Apple Homepod Update - Success or Flop?

When Apple released the original HomePod in the beginning of 2018 they had an uphill battle ahead of them. No matter how much they tried to position the HomePod as a top tier networked streaming music speaker, it was bound to get compared against Amazon Echoes, Google Home Max and mini speakers, Sonos One and the like. All of those are networked speakers, yes, but are all strong smart speakers with capabilities well beyond listening to music.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the HomePod landed with a collective shoulder shrug from much of the tech press and consumers. At $350 I can pick up two Sonos One speakers on sale in comparison to one HomePod, and I’d have a true stereo pair that has proven smart features, home automation control, and multiple music streaming integrations. As much as I was intrigued by the audio engineering and performance that the HomePod offered, I couldn’t justify that high price. That is ... until iOS 12, Siri Shortcuts, and the 2018 holiday season sales that sprang up.

Cost

If you asked anyone in the tech press why the HomePod didn’t seem to catch on, the first thing they’d probably say is, “price.” And with that I’d agree to a point, but you need to look at expectations vs. Apple’s intentions. As much as Apple keeps trying to frame the HomePod as a high fidelity, audio engineering marvel, which is kind of is, it’s not completely clear to me who this is really intended for.

On one side you have your average consumer who is all in on Apple. They have an iPhone, a Mac, and maybe an iPad or Apple TV, but when it comes to audio they’re casual listeners. Something like a Sonos One would be more than adequate for their listening enjoyment.

On the other side you have audiophiles who care deeply about their listening experience. They may also be bought into the Apple ecosystem and have iPhones, Macs, and Apple TVs, and when it comes to music it’s “only the best.” Those are the type of people who care deeply about the type of amplifier, impedance, wire gauge, dynamic range, dome tweeter vs. horn tweeter. A networked speaker like the Homepod is never going to be equal to a true high end audio system. The lack of audio inputs and customizable EQ is going to be off-putting to someone who is willing to spend more money on a speaker system.

It’s the price to feature set equation that makes me raise an eyebrow when I think about it. Too expensive for the casual listener. Not feature rich and customizable enough for an audiophile. Well, I’ve said this in other videos, but I don’t consider myself an audiophile, even though high quality audio is important to me. I tend to be very pragmatic about what I’m willing to spend to get high quality audio, and for me it always comes down to the use case. I love my Sonos One speakers because they’re perfect for casual listening, radio, podcasts, but I don’t use them for critical listening. They don’t have enough definition and dynamic range to tick that box, and that’s perfectly fine. The price of the HomePod didn’t seem to justify what I’d be getting out of it as a networked speaker. That is … until this holiday season.

I was able to pick up a HomePod from BestBuy for $250, which puts it closer to the cost of a Sonos One speaker, and dramatically below the cost of a Google Home Max. Even if the feature set isn’t as good as an Echo or Sonos One, I’d still have a better performing speaker for use in my home office, which is one of the only rooms I didn’t already have something like this already.

My home is predominantly Apple devices with a couple of iMacs, Apple TVs on each TV set, as well as iPads and iPhones, so I knew I’d get a lot of use out of the HomePod as just an Airplay speaker by itself. All of my Sonos Ones are also Airplay 2 enabled speakers, so I’d be able to create Airplay groups that include my Sonos Ones, Sonos Beam, HomePod, and even my Denon home theater receiver. As a feature, Airplay is a must in my house and is the first requirement when deciding what speakers to add to my home audio setup.

At $350, I still think it’s a little too expensive for that feature alone, but at $250 it’s a lot more compelling.

Siri

Another factor that could be contributing to the HomePod collective shoulder shrug, perception issue is Siri. Apple was one of the first companies to make a big splash with voice assistants when they bought the company who made Siri in 2010 and launched it as a built in feature on the iPhone 4S in October of 2011. No other company had a voice assistant like it, until both Amazon and Google went into overdrive and created their own competing products that blew past Siri in a matter a few years. Apple looked like it was standing still when it came to Siri. Amazon has the richest echo system, but you have to phrase your requests in a specific way to get commands to work. Google doesn’t have as many integrations, but has the best voice assistant for natural language.

