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.
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- 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.
Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.
Okay, this may seem like an odd comment for this article, but I really like the way you are handling the footnotes here. It keeps them close to the text while remaining unobtrusive enough that they could be skipped over.
Thanks! That’s actually helpful info. :)
Hey. Can I connect it to a regular TV or do I have to connect via Apple TV? Also how is the audio quality for videos?
You have to connect via AirPlay, so that might be limiting. (No digital audio in or out.) TBD, as I didn’t get to see that, but will test as part of our review!
Regarding "AirPlay 2 ... won't ship until later this year ... I'm glad they're not shipping it half-baked", I suspect it's also a convenient way for Apple to gain time to ramp up the production and at the same time put HomePods in the hands (or the ears) of more customers. If stereo HomePods were already available today, many people would order two. Living in Europe, I just hope they ship to many countries *before* they release AirPlay 2.
Fingers crossed on country releases!
Can the Homepod connect ta an Apple TV? Every article I've read says it has to connect to an iPhone or iPad but none of them mention if it can connect to a Apple TV. This is whats on Apple's website for compatibility. iPhone:
iPhone 8 Plus
iPhone 7 Plus
iPhone 6s Plus
iPhone 6 Plus
12.9-inch iPad Pro
10.5-inch iPad Pro
9.7-inch iPad Pro
iPad (5th generation)
iPad Air 2
iPad mini 4
iPad mini 3
iPad mini 2
iPod touch (6th generation)
So there’s a difference between “set up with” and “connect to.” HomePod needs an iOS device to set up with, but after that any AirPlay 1 or 2 compatible device can send audio to HomePod. That includes Apple TV, the Mac, etc.
I would like to know, if it would be possible to use two HomePods in Stereo and stream via Apple TV Netflix Films or other TV Stuff?
Thx for your comment!
The question of security for Mac support mystifies me. You don’t need the HomePod to to send iMessages from the Mac, you need it to play music. My iTunes on my Mac plays to fancy speakers right now via AirPlay / AirPort Express to receiver- speakers. iTunes on the Mac can’t connect to a HomePod via AirPlay ?!? And, you don’t even need AirPlay 2 to currently play to multiple rooms from iTunes on a Mac - the old AirPlay does it fine right now from the Mac.
Sorry, I need to clarify that section! You can’t set up a new speaker with the Mac, but you can absolutely AirPlay audio from it to HomePod.
Thank you so much for the clarification- that is a relief. My remaining question is unrelated to the HomePod- whether the AirPort Express will support AirPlay 2 when it comes out - which would allow iOS devices to feed multiple AirPort Express rooms the way macOS/iTunes can now. That remains to be seen - I asked at the 2017 WWDC and got the can't comment about future products answer (which I interpreted as an AirPort Express replacement?)
I don't care much for the Siri stuff and honestly playing musical through voice controls would be nice but I really just want the best Airplay speaker and I think this will be it. I had the Bose Soundlink and biggest gripe was lag when playing/pausing and scrubbing. As long as I don't have to physically press something to turn the speaker on and can beam any audio over Airplay right to the speaker I'll be happy. Anyone know other great Airplay speakers that are very responsive?
Technically this isn't an airplay speaker because it will only play audio from ios devices not everything that is airplay compatable like the Apple TV or your mac.
Incorrect — it needs an iOS device to set up but will play anything sent to it via AirPlay
I’ve heard good things about the Zipp.
2s delay is unavoidable w/AirPlay 1. The HomePod will also have that delay using it.
Edit: Replied to wrong comment
Do you know whether I will be able to play music I have ripped from a CD on a HomePod? I've seen a few statements that you can't, but also seen someone claim that it should be possible... -thks
Will look into it! You can definitely stream via your Mac via AirPlay, not sure about directly.
