First Listen: HomePod is Apple's AirPods, enhanced for your house

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in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV edited June 2017
Apple's HomePod aims to further expand Siri assistance outside of iOS devices, Apple Watch, Macs, the Apple TV Remote and AirPods into the same sort of "always ready" home experience delivered by Amazon's Echo, even as it upgrades audio reproduction quality in the emerging "smart speaker" segment into the realm of affordable luxury.

HomePod


I was able to listen to a prototype of Apple's new HomePod audio device, both playing on its own and in concert with a second HomePod unit. For its compact size (it's barely larger than a stack of CD-R discs, if you recall what those were), the new device unveiled today at WWDC17 as Tim Cook's "one more thing" sounds impressively wide and powerfully deep.

An out-of-the-box Sonos (which is a wider, more conventionally shaped speaker box) and Amazon's Echo (a taller, skinnier cylinder) both reproduced the same songs with less passion. They are both also cheaper devices than the $349 HomePod, but compared to a smartphone or tablet, the price difference here is far less than the premium that people pay for a real iPhone or iPad.

For a typical room, a single HomePod puts out plenty of sound. But more than quantity, it clearly is targeting quality audio reproduction. The device includes a large-for-its-class 4 inch woofer for deeper bass surrounded by 7 directional tweeters for higher frequency treble. In comparison, Amazon's Echo has a 2.4 inch woofer, barely larger than its tweeters (or a typical PC or clock radio).

Listening to itself


HomePod also listens in all directions using 6 microphones. In addition to listening for your Siri commands (which I didn't have the ability to try out), it also listens to its own music playback, specifically for analyzing reflected sounds that help it tune itself for its surroundings, dramatically widening the "sweet spot" in the room where its audio reproduction sounds best. Rather than sounding like a home speaker, HomePod made me feel like I was sitting in a luxury automobile surrounded by rich, engaging audio reproduction without an obvious source

Walking about the room, HomePod sounded consistently immersive all over, while other reference speakers sounded not just smaller and flatter, but also more obviously directional.

Rather than sounding like a home speaker, HomePod made me feel like I was sitting in a luxury automobile surrounded by rich, engaging audio reproduction without an obvious source.

Beyond speaker size and sound positioning, there's also a third element to HomePod's sound reproduction: it packs sophisticated processing power (an A8 chip) to perform audio analysis and adjust reproduction matched to the music it's playing.

This enables it to deliver clear vocals and create a pretty impressive separation between the crisp, directional elements of a song and the fullness of rich, ambient sounds. Older home stereo systems relied on less brains but larger speakers, taking up a lot more space to deliver comparable sound.

Apple is betting that its customers will see HomePod as an ecosystem-integrated way to deliver premium sound in a small package. It "just works" with iOS 11's AirPlay 2 for streaming audio to multiple speakers in different rooms (each with an independent volume level), and it can also be paired with another unit to deliver an even wider stereo experience.



Listening to a live acoustic concert reproduced by two HomePods makes you feel like you're close to the stage. Of course, that also becomes a $700 experience, on the higher end of the mainstream budget for home speakers. However, the units can also be easily moved around, enabling buyers to fill their home with multi-room audio and then pair two units in one room for special events.


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Remaining questions

Apple hasn't yet revealed a variety of details about the new product yet, including how it is configured or how its fiber mesh is cleaned. Apple's Beats subsidiary already sells a popular Pill Bluetooth speaker line that suggests answers to those questions (and has already popularized the idea of using multiple speakers, as depicted above in a music video).

I haven't yet got to add it to a HomeKit configuration (speakers are a new device type in iOS 11's Home app), nor used Siri on HomePod, although Apple claims it can hear Siri commands spoken at conversational volume even while music is playing. That sounds similar to noise cancelation--it knows what it's playing, so it can simply subtract that from what it hears to discern your voice.

There's also questions about recognizing the voices of multiple users and other details, all of which will have to wait until the product is ready for release. One observation: unlike AirPods, the HomePods I listened to featured volume controls on top, allowing you to turn the unit up and down without asking Siri.

Breaking the iPod Hi-Fi Curse

It's also noteworthy that just over ten years ago, Steve Jobs introduced the identically-priced iPod Hi-Fi, Apple's ill-fated portable speaker that used a Dock connector, mini audio jack and optical TOSLINK input to play music from various sources in the era before AirPlay and Bluetooth. It featured an even larger 5.12 inch woofer, as well as a large resonating cavity that made it significantly larger than a breadbox (if you recall what those were).

iPod Hi-Fi didn't work with all of Apple's devices and faced more direct competition for wired playback in an external enclosure. In the years since it was discontinued as a flop, Apple acquired a major audio accessory manufacturer and gained a lot of understanding about how to sell audio accessories and what buyers want. Additionally, newer technologies including Siri and wireless playback also offer the potential to make HomePod a more desirable product offering compared to iPod Hi-Fi.

iPod Hi-Fi
Apple's $350 iPod Hi-Fi from 2006

Not just a Siri Speaker

It is clear that Apple's entry into "revolutionizing" home audio doesn't follow the same script as Amazon's Echo (oriented around learning about what products you might want to buy and influencing you to conveniently order them) or Google Home (which wants to learn more about to you to sell you on advertising). It's closest to other popular wireless speakers such as Sonos, but includes some tighter links to the iOS ecosystem.

