This week’s Apple WWDC 2017 Keynote delivered a slew of hardware and software announcements, running the gamut of wholly expected (iOS 11, updated MacBook Pro, new 10.5-inch iPad Pro) to the pleasantly surprising (a wickedly spec’d space gray iMac Pro, an unheralded, but welcome iPad Pro Leather Sleeve with an Apple Pencil holder). Landing somewhere in the middle was the announcement of the Apple HomePod, a compact audio speaker levied by a powerful learning chip designed to optimize output and add a layer of Siri-enhanced intelligence to the home audio experience.
The HomePod won’t be available till December, but Apple released specifications ahead of its launch:
- Upward-facing woofer, paired with the custom A8 chip, enables bass management through real-time software modeling that ensures the speaker delivers the deepest and cleanest bass possible, with low distortion;
- Custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own amplifier, provides well-balanced smooth timbre as well as precise directional control of a multitude of beam shapes and sizes;
- Apple-designed A8 chip provides the brains behind the advanced audio innovations;
- Automatic room-sensing technology allows HomePod to quickly learn its position in a room, whether it’s in a corner, on a table or in a bookshelf, and within seconds, is perfectly optimized to deliver an immersive music listening experience wherever it is placed;
- Six-microphone array with advanced echo cancellation enables Siri to understand people whether they are near the device or standing across the room, even while loud music is playing;
- Siri waveform appears on the top to indicate when Siri is engaged, and integrated touch controls also allow easy navigation;
- Automatic detection and balance of two speakers using both direct and reflected audio to deliver amazing audio wirelessly for an even more immersive experience; and
- Easy setup that is as intuitive as setting up AirPods — simply hold an iPhone next to HomePod and it’s ready to start playing music in seconds.
HomePod’s squat cylindrical woven basket design will undoubtedly invite comparisons to the likes of the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Sonos PLAY:3. The voice command features the HomePod shares with its Amazon and Google competition are not remarkably different from one another (yet). Nor are comparisons with Sonos unreasonable, offering similar environment-adaptable, spatially-aware sound in service of a bespoke listening experience (compare this developing trend with traditional audiophile gear requiring adjusting the contents of a room according to the equipment, and the obvious consumer-welcome implications become clear).
Where Apple stakes to differentiate itself is by combining all these features with reputed improvements: an expandable wireless multi-speaker system supported by Siri intelligence, six microphones, a 7-tweeter array, with its entirety enhanced by the subjectively desirable design of an Apple-designed product.
All hyperbole aside, the Apple HomePod is best considered a TBD product for now. Early reports from WWDC listening demos sing positive about the audio quality in comparison to other similarly sized and featured wireless speakers, noting the HomePod’s audio processing is capable of a notably different and immersive experience from its competition, even in single unit configuration. The real question is whether the HomePod’s Siri-enhanced assistance capabilities can distinguish itself from the likes of Amazon and Google, fulfilling the promise of Apple HomeKit, justifying its higher price in a category increasingly improving with every product cycle by hitting all three marks of sound, design, and smart home utility.