Why Apple Shouldn’t Have Released the HomePod Without AirPlay 2

I was pretty ambivalent about the HomePod in my review. I found the sound to be mediocre for a lot of music, and it simply wasn’t worth the price. I don’t particularly care about using Siri with that device, and don’t consider that worth paying $350 for the speaker. I’m interested in its musicality.

Apple (finally) released AirPlay 2 this week, which notably offers the ability to create a stereo pair from two HomePods. I decided I’d try this out. I’m quite impressed by the sound.

For background, I have a fairly large bedroom, but the way it is set up means that I can’t put a dresser opposite the bed – or any kind of shelf – on which I’d put an AirPlay compatible amplifier and two bookshelf speakers. So the HomePod seemed like a good option; but a single HomePod not only didn’t sound good, but I couldn’t set it up in a good position for listening in bed.

So I bought a second HomePod when Apple released AirPlay 2, and put each HomePod on an Ikea bookcase on either side of the room, roughly centering the stereo sweet spot at the bed.

I wasn’t expecting this to sound great; given the sound of a single HomePod, I didn’t think the stereo would make much of a difference. But I was very surprised when I started listening to music. While the single HomePod is flat, and the frequency response is way too bassy, creating a stereo pair allows the electronic wizardry in the devices’ processors to create something that is frankly surprising. Music has a very good soundstage, with a much more balanced frequency response (though I still put the Bass Reducer EQ setting on my iPhone when streaming music to them).

Live music sounds vibrant, with the slight faux surround sound that the HomePod creates, and studio recordings sound precise and clean. I tried with a wide range of music, and, while there was the occasional track that didn’t sound great, most of the music I listened to sounded excellent.

But there was a problem: my Ikea bookcases were a bit too tall for me to get the right amount of treble from the tweeters. You need to have tweeters around ear level to get the right sound, because the waves are so small, and lying in bed I was too low and didn’t hear enough treble. It was fine when I was sitting up, but I often read lying down in bed, and wanted to be able to listen to music in this position at times.

IMG 7851So I thought it was worth trying to move the HomePod from the top of the bookcases to the top shelves. My first thought was that it would be boomy and bassy, but much to my surprise, the HomePod adapted to this location – which is certainly not the ideal place to put a speaker – with aplomb.

There was no boom, no notable difference in frequency response, other than the fact that I could hear the treble a lot better. And while I had to put books under the speakers when they were on the top shelf – this is one of those Ikea bookcases where the tops, bottoms, and sides aren’t solid – there was no need on the shelves.

Apple should never have released the HomePod without AirPlay 2, because reviewers heard the speaker in sub-optimal conditions. While you can use this as a standalone speaker, it’s really not good enough. However, it’s a bit expensive to buy two of them, and if I had more room, I certainly would not have bought a second one; I would have bought a small amplifier and bookshelf speakers. But with these two diminutive speakers in my bedroom, I now have full, rich audio, which is surprisingly good, taking up little space.

It’s worth noting that Apple may have tweaked the audio in the recent update to the HomePod software, which could also bring improvements. I’d still like a direct EQ setting for the HomePod, rather than have to set it when streaming from my iPhone. It means that if I want to stream from my iTunes library, I have to turn on the EQ on my Mac, and it’s not easy to do this remotely. I’d also like to see a balance setting for a stereo pair of HomePods. In my bedroom, the bed is equidistant from the right and left side walls, so it works out fine, but in other situations people may want to adjust this.

But kudos to Apple. Whatever they’ve done to make two HomePods work so well together is impressive.

Why Apple’s HomePod is Failing

In a Bloomberg article, Apple’s Stumbling HomePod Isn’t the Hot Seller It Wanted, Mark Gurman points out that Apple’s HomePod is more or less a failure. This device that was slated to be revolutionary – combining a smart speaker and “excellent” audio quality – is not flying of the shelves as Apple had hoped.

At first, it looked like the HomePod might be a hit. Pre-orders were strong, and in the last week of January the device grabbed about a third of the U.S. smart speaker market in unit sales, according to data provided to Bloomberg by Slice Intelligence. But by the time HomePods arrived in stores, sales were tanking, says Slice principal analyst Ken Cassar. “Even when people had the ability to hear these things,” he says, “it still didn’t give Apple another spike.”

