HomePod Audio Quality: Let the Disconnect Begin!

February 13th, 2018

Let me put this in perspective. Consumer Reports magazine, supposedly an incorruptible source of product reviews and advice, is often at odds with other product reviewers. CR more or less implies that they have the advantage over other publications by dint of the fact that they buy all the products they test, usually anonymously. That way they cannot get a “ringer,” a product that may be specially modified by the manufacturer and thus is not a true example of what customers will get when purchasing the product via the usual channels.

That said, having reviewed consumer products for over 25 years, I never encountered any evidence that I received anything that was different from what a regular customer would buy.

I will also grant that CR will, when publishing reviews that have a subjective factor, such as the sound quality of an audio system or the picture quality of a TV set, may not reach the same conclusions as others.

Take my  VIZIO SB3621 sound bar, the 2017 version. It comes with a wireless Bluetooth subwoofer. According to CNET, it’s a game-changer, matching or exceeding gear costing twice its average $150 purchase price. CR tested similar sound bars from VIZIO, but none of them rose beyond a “good” rating, though they still ended up among the top ten. The description of the sound quality of a similar sound bar, the SB3821, revealed many flaws. But I’ll grant that the two models are different, models with a “38” designation are 38 inches wide, whereas the one I have is 36 inches wide. While they ought to be similar, they appear to come from different years, and that could also account for some of the differences beyond the subjective factors.

CR’s review of the TV I own, a 55-inch M-Series, afforded it a lower rating than was awarded by CNET, which considered it one of the best they’ve tested at its price point and when compared to gear costing a lot more.

Long and short, is CNET simply less critical, or are their priorities different? But slightly different models and/or different firmware versions may also account for changes in performance.

Now when it comes to Apple’s HomePod, CR has published its preliminary review, which includes listening tests from a panel in a dedicated listening room with unspecified size and design.

But for Apple’s smart speaker, it shouldn’t matter. Most reviews gave it high marks, with amazing sound quality for its size in different listening areas. One review compared it to a KEF studio monitor costing almost three times as much. Another reviewer, as quoted in AppleInsider, made detailed measurements, and come up with results that were about as flat as any speaker gets across the frequency range. The reviewer who conducted those tests characterized highs as “exceptionally crisp” and bass as “incredibly impressive,” meaning tight and natural. Take note of this.

Now columnist Kirk McElhearn is very much into a variety of musical styles, from classical, to jazz to rock. He listens carefully, and he’s someone I take very seriously. His experience with a brand new HomePod was very different from the crowd. Sometimes it didn’t sound so good, muddy and bassy. He tried it with a TV set and it failed on all counts.

CR’s first look was more measured. Pitted against the $400 Google Home Max, and a $200 Sonos One, the HomePod also received a “very good” rating. But the other two were still judged superior. To CR, the HomePod’s bass was “boomy and overemphasized,” the midrange was “somewhat hazy,” and treble was “underemphasized,” the equivalent of being distant or less clear. Doesn’t sound very good to me. But the magazine also concluded that these smart speakers were all “reasonably short” of regular wireless speakers.

Again, we know nothing of the design of CR’s listening room, or the abilities of its listening panel, but I would hope they are skilled at such tasks. In large part, CR’s results weren’t far off from Kirk’s. But the reviewer quoted from AppleInsider, as indicated above, came up with decidedly different conclusions.

I’d normally be skeptical of CR’s results, since it wouldn’t be the first time they differed from the consensus, but since the listening results were similar to what Kirk reported on some musical material and TV shows, I take it seriously too.

It’s quite possible much of the disparity is just due to the fact that different people just hear things differently and they are entitled to their preferences. I suppose it’s possible that the HomePods that CR and Kirk tested were defective in some fashion, or that the software needs to be adjusted to better configure the system to deliver similar sonic qualities in a wider variety of listening environments.

And don’t forget the problems CR had when testing the 2016 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. Battery life tests were all over the place, until Apple got involved, and an obscure bug was discovered with caching when using Safari in the Develop mode to turn off that feature. It was fixed, the MacBook Pro passed the retests and garnered high ratings from CR.

Since Apple claims that the HomePod can adapt itself for a variety of listening areas, maybe they’ll enter the fray to see what’s up. Or maybe all this is due to the fact that no active speaker system can be the perfect solution for every listening area. It’s a reason why I suggest you listen to one before you buy it if you can. Either way, if it doesn’t work the way you want, don’t assume it’ll be fixed eventually. Nothing wrong with returning a product that doesn’t satisfy you, even if it’s from Apple.

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6 Responses to “HomePod Audio Quality: Let the Disconnect Begin!”

  1. KiraK says:

    The problem I see with many of the HomePod reviews is trying to label it as an audiophile grade speaker. It just isn’t. Period. That does not mean it has no merit or is not a great product. For.what.it.is.

  2. ViewRoyal says:

    “It’s quite possible much of the disparity is just due to the fact that different people just hear things differently and they are entitled to their preferences.”

    This seems to be the problem with the CR assessment of the HomePod. That it was judged on the very subjective (and possibly biased) opinions of some people at CR.

    In contrast, many of the glowing reviews of the HomePod come from objective testing of the HomePod versus other speakers. Also, the subjective opinions were from audio professionals who tested the speakers in various environments, and with various styles of music.

