About a week after finally settling on a nice music listening setup for my study after almost a month of agonising, the bastards at Apple decided to release a new generation HomePod speaker. As an Apple Stockholm Syndrome victim, I couldn’t resist a visit to the Apple Lending Library to test how a pair of HomePods for almost $1,000 sound in my study and how they compare to the much more expensive audio setup (Kali LP-8v2 & NAD C658 streaming pre-amp) I just purchased.
I’ve now spent almost 24 hours with the speakers, listening to my favourite albums that I know quite well in my little 3m x 3.5m study:
They’re pretty bloody close to my “proper” speaker setup. Whatever magic Apple does with the EQ and room correction is industry leading. They’re able to extract every last gram of performance from these little speakers and there’s no configuration required. If I got these before I got the studio monitors I’d probably be quite content with them as my main listening setup.
That said, the studio monitors sound more effortless. The HomePods sound like they’ve giving all they’ve got. There’s no clipping or distortion, but they sound sharp and “digital” for want of a better phrase. I think the professional audio term is bright? I don’t fucken know. There’s also loads of bass, but it’s relatively sloppy, loud bass compared to the tight and controlled bass on the studio monitors.
This review from Digital Trends mentions the same “overprocessed, sort of DSP muscled sound” that I experienced (11:53 in):
Their opinions pretty much match my opinions too. Watch it, good video.
As good as the HomePods are, I prefer how the studio monitors sound, absolutely and will likely return the HomePods to Apple - but the HomePods are way closer to high end speakers than you’d expect them to be!
Using HomePods as general speakers has a few quirks however:
Random glitches are super annoying. Severe volume changes (increases and decreases) unprompted out of nowhere would be the worst. Buffering for no discernable reason happens way more often than it should. Playing the wrong track in an album has happened to me three times just while writing this post. I’m sure it’ll be fixed in a software update eventually but come on Apple, you’re better than this.
After waking up from a long sleep (i.e: overnight or a few hours), the HomePod “forgets” the EQ setting it generated previously. The first 5 min or so sound crap, the sound pauses for 3-5 sec and then the DSP/EQ kicks in and sounds great. Also fixable with a software update, but Apple is better than this, etc. etc.
Whatever DSP Apple is doing with the HomePods seems to change in real-time. I can start an album, not be that impressed with the sound then half-way through think to myself “wow this is pretty good”. I don’t know if it’s a placebo effect sort of thing, my ears getting used to the sound or simply all the built-in smarts actually doing their thing.
You can move the HomePods around your room or to a different room entirely and it automatically re-calibrates in a few minutes, very cool. I moved the HomePods from the middle of the stand to the front and within a minute they realise they were moved and the sound changed to compensate. Every other room calibration system requires you to manually start the process each time the speakers change position.
The DSP is all seamless, you can’t turn it off and you can’t change anything. This is a blessing - no fucking around, no need to think, it just works. It’s also a curse - I find it disorienting listening to an album and having the sound change as I go through it and not having any control over it, or even knowing what impacts the sound. A little visibility as to what’s going on wouldn’t hurt.
AirPlay 2 does support lossless audio, but for some reason Apple Music transcodes everything to AAC when using AirPlay. Luckily the HomePods can be remotely controlled via the iOS Music app, so music is played directly on the HomePod instead of streamed. The HomePods support 24-bit lossless audio, but not “Hi-Res” lossles, so anything higher than 48kHz is downsampled to 48kHz. Not a big deal.
Apple Music has Dolby Atmos songs available and one of my all time favourite albums, Weezer’s first one (Blue) is Atmos encoded. It sounds fucking awful. I had to disable it. Instruments all over the place. Maybe it’s “better” if you’ve never heard the album before, but it absoutely ruined it for me.
The HomePods work as computer speakers but aren’t ideal. Playing back video can be hit or miss via AirPlay. Sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes it takes a little while to connect. When scrubbing through a video it’ll buffer. Not a pleasant experience versus a hard-wired speaker setup. You also can’t get system sound out to the HomePods without something like AirFoil - a great app.
Didn’t test it as a TV speaker as I don’t have an Apple TV but they’d probably be quite good for most living rooms. I’ve got a Sonos Arc in an open-plan living room and the HomePods sound better, but I haven’t compared them side-by-side. The HomePods would look nicer in most living rooms, that’s for sure, but there’s no eARC HDMI input on the speaker itself, so you’re stuck running everything via your Apple TV - which is apparently latency-free and works very well with different sources.
There’s Siri and Thread/Matter support for smarthome stuff built-in to the HomePod. There’s even a built-in temperatue and humidity sensor that I’m sure some people living the HomeKit life would like but I don’t give a crap about any of that. Siri is the same Siri you know and love on your iOS device.
Also very niche but ya can’t plug a CD player in to these. Probably 99% of people won’t care, but one day Apple will remove your favourite album from their Music streaming service and you’ll be left with a pair of speakers that can’t play your favourite music. What good are nice speakers if you can’t listen to your favourite music on them?!
For the price and size, the HomePods in a stereo pair are very hard to beat. My studio monitors are huge, ugly boxes and need some sort of DAC and EQ/DSP to go with it. Anything under $1,000 in the audiophile sphere would be just as cumbersome and likely not sound much different than the HomePods. The HomePods put all this into a little package that’s way more user friendly and cheaper than my audiophile setup.
I would love a “HomePod Pro” for like $649 each that includes all the nerd features I’d like that normies wouldn’t give a shit about:
- Make them bigger and squish in a better subwoofer. A 6" sub paired with Apple’s DSP would be sick.
- PoE so I can plug these in via Ethernet over a single cable and remove the need for wi-fi entirely.
- More control over the EQ settings so I can tweak or at least view what the automatic stuff does.
- Line-in via a 3.5mm TOSLINK combo jack (remember those?!) or even HDMI with 24-bit/192kHz support.
- Lemme use three HomePods as fronts and 4 HomePod minis as sides and rears when paired up with an Apple TV.
I guess what I’m saying is Apple should be more like Sonos and I should now buy a pair of Sonos Fives ($1,500!) to see how they sound??? I’ll keep listening to the HomePods for a few more days but I think they’ll get returned to Apple.