I am not — nor do I have much desire to be — an "audiophile." I didn't study audio production in school. I don't have a multi-thousand dollar audio rig. And I think lossless audio streaming services like Tidal are nice ideas that fall flat when most don't have the equipment to tell the difference.
But I know music. I may not be able to pinpoint the exact sonic frequencies for an acoustic performance, but I know how it's supposed to sound when someone pours their soul into grand piano or sings in harmony — I heard it every day growing up, floating up stairs and through the halls. My musician parents frequently held rehearsals and practice sessions in our house; rare was the afternoon I'd come home to a silent living room.
I say all this to preface my taste in speakers: The technology is interesting to me from an academic standpoint, but what really matters is how the music feels in the room — and the price I'll have to pay to get there.
On those fronts, Apple has achieved a monumental feat. After months of skepticism over the HomePod speaker, I was invited to take part in a listening test that not only showcased the HomePod's abilities, but directly pit it against the 2017 Amazon Echo, Google Home Max, and Sonos One. I came away from that test both impressed and shocked by the engineering Apple has put into making this tiny 7-inch speaker a musical powerhouse in your living room.
- The testing conditions
- HomePod vs Amazon Echo
- HomePod vs Google Home Max
- HomePod vs Sonos One
- Places where the HomePod struggles
The testing conditions
The listening test was conducted in a medium-sized square room with high ceilings and minimal furniture beyond a few chairs, bookshelves, and rug. (Enough to provide appropriate sound dampening in the room without overcrowding it.) The speakers themselves were arranged on a mid-height entertainment console from left to right: Sonos One, Google Home Max, HomePod, and Echo (2017).
All of the speakers had been level-matched to vocal tracks prior to the test, though I can't attest to the specifics of that matching as I wasn't present for it.
I had the opportunity to listen to significant parts of four songs on all four devices, along with a separate listening test of the HomePod in a different room.
As this test was controlled, I can't claim that this comparison will be the most thorough comparison we'll do between these speakers — for that, you'll want to reference our individual comparisons after the speaker is released. But if you're looking for a general comparison of speaker sound, quality, and room tone, this is it.
HomePod vs. Amazon Echo
Let's get this out of the way: This comparison is insane. Amazon's Echo retails for under $100 and its speaker-and-microphone array are built more for replying to spoken queries than blasting music. The HomePod retails for $350 and was built for audio above all else.
But people want to know how they compare against each other, and so the Echo stood next to speakers that cost double or triple its build.
To say the HomePod outshone the Echo is obvious: The Echo's soundscape sounds more like a 90s car radio than a true room speaker, and it struggles mightily when being asked to fill a large open room as the center of attention, rather than background music.
The HomePod, in contrast, is designed for the whole-room experience. The magic that goes on between the A8 chip and its tweeter array allows for vocals and mids that sound like they're coming from a stage in the HomePod's general direction, rather than a small speaker. Walking around the room listening to the HomePod's "virtual stereo" sound is a bit of a wacky experience: The speaker's A8 delivers the left, center, and right channels to different tweeters depending on where the HomePod is positioned, thanks to an entirely-on-device process that uses its beam-forming microphones to figure out the position of the walls and adjust the tweeters for certain channels appropriately.
Fun fact: The HomePod even has an accelerometer inside its base; when the speaker is moved, the accelerometer alerts the A8 chip; the next time a song is played, it runs the offline channel-balancing process again and adjusts the sound accordingly.
It's also worth noting that the beam-forming microphone array isn't just for detecting room ambiance or basic voice assistant calls — it makes summoning Siri a vastly less frustrating process than Alexa when the speaker is playing at high volumes.
Though we didn't test voice functionality in this head-to-head test, I was able to observe Siri being summoned multiple times on the HomePod in a different room, while the speaker was playing at 90% volume; when calling for Siri, there's no need to raise your voice, even when the music is blaring or you're across the space. The microphone array zeroes in on the differential tones of your voice, and reacts accordingly.
Another fun fact: If ask vocally to adjust the volume to 90% or higher, Siri will ask you, nicely, "That's very loud. Are you sure?" Whether Siri is asking out of concern for your own hearing or to protect the HomePod's tweeters from blowing out, well… we'll have to wait and see. But it's cute.
This is vastly different from my experiences with Amazon's Echo products: While the Echo has an excellent array of microphones for picking up your voice at rest, when playing loud music I often found myself shouting to get the Echo to understand me. This may not be an issue unless you frequently have the Echo's volume up 80% or higher, but I find it worth mentioning.
