HomePod first impression: Retina for your ears

The HomePod is a seriously great computational speaker — a speaker that also supports Siri and HomeKit.

Apple’s HomePod looks… well, like a pod. It’s textured like a speaker should be, and available in white and black. Snaking from the bottom is a simple power cord; on the top, a display that shows just one thing — the familiar Siri wave interface.

HomePod FAQ: Everything you need to know

Making the speaker smarter

The market today offers several of “smart” speakers, but they’re either music-focused, like Sonos, or assistant-focused, like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. There’s no option that truly covers both areas — and that’s what Apple is trying to change. With HomePod, Apple is aiming to cover the home assistant market and the smart speaker in one go.

Apple’s focus and history with music is a lengthy one, and it makes sense that the company would target both music and smarts in its first intelligent speaker go — Apple isn’t interested in making a $40 connected smart gadget that provides a terrible music experience. It wants to deliver high-end, high-quality sound along with a high-end, high-quality assistant.

Last year, Apple introduced AirPods with the W1 chip, a bevy of sensors, Siri control, and a pretty good amount of smarts. Designed for mobility, the AirPods found quick success — but they weren’t designed to please a whole household or family.

HomePod is the equal and opposite part of that equation. It’s designed not just to fill your ear — it wants to fill your rooms. But the speaker is more than just tweeters and woofers; it has an Apple A8 chipset. That’s the same chipset that powers iPhone 6 and Apple TV, and it makes HomePod a fully-featured computational audio device.

Apple #HomeHub. Apple Music. Rocks the house. Musicology. Siri. HomeKit.

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Computational audio

Siri for HomePod wasn’t been shown off at WWDC. That’ll no doubt come closer to release. But I did get the chance to hear HomePod’s music chops. And it was was impressive — especially when compared with a Sonos Play:3 and an Amazon Echo.

Sonos makes great speakers, but listening to the HomePod is like the experience of moving to a Retina screen — you don’t realize what you’ve been missing until you see it. (Or, in this case, hear it.) The HomePod has much better sound separation than Sonos: It’s cleaner, brighter, and more robust, with clear vocals and booming background ambiance. Amazon Echo can’t hold a candle to either: It just sounds like a tiny, tinny toy speaker.

The HomePod reminds me of Portrait Mode on iPhone 7 Plus. There, the power of the A-Series processor allows the Camera app to do far more than what the camera itself is otherwise capable of. Apple’s speaker works similarly, taking in your music (from Apple Music or another device via the AirPlay 2 protocol) and computing the hell out of it. The A8 chip analyzes your music in milliseconds to provide the best EQ, balance, and projection for your exact room layout.

It’s like it takes apart audio, separates and analyzes all its aspects and layers, then fills the room with crisp, clear, distinct vocals and full, rich, almost-luscious sound.

As a result, it sounds like a layer of muddiness and dullness has been wiped away, leaving music that is suddenly sharp and defined.

(Siri + HomeKit) * Privacy

There’s still a lot we don’t know about HomePod. Apple was providing a preview at WWDC, not a full on product release. There are also a lot of limitations, though none that are unusual for a first generation product — especially one from Apple.

For example, HomeHub can play your Apple Music directly from the cloud, but everything else has to be streamed from your iPhone or iPad (and/or presumably Mac). If you want to play Spotify, Pandora, Amazon (including Audible), Tidal, or anything else, you have to AirPlay it using Apple’s new, multi-room AirPlay 2 protocol. And only AirPlay 2. There’s no support for standard Bluetooth streaming.

HomePod will also support Siri and HomeKit upon its release later this year, allowing you to ask questions, give commands, and control all your existing home automation accessories, like lights and plugs.

It’s so much that I feel likely to replace at least a few of my existing Sonos speakers. I’d rather use them as a complement to the HomePod, of course, but they don’t support AirPlay or HomeKit — and that’s table stakes for me right now.

Apple being Apple, the company has also built the HomePod to prioritize privacy: The device listens for “Hey Siri,” yes, but that command word is processed entirely locally on the device — no data is sent to Apple unless and until you speak the magic words. Even then, HomePod only sends anonymized data; it’s one of the benefits of a company that doesn’t make data harvesting its central business model.

HomePod will be available later this year for $349. I’ll be getting a couple for my living room and a few for my house. I just have to decide between white and black.