HomePod Review: Using Apple’s Not So Smart Speaker in Canada

Update June 18: Apple’s HomePod is now available for purchase in Canada.

“Apple is releasing a speaker powered with Siri? Just take my money!” said no one ever. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true, but when it comes to HomePod in Canada, that is the case, because the iPhone maker’s latest speaker is not available for purchase here (yet).

So what does a Canuck do? Purchase a HomePod from Apple.com and use a mail forwarding service to send the speaker to us in Canada. We’ve been playing with HomePod for a couple weeks, and here are our thoughts on the speaker, which we’ve been comparing to the Sonos One.

Let’s be clear—I’m not an ‘audiophile’, but I can tell you what sounds good to my ears and I tested the speaker with songs I’m familiar with (you know, like The Polar Express soundtrack our son has been addicted to since December).

This review will first go over my observations on controlling HomePod, using Siri in Canada and then audio quality compared to the Sonos One.

Unboxing Apple’s HomePod

Apple makes sure HomePod is well protected, not just within its retail box, but within its shipping box, which is built to absorb any shock the speaker may take in transit:

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Unboxing Apple’s HomePod is like any other Apple product unboxing. There’s an easy tab to help remove the plastic and next all you have to do is pull the top of the box off and HomePod sits there in all its glory.

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I found HomePod to have some pretty good weight to it, with our white version looking pretty nice. The mesh fabric feels like it can soak up your fingerprints, unlike the metal exterior of a Sonos One. It’s soft enough and feels like you can make an indent (don’t try it).

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The top of the HomePod has a piece of plastic to protect its touch surface from scratches:

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The power cord of Apple’s HomePod, which the Internet revealed can be removed if you pull hard enough (we didn’t try this), doesn’t tangle easily as it’s coated in a nylon fabric. There is no power brick as it’s built into the HomePod.

When it comes to design, HomePod is made to blend into your surroundings, with its smooth curves. A large ball of yarn has never looked this good, folks!

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Here’s a close up of the nylon cord, which feels pretty nice:

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As for the bottom of the HomePod, there’s a silicone base with an Apple logo. Again, if you’re going to place HomePod (or Sonos One) on a wooden finished surface, beware some people have been experiencing ‘white marks’:

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What else is in the box? A set of quick start instructions, Apple stickers and some extra safety info:

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Setting Up HomePod–You Need an iOS Device

If you’re paired a set of AirPods before, then you’re going to be familiar with HomePod setup, as all you do is place your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad with iOS 11.2.5 or later next to the speaker to get started (got an Android phone? Tough luck).

Below are screenshots of the setup process. At the end, HomePod asks you to say “Hey Siri, what can you do?”

Homepod setup

When Siri is talking, the top of the speaker will glow with the voice assistant’s multi-coloured animation you see on iOS devices:

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This touch surface on HomePod will have volume up and down icons that light up when music is playing.

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How to Control HomePod on your iOS Device

To control HomePod settings, you need to go through the Home app. From here, 3D Touch on the HomePod icon and go to details to adjust settings.

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When using HomePod, there are a few ways to control it. First, you can speak to it and ask Siri to play a song, album playlist, or whatever. Once that begins, the speaker will play music on its own, and to control it, you will need to launch Control Center on your iOS device, then 3D Touch on the music widget.

This extra step to control HomePod when not using AirPlay, is really annoying. When HomePod is playing on its own, I want controls on my iPhone X lock screen, but they don’t show up, like Apple Music controls normally would.

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Yes, that’s Rescue Bots on Apple TV 

So let’s say I was previously listening to music on my iPhone X, with AirPods or whatever. Then I ask Siri on HomePod to play music. In order to get to HomePod controls on my iPhone X, I need to swipe down for Control Center, 3D Touch the music widget, tap ‘Living Room’, then finally get access to controls. This workflow is too complicated in my opinion, as controls should just show up on my lock screen if HomePod is playing.

Why? If you have company over and want to discreetly control music, or if there’s a baby sleeping somewhere, ain’t nobody got time to speak to HomePod with their voice.

Another way to access HomePod music controls is through the Apple Music app. Launch it, then tap on what’s currently playing, then tap the AirPlay icon. Again, three taps required to control HomePod if you don’t want to talk to it. Seriously?

