With Homepod Apple Wants to Do the Thinking for You

February 9th, 2018

Aside from the cheapest gear, whenever you set up a new audio system, there will be one or more adjustments for tonal quality. You may decide you need bass that thumps, treble that sparkles, and a midrange that is clear and distinct but still warm.

From time to time while on the road, I might be parked or passing near a vehicle that’s playing something with the bass way up. I can feel it and it’s so overwhelming I’m not able to hear the music itself. But I can feel the booming, even from a distance, and I wonder what is happening to the driver’s hearing acuity.

Whenever I’ve test driven a car, I find that someone, the manufacturer or the dealer’s new vehicle prep people, has a penchant for excess. Bass is turned way up, treble is turned way up, and before I take it for a test drive, I find a Sound setting somewhere to make it flat. I prefer something that realistically presents the natural quality of the audio system without such embellishments.

But sometimes you have to make adjustments. When I set up a VIZIO soundbar in my apartment, I had to turn the bass control way down, because it thumped a little too much at the flat setting. But that was probably a property of the lively wall behind it, as my previous sound system had the same problem. Indeed, the wall vibration was felt by the neighbor upstairs who was none too happy about it even when I watched a show at normal volume. He even complained to management, but refused to allow me to enter his apartment to see what was bothering him so much, so I had to make a good guess.

Apple’s HomePod is designed to eliminate the need to manually tailor the audio to a specific listening environment. Whether it’s in the middle of the room, or at one of the corners, its A8 processor is working full time to deliver Apple’s vision of the ultimate sound system. Its analytics scheme uses microphones and beamforming to handle the process rapidly behind the scenes.

In general, I can see the value of this approach, and not just for a single system. Imagine setting up a surround sound system for your TV with a subwoofer, three front speakers, for left, right and center, plus a pair of rear speakers. Some of those systems have a semi-automatic set up scheme to put them all into balance any our viewing area.

But often with some of the most expensive speaker systems, you may have to go through a complicated manual setup routine to position them just perfectly, listening carefully for hours or days on end to bring them all into focus. Having engaged in that process a number of times over the years, I’m happy to leave it behind.

So I do understand Apple’s priorities with the HomePad. According to Senior VP Eddy Cue, the HomePod will calculate the EQ automatically. There is no way for you to engage any manual settings. In other words, you have to depend on Apple to decide on the proper balance of the network of tweeters and subwoofer. The elaborate auto-configure system is intended to deliver the identical sonic signature for you however you position it.

This technological achievement, which appears to work according to the HomePod reviews I’ve read, certainly solves a well known problem in fine-tuning audio gear. But, as you see, you’re stuck with Apple’s preferences.

Now this is very much part of Apple’s DNA, to ease the setup process so you can have a gadget running in minutes and never, ever, have to adjust anything again. I’d like to see that with a TV set and other gear. Why would you need to adjust the picture? Shouldn’t it just reproduce, as much as possible, the audio and video settings made when the project was originally mastered? Wouldn’t you prefer to listen to a Beatles track precisely as the Fab Four heard it when it was mixed in the studio?

But, how then did Apple choose the “perfect” sonic signature? Did they call in music producers and movie directors to customize the ideal settings for you? An interesting question.

However, I have another concern. You may decide you prefer deeper bass, you may prefer a more realistic presentation of the midrange and perhaps softer treble. Maybe you disagree with the decisions made in the recording studio, because the wailing lead guitar on a rock track is too strident for your taste,

I rather suspect that 98% of HomePod owners will be only too happy with Apple’s choices, pleased as punch that they don’t have to do a thing to get it to work properly wherever they place it.

While a $349 purchase price may seem expensive for a so-called smart speaker, why couldn’t Apple add, in software, a manual mode in case you want to override their decisions?

Would it be so hard to do? Probably not! A simple software update could provide a way for you to tell Siri, “Give me more bass please!”

Now I don’t think Apple is attempting to foist a nanny state on us with the HomePod. This is also not Apple’s first attempt to build a portable speaker system. Let’s not forget the failed iPod Hi-Fi. Released in 2006, it also cost $349, and actually received mixed reviews. Macworld had high praise for it and awarded it four mice, but it failed to catch on.

But Apple has learned an awful lot since then, and I’m sure there will be changes for the next generation HomePod. But how many of you crave some level of manual EQ? Or am I totally alone in believing such a thing makes sense, at least for some users?

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5 Responses to “With Homepod Apple Wants to Do the Thinking for You”

  1. DaveD says:

    Interesting to read about Apple not providing an override to the sound settings. Have not read any reviews just the usual one or two-sentence snapshot highlighting the sound quality. We will know soon if the no manual setting is the way to go. For me if I want to hear pristine music, a high quality headphones is my choice. Home speakers have to compete with other external sounds. One of the worst places is in a moving vehicle which is why I think the bass is maxed for some listeners. If one can’t listen to the music at least you can feel the bass.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    This is a lot like Apple’s approach to its phone cameras. It does most of the choosing for you. There are very few user controllable settings. Instead, you get what a reviewer once called a “very nice” photo. A professional photographer with a full featured camera might get a better shot, but what you get is much, much better than what you would get with a point and shoot camera. It’s also better than what you would get with most cell phone cameras.

    When I was at MIT in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk about adaptive sound systems. Unfortunately, computers couldn’t do the sound processing in real time. There were a few high end applications, mainly involving noise abatement, but this was about mitigating machine noise. When processors got fast enough, in the late 1990s, I expected this technology to start appearing in high end sound gear, but high end audiophiles LIKE to tweak their set ups, and other folks were more than satisfied with some simple adjustments. It’s not like you move your speakers around every day.

    Twenty years or so later, it looks like Apple has gotten a version of this technology to work fairly well. An audiophile with some serious gear can do better, but for the rest of us, what you hear is “very nice”.

  3. dfs says:

    Gene, if the programming source for the music you listen to is an iPhone or iPad, have you tried going Settings>Music>EQ to see if the equalizer works with HomePod?

  4. dfs says:

    Now that I have my HomePod up and running I do have some strong first impressions. The first is how great it sounds and what a beautifully designed product it is. ‘Nuff said. The second is a lot more negative, and serves to reinforce a point I’ve made before: it is dangerous to allow the guys from Marketing too much of a say in product design. This has already ruined iTunes, which is now primarily a tool for pushing Apple Music and Apple TV, and only secondarily one to help the individual user ride herd on his own media collection. In exactly the same way, HomePod is too much a device for pushing Apple Music. I can accept Apple’s “walled garden” philosophy when it has some rational connection to maintaining my security, I’m even grateful for the protection. But when it becomes yet another marketing gimmick, I feel I am being unfairly manipulated. Here’s an example. I could get a pair of HomePods and use them with my t. v. when I’m watching programming on Apple TV. But because Bluetooth is left out (well, Bluetooth is actually included, you need it for your initial setup, but that’s the only way you get to use it) I couldn’t use them for watching programming from any other source (and not everybody in the world is a cord-cutter just yet). And too much attention has been paid to making Siri a “musicologist” rather than improving its (her?) overall performance. And what would be wrong with including a sound input jack? I have the distinct feeling I’m being coerced into using my HomePod the way Apple (or more precisely Apple’s Marketing division) wants me to use it rather than in some of the ways I’d like to use it myself. So the HomePod is both a model of great and lousy product design.

    A lot of reviewers have made points like this. But in fairness I can’t help wondering how much the existing product is going to be improved and made more flexible by software and firmware updates, a point the reviewers in the press never make.

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