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Product Review: Apple HomePod

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.