So, yes, of course. The HomePod beats the Echo's sound and feel by a mile. For the price of three Echos and an Echo Dot, it should. But the way it beats the Echo's sound is very different than the other speakers on display (both of which also beat the Echo in overall sound and experience).
HomePod vs. Google Home Max
When companies who don't build speakers get into the speaker business, it's natural to have a fair bit of skepticism. Both Apple and Google fall into this general definition, but if we're being honest — Apple has been building speaker systems for years in its laptop, desktop, and smartphone lines. Google… less so. And it shows.
The Google Home Max is an embarrassment of a speaker for its cost: In isolation, the Max sounds decent enough, but when put in a ring against the cheaper Sonos One and HomePod, it's obvious just how much compression it puts on vocal and mid-tone tracks in the interest of big, booming sound.
Nowhere was this more obvious than the last song I heard as part of the test, the Eagles' live version of Hotel California — the applause, guitar, reverb, and room tone all got squished. (It's especially telling that guitar picks and audience clapping had the exact same pitch, often blending into a single sound on the recording.) In contrast, both the HomePod and Sonos One delivered a rich, separated sound.
Granted, the Max does listen and improve its room tone over time as part of its Smart Sound feature (similar to Apple's beam-forming adjustment and Sonos's TruePlay), and it's not clear whether it was allowed to do this as part of the level-matching process; if not, that could account for the wildly poor sound I heard in comparison with the other high-end devices on display. I have heard the Max previously, and while I remember it being slightly muddy, I didn't find it nearly as bad as I did during this listen.
But I've also never listened to the Max in direct comparison with a similarly-priced speaker before — and I have to be honest, when pitted against the others, it sounds closer in tone to an Echo than a Sonos One or HomePod.
HomePod vs. Sonos One
This was the test I was most excited to hear: I haven't been shy in my admiration for the Sonos One, and the HomePod's similar footprint (and almost doubling of price) made it the most worthy potential competitor.
It didn't disappoint: While the HomePod has the edge on being the superior speaker, there's no doubt that the Sonos One can hold its own. They both offer nuanced parsings of vocals and midtones; where the HomePod leaps ahead is in their separation, especially in background and synthetic sounds.
On the HomePod, every part of a choral harmony sounds just as clear as the lead vocalist — no easy feat for a single 6.8-inch speaker. Harmonies do sound beautiful on the Sonos One, but blend more into a single musical phrase; you can't isolate the singers in your mind as well as you can through the HomePod.
It reminds me a bit of the difference between seeing an a capella group sing live (for kicks, let's say unplugged) versus a recording. When you see a group live, your eyes and brain can help map certain harmonies to the singer producing them; on a recording, without expert separation, it's harder for your brain to make those connections.
My real question is: Will the majority of users care? As someone who grew up around live music, the HomePod's differences in parsing sound are immediately noticeable to me, but I'm less sure about the rest of the population. Will it be it as Rene described — "the experience of moving to a Retina screen" for your ears? Or will only musicians and audiophiles be able to catch the differences?
In the battle between Sonos and HomePod, the latter is unquestionably the better speaker, and with Apple's A8 doing on-board sound processing, software updates have the potential to make that soundspace even better. But is it almost double-the-price better — especially given Sonos's current two-Sonos Ones-for-the-price-of-a-HomePod deal?
Before this test, I would have said no. After spending almost an hour listening to the HomePod, however, I think it's going to depend on your preferences. A single HomePod is better than multiple Sonos One speakers in all but the largest and tallest of rooms. Its sound separation is incredible from a speaker of that size, and reminds me more of the power found in the Sonos Play:5 than any of Sonos's other offerings.
And then there's the "smart" consideration to be had. The Sonos One hooks into Amazon's Alexa interface, though it's dramatically limited in the number of skills it can talk to at present. Alexa is great — I've been using it for almost two years — but it comes with certain privacy concerns. The HomePod's Siri integration is better than the Sonos One, and Apple's commitment to encrypting and anonymizing all transmitted voice data is a huge step forward for privacy advocates in the home.
You can also turn off "Hey Siri" entirely by telling the HomePod "Stop listening" and rely instead on the HomePod's tap-and-hold controls on its top-side LED screen.
And while the HomePod is currently limited to a single iCloud user, there are some very smart improvements built in to protect what Apple calls "Personal Requests" — handoff of phone calls, querying calendar events, and sending messages. HomePod is synced with a single iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch when you first set it up; if you choose to sync your iCloud account with that HomePod, it will only respond to personal requests while that device is on your home Wi-Fi. Take the device off Wi-Fi or leave the home, and HomePod will continue to be able to play music, report traffic, and give you weather data — but if someone asks it to send a message to your wife, it'll refuse until your device is back online.
