The HomePod Mini Experiment

Recently, Jason Snell wrote about using a stereo-paired set of HomePod mini speakers with his Mac. I reported on a similar experiment on the latest episode of Mac Power Users.

Specifically, I wanted to see if AirPlay-paired HomePod minis could replace my existing wired speaker system. My current system is nice. They’re Focal speakers with a powerful subwoofer on the floor. I reviewed those speakers, along with their 30-pin connector, in 2009. Rather than sending them back to the manufacturer, I sent back a check and kept the speakers. I’ve been using them every since.

Nevertheless, the siren song of those cute little orange HomePod minis called out to me, and I bought a pair as an experiment. Everything Jason says is right. These speakers sound better than expected for something so small. When paired together, you do get separation and good sound for a minimal footprint.

They don’t match the quality of my subwoofer-enhanced Focals, but to do so would defy the laws of physics. They did, however, sound good enough that I was willing to consider using them as my new full-time speakers.

The problem, for me, was lag in the AirPlay connection. Every time I hit play, there was a slight delay between me pushing the button and the music starting. If I only needed speakers for music, that’d be fine.

Unfortunately, the lag showed up in other places too. For example, I often dictate voice-to-text on my Mac. I use the built-in Siri dictation for this. When I engage the dictation, my Mac makes a pleasing “boop” sound. When I’m done, I push the button again, and my Mac then makes the “beep” sound. The feedback from those sounds makes dictation easier. With AirPlay-connected speakers, however, I got no boop, just the beep.

To make matters worse, I also use those speakers to edit audio and video files. In those cases, I’m looking at an audio wave file while I make the edits. The audio that comes through my speakers must match with the waveform on my screen. With the HomePod minis, it did not. When I pressed play, the waveform started scrolling, and the audio lagged behind a second or two. So when I saw a gap in the waveform (indicating silence), the speakers were still making noise and vice versa. (Interestingly, I do not see a similar delay when editing with AirPods.) I could have just witched to headphones, but I’m not willing to only edit video with headphones.

So the unsurprising answer is that AirPlay is not yet ready for use in video production. I liked my tiny orange speakers with their orange cords, but they had to go back in the end.

I now have a newfound love for my Focal speakers, which I plan to keep using … at least … for now.

One last thought that occurs to me is that no matter how good AirPlay gets, the audio input port on the Focal speakers continues to serve me well. Just think how much more versatile the HomePod could be with an audio input in addition to AirPlay.

Apple Stops Selling the Big HomePod

Apple made a Friday afternoon announcement that they are no longer selling the big HomePod and currently focused on the HomePod Mini. (No companies deliver good news on Friday afternoon.) I’m not surprised that the Home Pod is going away. It’s expensive, and there are some design issues. I still trigger mine several times a week when my hand (or shirt) barely touches the touch screen on top. Siri on the HomePod also still needs more work.

Nevertheless, my HomePods sound great, and I remain happy with them. I hope Apple isn’t giving up on the idea of a home speaker/voice assistant thingy that includes a quality speaker.

The HomePod Table Tattoo

This story about people’s HomePod leaving a ring on their table is kind of crazy. How did Apple, a company that’s been shipping home electronics since the beginning, ship something that can damage your furniture? If they did know this was possible, they should have addressed it. If they didn’t know about it, that’s even more concerning. I’m probably making a bigger deal out of this than I should, but I expect more from Apple.

I don’t know how big (or small) of a problem this is but the pictures are damning. I’ve had mine on my wooden desk for a week, and there is no sign of a ring but I like this desk, and I don’t want to damage it. If you are coaster shopping, you can go crazy with something like the Pad & Quill solution or you can just cut out a piece of firm cardboard, or use an existing coaster. Ultimately, I spent $5 on a cork plant coaster from Amazon that should do the job. 

 


Photo: John Chase, Wirecutter

Photo: John Chase, Wirecutter

HomePod as Mac Speaker


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I’m digging my HomePod. The speaker itself is excellent, and while Siri has its limitations, the features it does include are working solidly. (I do wish it could tell me my calendar appointments though.)

One unexpected benefit of the HomePod, which sits on my desk in my home office, is just how well it works with iTunes on my Mac. To play music from iTunes to your HomePod, there is a simple toggle in iTunes for the Mac. You can set volume from Mac and seriously upgrade your tunes. I always need background noise while working so often I’ll play the sound of the ocean or a thunderstorm when I want to focus. Thunder from the HomePod turned up literally shakes my desk. My iMac never did that.



