The HomePod Report: Are We Expecting Too Much?

February 15th, 2018

Long long ago, when I had a lot more money than I do now, I owned a fairly expensive stereo system. The centerpiece was the Carver Amazing Platinum Mark IV speakers. In polished black, they were truly imposing, with a 60-inch tall ribbon driver and four 12-inch subwoofers in each unit.

I placed the electronics, which included a preamplifier equipped with tubes no less, in a black cabinet situated  between the speakers. Despite my feeling that they were extremely delicate, they came in a secure box and I moved three times during the years I owned them, but they never sustained damage from those long trips. I did have to replace the ribbon assembly on one of the units early on, however, due a manufacturing defect. But I also had help direct from the designer, my old friend Bob Carver. Yes, I got them at a discount.

To be sure, they sounded great, but my listening habits changed over the years. As I explained in an earlier post, I sold the entire system, sans cabinet, more than a decade ago to raise funds for a relative suffering from deep financial stress.

In any case, when I first read about Apple’s HomePod I could only compare them in a perverse way to the Amazings. Apple’s smart speaker is a mere 6.8 inches high, and weighs 5.5 pounds. Unlike Carver’s giant old fashioned system that required careful manual placement in a listening area, the HomePod is meant to be set and forget.

The Amazings worked best positioned at least two or three feet from a rear wall, although your mileage might vary. The HomePod is meant to be positioned most anywhere in your home, with an elaborate automatic fine-tuning system to adapt itself. It sports a calibration setup with six mics and the promise of “transparent studio-level dynamic processing.”

Aside from the obvious limitations of a small woofer compared to four large ones, Apple’s marketing plan implies it can do almost anything, play almost anything and deliver something approaching audiophile quality sound.

Apple boasts of “amazing sound from every angle.” But the use of that word is nowhere related to the name of Carver’s classic speaker system. Carver just has a thing for elaborate branding.

In the real world, the HomePod has gotten mostly positive reviews, but Apple hasn’t discovered a way to violate the laws of physics. A tiny speaker can only play so loud despite all the signal processing. It doesn’t appear to be altogether sensitive to positioning, and audio quality can be really good, or perhaps not so good depending on the reviewer and perhaps the choice of musical material.

The Mac Observer’s John Martellaro took a pretty realistic point of view about the HomePod during a recording session for the February 17th episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE. He suggested that it is meant more for background listening than a replacement for a dedicated stereo system used for focused listening of your favorite music. A $350 system can only do so much, and it’s only the first product with the original software. No doubt Apple will improve its auto-tuning capability to deal with edge cases. John cited one I hadn’t thought about, such as the impact to audio quality when a salt shaker was placed close to the unit, and thus interfered with its ability to correctly detect room reflections.

Consumer Reports magazine has generated lots of coverage of its preliminary test results concluding that the audio quality of the HomePod was very good, but not perfect, and somewhat inferior to the Google Home Max and Sonos One. None of them, CR claims, can match a regular Bluetooth wireless speaker, though I’m not sure why that should matter.

But when John talks about the toxic impact of an idly paced salt shaker, I thought about CR’s dedicated listening room and whether there was any placement situation there that might hurt the HomePod’s auto-configure capabilities.

What if, for example, the HomePod was placed in a row with other speaker systems nearby rather than all by itself? Well, CR’s video of their test setup confirmed that it was placed between the Google and Sonos speakers, with others in shelves behind it. It also appeared that it was treated with sound deadening material, similar to what you might find in a recording studio. Is that the ideal placement for a HomePod or any home speaker system? How does such a setup duplicate a typical home, unless you moonlight as an audio dealer or run a home studio?

Yes, I realize audio showrooms often contain rows and rows of speakers situated almost adjacent to one another. But most of those speakers are not equipped with six mics and a powerful computer to tune themselves to a listening area by sensing such characteristics as wall reflections and such sound deadlining features as thick carpeting. Would such a setup be capable of compensating for banks of speakers around it? The accidental salt shaker test from a Mac Observer reporter raises some suspicions.

The CR video appears to confirm such suspicions. It wouldn’t be the first time CR was caught using questionable test methods. Don’t forget the way notebook PCs are tested for battery life. Sites are repeatedly downloaded from a server, which seems reasonable, but the default browser’s cache is turned off, which is not reasonable.

None of that explains the problems columnist and podcaster Kirk McElhearn encountered with his first test of an HomePod, however. A misplaced salt shaker perhaps? Or just someone else’s opinion?

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4 Responses to “The HomePod Report: Are We Expecting Too Much?”

  1. dfs says:

    The more I live with the pair of HomePods I have running in my bedroom, the more I feel I’m dealing with an incomplete product. I suspect that Apple released it when it did in order to avoid the embarrassment of missing yet another self-imposed deadline. Over the next few months it will be playing catchup, releasing software (and maybe also firmware) updates to fill in the blanks the critics have already had a field day listing. We’ve already been promised stereo and multi-room capability. The capacity to handle multiple users within a single household might appear. Beyond this, it is not impossible that further improvements might include Bluetooth connectivity (it’s already built into the hardware since it’s necessary for the initial setup — Apple lists Bluetooth 5.0 on its official spec sheet, and I don’t see why they’d bother mentioning it if setup were its only purpose. Bluetooth would be the first break in the “walled garden” — Amazon will sell you an inexpensive Bluetooth dongle that converts any t. v. or sound system in to a Bluetooth-friendly one. Doing stuff like this would silence a lot of the criticism of the product in its present condition, leaving only a couple of problems that keep HP from being a world-class product. The first is that the bass could be a bit stronger for those folks who demand a real gut-slamming experience. It is likely that pretty soon third-party developers will start marketing various kinds of stands and bases for the HomePod, and I’ll be curious to see whether or not the use of one of these improves the bass. Or maybe Apple will release a smart subwoofer that can be integrated into the system?

    That leaves me with only one gripe about something not so easily fixed: I sometimes find myself wishing I could turn up the volume a little more. Apple doesn’ mention the amplifier in its spec sheet (I’m going to take a wild guess that it’s somewhere in the 15 – 20 watt range). Is there a good reason they couldn’t have given us a slightly beefier one? (Or did they limit it to its present strength because there’s already a subwoofer in the works?)

  2. Kaleberg says:

    As I’ve noted, it’s like the iPhone camera. You can do a lot better, but what you get is very nice. It’s also version one, and the software has a lot of possibilities. As with the iPhone camera, the first version is OK for most people, but software, and likely hardware, iterations will produce something better.

  3. KiraK says:

    Reviewers do a disservice to the HomePod claiming it is an audiophile grade speaker. That’s ludicrous, and sets very unreasonable expectations. I do think, however, it is reasonable to expect the HomePod can be placed on a tabletop with marring the surface. That was a huge fail by Apple engineering.

    • It appears to involve any gadget with a silicone base or feet. The Sonos One exhibits similar symptoms according to a review in Tom’s Guide.

      Or just put a mat below it.

      In fact this phenomenon has already started a cottage industry for HomePod mats.


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