A week with HomePod

When I first wrote about HomePod on March 26, I wrote about the out of the box experience. Since then, I’ve had a chance to live with HomePod as a day to day device and to form a more detailed impression of its sound. Originally, I found that HomePod was very revealing and embarrassed poorly mastered material and lossy compression. Those impressions still hold.

References

Take the references with a grain of salt. Reference 1 is speculation about what might be. Reference 2 is accurate for HomePod software 11.3.0 which is current per the Home App.

  1. https://9to5mac.com/2018/01/30/homepod-software-updates-managed-through-home-app/
  2. https://www.macrumors.com/how-to/homepod-software-update/

Daily Routine

HomePod settled on the nightstand and finds service to play the day’s podcasts and over-night music. I’ve been in the habit of leaving the radio on through the night for some time and HomePod has taken up this mission for at least part of the night.

Normal usage is to AirPlay the day’s podcasts then start Roon radio seeded with an album to use as a basis for picking local and Tidal tracks. I’ve found that the end result is very listenable. I’ve also found that Siri has atrocious (15 year old?) taste. Get her confused and she puts on Beats 1, Apple’s regional music stream. Sorry Siri, modern pop leaves me cold.

HomePod Update?

As HomePod automagically set itself up, I did not note the out of the box firmware version. I’d guess it was 11.2.x but I don’t know that. I first looked at the firmware version when I begun this article. The current firmware version is 11.3.0. Apple identifies Apple TV and apparently HomePod firmware with the iOS versioning but possibly different build numbers as different software is in the bundle.

My first impression of Apple Music in the lounge was that it was woolly in the bass and cymbal intonation was off. But HomePod is also mercilessly revealing of the source character. Apple Music AAC tracks sounded noticeably worse than Tidal tracks which were inferior to the same tracks in Apple Lossless. Given Apple Lossless, the sound is very faithful to the lounge stereo playing the same material. Voices are natural, bass is tighter, cymbals are present and have some shimmer.

Siri?

I’m getting better at talking Siri’s lingo. She’s found the correct tracks using the speech quoted. Not a miss except for Tarnation.

Apple Music Take 2

Audio memory is notoriously fickle. My first impressions were hasty and I was expecting to be disappointed. I thought the voicing of instrumental sound was brittle. Today’s listening session using Firmware 11.3.0 in the near field in my study revealed a sound that was that was much more engaging and listenable.HomePod was on my desk and about 6 inches (15 cm) from the wall in a small bedroom. Placement matters as HomePod tunes itself to the space.

The Apple Music failings were more subtractive. The woolly bass and brittle mids were gone. Instead, the bass was more controlled and a more natural sound replaced the ’70s transistor glare. Small detail was not there but the sound was not harsh and the critical speech range was spot on and smooth. As of April Fools day, Apple Music is listenable on HomePod. That’s a huge improvement. In the past, Apple Music on the stereo would make me run from the room.

AirPlay sends a 48 Khz 16 bit stereo sample stream to the device. When playing from a Mac or iPhone/iPod, the source does the trans-coding. When streaming directly from Apple, AAC to PCM conversion occurs locally. AAC expansion may be what Apple updated in the .3 OS updates recently distributed.

Hey Siri?

I did get Siri to  “Hey Siri, play Grown Folks by Snarky Puppy”. Siri needs you to speak slowly. Today she managed a good repeat back and found the track. The Puppies are beastly. Acoustic and electric sounds mashed up in wondrous rough and tumble ways like a litter of greyhounds at play.

“Hey Siri, play Helpless by K D Lang” actually found the correct track. The sound was very close to the ALAC version off Roon Audio.

“Hey Siri, play Mining for Gold by Cowboy Junkies” Margo Timmins voice is spot on in this a capella rendering.

“Hey Siri, play Sweet Jane by Cowboy Junkies” Again, Margo Timmins voice is spot on. The guitar sound is a bit smooth relative to the ALAC. And Apple Music lost the cymbals.

“Hey Siri, play Darli’ Cora by Harry Belafonte” This track is a beast with crowd applause sweeping across the audience as Harry comes on stage. He’s working with the orchestra on this track so the opening music is complex. The opening timpani roll was impressive, the trumpet sharp, and the strings natural. The applause were crisp and the bongos articulate. Once Harry sings, it is just bongos carrying the groove, maybe some bass, and a soft guitar. Harry’s tenor is powerful and correct. The soft drum work and guitar under the first stanza are spot on. The Tidal track was a bit crisper. The ALAC and the Tidal were very close. The bongos are carrying the groove and there is a very soft guitar riff under the vocal. In the ALAC, the guitar is more apparent under Harry’s powerful vocal. In the Apple Music, I was less aware of the guitar and bass under the vocal.

“Hey Siri, play Scarlet Town by Chris and Brad” Oh, my, she got it. She botched their last names badly on the repeat back but she found the track. The mandolin seems a bit forward in the intro but natural. Chris’s tenor is spot on. Will Brad’s harmony be underneath on the chorus? It was. Brad’s voice is a bit raspy like it should be. And the piano is crisp on the break between the first and second verses. Like it should be. But the ALAC is better. More intonation in the mandolin during the break. And the knock at the door has a crisp attack lost in the Apple Music. It’s not that the Apple Music track is “bad”, just missing a bit.

“Hey Siri, play Tarnation by Chris and Edgar” The bowed string bass will be a beast for Apple Music as Edgar Meyer drops down onto the thick strings for that low growl that only a bowed bass can do. Apple Music gets the weight mostly. Not bad. Listenable over Home Pod. The order of the musicians is important. She missed on “Chris and Edgar” but scored a goal on “Edgar and Chris”. Match the album title.

“Hey Siri, play the Mercedes Benz song”. She found it! Janis was in her best bourbon voice.

“Hey Siri, Play Louie, Louie” She found it. The Kingsmen never sounded so good back in the day. This was actually a decent recording from an era that struggled recording electric bands.

“Hey Siri, play The Crucifixion by Phil Ochs” was a miss. There are just too many praise songs with Crucifixion in the title. Guess Siri wasn’t a ’60s rebel.