I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble..

.. except there’s a decent amount of treble in Apple’s new HomePod “smart” speaker.  But that bass!

The press has certainly not been wrong in stating that this is perhaps the best quality of speaker of the current generation of “smart” speakers.  The bass and response of the sound emanating from this tiny, yet tubby speaker definitely has put my now redundant Alexa-enabled Echo Plus to shame.

The fibre mesh is lovely to touch, it’s almost difficult not to walk past and give it a bit of a stroke..

Set-up was extremely easy – just plug it into the mains and then hold your iPhone (it must be an iOS device – forget buying one of these if you’re not heavily tied into the Apple iOS ecosystem) near the speaker.  Set-up begins on your iPhone and ends when Siri fires up and prompts you to try her out.

The biggest weakness of this speaker aside from no physical inputs or outputs, plus no Bluetooth support?  Siri.  It has yet to get any of my requests of songs or playlists right (I’m an Apple Music subscriber – albeit using the 6 months free subscription with EE at the moment – I’ll have to start paying again in April) – but I can AirPlay stuff directly from the phone without any bother.

However, what Siri can do is interact with my Philips Hue lights far more quickly via Apple’s HomeKit than Amazon’s Alexa ever could.  I have been extremely impressed with HomeKit’s performance on iOS and Siri so far.  While HomeKit support is still fairly limited within the “smart” devices industry – for example, British Gas’ Hive could REALLY benefit from such support – it does mean that for many devices would have to be refreshed in order support a specific chipset that HomeKit requires.  So we may not see Hive support for quite some time.

If you’re curious to know what’s going on inside the HomePod, this iFixit teardown will show you that it’s next to impossible for the average consumer to fix.

It’s funny how the music industry has changed over the past few decades.  When I was a kid growing up in North East London, I was over the moon with the hand-me-down Amstrad tower system which compromised of a turntable, an FM/AM radio/tuner, dual deck tape deck (Amstrad was famous for this).  I didn’t even have a CD player for quite some time.

Now we tend to subscribe (monthly or annually) to music services rather than paying for individual tracks or albums, listen on mobile phones or computers, or stream music to speakers.  While many people who take music seriously will still have an amplifier with built-in equaliser (another thing that the HomePod does away with – it’ll automatically “equalise” the music for you), a great many people will still be using these smart speakers in place of a traditional hi-fi set-up.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple’s audio products over the years.  I started off with a 3rd generation click wheel iPod and have made my way up to the iPhone X.  I’ve also bought three types of Beats headphones – the Beats Solo 3 wireless, the Beats EP and the granddaddy of them all, the Beats Studio 3 wireless – and perhaps my favourite of all – the AirPods.  None of these is cheap, and none are the absolute best in class, but I’ve always found a use for them (the Studio 3 wireless is ideal when the neighbours are doing late evening DIY, the Solo 3 for general computing use, the AirPods for daily commuting, and the EP for anything else (I originally bought it in Edinburgh when the Solo 3 unit suffered a charging problem and I had to send it to Apple for repair).

Westworld meets the humble Stereo

The one thing that I’ve been lacking at home has been a radio player.  I do have a 10 year old second hand component-based DAB radio, but it’s now so old and clunky that it’s been retired and is about to go to silicon heaven.

I’ve taken a rather unusual approach to its replacement.  Rather than get another component based stereo system, I’ve chosen to get an Amazon Echo (and Echo Dot for the bedroom).  These are speakers that happen to have an artificial intelligent assistant built into them.

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Alas, “Alexa – Destroy All Humans!” doesnt work.

In essence, the Amazon Echo is a big speaker with plenty of bass that you can connect to over Bluetooth.  Handy for playing music from one’s phone.  It has very few buttons other than a microphone mute and an “action” button.

But the Echo (and Echo Dot)’s niftiest feature is that it’s controlled by your voice, and it can connect with a number of services (over Wi-Fi) to form a very capable personal assistant.   The commands are pretty basic, and there is no context to follow-up questions/commands.  For example, if you were to ask about a personality and then followed it up without referring back to that personality – Alexa (for that’s her name) will be very confused.  Google appears to be winning the contextual war, so to speak, but I’m sure Amazon will be on it.

I use my Echo and Echo Dot to play audio books from Audible (an Amazon company) – and having collected all four Round the Horne series (30+ hours worth of beautifully crafted comedy), it’s superb.  The Echo can also play live radio streams from TuneIn including all the BBC Radios and local radio stations – “Alexa, play Eagle Radio” will invoke Eagle Radio’s live stream.

Echo can also control smart devices in the home too.  And there are so many more things this “speaker” can do.  The radio player has become intelligent.  I now fear that if the toaster and kettle also become intelligent, they may form a household rebellion against me.

But in all seriousness, this is the next big development in IT.  We’ve seen it in smartphones (although Siri over here in the UK is terrible in comparison to what Amazon and Google are currently doing), but now it’s coming into the home.  My TV will eventually be voice controlled (just waiting for LG to issue an update). Sky have plans to do the same as well.  The future is here.