With the Apple HomePod, you get more than a smart speaker because it immediately serves as a Home Hub for Apple Housing, Apple’s smart home system. But whether you want to listen to music or make your home smarter, you need an iPhone or iPad.
If you are looking for a difference with a Sonos speaker, it is this limitation. As an Android user, there’s not much you can do with an Apple HomePod (2nd generation), not even streaming music via Bluetooth (even though Bluetooth is on the HomePod, it’s not used for streaming audio). On the other hand, it is also understandable many of the added functions can only be used via Apple devices, as you will read later. This smart speaker from Apple with Siri on board has a suggested retail price of 349 euros.
Unboxing, installing, and fine-tuning is not an exciting experience, but it is super easy. The speaker comes in an almost equally large package. At the bottom, we find a fabric-covered cord the same color as the speaker. The only physical action on the speaker is to plug it in, after which a light on top will glow below the touchpad. If you hold an iPhone/iPad close to the HomePod, it will automatically indicate that it is detected, and you can add it as an accessory in the Home app. You will also see updates in the Home app and my test period, I already had to install the third update of 500 MB for performance and stability improvements, so there is a good chance you will see this coming along.
You will immediately notice that the HomePod is more than an active speaker from the menu’s alarm clock function and timer function. But this way, the HomePod can also measure temperature and humidity. There are various sensors on board for this, just like an accelerometer. Automation can be set in the Home app with all these functions and sensors. If the temperature drops below a certain value, you can announce it over the speaker or play certain music. You can even set the music to stop when someone leaves the house or play music when someone comes home. That can be music, but the HomePod also has a selection of ambient sounds, such as Ocean, Rain, Forest, or even white noise. A very nice feature is using the HomePod as an intercom. We first encountered this with HomePod Mini, which makes it possible to send or reply to a voice message via all HomePods in the house. Everything is through Siri. A very last addition is recognizing sound from a smoke or carbon monoxide detector and reporting it on all added iOS devices and other HomePods.
Apple HomePod as Thread Border Router
The HomePod has two chips and supports different network protocols so that it can act as a hub, but above all, it also makes it easy to connect to another Apple device. The U1 chip communicates with other devices with a U1 chip on board (like the iPhone) via Ultrawideband. This is a lot more accurate in location determination than Bluetooth. If you listen to Apple Music (and only then) on your iPhone, hold it near the HomePod, and it will take over the music. The same also works the other way around. If you hear something nice on an Apple radio station and hold your iPhone near the HomePod, all the information on your iPhone becomes available, and you can save it in a playlist, for example. If you want to stream something from your phone to the HomePod, this is done via AirPlay 2, and if you want to listen to something directly on the HomePod, you can only do this via WiFi (there is no network connection). Bluetooth 5.0 is present but only used during installation if a WiFi network connection has not yet been made.
The technology that also turns HomePod into a smart hub is Thread. This is a similar technology to Zigbee. It is a mesh networking protocol that consumes little power and thus can end up in many devices. Another important element is the fact that there is support for standards such as IPv6 and 6LoWPAN. This means that all devices can communicate with each other, regardless of manufacturer. The great thing is that the HomePod also supports mini Thread and forms a Mesh network together. The more distributed throughout your home, the stronger the network and, therefore, ideal for controlling other smart home devices that you have connected in Apple Home. I noticed it especially when turning on lights in places in my house where WiFi is not strong. A HomePod mini as an alarm clock also serves as a Thread amplifier. Thread is part of Matter, the new smart home standard.
Apple’s voice assistant is prominent on HomePod. As soon as you activate it by long-pressing the touch surface on top or saying “Hey Siri,” you will see the circular touch surface change color like the small animation on your iPhone. This is possible in other languages, and perhaps that is why the device is now available here. It still takes some getting used to, but you notice that operating the HomePod, making settings, or giving commands is very voice-oriented. The Dutch voice sounds clear, and you don’t have to speak loudly to be heard. Even if the music is playing loudly and you say, “Hey Siri,” the music immediately turns down, and you can immediately give a command. If you still want to operate the HomePod with your hand, this is the same as the operation on your AirPods: 1 tap is Play/Pause, twice is Next Track, tapping three times is Previous Track, with a long tap on the plus and minus you make it louder and softer. However, it is more limited than “Hey Siri, play a song that says…” or “Hey Siri, play background music for dinner in 15 minutes.”
