Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Listening to the HomePod

I wasn’t on the list of early reviewers, but I did get one on the day that it came out. And no, you haven’t missed my full review of the HomePod. Once in a while I rush to get a review out because I can be on the first wave, but with the HomePod that wave broke on the shore days before I even got to touch one… and since I missed that opportunity, I’ve decided to take the long view.

Yes, I will be writing about the HomePod on Six Colors, and I did talk about it on Upgrade a few weeks back. But in the meantime, I’ve been doing something a little radical: I’ve been listening to the HomePod. It’s been in various spots in my office and living room. I’ve listened to it while working, cooking, and lazing on the couch. I’ve played it at 100% volume and at 20%.

I am not an audiophile or a professional audio reviewer, but I do like music and listen to an awful lot of it. My quick take on the HomePod’s audio is more or less what you’ve heard from others: It’s a good speaker, providing mono audio with some unexpected texture and dimension, especially in the high-end, and with plenty of bass thump. (Some might say a little too much, but that’s a personal preference.) Some of my favorite music sounds spectacularly good when processed by HomePod, while some of it sounds flat and lifeless. Them’s the breaks when you’re dealing with an algorithm trying to figure out how to send audio to seven different tweeters ringing its little pod.

The Amazon Echo aside, the fact is that this new generation of smart speakers sounds good. (The Echo is an AM radio in comparison.) The Sonos One sounds good too. The Sonos Play:5 sounds great. The Google Home Max sounded rumbly and muddy to me, but other people seem to like it. They’re all good, though.

And that’s the thing: If they’re all good—and the Sonos One costs roughly half the price of a HomePod—then the thing really differentiating the HomePod is the fact that it’s the only one to come with Siri. (Even Apple Music is not a HomePod exclusive—you can play Apple Music tracks on Sonos speakers, but you can’t control Apple Music via voice on Sonos.)

Oh, Siri. It’s a vitally important asset for Apple, and the company keeps integrating into more of its products. Given all the bets placed on it by Apple’s hardware designers, you’d think that it would be the company’s top services priority, but you wouldn’t know it to interact with it. I don’t buy the narrative that Siri hasn’t improved since it was released along with the iPhone 4S in 2011—it certainly has. But it hasn’t evolved as fast as some of the competitors that have entered the voice-assistant space since, such as Alexa and the Google Assistant.

Then there’s Siri fragmentation. Siri does different things across HomePod, Apple Watch, Mac, Apple TV, and iOS. When I tell Siri to turn off my Lava Lamp on my Mac, it can’t oblige. Ask Siri to make a phone call on HomePod and you’ll be rebuffed. And what’s with search suggestions on iOS being branded as being powered by Siri? Sometimes Siri is a voice assistant, but other times it’s a catch-all brand for all of Apple’s AI assistant efforts.

I really wish I knew what was going on at Siri HQ, wherever they are now. (Do they live at Infinite Loop? Apple Park? Some far-flung corner of Cupertino?) Apple keeps integrating Siri into everything it does, as if it has more confidence in the product than its users do.

When it comes to AI assistants, it’s early days yet. Apple has plenty of time to catch up to Siri and Google Assistant and the rest. As a leader in wearable hardware, though, Apple needs to keep pushing Siri forward—because when you’re wearing your computers, a voice interface becomes that much more important. There are a lot of janky things about Alexa, but right now it does a better job than Siri, which is why the HomePod is in my living room and there’s still an Echo in my kitchen.

So I guess what I’m saying is, when I listen to HomePod, I feel pretty good about its future and about Apple’s hardware design skills. It’s when I talk to HomePod that I’m a bit more concerned about the current state of the art.

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