The Apple HomePod: The Coup D'état to Home Stereo

Last week Apple released its own Siri-powered speaker, the voice-assisted HomePod. It’s Apple’s attempt to muscle its way into a market already dominated by Amazon’s Echo with Alexa, and the Google Home. The HomePod is touted as an audiophile-grade speaker with excellent performance. Sound quality? Really? Let’s do a quick reality check on this.

One can almost blame Apple’s iTunes for single-handedly destroying the music industry and reducing sound quality to 128 Kbps of compressed music. And now, Apple is billing the HomePod as a music-centric system, with an impressive speaker array. It certainly might blow the pants off the competition when it comes to sound quality. However, a small single-point speaker will never replace the sound quality of a true stereo system no matter what magical sound processing you apply. Is Apple once again compromising sound quality for convenience?

Reviewers seem to love the HomePod. The Verge says, “It does manage to put other smart speakers like the Echo or Google Home to shame. “ And a reviewer from the Telegraph says, “So how does it sound? Very good indeed, at least when I heard it set up against the Echo.” Even What HiFi likes it. “In comparison, the Sonos Play:3 appeared uncharacteristically flat, while the Amazon Echo felt almost pedestrian.” Perhaps Apple head-honcho Tim Cook summed it up best: Apple is a company that deeply cares about music and wants to deliver a great audio experience in the home. We feel like we re-invented it in the portable player area and we feel we can re-invent it in the home area as well.

So, Apple is focusing on “sound quality.” Bravo, Apple, and bravo sound quality, right? Gimme a break. The sound quality you’re lauding here is compared to the Amazon Echo, which sounds like crap, or the Sonos Play:3, which isn’t their best product either. Let’s just congratulate Apple for using a few more speakers instead of one or two, and throwing in a small woofer to create a modicum of bass. This just shows how dismal sound quality has become.

All this talk about how Apple is focused on sound quality is BS. If Apple was really concerned about sound quality, they would have released a true stereo music system instead of one that artificially creates a stereo sound field. Sure, you can always pair two HomePods together, but with their pseudo-stereo imaging, who knows what the soundstage and imaging will be. At that point, you’ve spent $700 for a pair of small, wireless speakers, and few users, if any, will pony up the bucks for that.

Don’t even get me started on the processing the HomePod is doing to music to create a psycho-acoustic immersive sound field. Mix engineers spend hours painstakingly placing instruments across the stereo soundstage. Then Apple goes and blows it all up depending on how its internal processors determine it will sound best. When did recording engineers get outsourced?

When I worked in the studio, we always mixed on the best speakers we could. We had built-in main monitors, and we also checked on high-quality near-field monitors; for me, Yamaha NS-10Ms or Genelecs were ideal. My fear is that modern mixing engineers will be optimizing their final mixes to sound acceptable on a single little smart speaker with a mind of its own. How much more complacent about our playback systems can we be?

Look, I may be completely off base, and I hope I get a chance to review a HomePod. I will gladly eat some humble apple pie if its performance proves me wrong. I hope it does sound spectacular, especially since it’s bound to be a popular product. Apple might have big dreams for their HomePod, but isn’t it really just another nightmare for sound quality?

COMMENTS
jnemesh's picture

For calling BS on a BS product! I am SICK AND TIRED of companies like Sonos and Apple selling POS self-powered speakers and touting "audiophile quality"! Its CRAP, it always was CRAP and always will be CRAP!

I have nothing against speakers like this for casual listening, but convincing people that this is "audiophile" is like a Yugo salesman telling you he sells performance vehicles!

The REALLY sad thing is, someone could take their $500, and get a GOOD Integrated Amplifier (NAD C316BEE) and an inexpensive set of bookshelf speakers (Polk TSX220) and have FAR superior sound than this plastic abomination.

allanmarcus's picture

While I agree with the article and your points, the HomePod will sell for $349, not $500. To get the equivalent, one would need to buy an Amazon Echo Dot ($49), and spend $300 on speakers. So what can one get for $300? Audio Engine A2+ ($249), a B2 wireless speaker($225). Dayton Audio B652 ($80) + a decent little amp. OrbAudio has the stylish Booster Basic for $299, and for $200 more, you can add a small sub. Lots of options for half-way decent low end sound. It will be interesting to compare an Echo Dot and decent speakers to the Home Pod.

Oh, Apple sis try to sell some decent speaker. The Apple Hi-Fi Home Stereo for iPod. I was actually pretty good for what it was, but over priced.

I happen to have speakers, a small amp, and an echo dot in the kitchen. Wife was hesitant at first, but now she really likes it.

As for all the bluster above about sound engineers and how they care about the sound. Well, have you heard modern music? I'm pretty sure all the SE does is turn all the levels to max, and hit the record button.

prerich45's picture

You can get clearance RBH R5Bi in Red Burl or Black Ash for $158 a pair! There's plenty out there.

Michaela's picture

Gee, Leslie. Why don't you tell us how you really feel?!

CW's picture

Ahhhh, to try and discredit something you never heard. This seems more like Apple Bashing. Nice to see a "professional" reviewing publication only be only so critical on audio products when its not under actual review. Not to say that you are a professional reviewer considering you don't really review but merely report on products. On Sound and Sound and Vision you have reviewed less than 5 products in the last year so lets stop with silly comments like "I hope I get a chance to review the HomePod". Clearly you most likely will not be.

Warrior24_7's picture

"Look, I may be completely off base, and I hope I get a chance to review a HomePod. I will gladly eat some humble apple pie if its performance proves me wrong."

So you didn't listen to it before writing this drivel? Say it ain't so... Don't bother actually "listening" to the speaker then writing a review. We've already read it.

prerich45's picture

Excellent - the last thing we need is for Apple to redefine hi-fi!!!!

prerich45's picture

Just looked at the video for it and looked at how it rips a track apart. This is not an audiophile device....however I never heard Apple say that it was. What they are saying as that they want to redefine music at home the way the iPod redefined music in our pocket. Low-Fi, mass quantity, convenience product...I will pass.

Warrior24_7's picture

They can't be taken seriously anymore. Did all of the legitimate reviewers quit?

Goyoishere's picture

I see your point in this commentary. I would just like to add a little perspective. Apple isn't the company responsible for the advent of compact speakers and their popularity. I'm not sure, but one could probably blame Bose (among others) for that. Apple is just "keeping up with the Jones'" in this respect. I would also say that Apple, as a company, has always been about quality, simplicity, and convenience. So introducing a speaker like this is no surprise. They are also known for raising the bar on most all things they do in relation to electronic equipment. Unfortunately, for most people, mp3's are enough. In my mind compact speakers like this one are for puttering around the house with some music to listen to. In any case when we are looking at this speaker, as with any compact speaker, our comparisons should only be to it's long-existing peers, and not to a full 2.1 system, regardless of cost.