Music has long been part of Apple's raison d'etre; Steve Jobs drew inspiration from Bob Dylan to The Beatles to Yo-Yo Ma as he shepherded through products as iconic as the iPod. So it's only natural that when Apple came out with a smart speaker, it would be a great-sounding device and would look good doing it.
But when it comes to the "smart" part of "smart speaker," the $349 HomePod falls behind the competition. Siri simply can't do as much as Alexa and Google Assistant — but can it do enough for Apple diehards?
Editor's Note (2/14/18):According to several reports, chemicals in the HomePod's silicone base can leave white stains on wood surfaces, so if you purchase Apple's speaker, take care when placing it on wood furniture.
Apple has always placed a premium on design, and the HomePod is no exception. But while it's elegant, this simple rounded cylinder covered in a cloth-like material doesn't break any new ground. In some ways, it resembles a larger version of Ultimate Ears' Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker.
The HomePod comes in dark gray ("space gray") or white; the latter color makes the speaker look a lot larger. The top of the HomePod has a glossy black-plastic circle, which lights up and is touch-sensitive; you can tap it to change the volume, advance or replay a track, and activate Siri.
When Apple's assistant is listening, the middle of this circle lights up in an amorphous, colorful blob. If you don't want Apple's assistant to listen in, you can press and hold the top, and Siri asks if you really want to turn off the microphone. Unfortunately, there's no indicator on the HomePod to know at a glance if the mic is on or off; it's a feature on pretty much every other smart speaker I've tested, and something that Apple should add for you to know if the HomePod is listening for your voice.
Apple has always placed a premium on design, and the HomePod is no exception.
At 6.8 inches tall and 5.6 inches in diameter, the HomePod is slightly larger than the Sonos One (6.4 x 4.7 x 4.7 inches) but much smaller than the Google Home Max (13.2 x 7.4 x 6 inches), which seems massive sitting next to the other two.
Apple also paid attention to the HomePod's power cord; it's covered in a cloth-like material that's soft to the touch. Unfortunately, in its quest for aesthetics, Apple did not make the cord detachable. If it gets damaged by a hungry dog or a ravenous vacuum cleaner, you'll need to sign up for AppleCare+ ($39), which adds two years of coverage for up to two incidents. You'll also have to pay a $39 fee (plus tax) for each of those incidents.
Setting up the HomePod couldn't have been easier. After the HomePod made its startup sound, I simply held my iPhone a few inches from the speaker, and a window appeared on my iPhone asking to set it up. Subsequent windows asked me to pick the room in which the speaker would be placed, subscribe to Apple Music and enable personal requests; this latter option lets anyone use the HomePod to send and read messages, add reminders, create notes and more from your iPhone, if your phone and HomePod are on the same Wi-Fi network. That's a little troubling to me, so I turned off this feature.
In all, it took less than 5 minutes and was much less involved than the process for the Sonos One, which, among other things, requires you to wave your phone around your room to properly configure its audio.
If you don't have an iPhone or iPad, you're out of luck; you can only set up the HomePod with an iOS device.
Above all, a $349 smart speaker better sound good, and on that, the HomePod delivers. It has seven tweeters, a large woofer and an array of six microphones that help the speaker automatically adapt its audio profile to the room it's in. The Google Home Max has the same capability, but the Sonos One requires you to walk around your room with your smartphone as the speaker plays various tones, in order for its speaker to adjust the audio.
To test the HomePod, I set it up on a wood console next to the Google Home Max and two paired Sonos Ones, and listened to the same songs on each, streamed from Spotify. In short, all were excellent, but there were some subtle differences.
Compared to a single Sonos One ($175), the HomePod produced a somewhat richer sound, most noticeably when it came to bass, but not by a huge amount. But when I paired two Sonos Ones (which cost the same as a single HomePod), the dual speakers outshone Apple's product with a fuller sound that did a better job of filling my living room.
The bass response on the HomePod was great — low-end notes on songs such as "Summer Madness" by Kool and the Gang and "Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran rang through clearly and cleanly, even at higher volumes.
Sherri Smith, our resident audiophile, was also impressed with the bass response of the HomePod but noted that, on tracks from Chris Stapleton and Diana Krall, the singers' voices took a back seat to the rest of the instruments.
One nitpick: There's no way to manually adjust the equalizer settings, which you can do with the Sonos and Google Home Max speakers.
Overall, the Sonos Ones were the best at midrange tones and vocals. That's not to say that the HomePod was bad, but singers, from Bruce Springsteen, to Idina Menzel, to Luciano Pavarotti, sounded a bit more subdued on Apple's speaker. When playing "1234" on the HomePod, I was impressed by Feist's voice, which had a wonderful, breathy quality. But then I listened to it on the Sonos Ones, and it sounded even better.
