Apple HomePod: There’s something going on

High-quality speaker system “” Innovative and puristic all-in-one design “” High sound quality “,” room-filling sound. “This outdated text sounds like the HomePod is there Story repeats itself, because the quotes come in truth from the press release from Apple in 2006.

At that time, Germany was just a few months ahead of the World Cup summer fairy tale. And the Apple community thought it probably also a fairy tale, as her favorite company announced the first own speaker. Only Apple nerds will still remember this massive device: the iPod hi-fi was wide, heavy and “portable” – including Apple’s designers understood then two carrying handles. A loudspeaker weighing 6.6 kilos will no longer be considered portable by anyone today.

The former price: 349 euros. The HomePod from 2018 will cost just as much.

Comeback after twelve years

The iPod Hi-Fi has not lasted two years in the market. Already in September 2007 he disappeared without a trace. There was no successor for a long time – until last year at Apple’s developer conference WWDC a new speaker was presented. In February 2018 the HomePod was launched in parallel in the USA, Great Britain and Australia. Since 18 June he is also available in Germany.

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Twelve years later, an eternity in the technology scene, a loudspeaker should actually be portable, sound high-quality, have an innovative design and a high sound quality with room-filling sound. And above all, he has to be smart: intelligent, networked, voice-controlled. Artful sound and artificial intelligence.

Home Pod 4
Photo: Apple

Stuart Miles from Portal Pocket-lint He was one of the few journalists to visit Apple’s “secret” audio lab, just outside the new Apple Park. He counted twelve different audio labs in which the HomePod was developed, reportedly by a handpicked team of up to 60 sound engineers and audiophile experts.

The demands on the HomePod are – also because – high. Can Apple revolutionize this market again? I tested the HomePod for a week.

The device

As usual with Apple, this product can be set up very easily over the domestic WiFi network. You keep your iPhone (from model 5S), iPad (fifth generation) with iOS 11.2.5 upwards, or even the sixth generation iPod touch near the HomePod.

Thereafter, the settings are accepted after a few seconds. This applies to both the password of your WLAN, as well as your data in the iCloud. The second HomePod, if available, is also detected rapidly and automatically. So the stereo operation can be configured quickly.

The downside: You actually need an Apple device. As the owner of an Android smartphone or tablet, you are left out. And thus, many HomePod interested parties may remain outside who do not want to buy an iPhone or iPad. This not only seals Apple’s own system (for example, iMessage it is the same), but excludes many potential buyers in the battle for market share.

The basics

The HomePod does not control Bluetooth. For many interested buyers certainly a disadvantage. The simple coupling with the smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth is eliminated. You can only stream apps like TuneIn-Radio or other services like Spotify to the HomePod via iPhone and iPad via AirPlay. The voice control itself only works with Apple Music. Only a subscription opens up the possibility of accessing the entire catalog of Apple Music (from 9.99 euros per month).

Competitors such as Alexa, in turn, allow the voice control of programs such as Spotify, Amazon Music and Co., but with Alexa Apple Music can not be controlled. For this you can import on the echo via Bluetooth Apple Music. You connect the echo to iPhone or iPad and then find it in the settings under “Bluetooth” under “My devices”. Once clicked, the smartphone and tablet are connected to the echo.

The HomePod can also play Spotify & Co., but only via AirPlay and not via Bluetooth. Thus, Spotify & Co. on the HomePod can not be controlled with Siri, but only on the iOS devices themselves.

The sound

Music has always belonged to Apple’s DNA, see iTunes and iPod. That’s why Apple has deliberately set up an audio engineering team for the development of the HomePod. In this respect, the HomePod is indeed a speaker, but also a computer. Apple installed in the HomePod the A8 chip from the iPhone 6s. On the one hand, the chip has to analyze the speech commands for Siri, on the other hand, it also looks after the sound in the directional beam method (Apple calls it “beamforming”).

Seven tweeters are arranged in a circle in the HomePod, they virtually scan the room. The six built-in microphones, used primarily to capture the voice commands, analyze the sound waves to determine the position of the speaker, who has no equalizer on his own, and to ensure the most spatial (all-round) listening experience possible. The values ​​are stored for the respective room in which the HomePod stands. If you position the speaker in another room, motion sensors detect this and measure the room again.

