It took a while. But let us just say, better late than never. And for music enthusiasts, yours truly included, it had been a rather impatient wait. The Apple HomePod arrived at a time when the world of smart speakers wasn’t really about good sound. This was a gust of fresh air, and perhaps forced Amazon and Google to take a look at their smart speaker line-ups as well. That was then. This is now. And as things stand, the Apple HomePod now has a very competent rival in the Amazon Echo Studio. Two great sounding smart speakers, one with the smartness of Siri and the other bringing all the goodness of Alexa.
The HomePod is priced at Rs 19,900 and that is lesser than the global price tag this smart speaker has sported most of this while. Things have a changed a lot in the three years since the HomePod was launched. For a while, there really weren’t any smart speakers that genuinely sounded good. You had the basics, but that was it. Now however, the HomePod is yet another option for the music aficionados who don’t want to compromise on the audio experience. There is the Amazon Echo Studio which costs around Rs 22,999 as well as the Bose Home Speaker 300 (around Rs 26,300) and the Bose Home Speaker 500 (around Rs 39,000). This leaves only Google out of the good sound mix, because they haven’t bothered with the Google Home Max or the Nest Hub Max for India, just yet.
Hey Siri, who is the prettiest of them all?
The HomePod has a very unique design mix, if we can call it that. What you get is the industrial look, which means no real visuals elements that stand out and a perfect cylindrical design which sits easy irrespective of the surroundings. You can get this in the Space Grey and White colour options, those derived from the seamless mesh fabric. At the top is the touch-based control panel which lights up to introduce Siri. Every time you say, “Hey Siri”, the very familiar colourful swirling pattern makes its presence felt—that being the visual delight. From here you can control the volume, touch and hold to invoke Siri, tap twice to skip a song or tap thrice to go back to the previous song.
The HomePod is a cylindrical-shaped speaker that is just 6.8 inches tall and 5.6-inches wide. It looks a lot bigger in photos, but is more compact than the Echo Studio, for instance. The design, as it should, allows the HomePod to push out the sound in all directions, making for a genuine 360-degree audio experience. A lot of that also depends on where and how you place the speaker.
Hey Siri, do you know where you are?
The HomePod has something called Spatial Awareness. What this means is that the HomePod can sense its location and positioning in the room in relation to furniture, walls etc. Persist with me for a moment please. The HomePod has a microphone array that analyses the reflections of the music as they come off the hard surfaces in the room. It can sense if it is near or further away from a wall or a bookshelf or is sitting on a surface where it has an uninterrupted line of sight all around. If it is the latter, the HomePod sends out 360-degree audio which is equally beamed through the room. If it is leaned up against something else, a scenario most likely in our homes, the A8 chip constantly analyzes for distance and changes to beam the music in the direction where nothing gets in the way. What you get as a result is much less reflections and ambient reverberations. The best test of this is to put the HomePod and another regular speaker in a more boxed in environment typical of a bookshelf, sit further away in another part of the room and hear the same tracks. You will realize all the smartness the HomePod is doing, is actually paying off.
No matter how many times you move the HomePod around, it just redoes the process all over again without complaining. Or needing any input from you.
Hey Siri, what is the definition of great sound?
As far as the audio hardware goes, the HomePod packs in seven tweeters with individual audio drivers and a 4-inch high-excursion woofer with a custom amplifier. The seven-tweeter array sits near the base of the HomePod while the high-excursion woofer is upwards firing. There are six microphones placed all around near the middle of the HomePod, to listen to your commands and also for Spatial Awareness.
Even the power cord of the HomePod is wrapped in fabric—talk about attention to detail.