The white and black speakers (or as Apple calls them, white and midnight) are made from recycled material, a type of woven nylon, but feel very classy and robust. On top is a circular touch surface with LED lights that can work in certain patterns. A static white light indicates music is playing; a blinking white light indicates no connection, a pulsating white light indicates the HomePod is ready for setup; and a rotating light indicates the speaker is booting up or updating. And that’s just the white light; luckily, the Apple Support website lets you know what each color means. You will probably recognize one without explanation; when all the colors start moving together, you know that Siri is listening. The pattern is the same as on an iPhone.
Right below the touch surface is the 4-inch high-excursion woofer. This indeed has a considerable maximum deflection of 2 cm. So a lot of lows can be generated, and that is noticeable. The bass is well under control, by the way. In the cabinet is a special microphone that continuously measures the internal pressure, and under the woofer is a microphone array of 4 microphones. These pick up the bass reproduction from outside the speaker. In combination with the two, the layer is continuously adjusted with an EQ. At the bottom, you will find 5 tweeters in a horn construction. When the loudspeaker is completely free, these reproduce the highs on all sides but can also bundle as soon as it has been detected if it is placed against a wall or in a cupboard, for example.
A beautiful piece of technology that, in combination with internal DSP on the S7 chip, makes all the calculations for the perfect display. Something you can’t make any adjustments yourself. The only setting for an adjustment to the sound can be found in the Home app “Less bass” (a recommended setting, by the way). In itself, the result sounds fine in balance, but only mono. If you want to fill the room somewhere with some background music, fine.
Add a second HomePod, and it makes a world of difference. During setup, you will immediately be asked if you want to link them as a stereo pair, and then they will run synchronously. No matter which HomePod you tap, they both respond instantly. Sound-wise, it is a wall-to-wall sound with an insanely deep bass. That works if they are on a table in the middle of the room. Close to a wall or in a cupboard, I would also turn on the “less bass” again, and even then, it is sometimes too much. It sounds like a much larger set than you see, but we are used to that from DSP-controlled speakers.
Soundbar and Dolby Atmos
We also tested the HomePod as a single and stereo soundbar. This is done via the Apple TV, which has an Arc function, whereby the sound is passed from the TV to the Apple TV via the HDMI cable. And Apple TV is connected directly to the HomePod(s) via AirPlay 2. You may be listening to a set of 850 euros, but in this case, you have the soundbar and a beautiful stereo set with a streamer in one.
In addition to stereo reproduction, it is possible to display Dolby Atmos with two HomePods. Those 10 directional tweeters are used so that with some reflection from the walls, it looks like you have all speakers around you. For movies, this is insanely good. I’ve had moments where I thought I had my surround set with subwoofers on, and I really had to walk over to the speakers and check that only the HomePods were playing. What a layer those two 4 inches can generate. Impressive.
The Apple HomePod (2nd generation) is easy to set up with an iPhone or iPad, and in addition to being a great speaker, it is also an extensive smart home hub. One HomePod doesn’t convince us, but with two, it sounds much better, and you can do more with it (Dolby Atmos, stereo sound). The timbre automatically adapts to the place in the room but has a preference for deep sounds. Using Siri via the HomePod is much more pleasant than via your iPhone or Apple Watch. However, an Apple HomePod mini offers almost the same, with a smaller sound, but for a fraction of the price.
- Loudspeaker and Home hub in one
- Siri integration
- Dolby Atmos (with two pieces)
- Small, but sounds big
- Mono sound with one instance
- Very heavy low
- Does not work with Android
- Sound not adjustable