I didn’t understand the Apple HomePod, when it launched six months ago. Sure, I got the business reasons behind Apple’s smart speaker (everyone’s got to have a smart speaker it seems), but the HomePod struck me as too stupid and too expensive. It just seemed like Apple’s weird attempt at showing Amazon and Google that it could make speakers too. After spending the last few months with the HomePod some things have become quite clear. This thing is still incredibly overpriced, and AirPlay is so good it almost makes the HomePod worth it.
AirPlay has never struck me as a useful home audio solution. I could play music over a speaker or over my AppleTV, but I couldn’t do both at once. With the launch of AirPlay 2 back in May, however, Apple allowed the HomePod and other AirPlay devices to function more like a Sonos system. You can pair multiple speakers together and stream the exact same thing—whether it be audio from your laptop or music from Spotify—to every AirPlay device.
What AirPlay 2 can do is impressive, and it makes the HomePod more useful. Now, you can pair the HomePod up with other speakers, including existing Sonos systems, and create a multi-room audio oasis. The HomePod also has decent, if not great, audio. It lacks the detail and midrange that I’d prefer for classical music, but the Apple smart speaker plays stuff like Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” with a bass-heavy liveliness that I love. The HomePod can do stuff that other AirPlay speakers can’t, like handle phone calls with my mum or field questions I ask Siri.
And for an Airplay speaker, the HomePod exists at a unique price point. Before the HomePod, speakers that supported AirPlay fell into two categories: speakers so cheap that they’re worthless and speakers so expensive that they’re pointless. The HomePod settles into a middle ground price-wise, although you could argue that it sounds like a more expensive speaker.
But few additional features, feel practical. The microphones on the HomePod might be able to hear me mutter Siri—or other Siri sounding works, like serious and Peri—but I’m told I sound terrible on phone calls. Worse than either my cheap earbuds or my Apple Watch (my mother declared, before the HomePod, that the Watch had the worst microphone of anything I’ve called her on). And I can only forward calls to the HomePod, I can’t actually shout out the desire to phone a friend—the HomePod doesn’t support making calls. It can only receive them.
But Siri is even more obnoxious than the inconsistent phone call handling. She’s just not… smart? She can handle the most basic requests of a digital assistant, like telling me the time, weather, and common measurement equivalencies, but controlling the many Hue lights in my home is such a tedious affair that it’s easier to pull out my phone and use the Hue app. And music control is unfortunately extremely limited. As someone who doesn’t subscribe to Apple Music and has no plan to subscribe, the HomePod’s most useful voice control features (handling music navigation) are almost completely absent. Yes, I can play Google Music, Amazon Music, and Spotify on the HomePod, but they all require AirPlay and an app.
Which becomes less appealing when AirPlay starts to skip and cut out, as it has done a few time in the last few months. So why should I go all in on AirPlay and the HomePod instead of using the Sonos One I already own? The Sonos One has Alexa built in, and Google Assistant is promised to come shortly. It nicely handles music over wifi via the Sonos app. Plus, as of July 2018, the Sonos One supports AirPlay 2. It can’t handle phone calls, but the Sonos One can do nearly everything else the HomePod can do for less. It even has a richer and more detailed sound quality!
So yeah, the HomePod is gorgeous, and AirPlay is often times fantastic, and Siri seems like… a thing that might become a useful thing one day. But the HomePod is still not worth its price — especially when the Sonos One is so good and so cheap.