Video: Will Apple’s HomePod make it in a crowded smart speaker market?
When I first saw Apple’s announcement of the HomePod, I was distinctly unimpressed. At the time, I had two Alexas (I now have six). Siri wasn’t nearly as evolved as Alexa, and while she had good musical knowledge, her other abilities were pretty primitive. The HomePod was limited to Apple Music (unless you chose to set it as a Bluetooth speaker for your phone), and I’m a Spotify user. And, at $349 for a single speaker, it seemed a bit costly.
But now, despite the little rings it seems to leave on furniture, I’m thinking about getting one. Give me a few minutes to tell you a story, and you’ll understand why.
Ever since I heard my first CD play through quality speakers in a little hole-in-the-wall stereo store in the mid-1980s, I’ve had a home entertainment rack that rivals a full stack of servers in a data center. Every time I’ve moved, the last thing to be disassembled, and the first thing to be set up and configured, was that rack.
It probably had hundreds of cables. The speakers alone accounted for a dozen wires, going to a center channel, two ginormous side speakers, a sub-woofer, and the back surround speakers. It was always a challenge placing those surrounds, because they had to sit out in the open, just far enough back to be optimally listened to on the couch, and yet not in the way of other stuff in the room.
In Florida, before I moved here to Oregon, my entertainment stack had an amp the size of a small microwave oven, two TiVo boxes (one for me, one for my wife), two Sling boxes to send the TiVo signal throughout the house, an Apple TV, a Roku, a Mac mini, a gaming PC, an Ethernet switch, two HDMI switches (because we had so many HDMI sources) a PlayStation 4, an Xbox 360, a Nintendo Wii, an actual tape deck, and a box that played both old-school DVDs and VCR tapes. It was all controlled through a Harmony Hub and an Amazon Echo.
It was ridonkulous.
During our drive across the country running away from Hurricane Irma, my wife and I talked a lot about what we wanted in our future lives. One theme we kept coming back to was simplicity. I realized that I identified, as a person, as one of my core identity elements, as someone with a huge entertainment rack. If you looked up David in the dictionary, you’d see a guy with a beard and that rack of electronics. I’m a geek, therefore I must have gear.
But that’s not simple. And the world has been changing. No longer do we need to rely on the cable TV company for entertainment. We can get Star Trek through CBS All Access, GoT through HBO Now, Father Brown through Netflix, all of Stargate and Stargate Atlantis through Hulu, and so on. We can watch anything we want, anywhere we want, pretty much whenever we want.
Even though the Tivos and Sling boxes were still in the rack, I’d already cut the cord. We’d been living mostly off of streaming TV for a few years. Why bring the Tivos to Oregon?
What do we really need? We needed a good streaming box. That could be accomplished with the new generation Apple TV we already had, plus the Roku service inside our TCL TV. We needed our Mac mini (I do a ton of writing, including this article) on the big screen in the living room. And we needed our PS4. Neither of us really have much time for gaming (or much TV watching, frankly), and the PS4 had our favorite games.
In our new home here in Oregon, we decided to go simple. That was three boxes, not sixteen. Three HDMI cables, all easily switched by the TCL TV. We even used the speakers on the TV, which were pretty good for most things.
This was the first move in my adult life where I didn’t hook up cable TV service. I didn’t hook up a land line. I didn’t even run Ethernet cabling throughout the house. I’ve got the one cable modem in my office, tied to my video production PC. All the other gear is connected over rather fast Wi-Fi using a Google WiFi mesh.
We are now wiring minimalists. And it’s glorious. I don’t miss the wires. In the apartment I lived in when I married Denise, I had inch-thick sets of cables running along the baseboards throughout the entire unit. In the house we just left, we had GigE custom wired throughout every wall of the house. It was a lot of work to maintain and install all that.
Here? Here we just connect up Wi-Fi. On the one machine that was a little too slow and too far away, we dropped in an extra Google WiFi puck. Boom. Done.
But…what about the sound system?
Honestly, the sound coming out of the TCL TV is just fine for most things. I like to watch YouTube videos about people making things out of wood. You don’t need killer sound for that. When we get TV watching time, we tend to watch period pieces, like Father Brown, a show about a crime-solving priest, based in the 1950s. You don’t need killer sound for that, either.
I don’t listen to all that much music at home, and when I do, Alexa does a good enough job. I do listen to music in my car, but that has a pretty awesome sound system built into it.
But movie sound through the TV’s speakers is… unremarkable. I used to use Jurassic Park to demonstrate just how insane my speakers and sub-woofer were. I’d place a guest right in the middle of the sound field, load up the tyrannosaurus scene with the little kids in the car, and let it scream. The sound coming out of that sound system would knock my guests back, and I’d up my geek cred just one notch higher. Such bragging rights were important to me once upon a time.
Now, however, Jurassic Park sounds kind of meh. It’s good…enough. Movies are still enjoyable…enough. It’s not so bad that I want to go back to the days of an amp, a sub, a center, and four speakers. I just don’t want all that overhead in my life anymore.
But there’s another option: the HomePod. The HomePod has, by all accounts, excellent sound. It sets up a room-wide sound field, even with one speaker. And, here’s the thing, you can bind it with Apple TV so it becomes the Apple TV’s speaker.
No, most of the Roku video I watch won’t play using the HomePod. But when the next season of Game of Thrones drops, or when we watch the latest Star Wars via iTunes, or if we play any of our other favorite movies on the Apple TV, it would sure be nice to have some glorious, intense sound again.
I don’t need killer sound. But I miss it. What’s super-compelling about the HomePod is the low-maintenance setup. We could simply plug it into the wall, anywhere in our living room. That’s it. A few swipes and we can connect the Apple TV to the HomePod and have sound, without the amp, cables, and all those extra boxes.
Plus, while $349 isn’t cheap, compared to what I’ve spent over the years on amps and speakers (not to mention the cables themselves), it’s a relative bargain.
So, I’m thinking about it. What do you think? Should I get a HomePod for better movie sound? Have you bought a HomePod? If so, what made you take the plunge?