HomePod first impressions: Lots of unknowns, but its sound is impressive

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This week, we learned that Apple’s much-rumored smart speaker
is real, and it’s called HomePod. Now the wait
begins—six months until it ships in December. But while we’re
waiting, Apple’s still tweaking the product and getting it
ready to launch.

Sure, a few of us lucky souls were able to listen
to a HomePod
at Apple’s developer conference, but nobody
outside of Apple has talked to one or picked one up. At the
risk of stating the obvious, that’s because this is a product
that’s not finished yet. Apple doesn’t want to
publicly commit to a feature and then realize it can’t ship it;
the product as the company conceives it today may not be the
product that ends up in customers’ hands in December.

What we know

homepod standing blackApple

The HomePod’s hardware has to be nearly final by now.

At this point, some aspects of the HomePod are locked in. First
and foremost, the hardware itself: It’s possible that Apple
will tweak it here and there between now and when it goes into
full production, but it’s unlikely to change much. That means
the seven-inch tall speaker, covered in 3-D mesh fabric in
black or white, is what we’ll get in December. The seven
tweeters, four-inch woofer, and array of microphones, that’s a
given.

I can tell you that what I heard from the HomePod speakers in
San Jose, I mostly liked. Certainly, the device can fill a room
with impressive, dynamic sound. I’ve still got some questions
about the processing the HomePod does to the sound—but we’ll
get to that in a bit, since that’s likely driven by software
that’s still a work in progress. But there’s no doubt in my
mind that the HomePod’s speakers are impressive.

Powering the HomePod is an A8 processor, the same processor
used on the iPhone 6, iPad mini 4, and fourth-generation Apple
TV. That processor will be tasked with a whole lot of signal
processing, from filtering portions of the outgoing Apple Music
track and routing it to various speakers to interpreting the
input from the microphone array and recognizing when there’s a
Siri command incoming. It’ll also be in charge of processing
other Siri commands, talking to the network, and plenty more.
The speakers and microphones may be a bit new for Apple, but
the rest of this device is assembled from familiar bits of
Apple’s hardware, software, and services.

Of course, Apple has committed to Siri support for
more than just music playback. General queries about news,
sports, weather, and other general information should be there.
Apple says you’ll be able to send texts via Messages, which
sounds like the HomePod will be able to share phone and message
information just like Macs, iPads, and iPhones can today.

There’s also support for HomeKit. Right now, you need a
fourth-generation Apple TV or an iPad resident in your house in
order to schedule some HomeKit devices and control them all
from outside your home. The HomePod will also serve as a
HomeKit hub, so you don’t need one of those other devices to be
present at all times. There are also some careful security
decisions that Apple has had to make for a product that’s
always sitting inside your house—for instance, while you can do
a lot of home control with HomePod, there will be
limits—so, for example, someone outside your front window can’t
shout for your HomePod to unlock the front door.

What we don’t know and what could change

homepod siri interactApple

What’s does the light at the top of the HomePod signify? We
don’t know yet.

A long lead time is required to manufacture and build up
inventory of hardware, so Apple will finalize the HomePod
hardware far sooner than it has to finalize its software. In
fact, as an embedded home device, a new HomePod will probably
connect to a network for the first time and immediately update
its own software. That gives Apple a lot of time to tweak the
onboard hardware.

The thing I’m most curious about is how Apple chooses to handle
the way music is processed by the speaker system itself. From
Phil Schiller’s presentation in the Keynote and my own personal
experience listening to the HomePod at WWDC, it’s clear that
Apple is applying a whole lot of intelligence to breaking apart
the components of a musical track and routing the audio to
different speakers.

The result is something that’s a little like surround sound—and
all this from what is essentially a mono speaker. (I’m a bit
surprised that the HomePod doesn’t appear to try to emulate
stereo effects with its many tweeters, but at least for now
Apple seems to suggest that for real stereo effects you’ll need
to buy two HomePods and use them in concert.) With most
speakers, to get the full effect you need to be sitting right
in front of them, but the HomePod is firing off sound in all
directions, so as I circled the HomePod I listened to, I never
felt that my ears were falling out of the sweet spot.

That said, the idea that Apple is processing the audio signal
in order to route portions of it to different speakers might
give some audiophiles pause. Even I felt that one one track,
Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” Apple’s separation of bass and
treble went too far—turning a crunchy compressed 70s tune into
something that was noticeably different, and to my ears, not
for the better.

So I wonder if Apple will be spending the next few months
tweaking its audio algorithms. Will the processing approach
change based on the genre of a given song? Will a HomePod’s
owner be able to control the aggressiveness it uses to process
audio, just as many devices let us apply EQ settings? Will
Apple offer different pre-sets, so different listeners can find
the setting that sounds right for them? We just don’t know—and
Apple might not know yet, either.

We also don’t seem to know much about the swishy Siri logo at
the top of the HomePod. It doesn’t appear to be a screen, per
se, but more of an indicator area—perhaps different
combinations of lights signal different kinds of activity or
other status. There’s also hardware to control the volume of
the device right on the top. There’s probably a lot more detail
here that Apple’s holding off on discussing for now—perhaps
because it muddies the core message, or perhaps because it’s
not final yet.

We don’t know what the process is that the HomePod uses to
calibrate itself. When it comes out of the box, does it use its
own microphones and some test tones to figure out the sound
characteristics of its home? Or does it require calibration
from an external source? Sonos’s calibration routine involves
wandering around a room holding your smartphone to listen to
pulses and tones being emitted from the speaker. I’d imagine
Apple would like to avoid that if it could, but can it?

We don’t know how good the microphones on the HomePod are,
though Phil Schiller suggested that they’re excellent, able to
understand you across the room at a normal voice while music is
playing. We’ll have to see if HomePod can live up to that
promise, but I’m hopeful. I have the sneaking suspicion that an
array of good microphones will make Siri on the HomePod feel a
lot more reliable than Siri on an iPhone or iPad.

There’s a lot we don’t know… but that’s okay. This summer,
we’ll all be learning about what’s coming this fall in
iOS 11
,
macOS High Sierra
,
watchOS 4
, and tvOS 11. At some point this fall there will
be new iPhones, presumably. Meanwhile, in the background, Apple
will be putting the finishing touches on the HomePod—and the
new
iMac Pro
, too. I can’t wait to hear more details about both
products—once Apple’s figured them all out.

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Source: appleact.com
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