Apple has once again entered the speaker market launching the Apple HomePod, a speaker with Siri built-in that plans to take on not only the Amazon Echo and Google Home but advanced systems like Sonos too.
Apple wants to deliver not only a connected smart speaker, but wants to address one of the biggest weaknesses in current solutions: sound quality.
Apple is something of a latecomer, but does it have what it takes to challenge an already crowded market?
Apple HomePod: Design
- 172 x 143mm, barrel shaped, 2.5kg
- Mesh covered for 360 degree sound
- Flattened top with touch controls and Siri waveform
The cylindrical speaker coved in a mesh fabric promises to put music at the forefront of the experience. The 7-inch tall speaker will come in either white or space grey and feature an array of speakers to create a well-rounded balance of treble and bass regardless of where you place it in the room.
A single power cable comes out the bottom, while a touch sensitive display panel on the top shows volume controls when needed, as well as a glowing rainbow of lights when Siri is responding to your commands or questions.
There are resemblances to the company's cylindrical Mac Pro computer, although it's not as big, or as shiny. Like Google Home and Amazon Echo, this is a speaker that is designed to sit in any environment, be it the bedroom or the kitchen, and it's a design that works from all angles. It's as clean as it is simple, although it will be interesting to see if you can see the Siri lights clearly enough from various positions in the room.
Amazon solved this problem with a clean circle light around the top of the echo, while Google angled the top of Google Home.
Apple HomePod: A self-tuning speaker
- Sound adapts based on speaker placement
- 6 microphones
Turn the speaker on and it will automatically tune itself to maximise performance based on its positioning in the room. Unlike Sonos that requires you to wave your phone around to create a better "sound landscape" using its TruePlay technology, Apple says that the speaker sends out an array of sounds and then uses the six built-in microphones to hear how those sounds reverberate around the room.
It means that you should have the "perfect sounding" speaker whatever room you're using it in and it won't matter if you place it on a table in the centre of the room or in a corner, the sound will be adapted to make sure you get the best results out of it. It certainly sounded great when we heard the speaker for the first time.
Apple HomePod: Sound performance
- 4-inch up-firing central woofer
- 7 tweeters
- Adaptive software to reduce distortion
The Apple HomePod will allow users to sign directly into Apple Music or stream other music services like Spotify via Apple's AirPlay 2 technology. In that sense, it's a little less connected than its rivals, with a strong preference for Apple Music as the source, which you'd expect. What the HomePod really targeting sound quality over its current rivals, it's here that most of the interest will lie.
Up against the Amazon Echo - which doesn't have a music pedigree - there is a clear winner, the Apple HomePod sounds better. At twice the price you would expect this to be the case and Apple clearly stated that was its intention. Amazon's popular speaker is great for listening to that radio and having fun with Alexa, but it's no match for the likes of a Sonos Play:1 or a UE Boom 2 for example.
Against something like the Sonos Play:3, a connected speaker that's closer to the size of the HomePod, it's a slightly different story. Initial thoughts are that the HomePod sounds livelier, with a wider soundscape, but we also feel that we would need to listen to more songs for longer to make a more rounded appraisal. Listening to an array of tracks by Norah Jones, The Eagles and Kendrick Lemar, the HomePod does feel substantial.
It's probably a fairer comparison to pitch the HomePod against the Naim Mu-so Qb. A cracking speaker that delivers a beautiful sound, something which we are sure Apple would happily be compared to. Regardless of which device you compare the new speaker to, it's clear that it sounds very good and its approach to sound will appeal to many, regardless of the music type they listen to. We look forward to testing it more substantially in the future.
Like the Sonos Play:3 and many other speakers, you can pair two HomePods to create a stereo pair although Apple confirmed on stage that there is much more to it than just simply acting as a left and right channel and we're sure this will be a popular option for those wanting to fill a larger space with sound.
Apple HomePod: Siri integration
Beyond aiming to be a great speaker, Apple has included an A8 processor, as found in the iPhone 6 to manage a lot of the heavy lifting and power Siri. It means that, like the Echo and Google Home, you'll be able to use AI and access Siri via the HomePod speaker to ask questions, issue smart home commands, or merely control the music.
Users will be able to give commands like "Hey Siri, I like this song" and Siri will act on that information and respond accordingly learning preferences the range of tracks available in Apple Music.
Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like "Hey Siri, who's the drummer in this?" or create a shared Up Next queue with everyone in the home.
When you aren't asking about music you can control all the HomeKit-enabled devices in your home, turning on lights, creating scenes, and suchlike. And like Apple TV, the HomePod can act as a home hub, providing remote access and home automations through the Home app on iPhone or iPad.
From what we've experienced so far, the Apple HomePod not only looks good, but more importantly, the speaker sounds good too, especially when you push the boat out and pair two together. Of course with Apple's acquisition of Beats and its music history with iTunes you would expect that.
Apple will be fighting a battle on many fronts, against smart speakers and market leaders like Sonos who dominates the multiroom speaker experience. When it comes to sound quality, first impressions are that Apple has done a good job, which might be more worrying for established speaker makers who are looking to get more connected. With Apple's native and seamless support, it's going to be a popular choice for Apple Music users.
In the smart speaker race, Amazon - Google Home perhaps less so - but the HomePod could be the missing part in Apple establishing HomeKit dominance in the smart home. Amazon's advantage isn't in sound quality, it's in the sheer number of services that Alexa can offer, which is where Siri becomes important. The rate at which third-parties can establish that connection becomes critical, because Alexa is already very linked up.
Apple suggested that the HomePod had been 4 years in the making. Priced at $349, it's less of an impulse buy than the Amazon Echo, but it could be the next big Apple success.