Compared to the Amazon Echo and the Google Home, the HomePod sounds much more precise and punchy. Just the stereo operation of two HomePods upgrades the sound enormously. The multiroom use and the stereo function were introduced with the start in Germany and the update to iOS 11.4.

Home Pod 5
(Image: Apple)

As an alternative to the HomePod double pack, there are two Alexa-enabled Sonos One. Price wise, there are clear differences: For two HomePods you currently pay 698 euros. Sonos offers in a special promotion two Sonos One for 399 euros.

In comparison, two HomePods sound more pleasant and better balanced than two Sonos One. But who wants to invest instead of 349 euros for a HomePod for a Sonos Play: 5 579 euros, receives the Play: 5 a punchier and clearer playing HomePod competitors.

Pop and Rock master the HomePod easily with rich, deep sound. In jazz and classical, individual instruments sometimes seem imprecise. Outstanding pop jazz studio productions like Steely Dan’s “Gaucho” album sound too bass-heavy on the HomePod and not well balanced enough. On the other hand, songs by saxophonist Candy Dulfer are rendered in an extremely clear and detailed manner, although the production was made two decades ago. Newer recordings of Kamasi Washington from the year 2018, however, were not quite balanced and sometimes a bit vague, regardless of the positioning position of the HomePod.

I would prefer the HomePod sonically the bottom line but Echo and Google Home. In nuances, he also plays more differentiated than the Sonos One.

Siri is not convinced

To anticipate: Siri is the biggest weakness of the HomePod. Alexa and Google Assistant are way ahead of her. Especially obvious: The German Siri sounds too mechanical, the pronunciation is too often wrongly emphasized. In Alexa and Google Home, the answers are usually spent fluently and well stressed.

The Siri results work about two-thirds, but they are sometimes strange. Inquiries too often go nowhere, the percentage of incorrect answers is clearly too high.

A few examples: When asked to play music from the Beatles, Siri starts instead Apple’s own radio station Beats1. The desire to hear the song “Bomb the Bass” becomes the play of “Lullaby of Baby Music”. While the desired playback of “Funk” is actually triggered with the playlist “Funk Essential”, Siri complains about the request to deliver instrumental music, but completely with the answer: “Alarm, an emergency call arrives, firefighter Sam helps in the emergency. “

Is Siri learning that? Yes and no. For a while, as my impression in numerous HomePod test attempts, Siri remains on the subject and thus in context. Shortly thereafter, the language assistant completely loses his bearings and suddenly no longer recognizes commands that were previously executed correctly. A completely different (and wrong) answer to what has already been asked several times is the result. The new collaboration of Iggy Pop and Underworld promptly delivered Siri. Ten minutes later, again asked about the song, Siri replies, “I do not see anything of underneath.” Another ten minutes later, the answer: “Jungle Indie Pop is playing.” On the (brave) request: “Siri, more cheers please,” she countered: “Unfortunately, I can not show any maps on the device.”

Alexa and Google Home are also far ahead of Siri in another area: They are now able to respond intelligently not only to requests, the HotWord is no longer needed, so the request can be made directly. The HomePod requires a “Hey Siri” for every request.

The conclusion

The first generation of the HomePod is a typical Apple early adopter product. Still limited, just as the first iPhone did not even handle 3G, but only the slow Edge network. There is room for improvement in many areas, but above all Siri, who urgently needs help compared to Alexa and Google Home. Sonic but the echo and Google competition, even the Sonos One speakers, but then superior.

The high price compared to the competitors and Apple once again closed ecosystem limit the circle of users as well as missing Bluetooth. The HomeKit connection is to be praised, even the control or the resetting of the HomePod from the home app works out.

On the other hand: no multi-user account, not wireless, no battery and therefore not suitable for outdoor use. All in all, this first generation is “half baked”: promising in its beginnings, but also a perceived beta product at a well-kept price. Three years after the echo and a year after Google Home quite surprising.

It will be exciting to see if Apple can finally get Siri back on the right track, far behind the competition. So that the Smart Speaker HomePod is really smart and does not share the fate of the iPod HiFi, which disappeared after less than two years from the market.

Even the second-generation HomePod will be an ambitious project. But who, if not Apple, would you dare to make the HomePod a success for the next generation? Cheer up, Siri: The iPad and the Apple Watch finally worked.

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