Apple HomePod smart speaker

It’s after 5pm on Wednesday, and I’m finishing up the listening part of my review of Apple’s wireless speaker, the HomePod ($349). On a whim, I’ve just asked Siri to play me some drinking songs.

I mention this because the HomePod’s “smart” features—its integration with Siri and the Apple Music streaming service—is a big part of its appeal. In its natural element, the HomePod provides a way of accessing music that, although as old as our century, to me is still new and unfamiliar: Forget your hoary music collection, your Rolling Stones and Beethoven. Decide what kind of music you want to hear—a genre or a mood—then leave the choice to Siri and her algorithmic minions. Sure, you can request specific songs, but it’s easier to call out “Hey Siri, play some jazz” than it is to request a track from Dýrd í daudapögn, an album by Icelandic singer-songwriter Ásgeir Trausti.

So—drinking songs.

Siri’s unimaginative recommendations were all current country acts: Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church. Some of that is okay, but city people drink, too. Trust me—I live in New York City. And why only current artists? Where’s “Drunk Girls,” by LCD Soundsystem? “Warm Beer and Cold Women,” by Tom Waits? What about the Doors channeling Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht in “Alabama Song”? If you must have country, how ’bout some Hank Williams—”There’s a Tear in My Beer”—or Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”? For more recent pop-country vintage, add Garth Brooks to the list, singing “Friends in Low Places”—and where the heck is Gogol Bordello’s “Alcohol”?

Why isn’t Siri more imaginative in her recommendations? The answer, probably, is that imaginative is not what most people want—the risk with any Apple product. With its vast resources, Apple can do amazing, world-changing things. But will they make the best product they can, or will they aspire instead toward the vast, profitable, Beats-ridden middle of the Gaussian distribution of public taste?

If you give me some whiskey I’ll sing you a song
I became interested in Apple’s HomePod because I wanted a good-sounding portable speaker to use when traveling. I’ve been on this quest for years. I get the irony—a HomePod for times away from home—but why not? Music while traveling is a problem, because good speakers tend to be heavy and often large, and I don’t love walking around a hotel room with a big pair of ‘phones wrapped around my head or little IEMs stuck in my ears. I prefer my music to fill the space around me.

My ideal musical traveling companion—apart from, say, a beautiful musician who pays her own way, including a plane seat for her fine cello—would fit in a suitcase easily and without complaint, offer practical connectivity options, and, of course, produce pleasant aural vibrations. I envision something simple—a high-quality 4″ driver, maybe, mounted in a suitable box with built-in amplification and a hardwired stereo input, wireless optional. Just give me good midrange—on the road, I can live without the highest highs and lowest lows.

High-end speaker designers, take note: I have yet to discover my dream travel device.

Before I even plugged it in, I knew the HomePod wasn’t the solution to my music-while-traveling problem, and for reasons that have nothing to do with sound quality. It’s no simple 4″ driver in a little box. Rather, it’s a sophisticated, high-tech, 5.5-lb sound computer with many transducers and lots of unorthodox audio engineering. It’s not big, but it’s voluptuous, and its connectivity is wireless-only.

So forget about travel. Still, the prospect of a good-sounding, convenient (wireless) loudspeaker excited me. I need something that’s good enough for audiophiles, but that I can recommend to people starting out: something that will appeal to those who haven’t yet discovered how great it is to listen—really listen—to good music. Such a device could be a gateway drug to a serious audio addiction. I like to think that, once you’ve gotten used to frequent massages of musical texture and rhythm, you can’t go back. Could the HomePod be that gateway drug?

An Unwrapping
If anyone tells you that Apple has lost its packaging savvy—a charge I’ve read online—don’t believe them. The HomePod’s packaging is sexy.

My HomePod arrived well protected. Inside the outer cardboard box was an inner cardboard box cradled in bubble wrap. That inner box contained a sturdy cardboard frame supporting a third box—the one you’d see on the shelf at your local Apple Store. Counting the bubble wrap, that’s five layers of protection.

The undressing didn’t get thrilling until I got to that innermost layer: the display box, wrapped in transparent plastic. At the front is a small tab, on it a green spot and a down-pointing arrow. I pulled the tab, and the plastic fell away on all sides. Cue adolescent fantasies.

I grasped the box by its top edges and lifted. The base of the box, weighed down by the heavy HomePod itself, stayed in place as the outer sleeve slid slowly off with just the right amount of friction.

There, in a cardboard cradle, sat the HomePod. Its power cord—the HomePod’s one and only physical connection—was wrapped around a cardboard spool whose tabs held the coil in place. Had this been any company other than Apple, I’d have torn those tabs away to get at the cord, ripping the cardboard. But this was Apple. The tabs popped gently open—no tearing.

Out of its cradle, boxes, and other wrappings, the HomePod is elegant: a heavy cylinder with smooth, rounded top and bottom edges, a modernist vase full not of flowers but of music. Its single continuous flank comprises a wiry grillecloth apparently stuffed with stiff foam. On top is a touch-sensitive, semitransparent plastic cap, with which the HomePod can be controlled with gentle finger taps: one tap to play or pause, two to skip to the next song, three to repeat that song or skip back to the previous one. There are also touch-sensitive volume buttons labeled – and +.

The software setup was as easy as the unboxing: Plug the HomePod into the wall, activate Bluetooth on your iOS device, and move it close to the HomePod. Setup begins automatically. There’s no need to remember your wireless password or other information about your network—the HomePod steals it from your device (with your permission). Then Siri prompts you to talk to her—to ask her for some music. It’s time to get to know each other.

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Apple Computer, Inc.

1 Infinite Loop

Cupertino, CA 95014-2084

(800) 692-7753


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