Apple’s HomePod speaker has been out for a little while but we have been waiting for Apple to release Airplay 2 for the entire ecosystem, stereo-pairing for HomePod, and updated tvOS software for Apple TV. Airplay 2 hints at a plan that goes far beyond HomePod and speakers as it has links to Apple TV, Apple Music, Siri control, home automation, and more. So what is the company up to?
In this review we will be examining 2x HomePods with a special focus on Apple TV and media integration. We will be covering audio quality as well as functionality and ecosystem effects.
Price and retailers:
Apple HomePod – specifications
172 x 142 mm
Internet streaming (Apple Music) Airplay 2 (Apple TV / iPhone / iPad / Mac)
4-inch woofer 7 beamforming tweeters with own amplifier Six microphones for room and bass correction Stereo pairing
Airplay 2 multi-room Siri voice control WiFi (ac MIMO) Bluetooth 5.0
Apple HomePod is smaller than we had anticipated – and heavier than it looks. It is so small that most people will probably question whether it can actually fill a decent-sized living room with good sound. Apple has on multiple occasions detailed the efforts that have gone into creating a speaker in a compact design that will “rock the house” so perhaps looks deceive.
Luckily, we would very quickly find out because HomePod is incredibly easy to set-up. That is, if you have an iPhone or iPad because otherwise you are out of luck. To set up HomePod you connect the elegant white power cable to a power outlet after which a set-up prompt automatically pops up on your iPhone screen and guides you through a few steps to set-up the HomePod and Siri.
We have two units of the white HomePod and the exterior is a fine mesh that looks pleasing in a complex and mesmerizing way. At the same time, it looks soft and inviting and we are sure that HomePod will fit neatly into most living environments.
One aspect that will perhaps surprise some buyers is that HomePod has no physical audio connections. None. Its only audio input sources are 1. Internet streaming (for Apple Music) and 2. Airplay 2 (for all other music services via iPhone/iPad/Apple TV/Mac). This may pose a problem for those users that are not fully entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem but then again, this is a pod.
A pod? Isn’t that some kind of small flying vessel that takes off from its mothership? It is, and Apple’s references to science fiction go back some time to the second coming of Steve Jobs. The iPod was a pod that had to occasionally return to its mothership for fuel (music/audio). The AirPods float around, in and out of our ears, but rely on the master devices for fuel (music/audio). HomePod is stationary but it relies on a server (internet streaming) or master device (Airplay) for fuel (music/audio). None of these pods are master – or mothership – devices like the Mac or iPhone are today. You can argue that it locks you even further into Apple’s ecosystem and, well, that’s the point but keep in mind that this relatively cheap speaker is positioned exactly as that; an accessory, or pod, to your Apple devices. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives if that doesn’t fulfill your needs. Many ecosystems require you to trade up some flexibility in exchange for added functionality and an improved user experience.
The second HomePod we received a little while later but before Apple rolled out software version 11.4 that enabled Airplay 2 and stereo-pairing. Buying today, you will not be in that position but it gave us a few reference points that we will use as discussion points throughout the review.
User experience & features
First, we need to emphasize that HomePod works with any internet or network-based music service – or audio service in general. This includes Spotify, Tidal, TuneIn, Pandora, podcasts etc. It seems that there is a widespread misbelief that it works only with Apple Music but that applies only to Siri’s content search capabilities – and not Siri’s playback control. If you own an iPhone, iPad or Mac, you can beam any music/audio source that works on iOS or macOS to the HomePod. That is the whole point of Airplay 2.
With that being said, HomePod is a very different speaker than anything that could even remotely be classified as “HiFi”. It will not playback your CDs or LPs, and its features reflect that. It builds on the pillars of internet streaming and voice assistants, which is a long-term play. Apple is not alone in embarking on this journey as a strategic direction. Competitors include long-running Sonos, Amazon Echo, and Google Home. These speakers, or ecosystems, have other strengths and weaknesses but the concept is similar. Some of these companies partner with more established players and we recently saw new entrants in the space such as Roku.