HomePod also departs from Apple's previous audio products, ranging from its early iPod to its latest AirPods: it puts music first, focusing on sound quality. A common complaint about iPods was that they weren't for "audiophiles," and critics similarly jumped on AirPods for delivering invisible earbud-quality sound rather than aspiring to deliver the reference audio of studio headphones.

Both of those products were designed for mobility, convenience and the freedom of music choice rather than just the best possible audio reproduction. HomePods aim to expand Siri from your devices and CarPlay vehicle into your home, so it makes sense that Apple is focusing more on sound quality here.

It appears to have nailed that differentiation over other smart speaker options. It remains to be seen whether Apple will also improve Siri to be equally useful (or better) than Google Assistant or Amazon's Alexa. But with more powerful hardware, HomePod has a strong edge over its competitors, which appear to be focused on finding volume sales of low-priced hardware.

Given that Amazon and Google have yet to sell more than a few million smart speakers, HomePod certainly has the opportunity to be the next Apple Watch in claiming yet another new "smart" territory for Apple.
Foliokevin keepropodmacgui
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 69
    NY1822NY1822 Posts: 535member
    hey Dan....love your work...
    What did the volume controls look like? Did they light up and disappear? Invisible?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 69
    digital_guydigital_guy Posts: 143member
    Anyone have any idea who component manufacturers are, or could be? Or perhaps it's too early for conjecture .. 
  • Reply 3 of 69
    DanielEranDanielEran Posts: 290editor
    volume controls are printed +/-, apparently touch sensitive on either side of the Siri light
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 69
    TomPMRITomPMRI Posts: 3member
    Any information yet on whether or not the HomePod can be used with an iTunes Match subscription instead of having to subscribe to Apple Music?  If an Apple Music subscription is a must, this will be a deal killer for me.
    boredumbbill42jbdragonjony0
  • Reply 5 of 69
    MisterKitMisterKit Posts: 126member
    Apple could have snuck in a home run with the HomePod. I look forward to hearing them. $349 is not expensive at all for people who appreciate quality audio. People spend thousands on studio quality speakers for home use. It would be funny to see a pair of these set up in pro recording studios in the future. Just to make sure the mix translates well for people who have them.
    watto_cobrawilliamlondon
  • Reply 6 of 69
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,755member
    Very impressed with the HomePod device. The adaptive audio technology and system integration is far beyond anything Amazon and Google currently offer. It seems like a no brainer purchase decision for anyone deeply entrenched in the Apple Music ecosystem. If it was available today I would have already ordered one and possibly two. 
    pscooter63watto_cobrawilliamlondonjbdragonmagman19792old4fun
  • Reply 7 of 69
    NY1822NY1822 Posts: 535member
    I am down for 3 homepods, the upgrade refresh cycle on these will be worse than the iPad 
    edited June 2017 watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 69
    kevin keekevin kee Posts: 911member
    I agree with most commentators here. Very impressive indeed with Artificial Intelligence tech (besides Siri) injected to this speaker through its A-chip. I was expecting something more like Echo products but Apple implement of adaptive audio, audio analysation, selective audio, room sensing, auto audio correction, beamforming, studio dynamic processing and system integration are the keys technologies of future. I can't wait to try this myself.
    radarthekatwatto_cobrawilliamlondonjbdragon2old4fun
  • Reply 9 of 69
    FolioFolio Posts: 393member

    Never expected to be a pod owner based on Amazon and Google home products. But this changes everything for me. The entree through superior sound, and relatively unobtrusive looking. So simple, so brilliant!

    Dang. Looks like my 2017 wish list grew to include new iPad, iPhone and a mesh speaker or two.


    radarthekatwatto_cobrawilliamlondonmagman19792old4fun
  • Reply 10 of 69
    pbruttopbrutto Posts: 28member
    TomPMRI said:
    Any information yet on whether or not the HomePod can be used with an iTunes Match subscription instead of having to subscribe to Apple Music?  If an Apple Music subscription is a must, this will be a deal killer for me.
    Took the question right out of my brain. I wish they would have explained this.....I am out if I need Apple Music 
    boredumbbill42jbdragon
  • Reply 11 of 69
    ericthehalfbeeericthehalfbee Posts: 3,789member
    So glad to see someone has heard the HomePod. I suspected Apple wasn't just throwing around marketing buzzwords when they talked about the audio processing going on (the overkill A8-in-a-speaker suggests they're doing some serious real time processing). Nice to hear it actually sounds like they claimed it would.
    watto_cobrawilliamlondonmagman1979
  • Reply 12 of 69
    FolioFolio Posts: 393member

    In a report last Friday, just before WWDC, Merrill Lynch analyst quietly predicted Apple Watch to be company’s fastest growing segment: from $4.7 billion in fiscal 2016, $6.3B in F2017E, $10.7B in 2018E and nearly $15B after that. In units, Watch predicted to jump from 10.5 million in fiscal 2016 to 33 million in F 2019.

