“Hey Siri, what’s the weather like?”
That was the first of many questions I asked the HomePod Apple installed in the corner of its WWDC demo area, and the answer was the same each time: silence. Sure, the hazy light on top of the speaker ebbed and flowed — that doesn’t mean it understood anything I was saying. Spokespeople quickly clarified that this was a non-functional demo unit, but I did eventually hear one next to a Sonos PLAY:3 and an original Amazon Echo. Musically, it blew them both out of the water.
But first, it’s worth discussing the HomePod’s design. It looks almost exactly the way countless leaks and reports suggested: It’s a short, rounded cylinder covered in a fine fabric mesh with a blinky light on top. In fact, it bears a certain similarity to the Mac Pro, a beautiful tube of a PC that hasn’t been updated in three years. More importantly though, it looks like a speaker. The Echo, meanwhile, looks like a tube, and Google Home could be mistaken for an air freshener.
The HomePod’s looks seem to emphasize its functionality as a speaker first, and an intelligent assistant second. That’s probably not a surprise considering the way Apple talked about it on-stage — Phil Schiller referred to the machine more as a “breakthrough home speaker” rather than the avatar of a virtual assistant. That’s almost certainly because Siri isn’t ready for it yet, but Schiller wasn’t wrong. The existing crop of intelligent home assistants sort of suck at audio.
The HomePod however, sounded crisp and bright no matter the musical genre fed through it — it rendered The Eagles as well it did Kendrick Lamar. As a reminder, there’s a huge woofer and seven tweeters inside, all meant to make audio sound as vivid as possible no matter where you are in a room. It works. The PLAY:3 was generally very good, but audio felt remarkably closed off when I wasn’t sitting right in front of it. (Note: It’s unclear whether the PLAY:3 was tuned using Sonos’ Trueplay technology, which can make a big difference in sound quality.)
And the Echo? Well, I’ll put it this way: if listening to the HomePod was like listening to a CD, then audio through the Echo sounded like AM radio. In my experience it’s excellent for audiobooks, but if given the choice, I’d rather have the HomePod pump out my jams.
It’ll be a while before the HomePod official goes on sale, but right now it has one clear edge over the competition: it’s just a killer speaker. It’s important to note that we have no idea how the virtual assistant angle works, though — Alexa in her current form is very capable, and Google Assistant is getting more sophisticated by the day. We know Siri is getting some more elegant voices, but we’ll have to see if how it makes the leap into this new body before rendering a final verdict.