I was skeptical of the HomePod, but its Siri capability is just convenient enough, and the audio quality is certainly good enough, that the HomePod is now the speaker for our living room.
Earlier this year, I wrote about my new habit of talking to an empty room — more specifically, issuing commands and queries to the Apple HomePod by saying “Hey Siri” (see “Voice activated assistants are still relatively dumb,” March 16).
We’re still in the early days of voice interaction with our devices, but the more I accessed Siri via the HomePod, the more I got used to it. Owners of Amazon Echo and Google Home devices can attest to this.
On the audio quality front, I was perfectly happy with a first-generation Sonos Play: 5 speaker that filled my modest-sized living room with good sound. It’s controlled using the Sonos app, and since I always have my iPhone nearby, I could easily queue up a set of songs and let them play.
A big appeal of the Sonos system is the ability to add more speakers, which can play in unison throughout a house, or play different audio on each speaker. Multiple speakers in the same room can be configured to deliver stereo-separated audio, creating a wireless surround-sound environment.
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For my needs, though, the single Play: 5 was just fine. That is, until voice control arrived. The new Sonos One speaker incorporates Amazon Alexa, but not Apple Siri, though it and the rest of the current speaker lineup can play music via AirPlay 2. Alas, mine is a generation too early, and doesn’t support AirPlay. A surprise update to Apple’s AirPort Express enabled AirPlay 2, which meant that for a brief time I could plug the Sonos Play into the Express (which has audio-in ports), thereby repurposing an old Express. However, there was a reason I retired that unit, because it was frequently unreliable.
I was skeptical of the HomePod, and of its $350 price tag, especially considering you can buy two Sonos One units for roughly the same price. Would voice control really be worth having? Would it be more convenient and useful to speak my requests, versus using an app, or would that be the height of laziness?
Turns out the answer is both, and I ended up buying a HomePod for my lazy self.
My decision to buy the HomePod came down to a few factors.
Although it would seem that a Sonos One with Alexa would be the obvious choice, I’m not comfortable with Amazon’s (or Google’s, for that matter) approaches to data privacy when it comes to their home speaker systems. Apple encrypts and anonymizes the queries you send using Hey Siri, and more important, the company isn’t building a shopping profile or saving transcripts of requests on its servers.
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Unsurprisingly, my home is all-in on the Apple ecosystem. My family and I own Apple computers and iOS devices, and since I write about Apple-related topics, I subscribe to an Apple Music subscription for music content. Sonos can play Apple Music content (even changing playlists like the New Music Mix, after you add it as a playlist to your Apple Music account), but the convenience of asking Siri to play music directly is awfully nice.
I also use some smart devices that work with Apple HomeKit throughout the house, such as light bulbs and switches. I’ve set up automated tasks, such as turning on the lights and space heater in my office at a specific time, and automatically cutting off power to that heater when I leave the house so I don’t inadvertently leave it running while I’m out.
HomeKit automation can also be controlled by speaking to the HomePod, and I find myself using it a lot, from things like, “Turn the office lights off” when I leave the house to powering up my printer in the upstairs office from the living room when I want to print something.
And because the HomePod is close to the kitchen, I regularly use it to set timers (you can start multiple ones by giving them unique names). Even more convenient: My wife and I use an app called AnyList to share grocery lists and recipes, so when we’re low on an ingredient, I can say, “Hey Siri, add frozen blueberries to the Shared Grocery List,” and know that the item will appear in the app on both of our phones.
Although the HomePod is more capable than when I wrote about it months ago, the Siri capability still needs more evolution and doesn’t always return the results you expect. But the feature is just convenient enough, and the audio quality is certainly good enough, that the HomePod is now the speaker for our living room and the Sonos Play: 5 has been moved up to my home office (where I still talk out loud to an empty room sometimes, but not to the speaker). In both locations, my audio situation has improved.
Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at st.news/practicalmac.