If you want to access your Apple Music library, to send music to HomePod, all you need to do is tap the AirPlay icon, then select your HomePod. From here, you’ll be controlling HomePod from both your iOS device and your voice.

Dumb and Dumber: Siri’s Speaker Debut

To be fair, HomePod only supports US/UK/Australian English, so official Canadian support isn’t out for the speaker. But even then, Siri remains weak in what it can do on HomePod. Here are some examples of what it can and cannot do in Canada:

  • Play podcasts: yes
  • Read the news: nope – “Sorry, I don’t have news sources for that topic.” (Not surprised, Apple News isn’t even in Canada yet)
  • Control your HomeKit devices: yes
  • “Hey Siri what’s the weather?”: will read the weather for your Canadian location
  • “Hey Siri, play the radio station 98.5.”: “Sorry, I can’t help you with that on your HomePod.”
  • Send/read messages to/from contacts: yes
  • “Hey Siri, find me a chocolate chip recipe.”: “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod.”
  • “Hey Siri, what’s on my calendar?”: “I wish I could, but I can’t access your calendar here.”
  • “Hey Siri, give me directions to Starbucks.”: “I can’t help with directions here—sorry about that.”
  • “Hey Siri, how do you say ‘hello’ in French?”: “In French, ‘hello’ is ‘bonjour’.”

Alright, by now you probably can figure out Siri is really dumb on HomePod, even worse than the assistant is on your iOS device or Mac. Again, if you’re easily frustrated by Siri’s failures, don’t even bother asking it questions on HomePod, as you’ll just end up silently cursing to yourself. It’s so frustrating as an Apple customer because Siri has so much potential. Now it has fallen behind compared to Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

HomePod was able to hear my voice clearly from across the room, even with loud music playing, so no issues in that department.

Test 1: HomePod Sound Quality in a Living Room

This is probably the part you’ve been waiting to read. It’s so subjective when it comes to speaker tests, as not only do people have their own preference for what ‘sounds good’, but other testing factors can also play a part, such as environment, song choice and more.

My experience with audio ‘quality’ can date back to my teenage car audio days, listening to songs overpowered with bass thanks to deafening JL subs in the trunk. Okay, bad example but fast forward to present day, the only other speaker we tested against HomePod was the Sonos One (disclaimer: Sonos sent us the speaker to test it out).

Our unscientific casual testing went down like this: we placed HomePod on one side of our mantle in the living room (vaulted ceiling) and Sonos One on the other. We then played tracks from The Polar Express soundtrack, as various songs from this album were played heavily during Christmas (#kids), at half volume.

My wife and a friend were put to ‘blind’ speaker tests—I asked them which speaker sounded better, A or B, and mixed up the starting order to try to randomize the process. In the end, votes were for the Sonos One over HomePod, noting the Sonos sounded fuller and richer, while Apple’s speaker sounded on the ‘tinnier’ side with less bass. One answered “no contest” when a song was played on Sonos One. Again, these are thoughts from casual listeners who were asked to choose which speaker sounded better to them.

In my tests, HomePod has clear sound with good highs. However, mids are lacking as it can be treble heavy at times. As for bass, the response is punchy but it doesn’t necessarily pound like Sonos One at lower volumes, where you can really ‘feel’ it in your chest more than HomePod.

When HomePod is playing music, you can easily tell where the speaker and sound is coming from. When Sonos One plays music, the sound is fuller and projects to a wider space, like it’s a bigger speaker than it is. Okay, so HomePod is not exactly living up to the hype?

Next, I moved both HomePod and Sonos One to our TV stand and did the same tests again. I re-tuned Sonos One again with its Trueplay tuning method (waving my iPhone around the room like a weirdo). The results were the same. Everybody favoured the sound from the Sonos One. The consensus again was HomePod was not as ‘full’ sounding as the Sonos, with bass not being as punchy too.

Test 2: HomePod Sound Quality in a Room Setting

Was I crazy? I read many reviews of HomePod and its amazing sound quality. Don’t get me wrong, HomePod sounds great, with the ability to play clear music at pretty much all volume levels and also distinguish individual instruments, but still, there’s something about the speaker that hasn’t won me over with Apple’s typical ‘surprise and delight’.

