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Sound stuff: Apple’s HomePod is a late pretender to the smart-speaker crown

Apple’s HomePod – its take on the home speaker/digital assistant hybrid – is a minimalist marvel. Photography: Apple.

Apple is famously averse to first moves. It waits in stealth while others pitch in with new technologies and then hits the market with something it promises is comprehensively better. It’s a strategy that has worked so far and it’s one that it has taken with the launch of HomePod, Apple’s version of the digital assistant-armed wireless speaker. This time though, it feels even later to the party.

Amazon made the front running with the Echo and its inbuilt digital assistant, Alexa, launched way back in 2014. Apple were hoping to get HomePod, in development since 2012, out before last Xmas but decided to park the release until a few undisclosed wrinkles were ironed out. Again, it hopes that comprehensive betterness will make up for lost time.

HomePod, priced at $349 and thus significantly more expensive than the Echo, is a far superior speaker. Among its rivals, only the Sonos One really stands any comparison (and not much at that). HomePod is bristling with acoustic armaments powered by its A8 chip, including seven beam-forming tweeters (unusually, placed at the bottom of the speaker and each with their own amplifier) and a high-excursion woofer (weirdly, in a good way, set at the top of the speaker). It also adjusts the way it plays music, depending on where you place it in your room, and works out how to get the best from your selection on a track-by-track basis – adjusting bass output, for instance, if it fears a fluffiness or lack of focus.

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HomePod also works independently of your iPhone, so you fire up your tunes with a polite ‘Hey Siri’ and a request, like a domestic version of the mobile disco. At the moment, that only works with Apple Music, so if you want to use rival streaming services you will have to connect your iPhone via AirPlay and use it as a remote. HomePod will also give you more information about what’s playing, if you’re interested. Later in the year, once the required software upgrades are sorted, you will also be able to pair HomePods for superior stereo sounds.

You can also, in the now established way, demand news updates and weather reports, or ask Siri odd, random questions and see what it comes up with. It will also send messages, set timers (though only one at a time) and take notes (though it can’t order you an Uber, a pizza or the new Karl Ove Knausgård novel like Alexa can). Apple is also selling HomePod as the hands-free way to control the ever-growing range of smart HomeKit devices.

Oh, and of course, it looks great, an elegant blob of wire mesh; while Siri, when activated, is a hypnotic swirl of colour set in a jet black or white pool on top of the speaker. In the manner of all Apple products at launch, HomePod is a long way from realising its full potential, but waves of extras and functionality are set to follow.

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