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Apple HomePod (2023) review: Timing is everything
Sometimes what a product needs is time.
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The new HomePod might not be a huge upgrade from the original, but it's far more compelling in 2023 than it was in 2018.
The new HomePod is a device that makes a lot more sense the second time around. After culling the original back in early 2021, the full-size speaker is now back from the dead - seemingly after the success of the HomePod mini.
The original HomePod had an interesting trajectory. An early criticism was that it was too expensive. It eventually got a small price cut, but after it was discontinued, could be found selling for more than its original price on eBay. Tech appreciating in value is unheard of.
What makes this even more interesting is the second-generation HomePod isn't too much of a departure from the first. What makes it more compelling isn't how Apple changed its flagship speaker, but how the world has changed around it.
HomePod (2023): Siri
Siri's limitations were a major sticking point with the first-generation HomePod. Some of these have slowly been addressed since Apple got into the smart speaker category, but others not so much.
HomePod now has multi-user support, and can do things like turn on your Apple TV. You can even set a default music streaming service that isn't Apple Music (although Spotify is a notable holdout).
What hasn't changed is the narrower scope of Siri's capabilities. You won't find the plethora of skills available on Google Assistant and Alexa. You can't just ask Siri to give you AFL scores.
But what's now clearer is how people actually use their smart speakers. Amazon tried to partner with companies like Domino's and Uber so that it would get a cut when people used Alexa to order a pizza or a ride, but Echo owners simply didn’t use this functionality. In fact, Amazon found most Alexa interactions were requests for music or questions about the weather.
It's a far cry from the promised revolution where we're all talking to our tech. The gold rush of brands building smart speaker skills for everything from checking your prepaid balance to making restaurant reservations hasn't panned out. Maybe Apple's simpler approach to Siri was right all along?
Even as someone whose house is littered with smart home devices, I rarely use voice assistants for anything that isn't setting a timer, playing rain sounds, or turning a light on or off. The HomePod mini on my bedside table is a glorified white noise machine that also happens to be an alarm clock.
Outside of testing, these are the exact same requests I make of the second-generation HomePod. It handles them promptly, and I don't need more from it. Across the board, voice is good for the basics. Reminders, messages, song requests. For anything more complicated, I'm going to use my phone - it's just easier.
HomePod (2023): Smart home
Limited smart home accessory compatibility was another ding against the original HomePod back in 2018. To start, the $499 HomePod was your only option for an Apple smart speaker.
The fact the HomePod mini simply exists helps justify the second-generation HomePod. If you're kitting out a smart home, it's likely you'll want smart speakers in more than just one room. That's a big ask when your only smart speaker option is $499. The HomePod mini makes it all easier to go all in on an Apple smart home; you can have a full-size HomePod in rooms where you really care about music quality, and the $149 HomePod mini anywhere else you want a fixed voice conduit.
Things have also gotten better on the accessories front. While HomeKit (Apple's smart home standard) support isn't as far-reaching as Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility tends to be, there's a much bigger pool of devices to choose from now. Finding HomeKit-compatible devices isn't the chore it once was.
The new HomePod is also Matter compatible, which should further open up what smart home accessories you can use with it. Matter is designed as a common language for smart home devices, allowing them to work across platforms without the need for individual certification. Any Matter-certified device will work with HomeKit, Google Assistant, and Alexa, and we're expecting a glut of them later this year. My kingdom for a HomeKit-ready wireless doorbell.
HomePod (2023): Song requests
I've spent a lot of time talking about the broader context around the new HomePod, but what about the speaker itself?
To start, it's still very much intended for the Apple faithful. You can't set it up without an iOS device, and if you want to listen to music on it, you can control it via the Music app on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac, AirPlay to it from your iPhone, iPad or Mac, or you can ask Siri to play music. You can’t just use a HomePod as a Bluetooth speaker.