Right, Serenity. Feet are never easy = no easy feet. Good review :-)
A lot of the time these reviews are done by the help of voice dictation. But voice dictation still has ways to go with recognizing context in sentences, so it picks the word that it thinks is more common
Hahahahaha. I wrote this on my iPhone keyboard, so I’m going to blame autocorrect.
In my opinion, that was an outstanding unbiased comparison and I appreciate you taking the time to write it. Well done, ma'am.
Are you joking? She lost all credibility when she put the Google Home Max in the same league as the Amazon Echo. If it wasn't so sad, it'd be hilarious. I have both and let me tell you, that's the most incredible thing I've read all year. I dare you to find a similar opinion on the Internet. The only smart speaker with comparable quality and loudness to the Google Home Max is the Sonos Play 5. My friend's Sonos One could not keep up with the Home Max in loudness, depth, range, and track separation in a casual test when I had it for 3 days. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt though. These speakers were tested in a "controlled" setting. The controller being Apple. But based on specs alone, I'd be shocked if the Homepod can keep up with the Home Max in any aural metric.
The Home Max was certainly loud, but it sounded almost tinny in comparison to both the Sonos and the HomePod. I look forward to testing both in my own home when I have them in hand.
I've given you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe in the process of "leveling the sound" of the Google Home Max, Apple screwed up the equalizer settings of the speaker. However, tinny is not a quality I'll ascribe to the Google Home Max. Here's a YouTube video comparing the Max, Sonos Play 3, Sonos One, and the Harmon Kardon. This is not a review that favors the Max. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBXU9iz8rIQ You're welcome to reach your own conclusion, but in my experience testing many smart speakers, only the Sonos Play 5 could keep up with the Google Home Max in any aural metric. And the Play 5 usually falls apart at higher volumes due to distortion. And I've tested the JBL Google Assistant speaker, Sonos One, Sonos Play 5, Amazon Echo (1st gen), and the Google Home. The bass from the Max alone crushes most of the competition in this category.
Serenity’s review was very nuanced. She did say exactly that, they were her impression under controlled conditions and that she remembered the Max sounding better than during the test. However, her opinion seems to be that they are not up to Sonos one in quality. Your opinion is different. Great. Now that is no reason to attack her.
Finally, if your argment is only based on specs then her opinion has more value to me as she actually heard them both.
I'm not attacking her. I even gave her the benefit of the doubt. I'm just saying that, based on what she wrote, her observations weren't unbiased at all. I don't come to imore for unbiased and objective commentary. It is evident to everyone that this publication is Apple's echo chamber. It's clear she likes the Sonos One and loves the Homepod. She said so herself. But she also went out of her way to discredit and belittle the quality and capability of the Google Home Max by categorizing it in the same league as the Amazon Echo. This is what calls the credibility of the article into question. That is most certainly a singularly unique and biased opinion. You can search all over the Internet and you won't find another person with the same opinion. So let's stop pretending this was an unbiased, objective, or even a valid observation. I'm well aware that she had to listen to these speakers in a staged environment, and that's why I've given her the benefit of the doubt.
Get over yourself already.
You could have just said you didn’t agree.. Based on the crap you wrote above, you really think that the Google Home Max offers solutions that meet YOUR needs... Great.. let me ask you something... do you really think anyone cares.....? NOPE...
Please watch some Apple TV movies and tell us its pros and cons as a sound bar replacement! Do you have to select the HomePod as audio output every time?
Will do for our review!
Thanks! That is exactly what I'm having trouble determining from reviews. Can I replace my sound bar with a HomePod? Being able to send sound to it from Apple TV using AirPlay doesn't sound necessarily like what we are looking for. Can we set up the HomePod to be the standard/primary/default audio output for the Apple TV?
One thing I'm curious about is how it is at LOW volumes. I have a Sonos Play:1 in my bedroom, and I have it playing background music pretty much as low as it'll go, and I can hear it but it's very much the quiet background that I like. I don't think my iPhone gets that quiet (ignoring how much closer to the bed it is); if the HomePod can do as well quietly as the Play:1, I may go for it.