The device was released later than Apple had announced, missing the important Christmas holiday season. It’s overpriced; at $349, it is much more expensive than other smart speakers, and more expensive than decent sounding standalone speakers. (Heck, you can buy a decent amplifier and bookshelf speakers for that price.) And the sound isn’t as great as Apple had advertised. The main problem is an excess of bass, and there are no equalization controls so listeners can tune the sound to their tastes, and not to Apple’s.

I immediately realized the device’s limitations, notably that the audio quality is good at times, but crappy at others. But,

I did find that, playing music from iTunes, with the Bass Reducer setting on the Equalizer, much of the music sounded better. There was less booming bass, and more subtle sounds. But no matter what, the midrange is weak on a speaker like this.

And the whole Siri thing? Trying to get Siri to recognize what music I want to hear? It certainly hears my voice, but any song, album, or artist names that are a bit obscure get converted to some weird sound-alikes, making it useless to control it by voice.

It does have some very good features, such as its variable loudness, that adjusts the bass and treble as you change the volume, and with the appropriate EQ, it sounds okay, but I’d get similar sound from a speaker at half the price. As is often the case, Apple uses a lot of buzz words to describe the technology in the device – and there is some cool technology – but these smarts don’t do much for the sound.

Apple may be hoping for a sales boost when they finally get around to releasing AirPlay 2, which is several months overdue, and which will enable the use of two HomePods as a stereo pair, but I can’t see a lot of people paying a total of $700 to have mediocre sound, without any EQ controls, and a flawed personal assistant.

Apple clearly doesn’t understand the market. They thought that they could convince people to spend more for a speaker that combines smarts and sound, but offered neither. Siri is limited and flawed, and the sound just isn’t good enough for a speaker at that price. I use mine in the bedroom, with Siri turned off, for occasional listening, and I don’t regret buying it, but I wouldn’t recommend the HomePod to anyone.

Smart Speakers and the Commoditization of Music

For several decades, there were only two ways to listen to recorded music. You could play music you owned, or you could turn on the radio. You may have had records or cassettes, or even reel-to-reel tapes or eight-track tapes, and you were able to play them if you were at home, or perhaps in the car. But for most people, unless they had substantial music collections, music listening meant tuning into their favorite radio station and listening to what other people thought they should be listening to.

Things have changed a lot since then: we now have endless options for listening to music at home, in the car, and pretty much anywhere we go using our smartphones. The latest addition to this arsenal of music players is the smart speaker: Apple’s HomePod, Amazon’s Echo, and others. These devices are changing the way many people listen to music by providing a frictionless experience. You ask the smart speaker to play some music, and the music plays.

But this approach is also changing the music people listen to. When listening to the radio, you generally hear a limited number of songs or pieces of music, because the radio station’s program directors have decided what the station will play. With a smart speaker and a streaming music subscription, you have a nearly unlimited range of choice: 30 or 40 million tracks covering the entire history of recorded music are available with simple voice commands.

The problem with this is that you can only play the music you remember; if you don’t know the name of an album, an artist, or song, it’s not easy to get a smart speaker to play what you want. You can also only get your smart speaker to play music whose name you can pronounce; it is particularly difficult to get specific works of classical music to play on a smart speaker because of this. Some people ask the smart speaker to play a certain type of playlist, music to match a mood, or an activity; some people simply ask it to play music. In the case of Apple’s HomePod, asking it to play music and nothing more will result in it playing your personal radio station, a selection of music that you have purchased from the iTunes Store, loved on Apple Music, or played recently. This is inoffensive music; music that doesn’t suck. You generally won’t be surprised by what you hear, and it fills a void: it is background music, wallpaper music.

In the past, people used the radio for wallpaper music; they would often hear the same songs over and over, in a gradually shifting playlist that would change from week to week, interspersed with advertisements and news. And they would become familiar with much of that music. Now, with a smart speaker and a music streaming service, there are no ads, no news, no repetition, just music. Music to fill the empty space; music to fill the void.

When people listen to music like this, they lose the emotional attachment they have to that music: they are simply turning on a spigot, and as long as music comes out, and silence is kept at bay, they are satisfied. They may not recognize all the music they hear, especially if they are listening to a playlist of new songs, and they may not know who is performing that music. They may not care; if they are simply using music to fill space, does it really matter what they listen to as long as it doesn’t suck?

