Smart Living

Lend us your ears: Apple enters the smart-speaker race

Late and pricey, but promising a superior listening experience – is HomePod, Apple’s latest home gadget, up to snuff?

Words by
Robin Swithinbank

I’ve been to a few Apple briefings, and every time they follow the same format. You get introduced to a nice human in indigo jeans and black sneakers, who then delivers a clipped, humour-neutral script, without notes, about a nice product. Smattered throughout are lots of ‘cools’ (as in, ‘let me show you something that we think is really cool’), all uttered with a revolutionary corporate zeal they might even feel (‘We’re changing the world! We’re changing you!’). It’s very odd and very effective.

Last week, briefing was for HomePod (let’s give this article amnesty a shot). Announced last June, it was originally slated for delivery pre-Christmas, but only landed on Friday last week. Either way, Apple is late to the smart-speaker race, in keeping with its developing habit of waiting for its competitors to launch products, only bowling in once consumers have confirmed interest with a higher-spec, more expensive alternative. See Watch

HomePod steps into a space populated by the likes of Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home, devices you can shout at, sorry, talk to, and ask to play music, set reminders, add to your shopping list, tell jokes and so on. I’ve got a couple of Echoes in my house and despite being extremely frightened of them, I’m lazy, and so prepared to go along with voice-activated gizmos that can give me answers to questions I know I once knew but am too thick to remember.

Forgetting privacy issues (although Apple swears HomePod is not listening to us, or collecting our data, or recording our conversations, and that it encrypts and anonymises requests), I’m not entirely sold on the role these devices play in the home. Despite being a gateway to all kinds of information and music, they are generally infuriating. They routinely miss commands, or can’t execute them, and have a nagging habit of interrupting conversations unprompted. And unless connected to superior equipment, they deliver horrible sound quality.

This makes the test for HomePod two-fold. One: how well does it play music? And, two: is it a personal assistant you buy presents for or throw stuff at?

The first is most important. Nice human says Apple spent ‘five to six years’ developing HomePod and in that time surveyed a lot of people to find out what they want in a smart speaker. And the answer, unsurprisingly, was music. Apparently we still prefer talking to humans over robots.

In that vein, Apple has given HomePod a beefy high-excursion woofer with a custom amplifier and a powerful motor that drives a diaphragm 20mm peak to peak. That sits above seven tweeters, each with its own amplifier. Its brain is iPhone’s A8 chip, which uses algorithms to analyse whatever it’s playing to adapt the acoustics to suit, and to adjust the sound according to the space its in. Clever.

 

Apple HomePod inside

The result is meaty, rounded base that varies astonishingly little no matter where you stand in relation to it (within reason…), and in my reasonably aggressive testing, no brown out. I say reasonably – I cranked the sound up to 80 per cent while listening to Disclosure’s bassy, dancey take on Gregory Porter’s Holding On, and my wife and I had to yell at each other to be heard above it. Apple Music now has access to 45 million songs, and Siri, again powered by the A8 chip, searches and plays efficiently enough to appease this impatient reviewer.

The second test is always going to be more demanding. As long as you start with the Cupertino vernacular ‘Hey Siri’, Apple says you can use ‘natural language’ to command HomePod. This appeared to work seamlessly in briefing, but this morning when I asked how long it would take to get to Oxford Circus, it returned with 10 driving routes; and on being asked instead how the District Line was running, told me it couldn’t access public transport information. Which I found distinctly bothersome. Like I said, impatient.

But, on the up side, the voice activation is swift. HomePod has six built-in microphones, and picks up commands even over loud music. So far, Siri is hearing her master’s voice.

Thing is though, until I live in a super-smart house that can be operated by a voice-activated device that opens my blinds, turns the lights on and boils my kettle, I don’t really care about the personal assistant. I’m like Apple’s teeny vox poppers – I just want something that can play me whatever I want to listen to, whenever I want. In this respect, HomePod scores well.

Two things left to consider. First, aesthetics. HomePod is far from a thing of unimaginable beauty, but in a category short on knockouts, and thanks to its symmetry and finish – it’s covered in a seamless diamond mesh in either white or space grey – it passes. All that tech means it’s bigger than Amazon and Google’s equivalents, but for the sound quality, it’s worth having an object the size of a small man’s head (and weight – it’s 2.5kg) in the house.

And then price. At £319, HomePod is pricier than its rivals. You can have a pair of Sonos Ones for £349, Amazon’s Echo is £74.99 and Harmon Kardon’s Allure is £249.99. Nice human kindly put all four to the test for us, synced to the same song, and my ears can report there was no contest for dynamics, clarity and warmth. At the moment, you can’t run two in sync, but that will come with an update, probably later this year.

The you-get-what-you-pay-for argument applies, sure – but really the argument is whether it’s worth the extra. Well, yes it is, but even then, let’s also put this into context. In 1995, I bought a home stereo system for £450. It had a three-CD changer, a twin-cassette deck and a pair of hefty speakers. It broke only a few years’ later (damned laser), but I’d venture its sound was nowhere near as good as HomePod’s. In today’s money, that system would cost £820. And for that I got a system that couldn’t do my children’s homework. Is it the best sound I’ve ever heard? Of course, not. But for a device that’s seven inches high and costs the same as a middling overcoat, it’s hugely impressive. Price is rarely irrelevant; value even more so.

But the ultimate test with any modern gadget is whether it makes a difference to your life. HomePod has yet to change mine, but given its rigged up in my kitchen, it has significantly improved the ambient conditions during the washing-up. And I’ll take that.

HomePod is available now, priced £319, apple.com/uk