A few weeks back, I unboxed and gave a first listen to the brand-new 2023 HomePod.
I’d never experienced ‘the big one’ before, and having heard great things from those who had been in the same room as the previous generation, I was rather excited.
The result was a little underwhelming. It was an impressive sound for such a relatively small device, granted, but it didn’t knock my socks off like others suggested it might. There was also noticeable distortion, a lack of clarity, and an absence of aural excitement.
I didn’t lose hope, though. That was, after all, an incredibly quick listen within the tight restrictions and breakneck speed of a YouTube video production. I needed time with the new HomePod to really suss out if it’s worth the £299 asking price.
This is going to be a much longer journey – and it continues, today.
Since we last spoke…
As several people pointed out in the comments section of my 2023 HomePod first listen video, I was listening to it wrong.
Placed smack-bang in front of my face, and only a few inches away, the HomePod didn’t really stand a chance. To make matters worse, I continually leaned in, actively listening for distortion and tiny nuances.
This isn’t how the HomePod is intended to be used. The nature of its room-filling sound and the way in which it uses sensors and algorithms to deliver the best audio experience means you’re supposed to place it somewhere – and forget it exists.
You know what? That works! After shooting my first impressions video, I simply left the HomePod where it was and got on with my daily work. As a result, the sound improved. It filled the studio, there was an admirable degree of undistorted bass, and I regularly found myself noting how impressive it was.
I didn’t want to take it home, to be honest.
But I had plans, and, therefore, no choice but to do just that.
Taking the HomePod home – initial impressions
We’ve been relying on two Alexa devices at home for the last three years – an Echo Studio in the kitchen (which is suspiciously HomePod-shaped) and an Echo Dot in the dining room (which is suspiciously HomePod mini-shaped).
They’ve now been replaced, like-for-like with the 2023 HomePod and HomePod mini, respectively. Apple’s smart speakers join an Apple TV 4K which has been our main source of living room entertainment for a year now and, combined, this little setup means we have completely abandoned our reliance on Alexa.
This is now a Siri-only household.
More on the home assistant switch in a moment, but in terms of audio, I remain suitably impressed. The big HomePod is a far better-sounding speaker than the dull Echo Studio, and, true to Apple form, it looks much better, too. There is, however, still some distortion evident on certain tracks (choosing the ‘Reduce Bass’ option in the HomePod’s settings isn’t the solution, unfortunately – that literally removes all bass frequencies), which continues to bother me.
Syncing audio across both HomePods and the Apple TV 4K (which runs through my 5.1 home cinema system) is flawless, too, although Siri often makes a ham-fisted attempt to understand when you want to play something on one speaker versus them all.
It’s early days, but we’re off to a good start, sonically.
I just wish the plain sailing continued from here.
Siri versus Alexa
Alexa remains one of the best home assistants, in my book. It rarely misunderstands you and the times it reaches for a Google search rather than a specific answer are few and far between.
This is why I was nervous about bringing that HomePod home. Our use of Alexa was pretty limited – setting timers, checking the weather, and asking it to play radio stations was about as far as we’d go – but Amazon’s assistant had become ingrained into our daily activities and rarely let us down. We relied on its dependability.
Can Siri match Alexa at home?
On first impressions – no, I’m afraid it can’t.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise; Siri remains a thorn in Apple’s side. It’s not unfair to suggest that it has become the black sheep of the home assistant family – the one that is regularly mocked for being a bit slow on the uptake and last to the party with an answer (if it has one at all).
Our early experience within a Siri-only household only serves to confirm this. This was despite my girlfriend’s early praise of Apple’s assistant, whose tone was, in her words, more gentle and less assertive than Alexa’s.
That’d be fine – if Siri wasn’t so damn dim-witted. Answers are still slow to arrive (“working on it”), and, sometimes, don’t arrive at all (“here’s what I found on the web”). Worse still, the presence of Siri on multiple devices throughout our home seems to play havoc with the HomePod’s ability to be the first to pick up on our requests. If your phone is unlocked, or you have AirPods placed in your ears, the HomePod doesn’t get a look in.
That might make sense in certain instances, but when you’ve set a timer on the HomePod and you’re listening to something via your AirPods while dinner cooks, asking for how long remains on said timer results in your iPhone telling you that there isn’t a timer set. That isn’t helpful.
You also have to be extremely specific with your Siri requests. Radio stations are the most frustrating example of this. Miss one seemingly irrelevant word from the station name (i.e. ‘Warwickshire’ from ‘Free Radio Coventry and Warwickshire’) and you’ll be treated to an album track from a band you’ve never heard of and are probably the first person actually to hear beyond the lead singer’s mum.
And good luck getting it to play any of the BBC radio stations.
The HomePod is also supposed to recognise different voices within your household. Thus far, we cannot make this work. To begin with, it thought Jen was me (we sound very different, I promise) and, after a search of Apple’s knowledge base revealed the need to add Jen as a resident in my Home app, that didn’t work either. We were simply told that Jen needed to update her information in the Siri section of her iPhone – which is already correctly configured with her name.
It’s early days. But, boy, does Siri need to get its act together if we’re to be house buddies long-term.
There’s a lot to like about the big HomePod. When you start listening to it properly, it’s clear how impressive its computational audio capabilities are. Unfortunately, it appears to be let down by a frustrating digital assistant experience.
We really should be beyond this now with Siri. My hope is that Apple finally makes headway with it this year, now that the home is, clearly, a significant focus for Tim and co.
I’m also acutely aware that I need to try a stereo pair. Indeed, if there’s one suggestion I’ve had more than any other from my audience, it’s that one. I’ll be doing so in due course, and will, as you’d guess, keep you fully updated on my experience with our Siri-only household.
There’s also some updated competition on the way. Sonos has recently announced its brand-new Era 300 and Era 100 home speakers. They’re more expensive than the comparative HomePods, but benefit from Sonos’ audio heritage, and the inclusion of Alexa. I’ll be reviewing both, soon, so stay tuned!