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Some initial thoughts on Apple’s resurrected HomePod • TechCrunch

Disposing of HomePod was a strange choice. At the time, Apple told us, “HomePod mini has been a hit since its debut last fall, offering customers great sound, an intelligent assistant, and smart home control, all for just $99. We’re focusing our efforts on HomePod mini.”

While the smart home hasn’t turned out exactly as Apple or its competition hoped (just ask Amazon), the company has never taken its mind off that ball. HomeKit – and everything that comes with it – is still a central part of the company’s strategy, and getting Siri, the Home app, etc. is still an important goal – another important branch of the ecosystem game.

However, this morning it became clear that the HomePod was not dead. It was just rest. Biasing his time. Given that it took nearly two years for that triumphant return – and Apple has completely cleared stock of the old speaker in the meantime – this is apparently a “back by popular demand” situation. The fact is, however, that a good hub is still an essential part of the smart home puzzle.

Amazon, for example, may have bleed money on its Echo game, but that doesn’t mean getting those devices into the house is an important part of a long-term strategy (the issue is ultimately how long a tail the people responsible for willing to put up with the money). HomePod mini, while it has its place, probably won’t fill that central smart home hub role for everyone. Frankly, it doesn’t serve as a great replacement for a home speaker or TV surround sound either. Of course I said in my review that the thing has “remarkably big sound”, but that’s relative to its size.

The other important factor in all of this is Matter. The new smart home standard frankly blows the doors wide open for Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung and the rest. Prior to the phase-one rollout late last year, the world of smart home standards was one of warring kingdoms, with companies battling it out to get their respective “Works With” logos on the back of boxes. Matter is in fact one standard to control them all. If it works with one, it works with all of them.

You can read an interview I did with a Matter exec at CES here.

HomePod from Apple (2nd generation)

Image Credits: Apple

What gets lost in this is how effective these devices can be at serving as a kind of aggregation platform for so many different home functionalities, from more complex smart home routines to doubling as intercoms. It can also link to existing features like Find My, allowing you to check in on a loved one who has shared their location with you. New features include a temperature and humidity sensor, as well as the ability to detect and alert you when a smoke or fire alarm goes off – a nice little solution for those who haven’t upgraded to a smart device like the kind Nest makes. However, it doesn’t include warnings for things like broken glass, which feels a bit like a missed opportunity.

However, the real value proposition is the same as always. Unlike most competitors, HomePod is a speaker first, a smart home hub second. That’s not a knock on its bona fide smart home, mind you – it’s an acknowledgment that the product first makes noise in a way few other products in this category do. It was always a gamble in a category largely defined by ultra-cheap, loss-making devices. Apple knew it was limiting its potential user base right out of the gate with a $349 price tag for the original. The new product is $50 cheaper, despite the progress, but that’s still a far cry from Google and Amazon, who have literally given away entry-level smart speakers on several counts.

I spent some time with the new HomePod (technically”The all-new HomePod,” according to Apple’s official naming convention) early today. And I can confirm that it sounds really great. The isolation is great. The highs are clear. The bass is powerful without being overpowering. As a longtime Google Home Max owner, I considered a possible switch (though leaving Spotify is another question).

The system audio calibrates its EQ based on its location in a room. It uses the built-in accelerometer to recognize when it’s lifted, and takes about 20 seconds to adjust accordingly. That, in theory, means you’ll get great sound whether it’s up against a wall or in the middle of a room (these are all things I’ll confidently say once I’m able to get a viewing unit at home).

Spatial audio is an interesting feature here. I’ve mainly thought of it as a way to recreate a fixed point music source using headphones via head tracking. Here it means a more dynamic way of separating stereo channels.

Stereo pairing is again a big thing. The footprint is exactly the same as the previous one. It’s a big size as far as smart speakers go, but then again, the sound is even bigger. Buy two of these things and your home speaker needs will be pretty much met. I’m not going to suggest that they are a replacement for really high-end speakers for the real audiophile set, but as far as normal listeners go I think most people will be more than happy with a pair of these, albeit as stand-alone speakers alone or next to your TV.

I didn’t have the ability to A/B test against an older HomePod yet. I wonder how easy it is to hear the difference in real time. Given how much of the updates here may arrive in the form of software updates, it would be an interesting test.

However, it is worth pointing out that the new device is not backwards compatible with the last generation when it comes to this feature. It is probably a hardware limitation. While I can see why this would be an issue with an uneven match like the HomePod mini, it’s honestly a big bummer for those invested in the previous generation. Even if it’s not a perfect experience, the option would be better than starting from scratch.

The power cable is detachable for easier moving. There’s still no aux-in port here, which again is a shame. It would be great to plug in a turntable, for example, but Apple is really going all out for wireless music streaming here.

I’m excited to be spending more time with the system soon. The system arrives on February 3. More coming soon.

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