Apple Clarifies HomePod Audio Sources

Apple has updated the HomePod Tech Specs Page with Audio Sources


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  • Apple Music
  • iTunes Music Purchases
  • iCloud Music Library with an Apple Music or iTunes Match subscription
  • Beats 1 Live Radio
  • Podcasts
  • AirPlay other content to HomePod from iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV, and Mac

A lot of people were questioning whether or not it would play iTunes Music Purchases and the iTunes Match music library. I’m glad it does. I suspect the reference to “Podcasts” will just be those through Apple’s native Podcasts app. If I’m going to want to stream Overcast or Thunderscape to the HomePod, I’ll need AirPlay.

The biggest question remaining in my mind is exactly how good the audio quality is for this new computer controlled speaker. I’ll find out in a week.

The HomePod as Speaker

Phil Schiller did an extended interview over at Sound and Vision. That choice of publication for the interview speaks loads about Apple’s point on the HomePod. It’s not a smart speaker to them as much as it is a good speaker. I like the way Apple appears to be sweating the details. From the interview, Schiller explains how the HomePod uses the motion sensor to recalibrate itself.

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We wanted to make a speaker that sounds great no matter where you put it in your home. From the moment you plug in HomePod and start listening to music, it automatically and instantly senses its location in the room to take full advantage of the environment it’s in. The microphone array in HomePod listens to the reflection of the music off neighboring surfaces, senses where the bookshelf is, or if it’s in the corner of a room or against a wall, and then uses machine learning to understand what it’s hearing, interpret the sound, and adjust the audio. Using advanced software and the A8 chip, HomePod intelligently beams center vocals and direct energy away from the wall while reflecting the ambient reverb and back-up vocals against the wall for dispersion into the room. The end result is a wide soundstage with a feeling of spaciousness and depth. This entire process takes just seconds and it doesn’t stop with the initial setup. Every time you move HomePod, it uses the built-in accelerometer to detect a change in its location and continues to make sure the music sounds great and is consistent, wherever it’s placed. We’ve also done some great things to help minimize the audible side effects of compression artifacts by developing studio level dynamic processing to optimize for rich, clean bass even at loud volumes.
— Phil Schiller

I’ve always felt there is a degree of snake oil salesmanship involved when talking about advanced technology in speakers. The question is, will normal listeners be able to tell a difference with all of this at work. We’ll find out soon enough with the HomePod shipping next week. I hope the HomePod is as good as Apple and some of the early access press are reporting.

HomePod Goes on Sale Tonight


The Apple HomePod goes on sale tomorrow (presumably tonight at midnight PST). We’ve been hearing about Apple’s entry into the home speaker/voice-in-a-can business with the HomePod announcement at last years WWDC. There is a lot of “meh” in the community about this product. Fundamentally, the concern I’m hearing is that Apple is emphasizing this product as a speaker and a lot of people are more interest in the Siri voice-in-a-can product.

I’m getting one. I actually would like a nice speaker next to my computer on my desk and because I’m fully invested in iCloud the Siri integration, even if limited, will be nice. Another point for me is that it supports Apple Music, for which I’m a subscriber.

Whether the HomePod is a successful product or not is an open question. In my opinion, this first iteration is going to leave a lot of people wanting more. Apple isn’t going to jump in with both feet for third-party integrations. (Don’t believe, go looking for third-party watch faces on your three-year-old Apple Watch.) 

I do expect, however, for Apple to deliver on its promise of making the HomePod a very good speaker with some Siri integration. If the HomePod is going to get better, however, they’re going to need to do their thing and iterate.

Apple Leaks Concerning the New iPhone

While I usually stand clear of rumors around here, there’s a bit of news concerning the new iPhone that would be hard to ignore. If you like surprises on Keynote day, you may want to stop right here.

Steve Troughton-Smith is well known for spelunking Apple Code and over the last few days he’s found a doozy. Apple is working on the HomePod and put a firmware download for the yet-unreleased product on a public server. The software was meant for public distribution later in this year so it had a lot of code inside about the new iPhone, assuming that the new iPhones would have already been released.

The problem is that it ended up on a public Apple server. So Steve downloaded the code and started exploring and learned quite a bit about the new iPhones and the HomePod including the following.


* The new iPhone will have infra-red face unlock as a biometric verification system. This may mean TouchID goes away entirely on the high-end phone and it unlocks merely by looking at your face.
* The face unlock can work in the light or the dark.
* There was an icon showing there will be no bezel and a little black notch at the top for the camera and other sensors.
* There’s an LED matrix on top of the HomePod for display of shapes and symbols.

I’m sure now that Steve has pointed the way, even more people are digging through this code looking for nuggets. For a company as obsessed with secrecy as Apple, the leak of all this information has got to hurt. While all of the above is nice to know, I’m very interested in hearing Apple’s story about how all this fits together. We’ve all grown to trust TouchID (although it still makes me mad when it won’t unlock because I’ve washed my hands in the last 10 minutes). If they are going to replace it with face identification, it needs to be pretty impressive. The next month is going to be interesting.