We have shifted our music consumption from something very personal, where we knew what we were listening to, even if we didn’t always choose it when listening to the radio, to now something where, for many people, listening to music lacks that personal connection. As music becomes commodified, it loses its value. Individual artists are no longer appreciated for their music, since most people, when listening to music in this way, will rarely hear more than one or two tracks from an artist. They will hear a style, a mood, perhaps a certain level of energy, but, in that case, does it really matter what they listen to?

Jean-Louis Gassée on HomePod Reviews

Jean-Louis Gassée, former Apple executive and created of BeOS, doesn’t like the way HomePod reviews have been done.

With its HomePod speaker, Apple has once again reshuffled existing genres. As an almost singular representative of the new consumer computational audio devices, HomePod’s slippery algorithms defeat quick and easy reviews.

He criticizes most tests, as not being scientific, and highlights David Pogue’s “blind” test of four speakers with give people.

He discusses the “computational audio” used by the HomePod, and notes:

This is where we find a new type of difficulty when evaluating this new breed of smart speakers, and why we must be kind to the early HomePod reviewers: The technical complexity and environmental subjectivity leads to contradictory statements and inconsistent results.

I think he’s missing the point. When one reviews something subjectively, the goal is to find out how it sounds to each listener. You can double-blind all you want, but that’s not how people perceive music. There is certainly room for measurements – but not when they’re done wrong – but the true test of a device like this, especially one where the surroundings change the sound, is to have listeners judge it.

Yes, when you have four speakers, and their volume isn’t perfectly balanced, that is an issue, but the main takeaway in Pogue’s review was that a) no one liked the Amazon Echo, because it’s a cheap, tinny speaker, and b) the HomePod may not be the best. It is notably very bass heavy, which means that some music will sound good, and some won’t sound very good at all. Compared to the other speakers – which have a flatter sound signature – the HomePod makes the mistake of imposing a tone on all the music it plays, and not allowing for individual user adjustments. (I’m not sure if all the better speakers that David Pogue tested allow for EQ tweaking; the Amazon Echo probably doesn’t, because it’s not that much of a speaker; the Sonos One definitely does, via the Sonos app.)

Finally, I find it almost risible to see the graphic that Mr. Gassée has included in has article as proof that the test was rigged. He points out that a louder speaker generally sounds better – which is well known – so the people who preferred one speaker must have been closer to that speaker.

Gassee

This is a clear example of bias. Persons one and five were certainly closer to the speakers on the end, but persons two, three, and four were closer to speakers B and C. But none of them like it. Mr Gassée’s lines are ludicrous; he’s talking about the distance, yet ignoring the fact that, for example, person three is notably further from speakers A and D, and much closer to speakers B and C.

This is a glaring error in logic, and it’s a shame to see it included in an article that gets so technical about computational audio, electro-acoustc music at IRCAM, and so one.

Apple HomePod Review: Superior Sound, but Limited by Siri

Apple’s HomePod has finally shipped, boasting a $350 price tag and marking the company’s foray into the “smart speaker” sector with a device that is more speaker than smart. This small, sleek device, clearly a product of Apple’s design team, is meant to offer high-quality sound and serve as a gateway to Siri, Apple’s personal assistant. In spite of the high price, it’s a very nice device, but it has a lot of weaknesses.

Should you buy a HomePod? Is it worth the price? Read on for our full review of Apple’s HomePod speaker to help you decide if it’s worth buying for your home.

Read the rest of the article on The Mac Security Blog

What to Do When Your HomePod Stops Responding

It had only been five days, but I already had a problem with the HomePod not responding. I wanted to listen to some music in the bedroom yesterday, while I was reading, and I started playing something on my iPhone, then went to stream it to the HomePod. It was playing, but no music was coming out of the device. I tried adjusting the volume by tapping the + on the top; no change.

The Home app, it showed that it was not responding.

Home app

After a bunch of attempts to fix it – restarting my iPhone, unplugging and replugging the HomePod – it still didn’t work. So I had to reset the device.

To do this, go to the Home app and find the tile for the HomePod. Press and hold its icon, then tap Details. You’ll see this:

Homepod settings1

Scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see Remove Accessory.

Homepod settings2

Tap Remove Accessory, and the HomePod’s settings will be deleted.

Unplug the HomePod, then plug it in again. Wait a minute for it to start up. Back on the main screen of the Home app, tap the + icon, and hold your iOS device near the HomePod to initiate the setup procedure again. After that, it should work (at least until the next time).