The HomePod is naturally designed to work with Apple Music, but Apple has opened up its garden to other streaming services. The third-party selection is still rather limited, however; Deezer, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio are your main options. Once set up, you can make any of these services the default for Siri requests.
Spotify, Amazon Music, and YouTube Music are all missing native HomePod support at time of writing, but this isn't explicitly Apple's fault. It's up to the service owner to enable HomePod support on their end. They just may not want to. Google and Amazon's absences are unsurprising given they have competing hardware, while Spotify has its own beef with Apple.
On the voice front, Siri has gotten better at understanding music requests. It no longer confuses brutal Ukranian black metal Drudkh for Darude of Sandstorm fame. Voice is still far from a perfect medium; no matter how I pronounced Ihsahn, Siri simply wouldn’t play me the avant-garde metal I craved. Ed Sheeran was belted back to me on attempt, and you couldn't be further off. Asking for a specific Ihsahn album by name - The Adversary - brought up a record with the same name by another band. I've got no idea how you'd even go about asking Siri to play Öxxö Xööx. (Yes, they are a real band.)
These may sound like edge cases related to my own troubled taste in music, and they are. But no matter what you listen to, I'm sure you've also got edge cases. The thing about edge cases is they kill the magic. They take Siri from a veritable genie to just another piece of software you get frustrated with.
HomePod (2023): Audio quality
In terms of sound quality, the new HomePod is a great speaker, even if it doesn't push any boundaries. While it's had an acoustic rework from the original 2018 model, Apple hasn't made any specific claims about the new speaker sounding better. This is more so a case of not fixing what's not broken, but still a bit odd for Apple. It made pretty significant sound tweaks between the first generation of AirPods Pro and the second, for example.
The second-generation HomePod offers a big, balanced sound for the most part, but it can overemphasise vocals to the detriment of overall clarity. Nina Simone's vocals overpowered the instrumentation in "Feeling Good" on our audio testing playlist, and I had a similar issue with Opeth's "The Funeral Portrait", where the guttural growls had just a little too much prominence in the mix. And while a single HomePod easily goes loud enough to fill a room (impressively, with no perceptible distortion), you're not going to get any meaningful stereo separation from a single unit.
A stereo pair unsurprisingly makes the new HomePod sound a lot fuller, and adds a bit of extra oomph to the bass. Using the new HomePod as a stereo pair was also a boon for tracks with a Dolby Atmos mix. The extra height offered by Dolby Atmos didn't really add too much with just a single HomePod, but the stereo pair made me a believer in how good a well-mixed track with Dolby Atmos can sound. The Atmos mixes of Megadeth's Rust in Peace and Katatonia's Sky Void of Stars have been particular standouts, with some genuine wow moments.
Is the new HomePod worth it?
If you've got a HomePod mini or two and have started investing in an Apple-centric smart home, the second-generation HomePod is a natural next step if you're looking for better quality audio. $479 is a hefty asking price however, and you're looking at almost a grand if you want two for the best possible audio experience.
If you're entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, the new HomePod makes sense - a lot more than the original did in 2018. The state of HomeKit is a lot stronger, Matter will be a game changer for accessory compatibility, Siri is smarter, and you've got the choice of the mini if you don't want to blow out the cost of kitting out a whole home. An Apple-based smart home is the most viable it's ever been.
While the new HomePod is a great speaker, I'd be hesitant to recommend it if you're not planning on taking advantage of at least some of the smart functionality. Rival wireless speakers like the Sonos One retail for $319 and still have support for AirPlay 2 and Apple Music. A Sonos One stereo pair is $120 more than a single HomePod, and in most cases, will deliver a better audio experience.
The new HomePod isn’t particularly ambitious, but it does what it does pretty well. It's a smart speaker that lines up with how we're actually using smart speakers It sounds great and handles core smart functionality with ease. It isn’t overly different from the first-generation HomePod, but it’s now a lot more compelling.
In hindsight, the original HomePod was the right idea at the wrong time, but the second-generation model finally got the timing right.