All of these speakers are built on software that can easily be updated over the internet. The voice assistants connect directly to servers that can push out new voice features without requiring software updates. Of course, recording audio in your living room, and transmitting it to servers somewhere out there, has clear privacy implications that you should seriously consider. The speakers record audio only after you say the wake word, which in the case of HomePod is “Hey Siri”. But can you trust these companies to keep your private data anonymous and, well, private? And how much data does each company collect? If this freaks you out totally you may want to wait for rule of law to catch up but if you are prepared to take the plunge one way to think about it is to follow the money. What would be Amazon’s primary motivation for collecting data? It would probably be to sell you more stuff via ads. Google’s? Probably to serve targeted ads. Apple’s? That is not as clear. To improve its services? Sell you more stuff?
Airplay 2 & multi-room
If you are familiar with Airplay you know what to expect. Airplay 2 works in much the same way but adds support for multiple speakers in a multi-room setup. Apple’s wireless audio protocol (AirPlay) has always relied, and still does, on WiFi for lossless transfer of audio, so sound will be as good as your audio/music sources allow. This is in stark contrast to bluetooth audio that is compressed.
Airplay 2 is currently supported on iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV, and HomePod. iPhone and iPad work as transmitters whereas Apple TV works as a transmitter and receiver, and HomePod works only as a receiver. You can play music to HomePod in one of two ways: 1. Airplay 2 from a source device 2. With the help of Siri (see next section).
From an iPhone or iPad you simply click the small Airplay icon in Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora or whatever to transmit audio to HomePod – or use the control center on your device.
With two HomePods, you can either set them up as individual speakers or link them as a stereo pair, which means that they will show up as one speaker when trying to transmit music or TV sound via Airplay 2. Additionally, you are asked to indicate which room the speakers are in, as it will let you address them more easily via Siri voice commands – more on that in a minute.
HomePod is the first speaker with Airplay 2 but other companies are currently rolling out firmware updates to select speakers to enable Airplay 2. Sonos’ multi-room system has been popular for many years and the company has in many ways been a pioneer in the field so why even bother with Airplay 2? The twist here is that Sonos has added Airplay 2 to a few speakers but the company’s traditional multi-room protocol works only with Sonos speakers. Airplay 2 will soon work across a range of speakers and audio products, allowing you to mix and match speakers from various brands.
To use multi-room you simply select as many Airplay 2 enabled speakers from the list as you like and music will be perfectly synchronized between them. In our testing, it worked very well without any hiccups between two HomePods. Of course, you will need to ensure that you have stable and good WiFi coverage throughout your home.
As mentioned, Apple TV can also serve as an Airplay receiver meaning that you can stream music (besides video) to Apple TV. This can be useful if you have a good soundbar connected through Apple TV. Or if you have one to spare you can use an Apple TV to make old speakers Airplay 2 compatible as you would have used an AirPort Express to make old speakers Airplay compatible in the past. The latest AirPort Express has also been updated to Airplay 2 but is no longer sold. Unfortunately, we experienced that synchronization between HomePod and audio output from Apple TV to the built-in TV speakers was out of sync – we will expand on this in the Apple TV section. As mentioned above, synchronization between the two HomePod was perfect.
You can control what is playing throughout your home from the control center on iPhone and iPad or from the new control center on Apple TV. Below you see how HomePod and Airplay 2 can be managed across the home from the control center on iPhone.
Siri & operation
On top of the HomePod there are three buttons disguised as a glossy top plate, which looks a little cheap. Tapping the middle will pause/play music or TV playback, whereas the plus and minus signs adjust audio volume. Easy enough but for the purpose of this review the HomePod were located on TV furniture, meaning quite low, which allowed our 2-year old daughter to reach them. Besides trying to carry them around, she regularly pressed the glossy plate – that shows an alluring Siri animation graphic whenever Siri is engaged – which would start music playback. You can imagine that this quickly becomes a sport.
Another annoying effect caused by the top plate is that the TV picture / light reflects in the glossy plastic. In addition, when paired wirelessly to Apple TV, the volume up/down buttons light up, which is quite visible, and a little distracting from a standard viewing distance. It makes sense to have the volume up/down buttons light up for music but for TV audio that you control with a TV remote? It is a design flaw that can luckily be fixed with software.
Besides these three buttons, the only way to control HomePod is via Siri voice control or through Airplay 2 via Apple TV, besides iPhone/iPad/Mac. The fact that modern connected speakers have no remote control is easily forgotten but it represents a paradigm shift in how we control music and audio in the living environment.
