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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

HomePod (second generation) review: More of the same

HomePod 2

The new, second-generation HomePod is a funny product. So many of us assumed that the original model was discontinued because it was a sales flop, but here it is: reincarnated, and not as some sort of Hollywood-style reboot, but more like a faithful remake of the original, right down to the $299 price tag1.

I guess it wasn’t such a flop after all, since Apple brought it back. The new HomePod is not quite the same as the original model, but it’s similar in bad as well as good ways. It’s better in a few small areas, but is this progress? More than anything, it seems to call Apple’s lack of progress in the smart home category over the intervening five years into sharp relief.

Let’s start with what forward progress there is: The new HomePod’s basically picked up a bunch of technology from the HomePod mini. Like the mini, its brain is an Apple Watch chip, though a slightly newer model. It’s been outfitted with a Thread radio and can act as a home hub, which will be great when the Matter smart home standard finally materializes. And it’s got temperature and humidity sensors, which show up in the Home app and could theoretically be used by intelligent automations in your house. Theoretically.

Now for what hasn’t changed much. The new HomePod has two fewer tweeters than its predecessor, but the truth is that the two speakers sound remarkably similar. No, they’re not the same—the new HomePod offers more clarity in the mid-range (most notably, it feels like vocals were generally clearer on the new HomePod) but doesn’t quite offer the same oomph when it comes to big bass. (Given that the original HomePods were so bass-heavy that Apple had to add a “reduce bass” preference, it’s not that big a deal, but it is noticeable at loud volumes.)

But if I had to boil it down, I’d say that both the new and old HomePods sound really good. If a (bizarrely generous) burglar broke into the house of someone who had old HomePods and swapped them out for new models, they probably wouldn’t notice. (There are slight physical differences—a slightly recessed top panel and detachable power cable, most notably—but only someone with Sherlockian powers of observation would notice at a glance.)

I also compared the HomePods (old and new) to the $99 HomePod mini and the $199 Sonos One. Sorry to be boring, but at least among these products, you get what you pay for. The HomePod mini is half the price of the Sonos One but doesn’t sound as good. The Sonos One is much larger than the mini—it’s roughly the size of the HomePod—and while it definitely outpaces the mini, it is definitely inferior to both old and new HomePods.

Now double the prices in order to get a stereo pair of these speakers. Your choices are now $200 for HomePod minis, $400 for Sonos Ones, or $600 for HomePods. The HomePods sound remarkably good for the compact space, and they look good on a shelf or countertop, but they sure aren’t cheap. (I’ve used a pair of Sonos Ones in my office for the last few years and feel like I found a decent balance between quality and price.)

My biggest disappointment with the new HomePod is that it’s too much like its predecessor. The touch-sensitive top panel is easy to brush accidentally and can’t be seen easily if the speaker is placed up high—which I suppose is okay since the little light show it plays when it’s listening to a Siri command or playing music is completely pointless. Worse, the volume up/down controls (which were already hard to see on the original model since they didn’t light up until you touched the surface) now don’t light up at all, making changing the volume via touch a frustrating guessing game at times. Apple would’ve been better off dumping the “screen” and just putting a few physical buttons up top.

And then there’s Siri and AirPlay, which should be the highlights of all of these products—and instead are their greatest liability. When the wind is blowing right, and the moon is in the right part of the sky, Siri can be solid, responding to your questions quickly and playing music with ease. When it falls over, it’s incredibly frustrating, and it still falls over far more often than it should.

As for AirPlay, like Siri, it’s great when it works, but it doesn’t work reliably enough. In testing for this article, I AirPlayed from a Mac, an iPhone, and an iPad to all four speaker pairs at various times. AirPlay failed far too often, especially if I tried to play from more than one speaker at a time. Several times I ended up in a situation where only one speaker in the pair would play or only one speaker would respond to commands.

To be fair, this isn’t just about AirPlay—it’s also about the fundamental instability of the HomePod stereo pair. I also encountered multiple situations where one HomePod would simply stop playing audio, even though it was listening for audio commands, and I could pause or change the volume on its opposite pair from its controls. So strange. But then, the first-generation HomePods in my living room also sometimes go off on their own. It’s a thing HomePod stereo pairs do.

My point is that the new HomePod doesn’t appear to address any of the underlying stability issues with the original model, and both Siri and AirPlay are frustratingly inconsistent. At $299, this is a premium audio product that can live up to that price when it’s working flawlessly—but the bugs and errors and quirks are so great that I can’t in good conscience recommend them to anyone who isn’t well-versed in troubleshooting misbehaving Apple technology.

  1. The original HomePod premiered at $349, but by the end of its life, it was re-priced at $299. 

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