07 February 2018

The Verge: “Apple HomePod review: locked in”

When you set down a HomePod and play music, it goes through a number of steps to tune itself. First, it tries to create a model of the room it’s in by detecting the sounds reflecting off walls. It does this in two passes: the first pass builds a model to a high degree of initial confidence, and the second pass refines the model. This happens faster if you’re playing music with a lot of bass.

Then, it creates a virtual array of soundbeams using that seven-tweeter array. Placed near a wall, the HomePod creates three beams: one pointed out the front for “direct” sounds like vocals and guitars, and two pointed at the wall to reflect “ambient” sounds like applause and room noises. This is called “beamforming,” and it’s a nifty, complicated idea; Apple told me it has something like 200 patents for the HomePod.

So the HomePod is using all seven physical speakers to create an array of virtual speakers and assigning those virtual speakers different parts of the music for increased clarity and bass. It’s not trying to create wide stereo separation — later this year, you’ll be able to pair two HomePods for that — it’s just trying to get as much from the audio you’re playing as possible, while eliminating the effects of the room you’re in.

Nilay Patel

The first part of this review, which details the engineering behind the HomePod hardware and its sound features, almost made me want to buy Apple’s newest speakers. But then the software half of the review started, and, oh, boy, is it bad! Basically a never-ending list of things Siri can’t do

And, in the worst omission, Siri on the HomePod doesn’t recognize different voices. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you just click yes during all the setup prompts, literally anyone can ask the HomePod to send or read your text messages. Seriously, it’ll just read your texts to anyone if your phone is anywhere on the same Wi-Fi network, which usually reaches far beyond the same room as the HomePod. If your HomePod is in the kitchen and you’re in the basement, anyone can just roll up on the HomePod and have it read your texts. If you have kids, they can just text anyone at will while you’re in the bathroom and you can’t stop it. I tried it with the HomePod behind a closed door and it picked up my voice and it happily read my texts aloud, a nightmare for anyone who lives in a dorm.

Nilay Patel
The HomePod is Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, the Sonos One, and every other smart speaker out there with a voice assistant built-in

As I watched the video review, I struggled to hear any difference in sound quality between the various speakers tested. It’s probably hard to assess this from a YouTube recording, and my hearing is in no way attuned to this end. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that amazing sound quality is not a top priority for the majority of consumers.

As it stands, completely locked to the Apple ecosystem and crippled by Siri, I don’t see the HomePod going very far. Apple’s most successful products (the iPod, the iPhone) were the ones that gave people the freedom to use other software platforms (both worked fine with a Windows PC); currently HomePod is restricted to a single input source, which has to be another Apple product. Releasing this as a simple Bluetooth speaker, compatible with PCs and Android smartphones, without the Siri integration, would have made more sense, playing on the hardware strengths of the product and avoiding the software weaknesses.

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