If you subscribe to Apple Music, HomePod can connect directly to Apple’s servers for music streaming. You simply speak your command (“Hey Siri, play new music”) and it starts streaming music. For other music services such as Spotify or Tidal you have to open the app on iPhone/iPad, start playback, and select HomePod as the speaker. This works over Airplay 2. All music services – without exception – on your iPhone/iPad work with HomePod. You can also use Siri afterwards to control playback such as pause/play/skip. The only thing you cannot do with i.e. Spotify is to start playback of specific songs, artists or albums on HomePod via Siri.
The Airplay 2 protocol, and integration with Apple’s HomeKit (platform for the connected home), allows you set up groups, for example ‘living room’ where you may have two HomePods and something else grouped. By asking Siri on your iPhone/iPad to “play music in the living room”, the devices will automatically communicate and start playback. You can later expand music playback to the entire home or move it to another room. In this sense, Siri and Airplay 2 lets your devices communicate. Airplay 2 is like glue that connects your media devices wirelessly.
Siri has some limitations but in the area of Apple Music integration we have found her to be very useful. It is empowering to be able to tell Siri to “play music from the 90’s” or “play music that I like”. This would have taken a long time to do via an app. Unfortunately, Siri is not bulletproof and it sometimes fails to pick up the “Hey Siri” wake word even in a quiet environment.
Other times HomePod managed to pick up the wake word in an extremely noise environment. It is not completely reliable and it sometimes fails to connect to the server, too, but during our time with HomePod we have seen some improvements in reliability. In the early days, Siri would also respond to most of your voice queries but Apple has fine-tuned her response mechanism to be a little less annoying. One example is my night time routine where I tell Siri to turn off Philips Hue light in our home. In the beginning, Siri would come back with an upbeat response like “Done” – almost shouting back – but she no longer speaks back after this command, which is much appreciated considering that our daughter sleeps at this time.
Another thing that annoys me somewhat with Siri is that she tends to respond in a louder tone than you address her, which would make any human person sound awkward and out of touch with the situation. I can accept that Siri is a robot but it still feels weird in a voice interaction situation. Ideally, Siri should respond in the same tone that you used. I also wish that Siri would be able to recognize different voices. The family’s iPhone can already do this to some extend – my iPhone ignores my wife’s “Hey Siri” commands and vice versa – so why not HomePod? This could lead to tons of individualization features including for music.
Speaking of, Siri has a clever way of determining which device should react to “Hey Siri” commands. In our house we also have iPhones, an iPad, and an Apple Watch, but only one device responds when we set a timer or ask for music. It is clever and works well.
So how much can Siri do on HomePod? Well, she cannot speak my native tongue (Danish), despite my iPhone being able to. Siri on HomePod (and Apple TV) is more limited than on iPhone/iPad for some reason, and Siri on HomePod is furthermore limited in various other ways. We are all individuals so I cannot tell you what works for you but after a few months of use we have found Siri on HomePod to be most useful for setting timers for cooking, for weather reports, and for music playback. A recent software update for HomePod added support or setting multiple timers.
I have experience with Amazon Alexa, too, and contrary to conventional wisdom, I find Siri to be a better voice system. Alexa is almost the DOS prompt equivalent of a voice system. You have to speak very specific commands to control skills. Siri is more limited in its integration with other devices and services but at least she understands natural languages most of the time. Your mileage may vary.
As mentioned, HomePod can control Philips Hue via Apple’s HomeKit platform for connecting devices. You can add lots of different devices to HomeKit, including thermostats. You can also use Siri on HomePod (or iPhone/iPad) to start music playback on specific devices such as Apple TV. HomePod will even occasionally let you control video playback on Apple TV. “Occasionally” because it is a bit of hit-and-miss. Sometimes when shouting across the room to “Stop Apple TV”, HomePod will pause Frozen so we can convince our daughter to come eat. Other times, it will ignore the request and at times it will even let me know that “this feature is not supported”. It is quite inconsistent but clearly Apple is working on tighter integration between Siri on HomePod and Apple TV. During our review period, we have been running iOS/tvOS 11, 12, and 12.1, and Siri’s behavior has fluctuated but we had hoped that Apple would mess up and show its cards in some of the betas. That did not happen.
