The Apple HomePod is finally available to buy and we’ve now had our first listen, too
News update: Apple HomePod now available to preorder
Hurrah! After months of nail-biting speculation, we can finally preorder Apple’s first foray into the smart speaker rat race. That’s right, the HomePod is coming to the UK, and you can preorder one, right now.
Preorders open today (26 January) for the 9 February release from Argos, Currys PC World and John Lewis.
As for the price, the HomePod will cost £319 in the UK. For comparison, that’s roughly the same as Google’s Home Max speaker, if you do a quick currency conversion.
Phew. With all that out of the way, our initial hands-on impressions of Apple’s HomePod continues below, including details of our first extended audition, courtesy of Apple. Stay tuned for our full review in the next couple of weeks.
Apple HomePod first look: In full
Apple’s virtual assistant is here. It might have been the worst-kept secret in tech – the idea has been thrown around for what seems like years – but HomePod is here, and it’s absurdly expensive. This is Apple’s take on Echo, but does it do anything better to warrant that hefty price jump?
At its core, Apple says HomePod is a speaker first, virtual butler second. Its tagline, pretentiously, says the firm has “completely reimagined how a speaker should make music”. There’s some fancy tech inside that should make it stand out from those other home-helper alternatives – more on that later.
It’s an odd-looking, dumpy little thing. HomePod looks like an Apple-fied version of the UE WonderBoom Bluetooth speaker we reviewed recently. It’s not a bad design per se, and is in keeping with Apple’s minimalism, but its mesh-covered exterior is a touch bland (and uninspired) for my tastes.
Inside its chubby little body is a handful of impressive tech, including seven tweeters splayed across the base and a 4in upwards-firing bass driver. That’s exciting in its own right, but there are also six outward-pointing microphones that pick up your voice commands when you bark orders at it, just like Echo and Home before it.
Interact with it and you’ll spot this weird, pulsating waveform on the top – similar to the visual interaction you get on your iPhone as Siri speaks. That way, you know HomePod is doing something, be it playing music or talking to you, and not just an expensive paperweight.
HomePod will spout news, sport and weather updates should you ask for it, and work hand in hand with HomeKit’s other supported smart-home devices. Just as with Google Home, Apple’s equivalent won’t be always-listening either, lending an ear only when you bark the “Hey Siri” command.
You’ll spot Apple’s A8 chip inside, which helps with all the behind-the-scenes audio features such as echo and distortion cancellation. In a similar way to how Samsung did things with its recent MS650 soundbar, there’s some clever tech that actively monitors speaker driver movement to predict and negate potential incoming audio distortion. Samsung’s technology is marvellous, but we’ll have to spend more time with HomePod to see if it offers the same – or even better – listening experience.
It should be a treat for your ears, then, but only if you’re signed up to Apple Music. If not, HomePod isn’t for you, unless you’re really set on an over-priced living-room ornament. Apple forces you to only use its own music-streaming service – a Spotify speaker this ain’t.
Apple HomePod: Sound quality and performance – first impressions
However, now that we’ve had a chance to listen to the speaker in advance of receiving our review unit, we can say that you’ll enjoy the show. At a demo event in central London, Apple showed off the HomePod in all its glory and, so far, we’ve been very impressed.
As at the launch, the focus at the demo event was primarily on sound quality and the HomePod certainly didn’t disappoint. Its high-excursion 4in woofer and array of seven tweeters worked in tandem to produce a sound both airy and powerful, with wonderful instrument separation and a surprisingly wide soundstage all at the same time.
Most impressively, perhaps, was how much better the speaker was than the rival smart speakers Apple lined it up against. In a back-to-back listening session where we were able to listen to the HomePod directly compared with the Amazon Echo 2, the Harman Kardon Allure and the Sonos One, the HomePod streaked ahead.
The only rival to come close to its sound quality from this selection of rivals was the Harman Kardon, but that speaker lacked the sweetness in the mids and high notes that the HomePod possessed.
Another impressive aspect of the HomePod’s performance was that of its microphones. Just as with Amazon’s Echo devices there are multiple microphones on the HomePod – six of them to be precise – which use a technique known as beamforming to pick out the “Hey Siri” wake phrase, even when loud music is being played.
During our demonstration the HomePod’s mics worked perfectly, picking up pause, play and stop commands with flawless ease, and requests for further information without ever needing to be prompted twice.
The HomePod’s tight integration with Apple Music is just as impressive. As well as being able to ask for specific music by track name, artist, album and genre, owners will be able to ask Siri for extra information about the track that’s currently playing – more information on the singer, for instance, who’s playing the drums, guitar and even the producer.
As for the rest of the HomePod’s capabilities, that was given lower priority at the demo but it didn’t stop Apple from showing off how easy the speaker is to set up. It’s just as straightforward, in fact, as setting up a pair of Airpods or Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones: just wave your iPhone at the speaker and a pairing window pops up on screen instantly – all you need to do to round off setup is agree to a few terms and conditions and you’re ready to roll.
Apple HomePod: Early verdict
If you think you’re sold on Apple’s HomePod, and it does look impressive so far, don’t reach for your wallet just yet. There’s a sizeable caveat to consider. As is always the case with these things, that is the HomePod’s rather steep asking price.
At £319, the Apple HomePod is considerably more expensive than its Amazon- and Google-powered alternatives. Obviously, Apple seeks to justify that with an improved audio experience over its competitors and on first impressions it looks to have pulled that feat off, but at face value, it does seem an awful lot to pay.
So far, though, we’ve been pretty darned impressed. With the popularity of the iPhone still going strong, the HomePod has the potential to be the de facto speaker-come-home helper in the coming months and years and, although the launch has been a little bit delayed, it looks like it’s been worth the wait. Whether it performs as well when we finally subject it to the rigours of a busy, noisy family kitchen, will be another matter entirely, though.