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The HomePod Report: Oil and Silicone Don’t Mix

I suppose this is a subject we’ll get beyond, but it’s early the game for the HomePod, and there are still things left to be discovered. So as more and more reviewers and owners begin to try out their new HomePods, you can bet problems will be discovered. Some might relate to the early adopter phenomenon, where the initial shipments of a new gadget might have glitches of one sort or another.

There are reports, for example, of early setup issues. Apple has already addressed some of the problems in support documents, and as the product spreads around the world, no doubt there will be more. But Apple can certainly release updates to address these and other issues. There will be an update in the future, for example, to allow you to set up a pair of HomePods for a more realistic stereo image and, I suppose, to convey the feel of surround sound.

The audio quality may either be exceptional or pretty good with distinct flaws that may vary from musical track to musical track. By using the word “amazing,” Apple may have established unrealistic expectations for what it can do.

After it, it only cost $349. That may seem costly compared to an Amazon Echo, but it’s very inexpensive for a quality home speaker system, very inexpensive. Bob Carver, a legendary audio designer I’ve known for years, is currently selling a modern version of his Amazing ribbon loudspeaker for $18,500 the pair. The 1990’s version that I once owned cost a fraction of that, and there are even more expensive speaker systems out there. My late brother Wally purchased a gigantic tower system, the Duntech Sovereign, in the 1980s for $20,000. In 2018 dollars, it would cost $41,904! Other models carry six-figure price tags.

Obviously those systems are positively huge, whereas the HomePod is just 6.8 inches high. That it does what it does reasonably well has to be — to use that word again — an amazing achievement. Again, it’s very likely it’ll get better over time as Apple finds better ways to improve its auto-configure algorithms. Of course, buyers may not want to consider whether they are being used and abused as paid beta testers.

At this point, the best advice I’d offer, and I’d give it even I spent weeks with one, is that your mileage may vary. Give it a listen if you can, and don’t be disappointed if you buy one, but decide to return it because it doesn’t meet your needs. Nobody should condemn you for expressing your personal preferences.

There may even be a scandal in making that one might call “white ring gate,” because of a curious phenomenon discovered by some users, and at least one product reviewer, where it deposits a white ring on certain wood surfaces. Apple has already posted a support document on the issue. that it results from placing the unit on some oiled wood services, which sometimes interact with the speaker’s silicone base.

Apple claims it’s not unusual and quite a normal effect for gadgets with a silicone base, and they list ways to clean it. It’s apparently not permanent.

What’s more, it is evidently not unique to the HomePod. One reviewer, from Tom’s Guide, reported a similar effect with the Sonos One, which sports silicone feet. Some basic problem in a different shape, same solution, so why must it all be blamed on Apple?

You can ask a legitimate question, though. Was it necessary for Apple to use silicone? Knowing of this problem, would it have not been better to use a different substance, or does silicone do a better job of isolating the speaker from a surface? I’ll let the engineers in our audience ponder that one, but if you put it on a mat, that already changes the equation.

In the meantime, several manufacturers are already developing solutions. Pad & Quill, a company that makes cases for iPhones and iPads, will offer the Leather HomePod Coaster, sporting an ultra soft leather backing, for $19.95. Other entrants into this nascent market include six-packs of leather coasters for less than $14, serving the needs of people who have several oiled wood surfaces around the home to protect.

I don’t know the percentage of HomePod users afflicted by this phenomenon, but it seems clear there are solutions. I would only wonder if these solutions could possibly alter the isolation of the unit from a surface to the extent that audio quality suffers, but I can’t see where that should matter, since Apple is evidently not restricting the HomePod’s setup on any normal surface aside no doubt from those containing an abrasive material, or are wet.

Besides, if an entrepreneur can cash in on helping HomePod users escape the alleged ravages of “white ring gate,” why not?

Does that mean Apple will see the need to redesign the unit to escape the problem with the HomePod 2? I wouldn’t know, but the apparent ease with which this problem can be fixed — other than some cleaning solution or a soft cloth — make it quite clear that this is no scandal or even a serious problem. And if you are going to blame Apple for its design priorities, what about Sonos, which has far more experience building smart speakers?