Bottom line: From a security and privacy perspective, HomePod blows any other smart speaker out of the water. The fact that it's also one of the best small speakers on the market doubles that value.
I still love my Sonos One, and lots of people will be happy buying one. But after two years of using Amazon and Alexa, I'm potentially willing to throw all that away and invest in a HomePod.
Places where the HomePod struggles
I've talked a lot in this comparison about how the other speakers compare to HomePod, but I do want to touch on some of HomePod's current flaws (as I see them).
Stereo pairing and multi-room audio
AirPlay 2 — and with it, multi-room audio and HomePod stereo pairing — won't ship until later this year. That said, I did get a chance to preview two HomePods in a stereo pair. The HomePod can fill quite a large room by itself by using walls to bounce bass and background audio, but it can't quite replicate the theater experience with its "virtual stereo" A8-and-tweeter-oriented sound.
The stereo pair helps further fill out the sound, though it's worth noting I was only able to hear it for music, not a film. It's clearly a feature still in progress over in Cupertino, and I'm glad they're not shipping it half-baked.
Multi-room audio falls into the same bucket: Because Apple uses the A8 to process audio and send different channels to different tweeters inside the HomePod, it likely attempts to create the same process for fellow AirPlay 2 speakers, and tweak the original HomePod sound accordingly to avoid overpowering certain aspects of a song or video. I'm guessing there's still a fair amount of work to be done here if Apple wants to do this right, as I wasn't able to see any version of multi-room audio beyond a simple stereo pair.
This is where Sonos has a huge leg up on Apple, and AirPlay 2's shipping delays isolate the HomePod in a way that may dampen initial sales.
That said, I see this as an Apple Watch Series 0 problem: The HomePod will likely sell enough units to early adopters and privacy-conscious users to prompt further development; once AirPlay 2 does launch, not only will the HomePod get multi-room audio, but when Sonos comes on the AirPlay 2 network later this year it potentially has the power to unify your entire Sonos system into the Apple ecosystem — something users have wanted for years.
It doesn't exist. You can change Apple Music accounts fairly easily from the Home app (any person who has access to your HomeKit home can do so), but as I understand it, personal requests are limited to the device you used to set up HomeKit.
But the way Apple has (quite smartly) tied personal requests to individual devices paves the way for a future version of iOS (and its HomePodOS derivative) to incorporate syncing with multiple devices depending on which happens to be in proximity. I'd guess it's at least a year away, but to my eyes, it's clearly on the roadmap.
HomePod integrates with your Apple Music account and syncs to your iPhone (when it's on the same Wi-Fi network) to deliver messages, calendar notifications, notes, and hand off phone calls. Beyond that, it connects directly to Apple's iCloud servers to deliver news, any and all podcasts listed in Apple's podcast directory on the iTunes Store, Wikipedia information, and sports searches.
But other than those pre-listed services, HomePod is limited to what you stream to it via Apple's AirPlay protocol. You can stream Spotify from your iPhone, but you can't ask Siri to play your favorite Spotify playlist.
Part of that is competition-based, of course — but as SiriKit expands, I do wonder how long Apple can get away with denying users voice support for third-party services in music and mapping.
Until it does, Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant remain the only assistants that let you easily request songs and playlists from other services.
Where is the Mac?
This is where Apple's desire for smart privacy settings runs up against its past: You can't sync HomePod to a Mac. You have to own a device capable of running iOS 11.3 or later.
I should note, since there seems to be some confusion: When I say sync, I mean setting up HomePod and assigning the device as the connector for personal information. Macs cannot sync, but they can send audio via AirPlay to HomePod, as can Apple TV and all other AirPlay-compatible devices.
I'd guess this is because of the privacy settings I mentioned earlier — when a device is off the HomePod's Wi-Fi network, it can't access your personal request data. If it were connected to a desktop Mac, that could arguably kill the efficacy of linking HomePod to a device: Sure, you could argue that Apple could have only connected the HomePod to a Mac when it was "awake and unlocked," but that could get into shifty security territory awfully quickly. (And if you have to unlock your Mac to use your HomePod, why would you use your HomePod?)
As someone who cares deeply about the Mac, I'm not thrilled with this development, even if I understand its root cause. Yes, the iPhone and iPad are closer to representing our actual physical locations and movements, and that allows for smart security decisions. But cutting Mac users out of the joy of HomePod simply because they choose to use a different smartphone or tablet isn't the best usability decision.
Your HomePod questions?
Have a different question about HomePod and how it compares to these other speakers? Let me know in the comments.
Updated January 27, 2018: Fixed a few typos and addressed Mac setup vs AirPlay.
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