    By fiscal 2019, the $14.9B estimated watch sales would put it closing in on fourth place in Apple’s lineup (nearly equal declining/plateauing iPad sales of $16.1B). AppleWatch still well behind Mac $25.1 B, Services $39.2B, and iPhone $204B. [From page 8, 02JUN2017, report by Merrill Lynch analyst Wamsi Mohan. BAML is more bullish on Apple than Bloomberg consensus with $180 target price, 16x Calendar 2018E GAAP eps of $11.49.]

    This HomePod will send Wall Street analysts scrambling. Could boost Services too. And wonder if bring new people into ecosystem?

    radarthekatwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 69
    xamaxxamax Posts: 126member
    Now this is  at its best! This is another massive profit center for the company, it is going to blast. People will buy this in pairs or 3 at a time with their eyes closed, without even trying it. It's also another Tim Cook supply chain profit masterpiece as it uses "old" A8 chips which probably have gone way down on fabrication price. And it'll be future proof, software upgradeable.

    Another in your face example in how to do things over other cheapo manufacturers, exactly like the iPod was, exactly like the iPhone was re competition.

    And it builds on the future proof ecosystem, giving  users an assurance that investing in Apple stuff endures and generates high returns.

    Finally, IS THAT SEXY or what? So many will buy it just to show off to their friends and acquaintances!

    This may get to become a too successful a product type problem for , I truly hope they forecast correctly now they've shown it, they got plenty of time.

    WOWSA! This is gong to be as profitable and successful as the iPod and the iPhone. And they'll expand with perhaps a couple different designs in the future. Like a Pro unit and a smaller cheaper unit, say for the shower/pool. And people will buy them in droves just because it adds to their Core/Coeur/Heart.
    edited June 2017 NY1822radarthekatwatto_cobrawilliamlondonmagman1979
  • Reply 14 of 69
    kevin keekevin kee Posts: 911member
    So glad to see someone has heard the HomePod. I suspected Apple wasn't just throwing around marketing buzzwords when they talked about the audio processing going on (the overkill A8-in-a-speaker suggests they're doing some serious real time processing). Nice to hear it actually sounds like they claimed it would.
    Yes I was wondering why Apple need to put A8 in a speaker but after reading several reviews online I am glad they did. Apple is putting brain in many things these days from watch to earphone to now speaker. Apple is getting really serious with Artificial Intelligence and machine learning too. One reviewer suggested that:

    First, Apple HomePod has to figure out how to play audio properly for its environment. Unlike Sonos, which requires a smartphone microphone input for its Trueplay room-analyzing technology, HomePod (which you do have to plug into an electric outlet) builds spatial awareness by playing 360-degree audio while the built-in microphones listen. That's right, the Apple HomePod starts by entertaining itself. -Mashable

    watto_cobrawilliamlondonmagman1979
  • Reply 15 of 69
    pujones1pujones1 Posts: 139member
    I still have my iPod HiFi right now. I listen to it while I workout in my garage. It's still a beast of a system. I put a bluetooth receiver on it via the aux jack and it's gotten a new life.
    watto_cobraradarthekatwilliamlondonmagman1979stourque
  • Reply 16 of 69
    MisterKitMisterKit Posts: 126member
    I remember reading a few years back that Apple hired some of the elite DSP engineers in the industry. Dana Massie from Waves. Peter Eastty from SSL/Sony Oxford. It would be no surprise to see some game changing results.
    pscooter63watto_cobrajasenj1magman1979
  • Reply 17 of 69
    NY1822NY1822 Posts: 535member
    Don't mean to beat a dead horse again with this: Where are those mocking the Beats acquisition?
    anantksundaramwatto_cobramagman1979
  • Reply 18 of 69
    I'm curious about the prospect of Apple TV sending audio to a pair of these. Will they compete with the Sonos Playbase/Playbar, a pair would be the same price as either of these?
    watto_cobra2old4funRussel19193208
  • Reply 19 of 69
    boltsfan17boltsfan17 Posts: 2,029member
    So if I'm understanding this correctly, using Siri on HomePod will only play music if you have an Apple Music subscription? 
  • Reply 20 of 69
    rogifan_newrogifan_new Posts: 3,405member
    NY1822 said:
    Don't mean to beat a dead horse again with this: Where are those mocking the Beats acquisition?
    1. This isn't a Beats product. 2. What evidence is there that Beats acqui-hires were responsible for this product?
    williamlondon
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