If we are to do a direct comparison with the Amazon Echo Studio, there are differences aplenty. The audio hardware includes three mid-range speakers (each 2-inch in size) that fire to the left, right and upwards. Then there is a single tweeter (1-inch in size) that is facing your direction and then there is a downward facing 5.25-inch woofer. If you look at the Echo Studio as it sits on the mantlepiece or that side table, there is a cut-out has been carved just below where the subwoofer sits, so that bass can have a proper impact. Even though the Echo Studio has a cylindrical design, this is theoretically not a 360-degree speaker. Amazon has gone the whole hog with the Echo Studio globally, with a 24-bit DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and an amplifier, which make it high-res lossless audio compatible. Amazon doesn’t yet offer the high-res music services on Amazon Music in India yet, but this may just be a good time to offer the Amazon Music HD tier to subscribers as an option in India. The Echo Studio is also Dolby Atmos capable, which certainly adds to the sound credentials.
There is absolutely no debate that in terms of sound, it is still a notch or two ahead of the Amazon Echo Studio—the latter needs the HD music to come around soon enough, to really get into its element. That is very evident in the richer and fuller sound as well as the generous amount of bass to go with it. It is not bass heavy, it most definitely is not anemic, and it isn’t sounding arterially altered. The sound just hits you with the same sort of pleasantness as the first sharp shower of the monsoon season—you know it’ll be amazing, but you somehow don’t believe it till you are in the moment. And that is when you realize the HomePod is so powerful, it can be the single driver for the soundtrack to a pleasant evening with friends. If you happen to have the budget to buy two of these, you can set these up as a stereo pair—and well, double the fun. The HomePod effortlessly envelops even large rooms with relative ease, and the sound quality doesn’t feel any stress whatsoever.
Hey Siri, what’s up?
The Siri integration means it is completely smart, and will answer queries, set your calendar and alerts, get you the news and weather and even set calendar entries for you, among other things. It will also be able to control Homekit compatible IoT (internet of things) devices in your smart home too, no matter where you are in the world—what works includes smart lights, smart cameras, thermostats, smart plugs, smart ACs and more
As you would expect, there is close integration with Apple Music and that means your Apple Music subscription gives you access to more than 60 million music tracks at the command of your voice. The AirPlay capabilities also work with apps such as Spotify on your iPhone, which adds to the versatility. And since Siri is at your beck and call, you can pretty much as it any question that pops in your head—be it a web search, the news updates, the weather forecast, sports scores and control smart home devices.
That being said, Siri still doesn’t have the one thing that Amazon does brilliantly with Alexa—the skills that can plug into the virtual assistant. Those apps simply add the sort of versatility and expertise to Alexa, which is unmatched. It is a bit like domain experts doing their bit in a larger scenario. That being said, for anyone who relies on the Apple ecosystem for Mails, Calendar, Notes, Messages and more, Siri and HomePod just add another dimension to the Hey Siri experience. And that is perhaps the most important bit—the HomePod is ideally meant for someone who is very much living inside the Apple ecosystem, on one or more devices.
For some, it might be a limitation that the HomePod can only play music from Apple Music. For me, it isn’t. Apple Music has been my default music platform for many years, and everything is painstakingly curated there. But I can invoke Siri from Spotify on the iPhone, which works well enough via AirPlay.
The HomePod also doesn’t have any audio inputs—no Aux, no 3.5mm jack, no optical audio and so on. Is it really a limitation? You decide.
Hey Siri, this is just between is. Okay?
There is often the privacy debate with smart speakers. How much are they listening and what all are they sending to the servers. Apple insists that the “Hey Siri” detection happens on the device itself—it means anything you say till you say Hey Siri remains on the device momentarily. When the HomePod wakes up to Hey Siri, the subsequent words that come out of your mouth are processed on the cloud—anonymously and encrypted. Once the Siri waveform disappears from the top of the HomePod, nothing is being sent to the cloud again.
Hey Siri, this is the last word
The HomePod is, without a shadow of a doubt, an incredible piece of engineering. Powerful and clear bass, the mids that have their due moment and higher frequencies that are as clear as water in a Scottish stream. It not only makes music sound good; it really resets the goalposts for other smart speakers to match up to. That’s not all it does—you’ll learn to love Siri, because it can do pretty much everything else expected of virtual assistants—manage your smart home, wake you up to gentle music, set your calendar in order and more.