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The HomePod Report: Are We Expecting Too Much?

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?