Updated: May 24, 2020 9:17:37 am
The past few days under lockdown has made most of us appreciate the finer things in life. I, for instance, have realised that the best things are not what we pay for, but those that we take for granted — the time spent with family, the pleasure of watching the sunshine from behind a cloud as birds chirp away in the background and, of course, the joy of slipping into a nap as you listen to your favourite music. So locked down at home, might just be the best time to review a product like the Apple HomePod.
The HomePod is Apple’s take on the smart speaker. The design is very Apple, so is the entire thinking around the product. It has a stunted cylindrical look and is much smaller than the Echo Studio which it will compete with in the Indian market. The fabric finish is soft and the speaker has a slight cushiony feel when you hold it.
There is a display on the top that shows just the Siri logo flash when you are asking the speaker to do something. When it is playing something, volume controls appear here. And that’s about it, as simple as a smart speaker can be. You can tap here to pause and double tap to move to next song among other things.
I have set up a few smart speakers in my life and it is not always something you would associate with a thing that has smart prefixed to its name. With the HomePods it is a whole different experience. All you need to do is bring your iPhone near the speaker and the rest is sheer Apple magic. The two devices give each other a handshake and the phone (this can be a tablet or iPod too) shares everything it has from Wi-Fi passwords and preferences to iTunes accounts to the HomePod. Within minutes you are all set. This is how technology should work.
I have listened to the HomePod before but never had it in my house. So the experience is very different, it’s your surroundings, your playlist… just the way you like it. Also, it helps that Delhi is a much quieter place these days. So much so, you can hear the strum of the guitar in a song as there is no drone of traffic is drain out the finer things in life.
The audio profile of the HomePod is different from other smart speakers, maybe because of the way it is configured — tweeter array at the bottom for directional control and custom-designed upward-facing woofer at the top with a custom amplifier. Apple claims the 20mm air movement the speaker triggers is the best in class.
But the audio quality of the HomePod speaker strangely has a lot to do with the six microphones set in its centre. The speakers listen to reflections coming from the music to figure out its location and in a room and adjust the audio accordingly. So wherever you keep it in the room, the HomePod will sound the same. If you are in the mood for it, there is the option to pair two speakers to create a stereo combo for the home.
The HomePod offers deep rich bass. But it is not exactly what you would expect when someone says deep rich bass. The bass here is much more softer subtle and natural. And it comes into play when you least expect it, like a cello in the backdrop of a Norah Jones song, or that thump when Billie Eilish is humming hers. And this layered sound stage is something hard to miss. You feel the singer is closer to you and the background music in a layer behind, but with space for each instrument. You also feel the baritone of Jagjit Singh in the room, float around like an ethereal wave from the past.
In fact, the HomePod is perfect for people like me who like music that is vocal-led and not too loud — the finer things in life. The wide sound stage has been designed keeping a wide range of music experiences in mind, but not to shatter your neighbour’s window panes with Bhangra numbers. In fact, when I asked Siri to take the volume to full, it flatly refused saying “that would be too loud”. This is what smart is supposed to be.
There is more to this smart. The very first time I asked Siri to simply ‘Play Music’, it played one of my favourite songs. Because it is powered by a Siri which knows what I have been listening to on my Apple devices for years, it knows my taste. I relished every song that came after this. In fact, in the week I have used the HomePods, there have been very few instances where I have had to say: “Hey Siri, next”.
However, that does not mean it gets everything I ask it to. Demands for Carnatic music and Rabindra Sangeet ended up with the sort of music I don’t want to discover even by accident. At times, I thought it was easier to airplay from phone, instead of stressing out Siri to understand my government school accent. But I’m hoping it will learn more as time goes by because it won’t know my voice commands much because I have never been a heavy Siri user. My experience so far is that specific requests perfectly fine.
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Siri on the HomePod can do much more. I can ask to dial my Mom and have a call with my entire family speaking at the same time. I can ask it for news and Indian sources like NDTV start playing. It has contextual weather too and you just need to ask how’s the weather today, or do I need an umbrella, not that you will be needing the latter in bone-dry New Delhi.
But with the work from home taking a toll on my free time and the time I set aside for writing, there is one feature that I loved a lot. You can ask Siri to play ambient sounds, like that of the ocean, so that you can concentrate on your writing, or attempt to take a power nap in the middle of the workday. It can also control lights and other smart gadgets you have connected to your Apple Home, though I had nothing to test this. You can even ask Siri to compose a text message, or just set a timer so that your Maggi is not overcooked as always.
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Being an Apple device there is a lot of privacy features built-in. For instance, you — or anyone else — cannot go back and see what all requests the HomePod got in the past. Also, since all the processing is done on device, no data is shared with Apple. The HomePod listens only after the ‘Hey, Siri’ wake word — but an Alexa-like physical button to cut off the mics might be a good idea for the next version.
At a price of Rs 19,900 the Apple HomePod is certainly among the best smart speakers you can buy in India. For Apple users, there isn’t a better choice. Others should consider the Echo Studio too.
“Hey Siri, play Frank Sinatra…”
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