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Apple HomePod Review: The ultimate smart speaker?

The Good

  • Sterling sound quality
  • Impressive mic arrangement
  • Quick setup

The Bad

  • Closed ecosystem
  • Pricey compared with rivals
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We’ve been testing Apple’s HomePod ahead of the official February launch here in the UK. Here’s our full HomePod review, including all you need to know about this smart speaker’s best features, device compatibility and the UK price and release date.

It’s hard to believe, but Apple announced its rival to the Amazon Echo and similar smart devices way back in June 2017. WWDC 2017 was where we first heard about the HomePod, a powerful home speaker that packs Siri smarts. In this way, you control your connected gadgetry and stay updated while remaining hands-free. However, that proved to be a pretty big tease, as the HomePod is only just hitting stores a full seven months later. Good things come to those who wait, right?

We’ve been rocking out to the HomePod for a few days, while throwing all kinds of taxing demands at Siri. So is this pricey smart speaker really worth that hefty asking price of £320?

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Apple HomePod review: Design and setup

Compared with most other smart speakers out there, especially those by Google and Amazon, the Apple HomePod is a bit of a beast. At 2.5kg it’s a hefty mother, while the thick build means it’ll take up a chunk of space on any desk or surface.

That said, we do like the mesh fabric finish. You can pick up the HomePod in either white or ‘space grey’ (black), so you can pick the model that best suits your decor. And that minimalist design work means it’ll fit in pretty much anywhere.

So, what about the setup? Well, if you don’t have an iPhone or some other device packing iOS 11, then you might as well stop reading this review. Without an iOS gizmo updated to the latest version, you won’t be able to use the HomePod at all.

The good news is that setting up this speaker with an iPhone, iPad or iPod is as simple as you’d expect. Just hold your (fully updated) iOS device near the HomePod and they’ll pair up automatically. Answer a couple of quick questions, such as whereabouts in your home the speaker will live, and you’re good to go.

From that point on, the HomePod operates completely independently of your phone or tablet. Even with your iOS device switched off, you’ll still be able to access Siri, plus Apple Music and Home functionality. Of course, that means that anyone else in your household also has access to your Apple ID. Not a good time to have shifty family members or dodgy uncles.

Check out our HomePod unboxing video below for a closer look at that design and setup process.

Apple HomePod review: Sound quality

Apple is really bigging up the audio quality of the HomePod, which it sees as one of the major benefits compared with many rivals. And after plenty of testing, we can confidently report that you won’t find a better smart speaker for blasting your tunes.

When you look at the hardware behind it, it’s no surprise that the HomePod really delivers in the music department. Apple’s custom woofer combines with seven tweeters to produce crisp, layered sound, no matter what you’re listening to. Throw on some blues and you can really hear the twang of guitar strings, behind perfectly realised vocals. Get some metalcore on and the power of the drums and breakdowns will have you thrashing like you’re suffering a fit.

And of course, the HomePod also produces thumping bass, where appropriate. Seriously, the bass this thing pumps out is just nuts, given the size of it. Steel yourself for non-stop complaints from your neighbours if you dare to crank up the volume. Get it anywhere near maximum levels and you’ll probably shake the walls.

Smart software

However it’s not just that slick hardware which helps the HomePod to sound great. Apple’s specially developed software also plays a large part.

For example, this speaker has quite advanced spatial awareness. In other words, it can sense roughly where it’s been placed in a room and what other stuff is around it. All thanks to the power of sound waves. The HomePod then adjusts its acoustic output accordingly. In this way it can prevent echos and ensure a crisp sound reaches the far corners of its surroundings.

Whether it’s shoved up against a wall or slap bang in the middle of a room, we always experienced a rich, full-bodied sound.

Apple HomePod review: Features

Of course, to really get the most from the HomePod, you’ll want to be subscribed to Apple Music. The speaker is designed to tap straight into that vast online catalogue, to play any requests without delay. It’s just a massive shame that other services such as Spotify aren’t directly supported. That’s going to put a lot of potential adopters off a purchase.

