First review: Just how smart is the Apple HomePod?

With its surprisingly powerful subwoofer and 360-degree, seven-tweeter array, Apple's new HomePod smart speaker might literally blow you away.

The tech giant's foray into the world of smart speakers comes after spending six years in design and development in a secret lab in Cupertino, California. The intent was simple: build a smart music speaker to rival competitors, capable of authentic audio reproduction in any environment.

After all, if we're going to step bravely into the future – a world of self-driving cars, voice-controlled digital personal assistants and 3D-printed food – you want it to sound good. 

Music is the key

The aim of any sound system is to authentically reproduce the original audio recording with as little interference as possible. With that in mind, HomePod is quite the piece of design and engineering.

The first thing that strikes you on your first listen to HomePod, is how defined each element of the music is: vocals are clean, displaying warmth and clarity; bass is powerful without being harsh or distorted; with top and mid tones never lost in the mix.

Thanks to a smart audio processor, and an array of seven tweeters and six microphones that ring the speaker, HomePod 'listens' to the room around it and shapes the audio coming from each tweeter to ensure this clarity and presence are constant qualities.

Using this process, the speaker is able to more accurately 'mix' the audio in the room, which gives the impression of a more powerful experience. Stand or sit anywhere and your experience will be the same – you hear the music, not the room.

A smart use of time

Steve Jobs once said: "My favourite things in life don't cost any money. It's really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time."

When it comes to using a digital personal assistant, many people are unaware of the amount of time you save. Sure, it's only a second here and there, but on a long enough timeline; messages, phone calls, appointments, note taking; the time saved adds up to minutes and eventually hours. If you don't think that matters, talk to a Formula One team about the difference a second can make.

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From making appointments, messaging and phone calls, to music selection, stock reports, and even traffic and weather updates; all this is now possible with nothing more than a few voice commands.

Tough competition

It's an interesting time for Apple to drop a luxury smart speaker in a slowly crowding market. Both Google and Amazon – the latter about to launch three devices in the Australian market – offer similar products in a range of shapes and sizes.

Both Google Home and Google Home Mini feature more extensive voice controls and functionality than HomePod (for now), including Google Chromecast control. Amazon's Echo speaker offers similar features – using their own digital assitant, Alexa – and is powered by the company's soon-to-launch Amazon Music Unlimited streaming service.

However, in a side-by-side comparison of each company's devices, neither Google Home nor Amazon Echo come close to HomePod's audio capabilities. Apple's new device takes pole position for clarity, warmth and depth every time.

That said, wireless speaker leader, Sonos, is on the verge of releasing the Sonos One; an Alexa-enabled wireless speaker that is already getting rave reviews around the world. Google too is on the cusp of releasing Google Home Max, which appears to pack twice the woofer power as HomePod. Basically, if you're not wed to the church of Apple, you still have plenty of options.

A couple of strings

As much as HomePod can set the mood, it can also be a mood killer when Siri throws darts into the dark. When asking Siri to play some saxophonist Sidney Bechet, the result was: "OK, here's Your Shirt Would Look Better With a Columbian Necktie" from metalcore band I Killed the Prom Queen. 

Sure, death metal can be mildly entertaining, but, romantic? No.

If you want to enjoy the complete music experience of HomePod, you'll need an Apple Music subscription. You can still access a variety of digital radio and Beats Music stations, and podcasts, without a subscription, but there'll be no access to the 40-million-plus-song library for you.

This also means– are you sitting down? – you can't use Spotify. Yes, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the hoardes who pride themselves on their finely curated Spotify playlists, but thems the breaks.

You can stream audio via AirPlay, but this workaround does not support Siri functionality – the point of HomePod is vocal control, not prodding the screen of your device – ergo, Apple Music is the only service with native, and full function, support. This is because HomePod does not offer Bluetooth streaming, so, you know, forgeddaboutit.

Of course, take these shortcomings with a grain of salt. The lion's share of HomePod's design and development was focused on the audio hardware. Future software updates will unlock more and more lifestyle-enhancing features and functionality – "Siri, stir me a dry martini, and don't be stingy on the olives" – so don't be swift to judge just yet.

For now, HomePod offers a suitable and stylish way to simplify your digital routines and enhance your musical lifestyle; the latter currently more impressive than the former.

Available February 9 via the Apple website or in store, for $499.

The writer was flown to San Francisco as a guest of Apple.