Unfortunately, Siri cannot yet initiative playback of movies or TV shows on Apple TV. It would be really great to be able to say “Play the latest episode of House of Cards on Netflix” and then have it play on Apple TV. This seems like a low-hanging fruit for a future software update, considering that Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa can already do this to some extent. Right now, if you ask HomePod to “Play Netflix on Apple TV” it will turn on Apple TV and play a pop song by Fergie...
Home control (HomeKit)
HomePod works as a HomeKit hub for the home, meaning that it will monitor and control connected devices even when you are away. Apple TV or an iPad can also serve as a HomeKit hub at home. In addition, hubs will let you use geo-fencing, which basically means that it will know when you are home or away based on your iPhones location.
From the ‘Home’ app on iPhone/iPad you can set up scenes based on timings (sunset, sunrise), location (iPhone home/away), and other parameters. You can also assign devices to different rooms, meaning that two HomePods in the summer garden could be grouped into ‘summer garden’. After set-up, HomePod will ensure that automation is carried out as defined but it will also allow you to manually give commands. One neat automation routine is to turn on the lights in the living room 15 minutes before the sun sets but only if anyone is home (HomePod will then check if any of the family members’ iPhone is home). We use this at home, which effectively means that we never need to turn on the lights manually. We never even use the physical light switches on the wall anymore because at night time we just ask HomePod to turn off all lights. Furthermore, we have set up automation to automatically turn off lights if no one is home and we have forgotten.
If you have Philips Hue lamps connected you can say “Hey Siri, turn on the lights in the living room” after which all the Philips Hue lamps grouped as living room will turn on. HomePod is always on and always listening for the wake word “Hey Siri”. You can also set-up “good night” or “good morning” scenes that will execute multiple commands, for example turning off all lights in the house, adjust the thermostat to a lower temperature, and even lock the door. How much you can do, and to what an extent you can automate routines, depends on how many connected devices that you have connected via HomeKit.
Having HomePod constantly listen for the wake word and command to control the house can be a delight but also an annoyance at times. During my time of testing, I found the “Hey Siri” wake word (and the built-in microphones) to work well but as mentioned before it is not perfect. On a few occasions HomePod just ignores you, either if you are far away or speak too fast. This needs improvements but on the other hand there is the risk of it being too sensitive and activate spontaneously during conversations (which we have experienced a few times over the last couple of months). It is super-creepy to hear Siri suddenly burst out: “What was that?” or “Huh?”. All of this will of course sound familiar to you if you are using Amazon Echo / Alexa or Google Home / Assistant.
Equipping a home with connected devices is a long-term project but even if you only have Philips Hue or other connected lamps, HomePod is a big piece of the puzzle, and we expect Apple to do a lot in this area over the coming years.
Sound - Apple TV
This is one area that we have been particularly interested in because Apple TV already allowed you to transmit TV sound wirelessly to an Airplay-enabled speaker. In the past, we have used the system to beam TV sound wirelessly to a pair of high-end Bang & Olufsen BeoSound 9 speakers (via the B&O Essence receiver with built-in Airplay).
With Airplay 2, Apple TV can now transmit TV audio wirelessly to multiple Airplay 2-compatible speakers in your living room. This can be done either by selecting multiple speakers (from different brands) manually or by stereo-pairing two HomePods and targeting these as one output destination from Apple TV.
There are several ways to initiate wireless TV audio output from the Apple TV user interface:
Audio settings menu on Apple
On the home screen, press and hold the ‘Play’ button on the remote control to get a list of available speakers (this also works during video playback on iTunes with tvOS 12.1 – but not yet Netflix and other apps).
While watching video, slide down the top menu and select Airplay-enabled speakers under audio.
The first approach is the most “permanent” as Apple TV will remember your choice for a longer period. However, restarting Apple TV will un-pair the Airplay 2 speakers, which is annoying. On several occasions, we also experienced that Apple TV would un-pair the stereo HomePods for no apparent reason. There is still no way to select Airplay 2 speakers – or HomePod – as the default speaker option on Apple TV.
(As a side note, we can add that Airplay 2 relies on WiFi but that you can also select Airpods from the same menus if you want to watch TV without disturbing the rest of the house. AirPods rely on bluetooth.)
