When Apple finally released the HomePod on the 9th Feb 2018 it didn’t take me long to buy one. I had looked at the Google Home and Amazon Echo with curiosity, but was never really tempted. I’m an Apple Music subscriber for one, and I was also reluctant to put an Amazon or Google listening device in my home. I’ve got serious concerns over privacy, and it’s only Apple that have been able to allay those concerns. That’s not my inner Apple fanboy talking, I’ve read Apple’s support papers on privacy and security.
Prior to the HomePod, I had been using a Sonos Play:1. The Sonos audio quality is generally good, but every now and again there’s a notable distortion. Only on songs with strong levels of bass, but it happens even when the volume is at mid-levels. The other problem I have with the Sonos is the integration with Apple Music, namely the lack of support for Smart Playlists. I use Smart Playlists extensively within iTunes and to get around the lack of support in Sonos I’ve had to periodically manually copy songs from my smart playlist to dedicated manual playlists for the Sonos. Not ideal. The Sonos has now been relegated to the bedroom. I appreciate my Sonos Play:1 is pretty old now so many of the issues have probably been resolved with newer versions. I believe you can even integrate the new Sonos smart speakers with Siri.
After using the HomePod for a full year my thoughts are pretty much the same as they were after the first month of use.
First of all, the sound quality is excellent. You don’t need to be an audiophile to tell this delivers crisp, clear sound at an amazing volume for such a small unit.
Second, the microphones are unbelievable. For Siri to hear my commands when I’m speaking at normal volume and music is booming out is quite frankly, witchcraft.
A lot has been written about the smart speaker capability, particularly in comparison to the Google Assistant on the Google Home and Alexa on the Amazon Echo. It’s true that Siri is not leading the way in this regard. I find that Siri does the job, most of the time, and it is slowly getting better.
To be frank, all the virtual assistants are shit. All of them have problems with understanding context. It’s early days and I’m sure we’re going to see amazing leaps in AI over the next few years, but at the moment we’re a long way from the Her days.
The technorati on blogs and YouTube get hung up with smart speaker comparisons. In reality, is the average joe even using voice commands on a regular basis? Let’s face it, talking to an inanimate object feels weird.
Still, I can say “Hey Sir, play me something I like”, and pretty much without fail, music that I like starts playing. It helps that over the years I’ve obsessively rated thousands of songs in my iTunes library. At first I thought that Siri was just selecting music from my library that I’ve given a a high rating. That is the case, but it’s also mixed with songs that i know aren’t in my library, and seems to match my tastes quite well.
The only caveat to that is that I don’t live on my own and the music tastes of my wife and daughter also get factored in. At the moment there’s no way to use multiple accounts with the HomePod. Apple have said that will come, but for now Rach and Lauren can play music, and the music they select influences Siri’s learning. You can turn it off in settings. In fact, I probably should turn it off - that should stop Dolly Parton songs interrupting my music sessions!
I listen to a lot of podcasts and for some reason I couldn’t get my podcasts to play on the HomePod. If I asked Siri to play a specific podcast, it would play. If I asked Siri to play my most recent podcast, Siri would tell me ‘You’re not subscribed to any podcasts”. I am. It drove me insane. I subscribe to shit loads of podcasts. I listen to podcasts pretty much every day.
I’m guessing the issue has something to do with the fact I have seperate Apple IDs for iCloud and iTunes content. It’s an issue that goes back to the days of MobileMe. For some reason we had to create a new account for MobileMe and couldn’t use our existing iTunes ID. Eventually, MobileMe got replaced by iCloud and even though Apple has hinted in the past that they’re working on a fix to allow customers to merge Apple IDs, it’s now 2019 and that fix is nowhere in sight.
Setting up the HomePod was a breeze. You just hold up your iPhone close to the HomePod and it automatically transfers all the settings over. This is the crux of the problem I reckon. I think it was trying to use my iCloud account for podcasts even though on my iPhone I’m signed in with my other Apple ID for iTunes.
You may notice I’m using the past tense. I gave up on the Apple Podcasts app and now use Overcast. I finally gave up with Apple Podcasts when the Apple Podcasts integration on the Apple Watch with iOS 12 failed to meet expectations. That’s another rant for another day.
For now, if I want to play a podcast on my HomePod I just Airplay it. So old school I know!
I’m happy with the HomePod and considering buying another one to try out stereo sound with the Apple TV. We’ve recently moved to a new apartment with stone tiled floors, so the acoustics are pretty terrible when watching TV using the in-built TV speakers. The HomePod sound seems to compensate for the acoustics in a way that is much more noticeable than I remember at our old place. Stereo HomePods could be the (pricy) answer. Alternatively, I might try a Soundbar. I hear the Sonos playbar is quite good!