HomePod contains “seven horn-loaded tweeters, each with its own custom amplifier,” while it features “automatic bass correction,” thanks to its “internal low-frequency calibration microphone.” It also has “Direct and ambient audio beamforming” and “Transparent studio-level dynamic processing”. What does all this mean? It means HomePod will automatically adjust music based on the environment it’s in, for perfect sound.

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HomePod next to Sonos One on a dusty side table 

Still not satisfied with HomePod’s performance so far, I brought the speaker to our office, which has a regular 8-foot ceiling and placed it on a side table next to Sonos One. I started to repeat casual music tests against the Sonos One, and only here was I satisfied with the sound coming from HomePod, noticing a difference in performance compared to being in our large living room. This is where the HomePod’s Digital Signal Processing (DSP) appeared to really adapt to the new environment. Bass was louder, punchier and did not distort with tough deep bass-heavy songs like I Got 5 On It by the Luniz, unlike Sonos One.

HomePod leans towards too much treble and not enough mids and punchy bass to balance it out. Sound sometimes sounds like it’s not being projected at me, but being bounced off a wall, as per HomePod’s design

HomePod can be played at max volume and the speaker does not distort badly like Sonos One; it just handles full power beautifully. When Sonos One goes past half volume, its bass cannot keep up with HomePod, which excels at low and deep bass.

Songs Used to Test HomePod vs Sonos One

Here are some songs we tested out on HomePod and Sonos One (suggestions taken from What HiFi and Cambridge Audio plus some of my own) at half volume for each speaker, using Apple Music:
  • Believe – Josh Groban
  • Spirit of the Season – Alan Silvestri
  • Seeing is Believing – Alan Silvestri
  • I Got 5 On It – Luniz (good bass from HomePod without distorting; who else blasted this in their lowered car with the windows down when it was cool to do such things?)
  • The Crossroads – Bone Thugs-n-Harmony
  • Turn Your Lights Down Low – Bob Marley & The Wailers
  • My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion (yes, I cried softly in the fetal position)
  • Baby Plays Around – Anne Sofie von Otter (Sonos One picked up her palate noises much clearer than HomePod)
  • Jack Of Speed – Steely Dan
  • Bright Lights Bigger City – Cee Lo Green
  • No Limit – 2 Unlimited
  • Money Ain’t a Thang (feat. Jay Z) – Jermaine Dupri
  • One Sweet Day – Mariah Carey

Conclusion: Should You Buy HomePod

So how do I feel about HomePod? Maybe I went into the speaker with too high of expectations, based on its high price and early positive reviews, but at the end of the day, I still think it’s an excellent speaker. But when I compare it to Sonos One, HomePod’s lead over the latter is not leaps and bounds, though. Sonos One is no joke, despite being half the price of HomePod. Apple’s speaker sounded the best for us when placed in a smaller room like an office, versus a larger living room.

With HomePod, you’re limited to Apple Music with Siri voice controls. You can stream other music services via AirPlay, but then you end up with annoying interruptions from notifications and such.

Also, given HomePod’s price, you would think Siri’s capabilities on the speaker would at least match what is available on iPhone. This is not the case—it is worse (even without official Canadian support). This makes me not want to ask Siri anything at all. It’s so frustrating to use Siri that I’ve given up on the virtual assistant. Also, the only way to disable Siri’s mic is by asking with your voice—there is no physical switch or button, unlike competitors.

Get out there and test HomePod against other speakers with some of the songs we listed, if you have the chance, and come up with your own conclusions. For now, if you have a friend in the U.S., you could get them to buy one for you, but it’s an expensive proposition.

Should you buy HomePod right away when it launches in Canada? Die hard Apple customers probably already have a HomePod while they’re reading this. As for everyone else, I’d wait for HomePod to hit the refurbished store to save a few bucks or even the second generation, which we know will eventually debut. There are alternatives out there that are as good or better than HomePod, like the Sonos One at $250 CAD, for half the price, which also supports Alexa (Google Assistant and AirPlay 2 coming soon).

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