If you’re plush enough to afford more than one HomePod, you can get them synced up using Apple’s Airplay 2 feature. Or at least, you can when this feature is rolled out later in 2018. Introduced in iOS 11, this is Apple’s answer to Sonos’ multi-room functionality. Check out our full guide to Airplay 2 for more info.

Apple also has a proper stereo feature coming later this year, which allows you to join up two speakers in the same room. We’ll update this review when that feature has rolled out.

All of these smarts are powered by Apple’s A8 chipset. This was launched way back in 2014 and appeared in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, so may seem like quite creaky tech by now. However, considering it’s now the brains of a speaker instead of a multi-tasking smartphone, the A8 certainly seems more than up to the task.

Apple HomePod review: Siri smarts

The HomePod packs in six multi-direction microphones, which can pick up your voice from across a large room, even when things get a bit noisy. We tested those mics in a noisy kitchen, from a distance of roughly fifteen feet, while the speaker was busy blasting some metalcore music. Siri responded every time, without us having to resort to screaming. She’s almost never flummoxed by localised accents or alternative pronunciations either.

As you’d expect, all of Siri’s standard features are available on the HomePod. You can access your Apple Music playlists and get facts on whatever song or artist is playing at the time. Alternatively, try playing a podcast or a handy recording of the most recent news headlines. And if you receive a call while your hands are busy, you can route it through the speaker instead.

Your smart home goodies can also be controlled using your voice, as long as they’re set up in Apple’s Home app. With just a couple of words you can wake everything up, while the speaker is smart enough to only activate equipment within the room when you say something like ‘lights on’.

As far as smart home functionality goes, Siri can’t really do anything unique, compared with the likes of Alexa. Still, we struggled to find any tasks that she couldn’t accomplish, and Apple will continue to update her smarts as time goes by.

Unfortunately we did see the AI throw a couple of wobblers in our time with the HomePod. Once in a while she’ll simply refuse to do what you tell her – such as one occasion when we begged her over and over to stop playing a track. Clearly Siri is a massive Cane Hill fan, or the band has slipped her some notes to ignore any pause requests.

Apple HomePod review: What’s the UK price?

HomePod will be available to buy in the UK for £319, in either white or space grey colours. And that right there is our single problem with Apple’s first-gen smart speaker.

For the same asking price, you can bag yourself a pair of Sonos One speakers, which support Amazon’s Alexa AI. Alexa can connect to a vast array of smart home goodies just like Siri and also stream music from a range of services, including the likes of Spotify, although admittedly the Sonos One’s audio quality is a step down from the HomePod’s super-powered output.

Apple HomePod review: What’s the UK release date?

The smart speaker launches nationwide from today (February 9). You can either purchase direct from Apple, or from various UK high street stores. These include Argos, Dixons Carphone, Currys PC World, John Lewis and Apple Premium Resellers.

EE is also offering the HomePod to customers, for the same price. Makes sense, as EE pay monthly customers already get six free months of Apple Music. Plus the network is currently the only UK service to support the Apple Watch Series 3’s eSIM.

Apple HomePod review: Is this smart speaker compatible with my iPhone or iPad?

HomePod works with the iPhone 5s or later handsets, on at least iOS 11.2.5. The smart speaker is also compatible with all iPad Pro and iPad Air models, as well as iPad Mini 2 or later. Owners of the 6th generation of iPod touch or later can also use their device for setup.

Apple HomePod review: Verdict

If you’re an Apple fan and music lover and your home is already filled with Home-compatible tech, then the HomePod is likely top of your wish-list. And rightly so, because this is one seriously pumped-up speaker. As far as audio quality goes, you won’t find a better blaster with AI smarts.

However, if you simply want a voice assistant to control your smart home tech or get instant information, you’ll probably be better off with a rival device. For instance, the significantly cheaper Echo or Google’s Home speaker. The closed ecosystem in which the HomePod resides won’t suit all users, while that asking price places the speaker firmly in the ‘super premium’ category.

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