HomePod

My family gave me a HomePod for my birthday last week. Despite the contrarian press it got upon release, I realized that Apple had more or less made the ideal product for my needs. I only ever listen to music from my iTunes/Apple Music library. Never CDs; I never got into vinyl. I use Apple Music, not Spotify, because I like that it integrates with my existing iTunes collection. I want to be able to play music in the living room but don’t want to set up a hi-fi system there. I find even the small barrier of having to stand up and turn something on means I often don’t bother to play music in the house. So, after a little over a week’s use, here are my thoughts.

First, audio quality, which is where the HomePod shines. It sounds fantastic. I do suspect, however, that most people have about two modes for assessing audio quality: not good and fine. People will tolerate cheap Bluetooth speakers and anything that sounds better than that all just sounds good to them. Apple will win in a head-to-head battle between much inferior hardware but I’m not sure that most consumers will care enough about the difference between a medium level speaker and the HomePod. There’s probably room for Amazon to make a “good enough”-sounding Echo and charge half of what Apple is.

I very much like the HomePod’s “set it and forget it” approach to its soundscape. There are no knobs (physical or digital) for me to think I should be tweaking. You put it in the room, it listens its environment, makes some adjustments without you having to do anything, and it’s done. People who really want to tinker, can’t, but for me it’s freeing. Because I can’t tinker with it, I don’t have to worry about it.

Looks: I got the white. The “space gray” also looks nice. Both are entirely unobtrusive in most any room. The white reminds me of some of the Dieter Rams-designed Braun audio products, like the SK series record players or the RT-20 radio. Rams had a philosophy that household appliance should be as unobtrusive as possible, which Apple’s Jony Ive follows. Rams didn’t make kitchen appliances in colors, for example, because he felt it wasn’t their job to stand out. His Vitsœ shelving system is a simple gray because it’s the job of the shelves to highlight what’s on them, not stand out themselves. This all applies wonderfully to the HomePod which never needs to touch or even looked at to be used. It just hangs out, ready to play your music when needed.

Siri: I use Siri very often on my phone to add things to lists (typically grocery items and reminders: “Hey Siri, remind me to make an appointment for [blah] tomorrow morning”) and to set timers (usually when cooking or waiting for tea to steep). I sometimes dictate text messages. The results are sometimes right but often have typos that need correction. For music, though, Siri works fine in my experience. It seems to generally play the music I’ve asked it to. I’m not sure what other people are using their home cylinders for that there’s been this huge level of dissatisfaction with Siri vs Amazon’s Alexa. We’ve even asked it a few factual questions and gotten good verbal answers.

HomePod can’t play a live stream of NPR. The Echo can. You can ask it for news and you get a highlight reel of top stories but not a live feed.

The microphones are astoundingly sensitive. It can understand me speaking in a quiet voice when I’m upstairs and several rooms away.

Touch Interface: you can pick music to play directly from iOS. If you flip open Control Center and tap on the music widget, it brings up an icon for your phone/iPad along with also icons for the HomePod and Apple TVs in the house. Tapping on the HomePod brings up the normal music app but will play over the HomePod instead of the device you’re currently holding. This is nice for when you have people over and don’t want to awkwardly interrupt them to yell at your stereo. Maybe in time we’ll get used to voice control enough that it won’t seem socially strange to talk to our electronics but I’m not there yet.

Services: HomePod is billed as an Apple Music accessory, but without a subscription to that service it’ll still play anything you’ve bought from iTunes. I suspect there are a ton of people out there who have at this point bought most if not all of their music from iTunes over the last 15 years, and the HomePod will play all that for you just fine. There’s no Spotify but I don’t use Spotify so that’s not a negative for me. Either Apple is planning to add support for it in a forthcoming update or it has internal numbers that say it’ll be fine without it.

Will HomePod succeed? I don’t know. It feels like the right product for me. I’m happy with it so far. Beats shows that people will pay more for what they think is good audio gear. The HomePod has the advantage of actually being able to back up that claim. I’d say if you use Apple Music now, want a great speaker somewhere you don’t already have a stereo set up (or want to simplify your current approach), consider a HomePod. Don’t worry about Siri. It works fine.


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