Living with the HomePod- Day One

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I was a little late getting started with my HomePod yesterday. I was in Boston for meetings all week, and my plane didn’t get in until 8:15 last night. By the time my family picked me up and we got home and I unpacked, it was getting late and I was beat. I did set it up and listened to a little bit of music, but my wife had to work today and needed to turn in, so I turned it off after a few minutes and got some sleep myself.

Today has been spent listening to all kinds of content with my new toy. I read several early reviews and heard people talk about it, but I have to say that words just don’t do the sound quality justice. If you have any interest in the HomePod, even if it is just to know where it stands in terms of sound quality, go listen to it in person at an Apple Store. Even though I expected it to be great, it still sounded better than I expected. Unfortunately, Siri is disappointing enough to drag the experience down just a bit, but as a speaker, it is still very, very impressive. Here are some of my early thoughts from Day One:

Not just really good sound, but clear sound

It isn’t just that the HomePod sounds good, but its the clarity of the sound that really impressed me. You can hear a lot of details thanks to the separation you get from the speaker’s intelligence and sound modeling. You can hear the various layers clearly and the sound is very “open,” for lack of a better term. This is especially true for music recorded to sound big and spacious. Try listening to a well-recoded live album or a good orchestral movie soundtrack and you’ll see what I mean.

I am a Rush fan, and they have MANY live albums. Their albums also tend to be recoded and mixed well, so they are perfect for testing out the HomePod. You really feel like you are there, just with a lot less overall volume. They are also one of those bands that can deliver the goods live, so the layers of their more complex music are still there, just with the added ambience of the crowd added in, as well. As for soundtracks, try the End Credits track from Tron: Legacy. It begins as an electronic track with thumping bass, but then slowly transitions to almost all orchestral by the end. Both sides of the track come through very clearly, and the transition is smooth.

The HomePod is very versatile as a speaker

Classical music and jazz aren’t for everyone. They aren’t for every speaker, either. Many speakers or headphones that do a fine job with pop, rock, or electronic will fall flat if you try to listen to some Miles Davis or J.S. Bach. I was extremely impressed with how balanced the HomePod’s sound was in listening to different styles, and even spoken word. I tried Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. No problem. A couple of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Great. Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Gorgeous. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Exciting. Miles Davis Kind of Blue. Relaxing. GRP All-Star Big Band. Blazing.

I didn’t stop at Rock, Classical, and Jazz, either. I listened to bits and pieces of Podcasts, and it handled spoken word just fine. I was also glad to see that Siri had no problem finding and playing Podcasts that you have set up in your iTunes account and visible in the Podcasts app. However, it would be nice if Siri could help you out by searching for them at your request and adding them to your account. Maybe that will com down the road. Back to the music, I also tried some Folk, Bluegrass, and Americana, which all require a different balance of their own. Everything came through very clear, from the wide open spaces of the The New Basement Tapes, to the intricate string instrument runs of Nickel Creek, to the pedal steel of Hem.

The HomePod handles all of these styles because the sound stays balanced. The bass, something that is usually either not present enough or is too present throughout, is just right here. You can “feel it” just enough that it is always present. However, it is never overwhelming unless the music is recorded that way. Listening to So What from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the string bass is clear and present, as are the occasional bass drum punches. However, they stay under the melody and solos, just as they should.

What is notable about this sound balance is that the HomePod is very obviously shifting and changing its settings on the fly to achieve it. These styles are so different that, if you were using a traditional stereo setup, you would have to adjust the EQ often to achieve similar results. The fact that the HomePod’s processor and software are handling this internally is quite impressive. It should only get better from here, as the software can be tweaked over time.

The other thing I really noticed about the sound from the HomePod is that it is capable of a wide dynamic range. This came though the most in the classical tracks and soundtracks that I listened to. The Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony stood out the most to me, as the music starts off brooding and subdued, and then builds and subsides throughout. Another more contemporary example is end credits track from the Oblivion movie soundtrack. As with Tron: Legacy, the combination of electronic music elements and orchestra really plays well on the HomePod. This song also has a lot of dynamic contrasts that really stand out.

Siri is even more limited than I thought it would be

I knew the feature limitations of Siri coming in. I knew it could only do one timer at a time. I knew it couldn’t do anything with Calendar entries (which is just ridiculous, in my opinion, because it actually does pretty well with them on the iPhone), and it couldn’t place phone calls directly. I was a little disappointed that it can only create new Notes, and not append to existing ones like on an iOS device.

I was much more disappointed in Siri’s music capabilities, because I actually expected more here. Of all things, this was the area of Siri that Apple actually touted as being solid. It misunderstood several album and artist requests that I made early on. I got better at doing what Siri wanted later in the day after making more requests, but even then it still struggled more than I expected. Considering that this is the primary interface for the device, it needs to be better than just ok.

AirPlay is kind of buggy

I know that AirPlay 2 is coming, and that it may smooth out some of the issues that I ran into, but it isn’t like AirPlay is new. Far from it. However, the HomePod struggled with AirPlay at times today. Initial connection times often lagged. This lag caused the beginning of songs to be missed. Songs stopped randomly a couple of times. Also, when I asked for information on a song I was AirPlaying, Siri responded correctly…and then stopped playing it and started playing the last thing I had directly requested it to play.

I know that these are early days, and that things will improve. AirPlay 2 will come. Bugs will be fixed. However, the problems stand out against the high quality of the sound. Hopefully it won’t be long.

The build quality and construction are solid

The HomePod is a lot heavier than it looks. I also thought it would be a little bit smaller than it is in person, based on the pictures. However, I don’t have any complaints. It may not be super portable, but I’ll deal with the extra weight in exchange for great sound.

As for the fabric covering, I think it really suits the device. It feels good and seems like it provides adequate exterior protection. However, I wouldn’t sit this out where an animal, especially a cat, could get to it. That would not be pretty.

The screen on top of the HomePod works quite well. It is easy to see and use. The Siri animations are clear whenever you are speaking to it, the + and – volume controls are visible and make easy targets to hit. The tap controls work without issues. No problems here.

While it is a small thing, the power cord is quite well done. I appreciate that it is long enough to reach outlets up to six feet away, as that adds a lot of flexibility in positioning. I also like that it is wrapped in a flexible, but durable feeling fabric covering. The little things can make a big difference.


That is all for today. I’ll be back with some more in-depth testing of Siri over the next few days, as well as some more musical observations. Until then, if you have any questions or comments, let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.




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