For a long time, Apple appears to have had two intertwined marketing strategies to my untrained eye. They take an existing technology that you didn’t realise you wanted and then tell you that you don’t just want it, but need it.
When Apple’s venture in to the smart speaker market was announced ridiculously early last year, it struck me as strange because it fit in to neither thread of the usual strategy. Most people, if they want a music player, have one they’re happy with. One also knows that Apple ties all its hardware in to its own ecosystem so most of the people who would buy one already have access to the Siri voice assistant on an iOS device or their Mac.
What the early announcement did do was stop me buying an Amazon Echo. I got some new tyres for the car a few weeks ago and, with those, got £100 of Love 2 Shop vouchers which I then put towards the purchase of my HomePod. I got mine from Argos for £319 minus the vouchers and minus 7.5% through a discount scheme at work. For those doing the maths, that still makes the HomePod significantly more expensive than even the Echo Plus.
I got the Space Grey HomePod rather than the white one. There’s no point me going in to technical specs, because you can read all about them in far greater detail than I can provide on Apple’s website, but the HomePod certainly has a nice weight to it. I don’t really know what I expected size wise, but if positioned correctly the HomePod will seamlessly blend with its surroundings. I had a Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin in my bedroom and that looks cool and as a result has to be a feature. It’s not something you can hide away on the side, but the HomePod is.
Set up was easy. I put my phone next to it for a few minutes.
I went for the HomePod because of its supposed great sound quality and the fact that I did want a music player in the living room without having to use my surround sound and therefore PlayStation to play music. To that end, the HomePod is excellent. I’m no sound engineer nor a complete audiophile, but I like my music to sound good. I have the Zeppelin, the car has a Bang & Olufsen system and I have some Klipsch earphones. The thing with all those products is that they’ve helped me hear bits of music that I haven’t heard before, and the level of detail in the HomePod does the same thing.
I’ve listened to as wide a variety of tracks as I can think of, jumping genres as much as possible. Currently playing is Nei Varchi Di Luce by Einaudi, and the piano sounds like it’s in the room. Walk The Moon’s Shut Up And Dance and Drops Of Jupiter by Train positively sparkled. Muse’s Knights of Cydonia was “pleasing” if I severely understate it! I personally think that the HomePod excels with easy listening and acoustic tracks like Orange Sky by Alexei Murdoch.
Part of me wondered this morning if HomePod was Apple’s grand plan with the purchase of Beats all those years ago.
The thing I find hardest to do with the music playback is find a volume that I’m comfortable with while I’m jumping between tracks. I seem to want to turn some tracks up and some tracks down when I’ve asked for a change in artist or album.
Of course, the other side to the HomePod is Siri. Siri is known not to be the greatest voice assistant but, at the moment, I can’t find anything that I’ve wanted Siri to do that it can’t. I understand that it doesn’t have as many skills as Alexa and lacks the functionality of Google’s Assistant, but Siri can play my music, add things to a shopping list and manage my lights. From what I gather, it can’t read me recipes or order me a taxi, but I’ve never felt the need for that.
One interesting thing with Siri is how well the HomePod picks up the “Hey Siri” trigger phrase. The HomePod is in my lounge and was playing through some Foo Fighters greatest hits, and yet it heard me while I was effectively two rooms away over the top of the music. I was impressed.
HomePod has some limitations around only accepting one account for personal things like reading messages. This and Siri’s relative ineptitude can be remedied by firmware updates which makes the HomePod still feel like a speculative purchase in terms of the smart speaker market.
With all that, Apple have produced a great speaker with a capable voice assistant. The thing that’s still puzzling me, though, is that the HomePod is aimed at a relatively small section of people. You need an iOS device to set it up and the only music service that it will stream without a bluetooth connection is Apple Music. An Echo can pull in Spotify or Pandora and can be used by Android and iOS users. As I said before, people who love their music will probably already have invested in a good sound system or will be waiting for Alexa to make herself well and truly comfortable on a Sonos system that doesn’t need to worry about Apple’s walled garden.
If you want a HomePod and you fit the criteria of owning an iPhone or iPad already and you have Apple Music, I would say to go for it – absolutely, you will not be disappointed.
The HomePod won’t do what the iPhone or iPad did in growing the sector unless it opens up, though. It lacks the value for money to be a speculative smart speaker purchase and the connectivity for many to be their home audio solution. You can use an iPhone on its own, an iPad on its own or a Mac on its own, but not a HomePod. HomePod is an Apple accessory at the moment, and unless you are already in their ecosystem, the price and functionality should be too limited to tempt anyone in to buying one.