I had zero plans to purchase an Apple HomePod until I saw the initial reviews.
"...sound quality that rivals speakers nearly twice the price..."
"...The star of the show, in my opinion, is a downward facing woofer..."
"4" high-excursion, upward-firing woofer"
"...audiophiles test HomePod, say it sounds better than $1,000 speaker"
"Amazing sound quality"
I have no complaints with other writers' opinions, but after reading so much glowing press I just had to get one myself. Not that I was interested in listening through a HomePod, but I wanted to make up my own mind with actually hands on experience. In this review I focus on sound quality above all else. The HomePod offers Siri integration, but I'm very underwhelmed by it thus far. Plus, with a MacBook Pro, iMac, iPad Pro, and iPhone all sitting on my desk, Siri can get more than a little annoying. Hey Siri play The Beatles I said, my phone started playing The Beatles. Not bad if I was talking to my iPhone. Hey Siri I said one more time. My HomePod answered this time. Play The Beatles. Then I had two different Beatles tracks playing simultaneously. Anyway, I'm not a fan. Plus, Siri can only play lossy music right now.
The HomePod supports Apple's ecosystem. If you want anything else, sure you can make it work but I don't recommend it. I used AirPlay via Roon exclusively during this review because I needed to play lossless music. I hate AirPlay and its 2010 technology that requires all audio be streamed through a mobile device or computer. Hey Siri, talk directly to the cloud so I don't use all my iPhone's battery.
For this review I used my main HiFi system to give me a reference. Without a reference there's no way to gage anything.
Speakers: TAD Compact reference One CR1 $45,000 (frequency response 40Hz–20kHz, ±3dB)
Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Inspiration Monoblocks $20,000 /pr
DAC: dCS Rossini $24,000
Cabling by Wire World and 512 Engineering ~$10,000
Apple: HomePod $349 (frequency response 40Hz–20kHz, ±3dB)
Klipsch: The Three $499 (frequency response 45Hz–20kHz, ±3dB)
Executive Summary: Don't fool yourself into thinking this is an audiophile product. It's a me too voice control product that happens to play audio.
I put the HomePod through an extensive listening test of my favorite music and typical audiophile music. In the rare instance, both of these categories (favorite and audiophile) contain the same music, but that's like a total solar eclipse, it doesn't happen frequently.
Let's start with a song that leans much more toward the audiophile end of the continuum, but is a very nice song nonetheless. Randi Tytingvag's Red or Dead from her album Red is a track I use frequently when reviewing HiFi gear. Through my reference HiFi system Randi's vocal sounds very crisp and piercing at times. Jens Fossum's double bass lays a great foundation throughout the track. This bass sounds like it has the correct number of strings, four, because it indeed has four strings. Other very distinct instruments such as the rebab and Glockenspiel can be heard filling in throughout the track. All of the instruments including Randi's voice are a bit sterile because they seem to exist on their own, rather than as instruments played by a group of musicians in a room. I'd be very surprised if this album was recorded with all the musicians sitting in a room. That's neither here nor there for this review. The sterility of the track can help one evaluate some aspects of HiFi equipment because it's very easy to listen for a single instrument and compare it to one's reference.
The HomePod shouldn't come close to my reference system, and it doesn't. Let's not kid ourselves. Apple has more money than some countries and has hired very smart engineers, but it can't change the laws of physics. Starting with the impressive aspects of the HomePod playing Red or Dead, Randi's vocal is crisp and clear, but has a very slight soft edge. The very fine details for which audiophiles frequently listen aren't nearly as audible through the HomePod as they are through a true HiFi system. The HomePod has a very nice sound that will likely please most listeners without causing fatigue on tracks like Red or Dead. If I was unaware of the true sound of this track, I'd think the HomePod had done a pretty good job reproducing the vocal portion.
Moving on to the foundation of the track, the double bass. I've yet to see a HomePod measurement that corresponds with what I hear through this speaker, with respect to bass. The HomePod is a bass monster, for better or worse. On Red or Dead the double bass sounds like it has a single string and is being played in a small closet. Thumps and booms are pretty much what the HomePod is all about and it's very clear after a single listen to a track with very controlled bass. Jens Fossum is an accomplished Norwegian jazz bassist, who would likely cringe at hearing his playing sound like it does through the HomePod. If I was talking about electronic bass from a perennial favorite of mine, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, I may like the boom, but when listening to an acoustic bass crafted by a luthier with the finest of woods, I just can't take the over-exaggerated bottom end sound of the HomePod.
An ear worm that I can't stop listening to is Dua Lipa's song New Rules. This song is fabulous through the HomePod. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the HomePod was voiced with pop music. In other words, the HomePod was built for music like this. Dua's vocal just sizzles with heavy top end EQ. Equally jacked up is the bottom end. The bass on this track is deep with a great beat. What about the midrange? What midrange. This track sizzles and booms, and is a match made in heaven for the HomePod. Again, I love this track and I love the way it sounds on the HomePod. But, it's not a track made to reproduce an acoustic instrument in any type of accurate way. It's a track made to move the listener. Through the HomePod the track almost got me dancing. No wait, that's a lie. I did tap out the beat on my MacBook Pro however.
Switching to Eddie Vedder's track Society from the Into The Wild soundtrack, I heard what could be the worst sound from the HomePod that I've yet experienced. I can handle exaggerated bass and highs that are a bit soft, but this track had a haze over the entire thing. Even worse, it sounded like Eddie's vocal was emanating from a box in front of me (or should I say Pod in front of me). I've heard this track sound fabulous on many HiFi system over the years. In fact, I remember listening to it with an engineer who worked on Pearl Jam's tours through a Focal / Micromega system. He loved the sound as much as I did and though it was incredibly accurate. Sure that system was thousands of dollars more than the HomePod, but people are calling this Pod an audiophile product and saying it may get more listeners into HiFi once again. With this in mind, I have to at least set a bar for what high end sound is like. And, the HomePod was nowhere near any of the HiFi system on which I've heard this song. Closed-in with a jumbled mess of sounds and a haze over the top is how I'd describe this track through the HomePod.