In terms of sound quality, a single HomePod easily beats the built-in speakers in the LG E6 OLED that we used for testing. A stereo-pair takes it further. During set-up of stereo-pairing you are asked to select the left/right channels, and for TV use there is very clear stereo separation in a pair of HomePods. The sound stage is very wide and you are not limited to a single sweet spot in the sofa, which is actually a powerful effect – even more so for music, which we will get back to in a moment. Sound is very consistent even in the vertical direction. This is possible due to HomePod’s automatic room adaption/correction and 360-degree speaker units.
A big advantage is that HomePod delivers very clear dialog. There is no way to manually adjust the equalizer but compared to the built-in speakers in LG E6 that tend to drown human voices (especially at low volume), HomePod reproduced consistently clear voices while watching TV shows, movies etc.
The bass is powerful considering its size, and across the mid-range and tweeter spectrum HomePod delivers balanced, neutral and pleasant TV sound. Of course, it cannot deliver great throughput in the frequency range usually associated with subwoofers for obvious reasons so it is not a speaker for chest-pumping bass. Another big advantage compared to typical built-in TV speakers is that HomePod is very consistent from low volume and up. Even at low volume, audio balance is maintained. It also manages to maintain the same balance when you crank up the volume but it would be an overstatement to talk about “loud” sounds. For some reason, Apple has significantly limited HomePod’s volume when paired to Apple TV, and it is nowhere near loud even at maximum volume. It can go significantly higher when listening to music, so we are not sure why Apple has chosen this approach. It appears to have been tweaked somewhat – up and down – during our test and tvOS 11 and 12 but at the time of writing, we would classify it as an integration error that can luckily be fixed with software (some apps or more recent tvOS beta software releases seem to have somewhat alleviated the situation – we are still investigating). It also affects wireless audio output from Apple TV to Airpods, so we suspect it has to be fixed in tvOS – not on HomePod. It is possible to convert audio on Apple TV from the audio settings menu, which significantly increases volume but this results in lip-sync issues (due to the conversion on Apple TV).
While the limited volume is a concern, the main issue we encountered with using HomePod as a TV speakers was actually lip-sync synchronization. Not as explained above but when used together with Apple TV’s “Match Frame Rate”. For some reason, a pair of HomePods delivers correct and spot-on lip-syncronization when the match feature is turned off (and all content is forced into 50 or 60Hz) but struggles when the match function is activated and Apple TV switches to 24Hz video output (movies, many TV series). In the beginning (tvOS 11 and early tvOS 12 betas), we suspected that the problem related to Apple TV’s Airplay 2 implementation, and we filed reports with Apple’s TV team who explored the issue and later contacted us to say that it had been improved. However, it remained a problem for us and upon further investigation we suspect that it is actually a deeper problem that will prove extremely difficult to fix for Apple alone.
It is just a thesis but we believe that it is actually related to Apple TV outputting video via HDMI and audio via Airplay 2 – two separate transmissions. If one is just slightly delayed, lip-sync occurs. However, it is very hard to synchronize the video/audio as the delay may in fact be introduced by how the specific TV handles 24p content – or something else. If this is indeed the case, Apple TV will constantly monitor a timing signal in the HDMI pipe and synchronize it in real-time with Airplay 2. But even that may not be enough. TVs have various degrees of delay – input lag – that fluctuate based on picture settings and the type of video signal (HD, 4K, HDR, interlaced, etc.) received.
Without full control over the video pipe from Apple TV to when the picture gets reproduced on-screen, how will Apple TV know what the exact delay is? At times, we would get decent lip-sync with 24p movies (i.e. Her and sometimes Netflix movies) but other times audio was noticeably off. People using Apple TV as a music receiver have also noticed the problem, saying that music beamed simultaneously to HomePod and a soundbar/system connected to the TV via Apple TV, is out of sync. Again, we believe that this is related to the delay introduced in the HDMI chain. For example, it is possible to have Apple TV output audio via HDMI (to the built-in TV speakers) and wirelessly to HomePod (via Airplay 2) at the same time, and this set-up also results in out-of-sync audio (at least on our LG E6) between TV speakers and the pair of HomePods.