Apple is still playing catchup on both fronts, but has made some significant improvements over 2018, which includes hiring Googles former head of A.I. research, John Giannandrea, and introducing Siri Shortcuts as part of iOS 12.

Loup Ventures has been regularly testing voice assistants and smart speakers, and in their latest round of tests has shown that Siri had the largest improvement of all voice assistants over the past year, and came in second behind Google Assistant for accuracy.1 It’s great to see that Apple’s making some significant improvements, but I wonder if the Siri brand has been written off by too many people at this point. Will people give her a second chance, and how are they supposed to know that these improvements have been happening at all if they’re not using it?

Siri Shortcuts has been a game changer because it’s helping to push Siri beyond the very narrow confines of Apple only products and features. I have Shortcuts set up to start warming my Tesla just by asking Siri, or to play my favorite podcasts in the Overcast app. Something like Spotify still doesn’t support Siri Shortcuts, but they could add the functionality similar to how Overcast did. It’s no longer a limitation of the platform, but up to developers to add the support.

I bring all of this up to make the point that Siri on the HomePod is in a very different place now compared to when it launched in the beginning of 2018. I’ve been able to do all of the same tasks on the HomePod that I typically do with Amazon or Google. Ask for the weather, set timers, turn lights on and off, change the temperature of my Ecobee thermostat, and select music I want to listen to. It’s all just worked. And HomePod has even been working with Shortcuts like the ones I have setup with Overcast. I can ask her to start playing my Overcast favorites and she’ll start streaming my podcasts from my iPhone over Airplay. Warming up my Tesla also works. And as an Airplay enabled speaker, I’m able to group up audio and play it on the HomePod and elsewhere on a Sonos One. You don't have Siri control on the Sonos Ones, but once something has started playing, you can use Alexa on those speakers to pause, skip, and control volume like you normally would.

Siri has caught up on the basic functions that I use daily, but while using the HomePod I have noticed occasional hiccups with the functionality. While air playing from my iPhone, it sometimes has lost the ability to control the HomePod. Hit pause on the phone and it keeps playing on the HomePod. Adjust the volume on the phone and it sometimes stays at the current level on the HomePod. Asking Siri on the HomePod to stop or change volume still works, but there have been occasional hiccups between the iPhone controls and the HomePod. And there are also minor hiccups with Siri Shortcuts from time to time, where she’ll say that she’s checking with the Shortcuts app and to be patient. It’s a little odd and I’m still not sure what causes that, but it hasn’t happened too often.

Siri has definitely gotten better, but there’s still room to grow, and it’s going to be interesting to watch what happens with her over the next year or two.

Performance

So this is where the HomePod really starts to shine, and it becomes understandable why Apple angled all of its marketing muscle behind the audio performance. The audio engineering on this thing is absolutely remarkable. A single HomePod doesn’t reproduce a stereo sound, but it’s an incredible room filling sound. You feel enveloped by the audio, which is due to the 8 tweeters, that have their own amplifiers, firing audio through a folded-horn design towards the center of the speaker and out through the bottom. This creates the 360 degree sound coverage and nearly eliminates any kind of sweet spot. And the woofer on the HomePod, combined with the self-calibrating microphone, produces bass that you would not expect from a speaker this size. No matter the volume, the bass always shines through.

I set up a Sonos One side by side with the HomePod for comparison, and even brought my wife in for a blind listening test. The Sonos One has a much brighter sound, almost too bright, which is why I normally have my Sonos speakers EQ’d to dial down the treble and pump up the bass. By themselves the bass is decent for a speaker of that size, but it’s not going to rattle the walls. They’re definitely better at mid and upper range frequencies. Another thing you’ll notice is that the Sonos One speakers are fairly directional. They can fill a room, but there’s a sweet spot. Playing back a speaker sound test on video isn’t a great way to demo a speaker, but I think you’ll still be able to get the general gist of the difference. Let’s take a listen.