How about a little Metallica? I love Metallica's ...And Justice for All album for both the music and the way it sounds. It's not a favorite of many Metallica fans, but I just love the sounds of Lars' Tama drum set. The track One features a nice soft-fish guitar intro. On the HomePod this guitar sounds really good and has good tone. I can see many music lovers really enjoying sounds like this. In fact, I wish the entire track sounded as good as this opening sounded through the Pod. I'm frustrated to say, the HomePod just falls apart at the 0:55 mark in the song. The drum sound that I love, that I've played for so many people on so many different systems including one a couple weeks ago in New York City, was totally wrong. It sounded like a huge band of upper bass frequencies was missing. I heard Lars' kick drum, but not all of it. It's as if there was a filter on the upper end of the drum set and an exaggeration on the very bottom end. A really large exaggeration. Heck, it sounded like the Boston Acoustics / Alpine system in my car, with a trunk full of subwoofers, amplifiers, and extra capacitors. I like bass as much as anyone, but the sound of the HomePod is too strange for me. It seems to be reproducing the very bottom end without the midrange frequencies that are required to make the bottom end sound anything close to real. Perhaps, realism isn't what Apple was shooting for with the HomePod. I don't judge. Apple's customers may prefer the sound of this speaker. I wouldn't be surprised if Apple's focus groups preferred this sound over a flat frequency response.
Let's talk about frequency response for a second. So far the HomePod has been measured and shown to have a pretty flat frequency response. Given that this speaker has adaptive Digital Signal Processing (DSP) based on the music being played and based on its location in the room, I'm not sure if those measurements are really indicative of real world performance. In fact, there's really no way to measure the HomePod if its DSP changes based on the music, volume, and room acoustics. The volume and room can certainly be controlled, but the music not so much. I'm more than willing to admit error here as speaker measurements are out of my wheelhouse, but something just isn't adding up. Flat measurements with completely un-flat sound.
Speculation alert: Having just watched the Netflix series named Dirty Money. I can't help but think of the episode that documented Volkswagen's cheating with respect to measuring of its Diesel engines. VW created software that sensed when the car was placed on a dyno and adapted the car's performance to pass the emissions tests as long as the steering wheel wasn't moved (a sign the car wasn't on the road). Call me crazy, but it seems like Apple has designed the HomePod to appeal to many listeners who like exaggerated bass when playing music and also designed it to recognize the input signal of a traditional speaker measuring test, then adjust its output accordingly. That way, Apple has the best of both worlds. A wonderful linear measuring speaker that also sounds wonderful for those who don't like linearity.
I switched back to music to write a little bit more about the HomePod sound for this review, but really don't have anything new to report. I put on Natalie Merchant's Tigerlily album, playing the track San Andreas Fault. Good vocals, to a certain extent, but also a little veiled with haze and boxiness. Then the boom. It's like a broken record with the HomePod. Sure, I'm likely being a bit tough on this speaker, but I'm human and it's hard to ignore all the hysteria calling this thing the second coming of the audiophile and the last speaker anyone will ever own.
Maybe a little value can be gleaned from discussing how the HomePod compares to a similar speaker, The Three from Klipsch ($499 45Hz ~20kHz @ -3dB). Setting aside the functionality of the speakers (Klipsch has far better functionality for those who want to listen to music, HomePod has Siri), and focussing on sound quality, I prefer The Three from Klipsch. It has a much more balanced sound than the HomePod. Eddie Vedder's Society was very enjoyable through The Three as opposed to the HomePod. I A/B'd them for twenty minutes to make sure I heard what I thought I heard. I honestly expected the HomePod to put the Klipsch unit to shame, but that wasn't the case. In my comparisons The Three from Klipsch was the 1980 US olympic hockey team that beat the Russian HomePod in the miracle on ice. OK, that's a bit far fetched, but given it's olympic time in South Korea, that was on my mind. Listening to several other tracks, I couldn't help but think the HomePod was better suited to be The Three's subwoofer if such a configuration existed.
After listening to the HomePod and comparing it to a reference system and a similar speaker, I realized the HomePod isn't about sound quality. It's about Apple trying to catch up to the voice control market dominated by Amazon. Because Apple needs to catch up and it doesn't have a store like Amazon from which to use voice control in a helpful fashion, the company needed a compelling reason for people to purchase the HomePod. Given that Siri is already in everyone's iPhone and computer, why purchase a HomePod that can only accomplish very limited tasks for the foreseeable future? Much like MQA, Apple has pushed the HomePod as a very high quality sounding device and no doubt talked to the influencers about how good the device sounds. Without sound quality, the HomePod has no purpose.
"The Apple HomePod Sounds Good, but Other Smart Speakers Sound Better"
"In CR audio testing, Google Home Max and Sonos One come out ahead"
Perhaps some normalcy has now been added to the hysteria. I agree with Consumer Reports. I really wanted to like the HomePod and I wanted to to sound fantastic. The truth is, the HomePod is good and I'd recommend it to people who have to have Apple products. If people want a voice assistant, get a voice assistant. If people want a loudspeaker, get a loudspeaker. Splitting the duties provides much more flexibility to purchase the best of both worlds. Google and Amazon offer far better products for voice. With respect to sound quality, there are many other products I'd recommend over the HomePod, starting with The Three from Klipsch.
Here comes a shocker (not), my HomePod is now up for sale on Superhonica (LINK).