There is a strong case here for Apple to enter the arena with its own TV. That would give the company end-to-end control.
So, how have we arrived at this thesis and why was it not an issue in the past with Airplay (version 1) output from Apple TV4? Well, back then Apple TV was locked to 50/60Hz video output. The “match” functions were introduced at a later point via software. And as mentioned, the lip-sync issue can be “fixed” by forcing Apple TV 4K to do 60Hz video output but then you run into a number of other problems such as video stutter. Many TVs are able to identify 24fps video within 60Hz and handle it as 24Hz (reverse pulldown), which eases the pain but of course, we would prefer the match function to be active.
There are other limitations, too. Menu sounds and games do not support Airplay 2 audio output from Apple TV at this time. This is a significant limitation but not surprising since the previous version of Airplay was equally limited. For it too work, it probably requires even deeper integration into Apple’s Metal game engine.
There are also positive things to report. As mentioned, a stereo pair of HomePod is a significant improvement over typical speakers integrated in TVs. Sound is neutral and powerful, even when disregarding the compact format. Stereo separation is great, and a stereo pair can give an almost 3-dimensional audio experience in short bursts. The two HomePods have silently analyzed your room and use the layout to their advantage. It is small but surprisingly powerful.
Since HomePod is WiFi-based it also allows for more clever two-way interaction. You can use Siri to control video playback by saying “Hey Siri, pause Apple TV” as explained in the previous section, although a bit hit-and-miss and with limitations. Siri can also adjust TV volume (when paired via Airplay 2 to Apple TV). In addition, you can control TV volume on HomePod from iPhone and Apple Watch via the Remote / Now Playing app. And let us tell you this; it is extremely cool being able to adjust TV audio from your wrist. Unfortunately, we lost the ability after upgrading to tvOS 12 with the Apple Watch series 0 stuck on watchOS 4, and we cannot confirm if this functionality is available in watchOS 5 at this time. Also, sometimes we were not able to adjust volume via these methods. We found out that if you slide down the top-menu, deselects and then reselects HomePod, volume control from the Remote app will work again. This appears to be a software bug.
A small but meaningful change is also that the Siri Remote for Apple TV automatically switches to Bluetooth control when adjusting TV volume on HomePod so you no longer have to point it directly at the TV’s IR eye. Infrared is such as dated system that it is almost unbelievable that it still serves as the basis for controlling many modern TVs. Luckily, we are seeing signs of progress.
Stability when using a wireless audio protocol is of course highly relevant. We found that HomePod is very stable. At times, we experienced that Netflix would drop to its lowest quality streaming layer (i.e. when downloading games on PS4), which muted audio for 5-20 second, after which it returned. This happened only with Netflix – no other apps – so it must be related to Netflix’s choice of audio for its lowest quality streaming layer.
Airplay 2 audio output from Apple TV is integrated on the system level, meaning that it works per default for all video apps, except for a few apps with certain custom video players. Infuse for example did not work for most of our test but the developers have since released a software update that makes their custom video player compatible with Airplay 2. It now works as expected. Other apps with custom videos players have had no issues with Airplay 2.
Perhaps we should also emphasize that all of the Apple TV functionality described above should also work with other Airplay 2 capable speakers such as Sonos, Bang & Olufsen etc.. It is made possible by the Airplay 2 protocol – not HomePod.
One of the reasons why we hesitated to publish this review until now is the fact that Apple has clearly been tweaking things throughout the tvOS 12 betas. Airplay 2 was introduced with tvOS 11.4 – after multiple delays – and was introduced in beta on Apple TV. It is only fair that we emphasize the beta status because Airplay 2 on Apple TV is getting better, and we see a promising future for Airplay 2 as a wireless audio protocol.
We already had a lot of experience with the Airplay TV audio output solution based on our B&O BeoLab set-up. Airplay 2’s new features add flexibility to the integration with Apple TV but we had hoped that it would also make possible surround sound. For example by allowing us to use the BeoLab 9 speakers as front speakers and two HomePod speakers as rear speakers. You can of course place the speakers in a surround set-up and get sound from all of them but Airplay 2 does not dedicate separate channels to each unit. Perhaps object-based audio technologies such as Dolby Atmos combined with the spatial awareness built into HomePod will enable some kind of surround effect in a future update but Apple has so far refrained from talking about it.
