Two Fridays from now, Apple’s HomePod will arrive in stores. While hard-core Apple fans will get to enjoy the most exciting unboxing experience since December’s iMac Pro launch, everyone else will be waiting on the sidelines for real world opinions on the $349 smart speaker.
Given how hot the smart speaker market has been recently, why wait? Apart from its high price, HomePod is launching in what some might call “beta” form, including some rough edges and omitting some promised features. Here’s what you should expect next week.
5. Debates over the audio performance given the $349 price tag
Using nearly identical language to its pitch for the ill-fated iPod Hi-Fi, Apple is marketing the HomePod as a “reinvention” of home audio with “high-fidelity” sound. Specifically, Apple claims that HomePod will deliver “the highest-fidelity sound throughout the room, anywhere it’s placed.” That’s a tall order for a tiny speaker — and for audiophiles, all but impossible to take seriously.
At the $349 price point, great all-in-one speakers virtually always include stereo sound, created using a mix of high-pitched “tweeters,” mid-frequency “midrange drivers,” and low-pitched “woofers” to faithfully reproduce audio recordings. For HomePod, Apple did away with the midrange drivers — a point underscored by a Wired reviewer — and instead used a collection of seven tweeters and one woofer to perform audio, plus six microphones to hear voice commands. Want stereo? Whenever Apple releases a software update, HomePod will let you upgrade to stereo by purchasing a second speaker at full price.
It remains to be seen whether these choices will prove to be controversial in practice, but on paper, there’s plenty of room for audiophiles to write HomePod off: A $349 monaural speaker with no midrange drivers and a fairly small bass driver shouldn’t be expected to “rock the house,” despite Apple’s claims. However, it would be no surprise at all if HomePod outperformed smaller and less expensive speakers, including virtually every smart speaker released to date.
4. A “good” overall audio experience
Many of the initial HomePod first listen articles produced by Apple-selected publications begin with a disclaimer: The writer explains that he or she isn’t an audio expert, and doesn’t know what great sound is, but enjoys music as much as or more than the next person.
Ideally, people with comparative audio expertise should be reviewing expensive speakers. But in reality, audio experts represent a very small percentage of the population, and most people just buy good-looking audio gear that’s heavily marketed as sounding good. That’s why Beats headphones and Bose speakers have done so well, audiophiles be damned.
By targeting the smart speaker market in particular, HomePod has a low audio quality bar to hurdle — most of the speakers in the category were designed to sell for half or less the price of a HomePod. Most weren’t really made for music playback; they were designed around AI assistants. So the good news is that the music-focused HomePod will sound better than all of them, and likely will maintain that “lead” until a serious audio company decides to play at the same exact price level… or unless, like the iPod Hi-Fi, Apple just kills the HomePod because it’s at the wrong price point.
3. Issues with iTunes streaming, including iTunes Match
One of the most surprising and concerning omissions from the HomePod discussion is support for music libraries other than Apple’s. Thus far, HomePod has been pitched as a companion for Apple Music, and there have been conflicting reports on how it will perform with audio stored on a computer, audio stored on Apple’s iTunes Match service, and audio stored solely on a device.
Based on what Apple has said, HomePod should be able to stream audio from the Apple Music service without issues, and you may be able to stream music stored with Apple’s iTunes Match service, too. But if your music library is stored on a computer or on your device, you will probably have to manually stream tracks to HomePod over Bluetooth just like any other speaker.
2. Siri hiccups
Some people gave up on Siri so long ago that they’ve disabled the feature through its past two or three generations of step forward-step back improvement. If you haven’t used Siri in a while, turn it back on: Even if you’ve recently gotten used to Alexa, you’ll probably be impressed by how much smoother Siri’s multi-lingual voices now sound, and some of the responses you can get to inquiries.
Unfortunately, Siri still stumbles a lot, and unlike Alexa, there’s no way to have something even vaguely resembling a conversation. Over the years, Siri has been justifiably mocked for misinterpreting phrases and proper nouns, so it’s unclear how HomePod will fare when asked to pluck individual tracks from a library of over 40 million songs. The feature has apparently been improved recently with music-specific knowledge to improve Siri’s functionality as a “musicologist,” but beyond music, there’s a lot Siri still can’t do that Alexa can. Expect to see this discussed at length when HomePod launches.
1. Auditioning challenges, and a lot of returns
One of the biggest issues with HomePod is that you can’t really experience it properly in a store. Apple’s own retail locations aren’t the best spaces to try speakers, and really testing one’s capabilities can make other people uncomfortable — who wants to be the one turning Siri up to its peak volume in the corner of a crowded Apple Store? The best place to experience a HomePod will naturally be your home, which means shelling out the cash to test it for yourself.
Because the $349 price point isn’t “cheap” for most people, we’d expect to see people posting on social media that they’ve given HomePod a shot and decided to return it. Thankfully, the Apple Store makes this very easy during the 14-day period after you receive the product.
If HomePod doesn’t live up to the initial hype, you can also expect to see plenty of refurbished HomePods at the Apple Store a few months down the line. Perhaps by then Apple will have the rest of HomePod’s originally promised features working, too, making a discounted post-launch purchase more sensible for initial hold-outs.