About a year ago my friend purchased a pair of HomePod Minis, looking for an upgrade to the audio in her office. Not really knowing what she was buying, she ended up with some actually pretty cool smart speakers. Cool enough, in fact that she decided that she’d get even better use out of the pair in the kitchen instead of in the office. I did some a/b testing with her other favorite speaker, a Harman Kardon Aura from several years ago, and independently determined that the pair of HomePod Minis could keep up with the Aura, although an individual Mini just didn’t have the volume to compete.
Understand that the Aura is a very colorful speaker (to the point where even familiar songs sound completely different when played on that speaker) so it’s hard to talk about it and sound quality in the same sentence, but I’m not here to talk about Harman Kardon. The point I’m making is that I was very impressed by the Apple HomePod Minis. I had missed out on the original HomePods, and I was pretty disappointed that Apple didn’t have an actually good sounding speaker, given that they obviously knew how to make one. Rumor had it that they were working on a new one, and I vowed to make an order as soon as I could!
The HomePod Mini
Here’s the thing. I was impressed by the HomePod Mini. No doubt. A lot of people were. They sound great, but with a caveat. “For the price.” If you only want to spend $99 on a speaker, the HomePod Mini is clearly the best choice. It sounds amazing … for the price. A pair of them sounds even better, rivaling speakers that cost $300 or $500, so $198 for a pair gets you excellent sound … for the price.
That caveat left me quite disappointed, especially knowing how much more Apple is capable of, and how much more the current state of tech could be leveraged to do better. I mean if they can figure out how to make that much sound with a single 3″ driver, imagine what they could do with a little more hardware?
I did some digging through the rumor mills and heard that Apple was working on a new HomePod. Something like the original, but reworked with whatever they learned from the Mini. So I was excited. Like anyone else, I didn’t know what to expect, but my hopes were high. I decided that, even without knowing anything about them, I’d jump in and get a pair as soon as they were available. Even if they were just a reboot of the original HomePods, they’d be well worth it.
Then, of course, I had to wait an agonizing two weeks from the time I put in my pre-order to the day they were officially released and showed up on my doorstep: February 3, 2023.
Welp, for some strange reason, Apple decided to go for a reboot of the original HomePods. The new ones are basically the same shape, basically the same feature set, and … actually less audio hardware. I’m not worried, though, I’m sure they more than made up for it with software.
As always, the packaging is beautiful. I unboxed and set up one HomePod first, before unboxing and adding the second to make a stereo pair. The HomePod itself is noticably heavy, and the fabric mesh has some squishy foam underneath it that gives it an interesting texture. The “midnight” color is very pretty, though almost indistinguishable from the “space gray” of our HomePod minis until you see them next to each other. The removable cord is elegant as well, with a snug connector that sits flush with the case and a fabric-covered cable.
The setup and configuration was a breeze, especially since I already have other devices in the house. I barely had to do anything beyond tap “set up” and scan the top of the HomePod with my iPhone. Once it finished its thing, I went ahead and played some of my favorite music.
Listening to a HomePod
If you haven’t guessed already, my interest in the HomePods is their sound quality. I am far less interested in the so-called “smart home” functionality. That said, I’ve looked at other AirPlay speakers, and none of them seem to have the integration into Apple’s other equipment that would make them as attractive as a HomePod. And even if they did, I’m gambling that the HomePod is going to have better sound quality anyway.
I have a particular track that is my standard go-to for speaker testing. I have a copy of it on my iPhone in an uncompressed audio format. Of course, it gets compressed when it is sent across AirPlay, but there’s a maximum of audio quality to get the best that the system is capable of playing. (Contrast to standard MP3 audio files which always lose some quality from the original. And don’t get me started on Bluetooth.)
My first reaction came even before I played this track, when the HomePod finished booting and made it’s little boot noise. I was sitting on the wooden floor in front of the speaker which was on a coffee table, and I could literally feel the floor vibrate. Weird, but impressive.
Playing the track, the first thing I noticed was the bass. It was as if the speaker had found the resonant frequency of our floorboards. In short, there was plenty of bass. This surprised me because another review I saw suggested that the bass was not as present as the original HomePod or some other similarly sized smart speakers. Additionally, the bass was clean and even all the way down (and I mean all the way). It was to the point that I could not imagine any subwoofer (not even the audiophile ones) doing better.
However, the rest of the sound was less impressive. The mids seemed lacking, a little thin. There just wasn’t quite as much there as I was used to.
At least that was my first impression. As I played more and moved around the room, I realized that the majority of my complaints had to do with where I was sitting. I was on the couch across the room, at about the same height as the HomePod. If I stood up, and especially if I stood directly over the HomePod, the sound was much fuller and mid tones much more present. Maybe this is what they’re doing with the alleged “beam forming tweeters:” throwing the higher frequency sounds up toward the ceiling, while the bass is projected down into the floor.
The high end sounded bright, but it was never very well defined. This was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of my sound test. Now, I will say that the definition and clarity was better than the HomePod minis, but it wasn’t good enough to, say, be able to hear the difference between a lossless audio and 128K MP3 audio.
Adding a Second HomePod and Listening to a Stereo Pair
As with the HomePod minis, creating a stereo pair is a significant improvement over a single speaker. In this case, with a single speaker already creating a formidable presence, the second added better roundness through the mids as well as overall volume. The highs were still muddled but not intolerably so, especially when listening to modern (electronic) music.
I played a few more test tracks and sampled music from a number of genres. The faults I noted in these speakers were less noticeable with some types of music than others. Electronic music usually sounded excellent. Vocals were delightful. Problems came in with subtle acoustic sounds (I had a hard time picking out the hammers in a piano or valve/breath sounds in a saxophone, for example).
Just for kicks, I went back to the Aura to make a quick comparison. Next to the HomePods, Harman Kardon’s speaker sounded flat, canny (think tin, not verisimilitude), and uninspired. Its characteristic color completely lost its luster.
I was expecting, or at least hoping, that the sound from these speakers would blow me away. I find myself still standing. Nonetheless, the quality and capability of these speakers is quite impressive. While these speakers did not live up to the hype I personally gave them, I feel like I got my money’s worth. I am satisfied with my purchase.
Should you get a new HomePod? I guess that’s up to you. If you are in need of a good speaker and you like what Apple has to offer in terms of AirPlay, Handoff, and fantastic design, this is definitely your speaker. If you care about sound quality, this might still be your speaker, even though you might be able to find something that sounds better somewhere else (although, for the price, I have not seen anything, AirPlay compatible or even Bluetooth, that matches what these can do).
On the other hand, if you don’t care about sound quality or Apple integration, don’t bother. If you just want speakers for your TV or your computer, you can probably spend your money more wisely and get something without the smart speaker parts that sounds as good.
Overall, this is the best smart speaker I’ve seen. It is also the best AirPlay compatible speaker I’ve seen. Of course, there’s not that many of them anyway, and I certainly haven’t seen them all. But still, this is a pretty nice one.
If you listen to the kind of music they play on Apple Music 1, I think you’ll love this speaker. If you are an audiophile who listens to acoustic music, though, you might be a little disappointed. Then again, if you’re the kind who would be disappointed by less than stellar sound quality, you’re probably already expecting to spend more than $299 for good sound.
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