Product Review: Apple HomePod

FILE - In this Monday, June 5, 2017, file photo, the HomePod speaker is photographed in a a showroom during an announcement of new products at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif. Pre-orders for the HomePod will begin Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, in the U.S, U.K. and Australia, two weeks before the speaker goes on sale in stores. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Apple has produced an amazing piece of hardware, held back by software that is incomplete at best and often frustrating.

As a speaker, the HomePod is the best-sounding small speaker I’ve ever heard. Cupertino has used a combination of hardware and software tricks to produce clear, precise, loud sound — from anywhere in the room. Setup is a breeze, just hold it next to your iPhone during the setup process, and it will automatically import the information it needs to access your WiFi, your local iTunes library, and your Apple Music account. The first time it plays — and every time you move it — the HomePod will use its microphone array to adjust the sound reproduction to fill any space, beautifully. You can pair two of them for true stereo sound.

My test album was, as always, Steely Dan’s Aja. The album was engineered to have huge dynamic range — big guitars and horns, but plenty of quiet passages, too. There’s a big tonal range, too, with crisp cymbals at the top, and smooth base rounding out the bottom. A solo HomePod somehow did the album justice. The instrumentation was precise, especially at the high end, and Donald Fagen’s vocals were presented smartly up front. Depth and imaging were impressive, considering the single sound source. I’d prefer a touch more bass, but there aren’t any EQ options, not even a simple set of bass and treble sliders. You can EQ when streaming from your local iTunes library, but that brings up another issue I’ll get to later.

The HomePod might seem pricy at $350, but to get a speaker which sounds almost-maybe-as-good, you’ll have to spend $400 on Google’s offering. And Google’s Home Max is a beast, dwarfing the HomePod in size. If you want a smart speaker unambiguously better-sounding, Sonos will charge you $500 for their beloved Play:5. (If you’re looking for a cheaper solution, Amazon, Google, and Sonos all have inexpensive offerings, but you’re losing a lot of sound quality.)

Telling the speaker what to do via the “Hey, Siri” voice command works almost spookily well. With the volume nearly maxed out, I can say “Hey, Siri” in a normal speaking voice, and the HomePod responds instantly almost every time. On the rare occasions a normal speaking voice doesn’t work, I say it a little louder, and that’s all it takes. When the volume is turned down, “Hey, Siri” works all the way down the hall from the kitchen, where it sits on top of a cabinet.

Great sound, reasonable price for its class, magical voice commands — so why can’t I recommend the HomePod? Sadly, for a lot of reasons, all related to Apple’s curious (I’m being generous with that word) software decisions, and sometimes sloppy execution.

Let’s start with accessing the thing. AirPlay 2 is Apple’s new music streaming protocol, and despite being released more than six months late, pretty much sucks. Connections take too long, trying my patience daily, and if you have any older AirPlay 1 speakers in your home setup up, fuggidaboudit. The two standards don’t play well together, resulting in speakers randomly stopping or disappearing from the network completely. I’ve dealt with Apple support on this, and even their engineers are clueless.

The HomePod shows up in your iOS/Mac Home app, but there’s not much you can do from there. You can pause or start whatever song is already playing, but that’s about it. There are also some settings you might adjust once, but will otherwise ignore. You can’t even see a list of upcoming songs.

Which brings to the HomePod’s main job: Streaming music. If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, and really like the service, the HomePod is a great solution. Tell Siri to play one of your old fashioned static playlists or any of Apple Music’s professionally curated playlists, and suddenly your room is filled with great sound. But if you’re a little pickier, if you prefer to use your own custom Smart Playlists like Apple has encouraged us to do since the early days of the iPod, then welcome to my World of Music Selection Hell. HomePod doesn’t seem to update Smart Playlists at all, so you’re always stuck with the same selection of songs in each Smart Playlist, forever. You can stream from iTunes, but you’ll have to do it manually via the Remote app, or directly from iTunes on your desktop or laptop computer. Which means Apple has left users with a needlessly lousy choice: Trust Apple to pick your music for you, or lose all the easy “Hey, Siri” functionality for your own music library.

If you don’t use Apple Music, you’re out of luck. The speaker doesn’t support Amazon, Spotify, or anything other than Apple’s selections or your static, dumb playlists.

Apple has come a long way from the total freedom days of “Rip, Mix, Burn,” but unfortunately in the wrong direction.

The “Hey, Siri” stuff also allows you to make reminders, add items to your to-do lists, change your calendar, make phone calls — all kinds of cool stuff. But only for a single user. Google and Alexa support multiple users on their gear, so there’s no good reason HomePod couldn’t do the same thing. But as it is, I have one HomePod and three people who can’t use it for anything but music — assuming they’re OK with my music preferences, since it’s tied to my Music account. That’s a whole lot of “smart” missing from a supposedly smart speaker.

When I first heard the HomePod, I thought I’d finally found the solution to my whole-home wireless music needs. I still can’t get over how much high-quality sound comes out of such a small device — I imagined putting one in a discreet corner of every room. But using the thing for a few months dashed that hope, because of Apple’s decision to hamper the HomePod’s functionality in weird and indefensible ways. Since the HomePod has seen one big software update, but added no new functionality apart from buggy AirPlay 2, I’ve started buying Sonos gear instead.

In short then, the Apple HomePod seems designed for the people who I imagine designed it: People who live alone, can afford nice sound, and are content just to stream Apple Music.

Unless you’re that person, take a pass.