HomePod review roundup: Killer sound, so-so smarts

The HomePod is almost here, and that means that it's time for the first set of reviews. There's been a lot of discussion as to whether or not it will measure up to other smart speakers both in sound and in assistant capabilities. iMore's own Rene Ritchie called the HomePod "Retina for your ears," but what does everyone else have to say about Apple's first smart speaker?

CNET

Megan Wollerton, writing for CNET:

The HomePod's uniform sound across so many different types of music separates it from its two main competitors, the Google Home Max and the Sonos One. Most of the time in our tests at CNET's Smart Apartment, the Max and the HomePod sounded similar, with both exhibiting a relatively open sound and good extension, while the less-expensive Sonos One sounded slightly more distant.

One of the tracks that created some separation among the three speakers was "Yulunga (Spirit Dance)" by Dead Can Dance. It's the kind of song made for the HomePod -- the combination of airy vocals, deep booming notes and crisp percussion brought out the best in Apple's speaker. The HomePod made the song come to life from its droning beginning, into the palatial vocal line and beyond.

The Verge

Nilay Patel, writing for The Verge:

All of this means the HomePod sounds noticeably richer and fuller than almost every other speaker we've tested. You get a surprisingly impressive amount of bass out of it, but you can still hear all of the details in the midrange and the bass never overwhelms the music. And it's immediately, obviously noticeable: set in a corner of my kitchen, the HomePod sounded so much better than everything else that our video director Phil Esposito went from thinking the whole thing was kind of dumb to actively pointing out that other speakers sounded bad in comparison.

Compared to the HomePod, the Sonos One sounds a little empty and the Google Home Max is a bass-heavy mess — even though Google also does real-time room tuning. The Echo and smaller Google Home aren't even in the same league. The only comparable speaker that came close in my testing was the Sonos Play:5, which could match the detail and power of the HomePod in some rooms when tuned with Sonos' TruePlay system. But it also costs more, is larger, and doesn't have any smart features at all.

He also calls HomePod as a "lonely" product:

All of this is why I started thinking of the HomePod as "lonely." It feels like it was designed for a very demanding person to use while living alone entirely inside Apple's ecosystem. It's tied more closely to a single iPhone and iCloud account than any other smart speaker, and Siri has none of the capability or vibrancy of what's happening with Alexa. Apple can try to move mountains by itself, or it can recognize that the HomePod is a little iOS computer for the home and let developers build on it as they have for so long and with such great success with the iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

USA Today

Ed Baig, writing for USA Today:

If you fit that description and are willing to fork over $349 plus embrace the subscription-only Apple Music streaming service, HomePod is well worth the wait, an outcome I reached after testing the speaker for just shy of a week. Apple makes no bones that HomePod is a music-first speaker, and it sounds terrific, all the more notable given how small it is. Vocals were pure, bass deep.

At the same time, the new speaker can be an exercise in frustration at times, especially when you request something of Siri that Apple's digital assistant can't deliver on HomePod. In answering to your "Hey Siri" vocal commands, Apple's assistant can perform many of the same table-stakes tasks as Amazon's Alexa on Echo's or the Google Assistant on Google Home speakers—from setting timers and reminders to informing you of the weather and traffic, turning on smart lights, or solving math.

The Wall Street Journal

Joanna Stern, writing for The Wall Street Journal:

About 2 minutes into the song, you can hear everything Apple engineered the HomePod to be. The horns surge, the tom-toms thunder, the guitar and bass keep pounding, yet I can also hear distinct band members yelling "Tusk." I could hear it all while walking around the speaker at my kitchen island.

On the Amazon Echo and the Google Home, that part of the song sounds like mush. The $200 Alexa-enabled Sonos One gave the HomePod the stiffest competition, yet even with it I couldn't distinguish as many of the instruments—on "Tusk" and other test songs.

But Stern also had some Siri-related frustrations:

The HomePod has an iPhone processor and pairs with your iPhone—yet it can't make a phone call? To use it as a speakerphone, you need to start the call on your iPhone then select the HomePod as an audio source. You can, however, send text messages from the HomePod with just your voice.

TechCrunch

Matt Panzarino, writing for TechCrunch:

Apple's HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It's got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.

As a smart speaker, it offers best-in-class voice recognition, vastly outstripping the ability of other smart speakers to hear you trying to trigger a command at a distance or while music is playing, but its overall flexibility is stymied by the limited command sets that the Siri protocol offers.

BuzzFeed

I compared the HomePod with the Sonos One in the living room of my small one-bedroom apartment, and then in BuzzFeed San Francisco's 650-square-foot lab with ~15-foot-high ceilings. In a blind listening test in my apartment, my BF Will overwhelmingly preferred the Sonos One, saying "the vocals are really more clear on the Sonos" for the Grateful Dead's "China Cat Sunflower"; that the Sonos's "mid-range sounds more prevalent" and "accurate" for Lorde's "Green Light"; but that there was "more detail" on the HomePod for "God's Plan" by Drake.

I mostly agreed — except I thought the HomePod spread audio throughout the room more evenly than the Sonos One, which fired audio in one direction, rather than filling the space. I listened to Rhye's new Blood album, and the bass felt too thump-y on the HomePod, but the bass guitar sounded great. Yaeji's "Passionfruit" also sounded better on the HomePod, which really highlighted the record's ethereal/atmospheric vibes. The Sonos made Laura Marling's voice on "Ghosts" and "Rambling Man" sound especially clear, like she was in the room with me, but the HomePod gave the tracks a warmer tone overall.

The New York Times

Brian X. Chen, writing for The New York Times:

Apple's speaker is certainly an impressive piece of hardware. Audiophiles will appreciate that it has a woofer with a custom amplifier and seven tweeters. The result is a speaker with a deep bass and rich treble that is loud enough to fill a large room with superb sound. HomePod makes the Amazon Echo and Google's Home sound muffled and tinny in comparison.

But Siri on HomePod is embarrassingly inadequate, even though that is the primary way you interact with it. Siri is sorely lacking in capabilities compared with Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant. Siri doesn't even work as well on HomePod as it does on the iPhone.

The Loop

Jim Dalrymple for The Loop:

First and foremost, HomePod is a music speaker, and it excels at that task. I've compared HomePod to Sonos One, Google Max, and Amazon Echo to get a feeling for how each sounds in the same environment.

To be absolutely clear, there was no comparison in sound quality. HomePod offered so much more quality that it was quite literally laughable to hear the others. The only speaker that sounded decent was the Sonos One, but even it couldn't compete with HomePod.

But Dalrymple also ran into some head-scratchers, namely from Siri:

The first is that Siri on HomePod doesn't have access to my calendar, so I can't set an appointment. This seemed weird to me because it does have access to my Reminders, Notes, and Messages—why not Calendar?

When I asked Siri to set an appointment, she simply responded and said she didn't have access to my calendars.

After you've checked out all of the reviews (including Rene's), come back and let us know: are you picking up a HomePod?

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