And, on tracks such as "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by Santa Esmeralda, the guitar strums and clapping were more pronounced on the Sonos Ones than on the HomePod. I also found that the Sonos speakers created sound that was more enveloping than either the HomePod or the Google Home Max.
One nitpick: There's no way to manually adjust the equalizer settings of the HomePod, which you can do with the Sonos and Google Home Max speakers. One other minor critique: When using Spotify to stream music from my iPhone, I found that it took a second or so longer for the HomePod to respond to my commands, whereas it was nearly instantaneous with the Google Home Max and Sonos Ones.
Siri can identify music that's playing, musicians in the song and more, but the big caveat is that the HomePod supports only Apple Music. By comparison, both the Sonos One and the Google Home Max support Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio and more. Yes, you can use AirPlay to stream music from your iPhone to the HomePod, but you may as well use any Bluetooth speaker at that point.
A software update will allow you to pair two HomePods for stereo sound (à la the Sonos One and Google Home Max) and use multiple speakers for whole-home audio. You'd need pretty deep pockets to fill your house with $350 speakers.
Siri: What it can and (mostly) can't do
I like that when you say, "Hey Siri," and then pause, Apple's assistant responds with a "mm hmm?" as if she's awaiting your response.
Audio is just one component of a smart speaker, and while Siri can do a lot, it's very limited when compared with Alexa and Google Assistant. For starters, Siri can recognize only one account at a time. So although you can use it to send messages, notes and reminders (but not calendar appointments), it will sync only to the account of the person's phone used to set up the HomePod.
While Siri is good at ordering food, sending messages and getting directions, it falls behind Alexa and Google Assistant in smart home skills, general knowledge, online shopping and more.
There's also a security concern here: If you give HomePod access to your messages, anyone can send and listen to them by speaking to your Homepod. You can turn off this feature, but then you can't use HomePod to send or receive messages, add reminders or create notes.
To make or receive calls, first you have to make or accept the call on your phone, and then you select the HomePod as a speakerphone. That's not as seamless as the process with Alexa or Google Assistant, which let you initiate calls using a smart speaker just by voice.
In our comparison of Alexa versus Google Home versus Siri, Apple's assistant came in last. While it was good at ordering food, sending messages and getting directions, it fell behind the other two assistants when it came to smart home skills, general knowledge and online shopping, among others.
For instance, you can set only one timer with the HomePod, and you can't name it.Nor can you set calendar appointments, look up recipes or ask general-knowledge questions as easily as you can with Google.
Smart Home: Work in progress
Apple’s HomeKit has consistently lagged behind Amazon and Google in integrating with other smart home devices. That's because Apple had more stringent security rules; companies had to incorporate a specific chip into their products to make them HomeKit-compatible. However, Apple has changed its policies so that you now only need software certification, so you should see more companies adding HomeKit support.
I also like that you can use the HomePod as a HomeKit hub, so you can control scenes remotely. Previously, only an iPad or Apple TV could fulfill this role. In practice, Siri quickly responded to my commands to turn my lights on and off.
HomeKit currently supports smart home gadgets such as Philips Hue lights, August Smart Locks, iHome smart plugs and Ecobee smart thermostats, but there are far more compatible devices for Alexa and Google Home. For instance, they support Nest products (like its thermostats, cameras and smoke detectors), Netgear Arlo security cameras, and a multitude of other smart lights, such as those from Sengled and TP-Link.
At $349, the HomePod is one of the most expensive smart speakers; only the $399 Google Home Max costs more. Right now, Sonos is running a deal where you can get two Sonos Ones (normally $199 each) for the price of one HomePod — a $50 discount. The Sonos One not only currently has Alexa built in, but it will be getting Google Assistant in the coming months, too.
After listening to the HomePod, I have no doubt that Apple made an impressive-sounding smart speaker. Unfortunately for Apple, Google and Amazon have already set the bar for what a smart speaker can do, and in that respect, the HomePod falls far behind. It can't do things that are now table stakes, such as setting multiple timers and recognizing more than one voice.
Even for music, it's disappointing that you can use Siri to control playback only from Apple Music, rather than multiple sources, such as Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn (as you can with the Sonos One and Google Home Max).
If I had $349 to spend on a smart speaker, I would get two Sonos Ones, rather than one Apple HomePod. They produce better sound, work with more music streaming services and do much more with Alexa (and, soon, Google Assistant). Still, if you are invested in Apple's ecosystem, the HomePod is the best — well, the only — smart speaker for you.
Credit: Mike Prospero/Tom's Guide