Although we were rebuffed at Apple’s main demo area at WWDC today, we did get a chance to go listen to the HomePod later on. In a controlled demo with specific songs designed to show off the HomePod’s strengths, we heard it do some pretty impressive audio tricks. We couldn’t test Siri or pick our own tracks, but we did get to hear it both individually and set up as a pair of stereo speakers.
I’m no audio expert, so my colleagues Vlad and Nilay will surely take me to task for the words I’m about to type, but here goes. The main thing to know is that Apple has done a remarkably good job finding ways to get its speaker to feel like it’s filling a room with sound. It starts with the subwoofer, which delivers bass that doesn’t quite hit you in the chest but does manage to put other smart speakers like the Echo or Google Home to shame. It’s obviously no standalone subwoofer, but it outperforms what you’d expect from a speaker of this size.
The other thing to know is that Apple is doing something interesting with those seven tweeters. Over the course of a few songs, Apple explained the the HomePod isn’t trying to do anything cheap like create artificial stereo by bouncing the left and right channels in different directions. Rather it’s trying to separate out different aspects of the music. Apple referred to the “ambient” parts like background piano music as distinct from the more central parts like the vocals.
Basically, Apple is claiming that, using the microphones, the speaker can work out the shape of the room and then beamform different parts of the song to different areas. So the vocals get pumped straight out into the center of the room while the “ambient” bits get bounced off the wall. I can’t speak to the proper audiophile terms for what they’re talking about, but I can say that it sounded pretty immersive and impressive in person.
That’s not really a surprise — this is called the HomePod, after all, and it seems like it was designed for music rather than as a vehicle for some vision of ambient computing. Siri will be here when it launches in December, but even onstage Apple referred to its assistant as a “musicologist” first and an assistant second.
Apple also paired up a second HomePod for true stereo separation and the sound there was, er, twice as good. I don’t know that anybody is going to be able to justify buying two of these for a home theater setup, but there are probably some Apple and AirPlay fans who will think about it.
We also heard the sound quality up against an Amazon Echo and a Sonos Play:3 — obviously the HomePod came out on top — but I’m not sure how much credence to lend to that part of the demo. For one thing, the audio from the Echo was playing over Bluetooth. Now I have zero problems saying that the HomePod sounds way better than an Echo, but it’s still not a direct comparison. As far as the Sonos is concerned, I’m not 100 percent sure it was tuned using Sonos’ TruePlay room tuning. The Sonos Play:3 isn’t really the best-sounding Sonos speaker, but I know it can pull off better audio than what I heard today.
Regardless, the takeaway here is that when it comes to smart speakers, the HomePod is likely to be head and shoulders above its direct competitors, the Echo and Google Home. For the price and size, you should expect that, and Apple delivered.
Oh, one last interesting note: the units we listened to had big + and - buttons on the top, not the Siri waveform. The Siri glow is what you should expect to get, but it seems like you will be able to tap the top of the speaker to adjust volume directly instead of controlling everything with Siri or sliders on your iPhone.