Sound - Music
HomePod has first and foremost been designed as a music speaker. This is clear from Apple’s positioning and marketing. It is a stand-alone 360-degree speaker for music that also happens to connect to Apple TV via Airplay 2. Of course, we have had a particular interest in its link to Apple TV via Airplay 2 because it also tells us a lot about how the Airplay 2 protocol works across other brands’ products, including soundbars with Airplay 2. But music is where HomePod shines, especially if you are an Apple Music subscriber.
After set-up, HomePod automatically connects to your Apple Music account and you can use Siri at any time to start playback based on albums, genres, artists, specific songs or other categorizations (“Hey Siri, play the best music from the 80’s”).
HomePod is not very big and what became immediately clear is that one speaker is not enough for a medium-sized living space. The audio experience improves markedly with the second unit. HomePod has automatic room correction, and it calibrates the system whenever you move it. The same system is used to optimize sound from multiple HomePods so they complement each other in the environment. Our experience is that it works very well.
However, this is not room correction in the traditional sense where you place a microphone in the sweet-spot. There is some interesting technology at play here that we would briefly like to expand on. Apple explains that HomePod is equipped with a 4-inch woofer and an array of 7 beamforming tweeters in a 360-degree orientation. It is also equipped with 7 microphones, which are used for the real-time room correction and compensation. While listening to a music track, HomePod analyses the sound by using 6 of the microphones to analyze the overall sound stage and 1 microphone to measure how bass is distributed in the room. This effectively allows it to map the room, including walls and surface. Apple further explains that the goal is to produce unbiased sound as the creator intended and says that they have collaborated with music producers to achieve the result.
What is interesting in this regard is that room correction appears to work remarkably well – at least in our testing. During the test, the two HomePod were placed in three different locations in the living room. Nevertheless, they consistently managed to reproduce great and neutral sound with good bass response, even when positioned a few centimeters from a wall or large window. At the time that we received our first sample, HomePod was a little bass-heavy but a later firmware update toned that down slightly for more balanced sound.
It is a totally unfair comparison but we briefly compared a stereo pair of HomePods to the high-end Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 9 speakers. Of course, HomePod is no match for the BeoLab speakers overall but one advantage of HomePod is that it is clearly room aware. The BeoLab 9 speakers were bought for a living room with wooden floors and high ceiling but are now placed in an environment with stone tiles and huge floor-to-ceiling windows. Sound bounces around and it degrades the experience. HomePods on the other hand seem to be aware of the environment and avoids these pitfalls, regardless of where they are placed in the room. Sound is also distributed very evenly around the room. There is no specific sweet spot, and it is rather impressive walking around the room while listening to music because it is so consistent from almost all angles and positions. The only thing that changes noticeably as you walk away is volume but the sound balance is maintained. Besides room calibration, this is also one of the advantages of having speakers play in 360 degrees. When you close your eyes it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the sound is coming from, even though you know perfectly well where the HomePods are positioned.
A pair of HomePods can play reasonably loud but not ear-deafening loud. There is no distortion at maximum volume. Music volume is a lot higher than when paired to Apple TV. Of course, you can still use the HomePods for music playback (at full volume) even though they are paired with Apple TV via Airplay 2 but Apple TV will take over if you start video playback.
Again, sound balance is very good from low to loud volume. Vocals are clear and nuanced and whenever we found ourselves gazing at HomePod, we were reminded of how impressive it is that this much sound is coming out of such a small cabinet. Jesus to a Child had lots of nuance in George Michael’s vocal and we thoroughly enjoyed Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl with its subtle bassline that HomePod reproduced accurately without trying to make it more bass-heavy. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You gave us goosebumps as her vocal streamed out with confidence and powerful fashion from the two HomePods. We thoroughly enjoyed listening to classics and confirmed that even the subtle sounds and lines that underpin a music track, but tend to get muffled on some speakers, are reproduced as intended.
Some music tracks tend to sound just a tiny bit trapped and if we had to point to one area that could be improved it would be mid-tones (which may be a consequence of the speaker unit configuration).
Electronic music can “rock the house”, as Apple puts it, but very fast basslines are not 100% tight. Sound quality while listening to music is nevertheless impressive.
