One Hour With Apple's New HomePod

In the world of smart speakers, Apple is uncharacteristically late to the party. The increasingly crowded, and competitive, market has been dominated by Amazon, Google, and, more recently, Sonos, each of which has vied to control the sound waves (and choice of virtual assistant) in your apartment for months and, in some cases, years.

Still, being first isn't everything, especially when you're Apple and you have a fanbase that clings to every rumor. Now, there's finally good news for those eagerly awaiting Apple's take on the smart speaker: HomePod will be available for $349 on February 9 (pre-orders launch this Friday, January 26), and it is well worth your consideration.

This morning, Refinery29 had a chance to sit down with the new speaker. It wasn't my first time hearing HomePod: I got an early preview when Apple announced the device at its Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, in June. However, it was my first chance to see Siri in action, learn how the device is setup, and get a look at its smart home integrations — and I was impressed.

To start, HomePod looks good — really good. Both the black and white versions are sleek and, thankfully, at 6.8 inches high, surprisingly smaller in person than they appear in photos. The device is comparable in size to the Sonos One, and is much smaller than its rectangular Google competitor, Google Home Max. It blends in so seamlessly that I didn't even notice it when I walked into the room.

Aesthetic, however, is only a very small part of the puzzle and one you'd expect Apple to excel at. Fortunately, HomePod also delivers where it counts: The sound. When I listened to the speaker next to Google Home Max, the latest Amazon Echo, and Sonos One, the vocals were consistently crisper and clearer on HomePod. The pluck of guitar strings pops, and bass notes have the robust thump-thump you want from them.

It's also nice that regardless of where you are in the room, HomePod's sound quality stays strong. That's due in part to HomePod's ability to automatically tune to the size of the room you’re in, without you needing to do any additional setup. You don't have to carry your phone around the room, covering all its dimensions to ensure the best sound, like you do when setting up some other speakers. You can get Siri's attention when you want to change the volume or switch songs without screaming at her — just a gentle "hey, Siri" will do.

Siri, however, could be HomePod's biggest selling challenge. Even though the virtual assistant is an OG compared to Alexa and the Google Assistant, it hasn't stayed the frontrunner and has often been the butt of jokes online. Fortunately, there have been improvements. With the launch of iOS 11 in September, Siri debuted with a new voice that is far more natural (read: less robotic) than it was in the past. On HomePod, Siri sounds even better, with only a few instances of slightly awkward phrasing. Apple made an effort to up Siri's music knowledge in advance of HomePod's release, and it shows. When playing songs, Siri's pronunciation was correct and it could provide useful info about individual band members and albums. If you have smart devices set up in your home, like Philips Hue lightbulbs or a connected, electric kettle, you can call on Siri to control those, too.

However, there are some areas where HomePod is limiting. Even though you can use AirPlay to stream music from any service through HomePod, you'll only get all the speaker's benefits if you subscribe to Apple Music (plans start at $4.99 per month for students and $9.99 per month for individuals). For example, Siri won't be able to tell you detailed information about a song or album unless that song is playing through Apple Music. Secondly, although everyone in your apartment will be able to use the speaker, only the person who sets up HomePod on their iCloud account will be able to send texts, set up reminders, and add notes via voice commands. Google Home and Amazon Echo, meanwhile, can recognize different voices and provide personalized content accordingly. (If you do set up personal notifications on HomePod, these will only be available when you are on the network, so you don't need to worry about your texts being read aloud at home when you are at work. If you don't want them read aloud when you're home, you can go into your HomeKit settings and turn off the notifications.)

Today's HomePod experience was just a first impression, and further testing will be needed to determine just how well the speaker stacks up to the competition. However, it's safe to say that HomePod is going to be a strong contender for a spot in your pad.

This piece has been updated since it was originally published. Users will be able to send messages, set reminders, and add notes, but will not get calendar notifications.

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