What Is Apple HomePod?

Apple's smart speaker uses Siri and Wi-Fi to offer streaming music

apple homepod
image credit: Apple Inc.

The Apple HomePod is Apple's smart speaker for playing music, interacting with Siri, and controlling the smart home.

The Homepod is a small, Wi-Fi-enabled device that packs a set of powerful speakers and microphones to deliver a top-notch music experience to any room. Think of it like one of those ubiquitous wireless Bluetooth speakers, but built into Apple's ecosystem and given the high-end, high-technology, great-user-experience Apple treatment.

What Music Services Does the HomePod Support?

The only streaming music service natively supported by the HomePod is Apple Music, including Beats 1 Radio. Native support in this case means that you can use these services by interacting with Siri by voice. They can also be controlled via an iPhone or other iOS device.

While Apple hasn't announced anything, it would be slightly surprising if HomePod never adds native support for other services. Pandora seems like an obvious choice, with services like Spotify likely to take a lot longer (if ever). Given Apple's habits with things like this, don't expect to see native support for any third-party services for a while.

Are There Other Native Sources of Music?

Yes. While Apple Music and Beats 1 are the only streaming services supported by HomePod out of the box, a number of other music sources (all Apple-centric) can also be used. With HomePod, you can access all of the music you've ever bought from the iTunes Music Store, your iCloud Music Library with all music added to it via iTunes Match, and the Apple Podcasts app. All of these sources can be controlled via Siri and iOS devices.

Does It Support AirPlay?

Yes, the HomePod does support AirPlay 2. AirPlay is Apple's wireless audio and video platform for streaming music from one device to another, such as speakers. It's built into the iOS and so is present on the iPhone, iPad, and similar devices. While Apple Music is the only natively supported streaming service for the HomePod, AirPlay is how you'll play any other services. For instance, if you prefer Spotify, just connect to the HomePod via AirPlay and play Spotify to it. You just won't be able to use Siri on the HomePod to control Spotify.

AirPlay will also be used for HomePods to communicate with each other when there's more than one in a house. More on that in "Can the HomePod Be Used in a Multi-Room Audio System?​" below.

Does HomePod Support Bluetooth?

Yes, but not for streaming music. The HomePod doesn't work like a Bluetooth speaker. You can only send music to it using AirPlay. The Bluetooth connection is for other kinds of wireless communication, not for audio streaming.

What Makes the HomePod Good for Music Playback?

Apple has engineered the HomePod specifically for music. It's done this both in the hardware used to build the device and in the software that powers it. The HomePod is built around a subwoofer and seven tweeters arrayed in a ring inside the speaker. That lays the foundation for great sound, but what really makes the HomePod sing is its intelligence.

The combination of speakers and six built-in microphones allows the HomePod to detect the shape of your room and the placement of furniture in it. With this information, the HomePod can automatically calibrate itself to deliver optimal music playback for the room it's in. This is like Sonos' Trueplay audio optimization software, but it's automatic instead of manual.

This room-awareness also allows two HomePods placed in the same room to recognize each other and work together to adjust their output for optimal sound given the shape, size, and contents of the room.

Siri and the HomePod

The HomePod is built around the Apple A8 processor, the same chip that powers the iPhone 6 series. With that kind of brain, the HomePod offers Siri as a way to control the music. You can tell Siri what you want to play and, thanks to the support for Apple Music, Siri can draw from that service's over 40 million songs. You can also tell Siri what songs you do and don't like to help Apple Music improve its recommendations for you. Siri can add songs to an Up Next queue and can also answer questions like "who's the guitarist on this song?"

So This is Apple's Version of the Amazon Echo or Google Home?

Sort of. In that it's an Internet-connected, wireless smart speaker that can play music and be controlled by voice, it very much resembles those devices. However, those devices support a much wider range of features, and integrate with many more products than the HomePod does. The Echo and the Home are more like digital assistants for running your home and your life. The HomePod is more of a way to improve your experience of music in the home.

Does That Make the HomePod Apple's Version of Sonos?

That comparison seems more apt. Sonos makes a line of wireless speakers that stream music, can combine into a whole-home audio system, and are geared more for entertainment than functionality. The inclusion of Siri makes the HomePod seem like the Echo, but in terms of its functionality—and how Apple is talking about it—Sonos' products are a better comparison.

Can It Be Used in a Home Theater?

That's unclear. Apple has only discussed the HomePod in terms of its music features. While the Apple TV is a supported audio source, it's unclear whether that means it can simply play TV audio or if it can truly be used as a multi-channel home theater system. This is an area where Sonos has a lead. Its speakers can be used this way.

Can the HomePod Be Used in a Multi-Room Audio System?

Yes. As noted earlier, multiple HomePods in one house can communicate with each other over AirPlay. This means that if you've got a HomePod in the living room, kitchen, and bedroom, they can all be set to play the music at the time. (They can all play different music, too, of course.)

Can You Add Features To the HomePod Like With the Echo?

This is probably the major thing that sets the HomePod apart from smart speakers like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. On those two devices, third-party developers can create their own mini-apps, called skills, that provide additional features, functionality, and integrations. 

The HomePod works differently. There are a set of commands built into the HomePod for things like controlling music, sending and receiving texts with Messages, and making calls with the iPhone Phone app. Developers will be able to create similar features. The primary difference between the HomePod and Echo or Home, though, is that these features are not installed on the HomePod itself. Rather, they are added to apps running on the user's iOS device. Then, when the user speaks to the HomePod, it routes the requests to the iOS app, which performs the task, and sends the result back to the HomePod. So, the Echo and Home can stand on their own; HomePod is tightly tied to an iPhone or iPad.

Is Siri the Only Way to Control the HomePod?

No. The device also has a touch panel on the top to let you control music playback, volume, and Siri.

So Siri Is Always Listening?

Yes. Like with the Amazon Echo or Google Home, Siri is always listening for spoken commands to respond to. However, you can disable Siri listening and still use the other features of the device.

Does It Work With Smart-Home Devices?

Yes. The HomePod functions as a hub for smart home (aka Internet of Things) devices that are compatible with Apple's HomeKit platform. If you've got HomeKit-enabled devices in your house, speaking to Siri via the HomePod will control them. For instance, saying "Siri, turn off the lights in the living room" will put that room into darkness.

What Are Requirements for Using It?

The HomePod requires an iPhone 5S or newer, iPad Air, 5, or mini 2 or later, or a 6th Generation iPod touch running iOS 11.2.5 or higher. To use Apple Music, you'll need an active subscription.

When Can You Buy It?

The HomePod's on-sale date in the U.S., U.K., and Australia is Feb. 9, 2018. Apple has provided no official word on availability in other countries yet. 

Ready to get started? check out our tutorial: How to Set Up and Use Your HomePod.