Flip over to the HomePod and the differences are immediately apparent. You feel like you’re sitting in the sound, no noticeable sweet spot. And the bass … oh, the bass. I can’t stand boomy, muddy bass, and the HomePod avoids that with ease. There’s an awesome kick and fullness to the low end without it overwhelming. My wife listened to the Sonos One first and when I flipped over to the HomePod it was immediately clear to her which one she preferred. The HomePod is richer, fuller, more encompassing.

Does it match the audio fidelity of a dedicated audio setup? It’s close, but no. Compare this to speakers at a similar price and it nails it, but someone with a high end audio setup will blow any networked speaker out of the water. Going back to my pragmatic view on this type of thing, I’m blown away by this speaker and think it’s absolutely worth the $250 price I paid for it. I still think $350 is too much, but my previous hesitation is gone. I’m now considering adding a second HomePod to create a stereo pair for critical listening. It’s that good.

Perception vs. Reality

So why is HomePod largely considered a flop? Apple being Apple means that there’s always an expectation that it’s going to dominate the market, or revolutionize whatever it touches. Instantly. Most companies have one wild hit in their entire lifespan. Apple has a track record of creating, and helping to shape the market several times with the Macintosh, iPod, iTunes, and the iPhone. Not everything can be on the level of the iPhone, but that expectation is always there, as flawed as it may be. And all of us tend to judge a brand new product based on the track record of existing products.

Headlines of the Apple Watch’s failure were common place because it didn’t meet market expectations. Just look at Business Insider’s, “The Apple Watch has been a failure” article.

In reality, even if Apple equals the 21.4 million devices FitBit claimed in its Q4 earnings report it sold in 2015, it would still be seen as maybe not a failure, but not a clear success either. That may not be fair, but expectations are higher for a company which regularly sells more than 200 million iPhones in a year, according to numbers compiled by Statista.2

The Apple Watch has been a resounding success for Apple. No, it’s not iPhone numbers, but as a business unit it’s turning a profit. In the 4th quarter of 2017 they sold more Apple Watches than the entire Swiss watch industry,3 and yet, many were calling the Apple Watch a flop.

Here we are again with the HomePod. A product that’s been out for 10 months as I record this, and just now finished its first holiday season. In August it was already estimated to have about 6% market share of the U.S. smart speaker market.4 While other estimates have it closer to 5%.5 That means Apple sold somewhere between 2 and 3 million HomePods, which is around $1 billion in revenue … and that doesn’t even include the HomePods first holiday shopping season. Again, maybe it hasn’t taken the world by storm, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple is thrilled at the adoption rate.

Final Thoughts

Should everyone rush out and buy Apple’s HomePod? Absolutely not. I still think Apple missed the mark slightly on how they marketed and launched the HomePod. Something like this seems like it’s aimed at someone like myself, but I was put off by the price and Siri’s limitations in the beginning. A lot has changed since the HomePod’s introduction though, and the “should I buy this” equation has very different results now.

If you’re an Android and PC user, then the decision is obvious since you can’t really get much out of the speaker. However, if you’re an iPhone user or have Macs in your home, and have been dabbling in home automation devices that support HomeKit, I think HomePod is worth a second look. Especially if you subscribe to Apple Music and would enjoy a more robust listening experience than you can get from something like an Amazon Echo Plus, Sonos One, or comparable smart speaker cylinder.

My previous review of the Sonos One still holds true. I’d recommend that for most people because it has good audio quality and support Apple Airplay, Amazon Alexa, and coming this year it will have Google Assistant. It’s the jack of all trades smart speaker that’s good for casual listening and supports some of the biggest music streaming services, including Apple Music. However, if you’re an Apple user and Apple Music subscriber, and want a truly exceptional listening experience from a smart speaker, that has a growing list of abilities, I think the HomePod is the one to beat.


1: https://loupventures.com/annual-smart-speaker-iq-test/

2: https://www.businessinsider.com/the-apple-watch-has-been-a-failure-2016-4

3: http://fortune.com/2018/02/20/apple-watch-sales-smartwatch/

4: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2018/08/02/amazon-echo-google-home-installed-base-hits-50-million-apple-has-6-market-share-report-says/#6daa89c9769c

5: https://voicebot.ai/2018/09/12/amazon-maintains-smart-speaker-market-share-lead-apple-rises-slightly-to-4-5/