely spaced speakers than one HomePod can manage, but the Sonos One pair don’t quite match the bass of the HomePod.

Sonos One uses Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant, who is very capable, but in my tests Alexa on Sonos wasn’t quite as reliable at listening to me as Siri on HomePod.


Do you need a smart speaker, really? Wouldn’t a decent pair of stereo speakers do just as nicely? Well, maybe, but the HomePod is special. First, it sounds fantastic. Close your eyes and it’s hard to believe the sound is all coming from that stocky little cylinder. I’d say that even without its smarts, the sound justifies the price.

It’s easy to use, reliably accurate at understanding spoken commands and acting on them. It’s capable when it comes to choosing music tracks or setting timers, sending messages, reading the news and so on. There are places these skills need to develop, but they will, I’m sure. And the arrival of radio stations can’t come soon enough.

Its smart home skills are good, though they were on the iPhone already. This is just another way to do stuff.

And maybe that’s it. HomePod is a gentle improvement on the things Siri could do already and which other smart speakers do.

Apart from one thing: the hi-fi playback, which is a giant leap forward. If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, this is easily the most attractive option, in every way. Even if you’re not, there’s still much to enjoy.

Above all, the HomePod creates music which has great, unmissable presence, a rich tone and a wide, impressive soundstage.

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