What we lack most from HomePod is raw power. Again totally unfair comparison, but BeoLab 9 is more powerful, which translates into more soulful and immersive music listening. HomePod has decent bass response but not powerful enough for a large-sized living room. My living room is an open kitchen + living space plan and one HomePod is not enough to fill the entire room with great sound, two are better but not fully ideal. It is not about how loud they can play but simply a matter of raw power.
As said, HomePod is clearly designed first and foremost for music, and a pair of these delivers big and neutral sound across almost the entire frequency range, which is what we strive for. However, what we are most impressed about is actually its ability to optimize sound for the particular room, in particular a space with stone tiles and very large windows, which can be notoriously hard for speakers to handle (including our high-end BeoLab 9). It does this with easy with advanced technology and algorithms that have previously been reserved for some of the most expensive Bang & Olufsen flagship speakers (higher-end than BeoLab 9) on the market.
Apple has reentered the speaker market after a flawed attempt with iPhone Hi-Fi in 2006. HomePod has been built on the philosophy that audio wants to be wireless and as such it has no physical audio ports. Underneath the pretty mesh surface, Airplay 2 lives as the wireless audio protocol that ties it all together. Airplay 2 not only connects iPhone with HomePod; it also connects Apple TV with HomePod and all other Airplay 2-enabled speakers from Bang & Olufsen, Sonos, Bluesound etc. We have tested two HomePods in stereo pair.
Two HomePods in stereo pair excel in the discipline of music where they deliver good and balanced sound with surprising clarity and impact from the compact cabinet. HomePod’s biggest force, however, is a feature that is never heard. It is the ability to analyze the room and apply room correction in real-time. This ensures that HomePod delivers optimal sound regardless of whether you have book shelves and wooden floors or stone tiles and floor-to-ceiling windows. You have to experience it in your own environment to understand it. However, the speakers are compact and for a medium-sized living room you need at least two HomePods. With rumors swirling about a smaller model, our advice is to buy more than one – or for Apple to consider a more powerful version instead.
Integration with Apple TV allows you to transmit TV audio wirelessly via Airplay 2 to external speakers. The Apple TV functionality is currently labeled beta – and it is. We experienced some small but disruptive issues. The two main things are lip-sync issues with Apple TV is in 24Hz mode (can be resolved by turning off the frame rate match function) and that TV audio output from Apple TV only works with video (not games), including that you cannot select HomePod (or any other Airplay 2-enabled device) as your permanent TV speaker. Unfortunately, these two problems get in the way of an otherwise good sound experience because a HomePod stereo pair can significantly improve the audio experience compared to most built-in TV speakers. At times, 2x HomePods are even great TV speakers with good and neutral sound, and the option to adjust audio volume via the remote control, Siri, Remote app, and Apple Watch. And you even get almost 3-dimensonal sound in certain situations even though Airplay 2 audio output from Apple TV is currently limited to stereo channels.
Speaking of Siri, the voice system needs some further polishing and much wider language support on HomePod (and Apple TV!) but she is otherwise useful for controlling connected home devices and finding music. We hope that Siri on HomePod will soon gain support for finding and starting movies and TV series on Apple TV.
Ultimately, we are left with the impression that HomePod was rushed to market but find comfort in the fact that most of the issues can be solved in software. We must praise Apple’s speaker for its neutral, balanced, and full-bodied sound, which some competitors can learn from. The HomePod is great for music but a medium-sized living environment calls for at least two. Integration with Apple TV is still lacking in many areas, which also applies to other Airplay 2-compatible TV speakers.
Audio quality is assessed as overall audio quality, including treble, mid-tone and bass, as well as precision and balance. We also evaluate to what degree supported audio formats affect the overall audio experience. Features is assessed based on functionality (ports, format support, wireless audio protocols etc.) as well as the applicability. User experience is evaluated on the basis of user friendliness, speed, reliability, build quality, choice of materials, and day-to-day use of the product. Total score is weighted: 50% Audio quality, 25% Features, 25% User experience. All scores are calculated based on a moving maximum target, defined by what we currently consider the best on market. Each score is then presented as a percentage. This means that a score will fall over time as new and better products set new standards. This allows you to compare product scores across years. A score of 100% in a given category means that it is consider the best available product in this category to date.