It’s hard not to watch Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant invade millions of living rooms and not feel like Apple blew an opportunity.
Almost six years after Apple announced Siri as a feature on the iPhone 4S, Siri’s still confined to computers and phones. Siri has to be unlocked, activated, and summoned. Alexa and Assistant are omnipresent, always ready and waiting. The closest thing Apple offers is “Hey Siri,” which works approximately never.
Now Apple finally has a way to get Siri out of your phone and into your family room. But it’s more than that, at least if you believe Apple’s Phil Schiller. At WWDC, Schiller announced the new HomePod speaker, which is designed to take on Sonos, Amazon, and Google all at once.
The round, mesh device is seven inches tall, almost as big around as the Mac Pro, and has seven tweeters and an Apple A8 chip that Apple says make it sound better than your average smart speaker. (Not a high bar, but still.) The HomePod can detect its surroundings, tuning its output to sound good no matter where it is. Schiller made a big deal out of the HomePod’s sound quality, which makes sense given that Apple owns Beats, and it also gives Apple at least one good reason to buy its speaker and not Amazon’s.
Schiller described Siri as the omnipresent musicologist inside the HomePod. You say, “Hey Siri,” and ask it questions. Play Beats 1 Radio. Play I’m Poppy. Play something new. Play the top song from May 5th, 2016. Apple’s also working on optimizing Siri to be an in-home assistant, offering things like podcasts, messages, weather, traffic, sports, and alarms. It’s still very much an Echo or Home competitor, but Apple’s choosing to focus on music instead of the hodgepodge of features touted by Google and Amazon.
The HomePod uses local recognition to hear the Hey Siri command, and encrypts all your communication. The privacy of your in-home speaker is a big deal, and Apple’s making sure it’s on top of it from the jump. The speaker’s not coming until the end of the year, and it’ll cost $350 when it arrives. Apple’s after a higher-end customer than your average Echo owner, and hoping great sound wins them over.
I didn’t get to hear how Siri sounds inside a hefty round speaker, but I did get to hear the HomePod’s audio output. It’s amazingly loud for such a small speaker, easily filling the room I was in. Next to an Amazon Echo and a Sonos Play:3, it sounded full, wide, and heavily sculpted. This is no flat, faithful speaker; it’s tuned to provide brightly shining vocals and deeply thumping bass. That sounds about normal for most current music, which is mixed that way anyway, but I’ve never heard Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” as sparkly as I did on the HomePod. The flatter Play:3 sounded a little boring by comparison, though its sound is probably more accurate.
You can wirelessly connect multiple HomePods and create a surround system—nobody would tell me how many you can have, but the answer appears to be at least in double digits. In general, the speaker does a nice job of creating a wide soundstage, and putting out audio in all directions so you don’t have to sit right in front to get good sound. I’ve only heard about 15 minutes of HomePod audio, but I came away impressed. It’s no audiophile setup, but it’ll sound just right to lots of people. I just hope Siri will be able to hear me over all that racket.