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HomePod review roundup: Great sound can’t save this not-so-smart speaker

HomePod review roundup

Apple’s long-awaited smart speaker, the HomePod, is finally set to launch on Friday following months of delays. Although this launch has been low-key as far as new Apple products go, there’s a lot riding on the HomePod. It’s Apple’s first entrant into a brand-new product category, and an important one at that. Smart speakers and digital assistants have exploded in the past two years, and Apple’s been left to play catch-up with Amazon and Google on this round.

As is traditional with Apple, the first round of reviews has landed a couple days before launch, as select members of the tech media received an advance unit to review. Overall, it seems like the HomePod’s much-vaunted sound is a hit, but the major software limitations at launch — no Bluetooth support, Apple Music being the only fully-compatible music service, the requirement to use an iOS device for setup — is stopping it from being a slam-dunk.

The Verge praises the HomePod’s sound, even compared to the very best of the competition. “Compared to the HomePod, the Sonos One sounds a little empty and the Google Home Max is a bass-heavy mess — even though Google also does real-time room tuning,” Nilay Patel writes. “The Echo and smaller Google Home aren’t even in the same league. The only comparable speaker that came close in my testing was the Sonos Play:5, which could match the detail and power of the HomePod in some rooms when tuned with Sonos’ TruePlay system. But it also costs more, is larger, and doesn’t have any smart features at all.”

Ultimately, Patel concludes that “the HomePod sounds incredible, but not so world-bendingly amazing that you should switch away from Spotify, or accept Siri’s frustrating limitations as compared to Alexa.”

Buzzfeed comes to a similar conclusion, with Nicole Nguyen writing “I’ve found that the HomePod is a good-sounding speaker with killer features for iPhone users, but it has flawed “smart” functionality that falls short of its closest competitors, but for a much steeper price.”

Nguyen praises the HomePod’s easy setup and integration with the iPhone, and found the sound was good but not a home run, especially compared to the Sonos One. “HomePod outperformed other speakers in some situations and not others, but all agree: It’s absolutely better-sounding than the small speakers aboard the Amazon Echo and Google Home.”

iMore acknowledges up-front that the HomePod ships with a long list of limitations that might be dealbreakers for some, but overall, Rene Ritchie is extremely positive about Apple’s new speaker. “If you’re all in on Apple Music & Podcasts, HomeKit is your home automation system of choice, you’re all about the AirPlay, and you’re happy with how Siri handles all the basic tasks, including playing songs, setting timers, and telling you about the weather, then HomePod will provide you with significantly better audio quality than any smart speaker to date. (And many traditional speaker systems that cost twice as much or more.)”

TechCrunch‘s Matthew Panzarino says that “Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.” He also praises the HomePod’s voice recognition, and doesn’t think the software limitations are too big a deal to anyone already inside Apple’s ecosystem.

The New York Times‘s Brian X. Chen is less bullish on the HomePod. He starts his review by saying that “the $349 HomePod, which costs roughly three times its competitors, is hard to recommend to you.” Just like the rest of the reviewers, he was impressed by sound that “makes the Amazon Echo and Google’s Home sound muffled and tinny in comparison.” But he was underwhelmed by a Siri that isn’t even as good as the assistant on the iPhone, and which had trouble even playing music by voice command.

USA Today says that the HomePod is perfect for “well-heeled Apple diehards,” but as with all the other reviews, the software limitations let down an otherwise excellent speaker. “The new speaker can be an exercise in frustration at times, especially when you request something of Siri that Apple’s digital assistant can’t deliver on HomePod,” Edward Baig writes.