    Quotes from PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff:

    “Recently, though, I heard Apple’s HomePod again in a variety of scenarios and spaces. It sounded even better, especially when compared to larger Google Home Max [which is more expensive at $399] and the aurally excellent Sonos One, the HomePod’s separation of sounds and fidelity to original instrumentation is astonishing.”

    “The matrix of audio components is not inconsequential. In my listening party, songs like Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You picked apart the track, letting me hear both Sheeran’s guitar picking and the clarity of his voice. It was like he was playing in a small café for an audience of me. The bass notes on songs like Gregory Porter’s Holding On and Ariana Grande’s Side by Side were deep and resonant.”

    Quotes from a preliminary review by Jonathan Bray:

    “This driver setup produces a sound that’s truly impressive for a speaker this small. In the mids and high notes, there’s a crisp sweetness to audio reproduction that most small speakers struggle to reproduce.”

    “What was most impressive about the HomePod, however, was the amount of bass it was capable of kicking out. And not just the power of it (although that was impressive) but the muscularity of the bass and the quality of it. In back-to-back tests, where we were played the same tracks on “volume leveled” Amazon Echo 2, Sonos One, Harman-Kardon Allure and Apple HomePod speakers, the Apple HomePod won hands down.”

    Quotes from an audiophile reviewer, after 8 1/2 hours of measurements, and over 6 hours of analysis:

    “I am speechless. The HomePod actually sounds better than the KEF X300A [$1,000 speakers]. If you’re new to the Audiophile world, KEF is a very well respected and much loved speaker company. I actually deleted my very first measurements and re-checked everything because they were so good, I thought I’d made an error. Apple has managed to extract peak performance from a pint sized speaker, a feat that deserves a standing ovation. The HomePod is 100% an Audiophile grade Speaker.”

    In a recent review of the HomePod by Ben Lovejoy:

    “Finally, a head-to-head with the Sonos Play 5. This is a single speaker, but much larger than the HomePod. The Sonos also costs $150 more [$499 US versus $349 US].

    Here, I was even more surprised. This was much closer. I toggled back and forth between the two speakers multiple times, before finally concluding that the two are not only in the same league, but rank really closely within it. And if I had to give the edge to one, it would actually be HomePod.

    Sorry, Sonos, but for iPhone owners at least, Apple just killed the Play 5 – not just the Play 3 Apple preferred to use as its basis for comparison.”

  3. Kaleberg says:

    I’m guessing that CR has a proper audio test room with well controlled surfaces, listening area and so on. It’s probably like one of those listening rooms they used to have at high end audio stores. You could patch in a turntable, amplifier and pair of speakers and do an A/B test to figure out what to buy. The only problem with this is that you probably didn’t have an acoustic space like that at home.

    Such a setup, while excellent for comparing ordinary gear, puts an active system like the Homepod at a disadvantage. The Homepod has to optimize across a range of conditions. A system designed to sound good in a good acoustic space has a big advantage. It only has to sound really good under one set of conditions. Odds are, the Homepod will only be 90-95% as good in such a space. The difference is that when you take it home to the land of reflective walls, sound dead couches, awkwardly placed doors and the like, the Homepod adapts and quite likely sounds better than higher scoring gear.

    If you are a serious audiophile, you may have carved out proper acoustic space, at least for the gear you currently have. In this case, the Homepod will probably not be an improvement. If you are Joe or Jane Random and like music but have to make do with the acoustic space you have, then you are likely to really like the Homepod sound. Which market reads the serious reviews? Which market is bigger? I know how Apple answered these questions.

    • That may be so. But Kirk McElhearn had similar and worse issues. He doesn’t have a customized listening area. But it would be nice to know if CR’s listening room was as sterile in the lack of reflections as a recording studio, which would hardly mimic a normal listening situation.


  4. ImmovableObject says:

    The Homepod is not a replacement for a TV sound bar, nor is it intended for critical audiophile stereo listening, or loud DJ party use. Neither is it optimized as a general purpose digital assistant or Spotify speaker.

    It simply excels at providing a better-than-average source of background music that sounds good anywhere in the room and as you move about. It will play louder and more cleanly than one would ever expect given its diminutive size. It is a no-brainer for Apple Music subscribers.

    So like most Apple products, it is not for everyone, and doesn’t address every niche, but what it does do, it does well. And despite its limitations, I suspect that it will meet the needs of large numbers of users.

  5. dfs says:

    One thing that troubles me about a lot of reviews and also reactions of individual users is the very limited kinds of music that are used for their evaluations: pretty much all contempo-pop of one kind or another. I also want to hear the reactions of folks who have tried it out a playlist consisting of, say, the last movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth, Natalie Dessay singing an aria from Handel Giulio Cesare, Ron Farlane playing solo lute songs by John Dowland, Bach’s’ Toccata and Fugue in d performed on an Aeolian Skinner organ, and Dave Van Ronk’s Ragtime Jug Stompers playing “Everybody Loves my Baby” with its memorable kazoo -bicycle bell duet at the beginning. That would mean throwing a vastly greater range of acoustic tasks at it and it would be interesting to hear how gracefully it can handle such a varied diet. And they should always give us an idea of the size of their listening room.

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