Apple HomePod: a first listen – CNET

It may well have Siri’s smarts, but Apple wants you to know that the new HomePod speaker is all about great sound quality. It’s also about the promise of spatially-aware sound-projecting speakers, and how that may or may not matter for home audio.

That was my quick takeaway after getting to hear a quick demo of Apple’s new speaker in a controlled environment versus the $180 Amazon Echo and the $299 Sonos Play:3.

Here’s how it played out.

HomePod vs. Sonos vs. Echo

Apple is looking at HomePod as a killer $349 home audio device, and right now that’s the only way I got to experience HomePod.

HomePod is squat and round and a little like a woven basket or a small melon. Sonos Play3 is wider, Amazon Echo is taller. HomePod is a lantern-sized little bundle in-between.

All I got to hear was music: I never got to use Siri with it, or test any interactive functions. Five songs were played in comparison with Sonos and Amazon Echo: Sia’s “The Greatest,” “Sunrise” by Norah Jones, “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, “DNA” by Kendrick Lamar, and a live performance of The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

HomePod puts vocals in a direct center channel, and beams ambient sounds around for what Apple says is a more omnidirectional music experience. I walked around, and it sounded good from multiple parts of the room. Apple said HomePod can separate vocals and other parts of the music via Apple Music, but that more recent recordings will perform the separation better. Whether or not the same separation will work via AirPlay 2-connected music from other services isn’t entirely clear, but it will work for other sources.

I also got try two HomePods at once, set up like stereo speakers. The HomePods combined to give a more surround-feel music experience. According to Apple, HomePod is aware of other HomePods in the room, and can dynamically adjust music accordingly for the best spatial sound.

For the record, Sonos can also do this sort of stereo pairing, as well as surround configurations (when more speakers are added). Echo, at this point, cannot. And while Sonos doesn’t have built-in voice control like Echo or HomePod, a Sonos spokesperson told CNET today that “we’re making great progress with the Alexa integration” that the company announced and demoed earlier this year.

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HomePod is definitely bigger than Google Home or Amazon Echo.

James Martin/CNET

What I heard

HomePod came off as bolder and more vivid than Sonos Play:3 in the experience I tried, and a lot better than Amazon Echo. I’d also say the music sounded consistently vivid and crisp in a quiet space, more so than the Sonos and Amazon comparisons on-hand. But the one thing I didn’t get to experience was how HomePod can listen, and talk, and suggest things. I couldn’t request music, or ask for the weather, or try any smart controls.

It’s hard to tell what any of this means right now, and a full review of the final product is the only way to determine any real meaningful thoughts on HomePod-as-home-audio-device. But, right out of the gate, Apple is clearly going for music over smart assistance as HomePod’s major draw. But as the most expensive speaker of the three — it costs almost double the price of the Echo — its superior sound quality is to be expected: It needs to earn that bigger price tag.

And remember that Amazon has Echo speakers that retail for as little as $50, while an entry-level Sonos Play:1 will run you $199.

Still, the HomePod is a big step up from Apple’s last speaker product (remember 2006’s Apple Hi-Fi?). We’ll see if its Siri-powered smarts will measure up to its audio quality when the HomePod is released this fall. 

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