The HomePod serves as the middleman between two of the largest streaming music platforms in this write-up.
Before the HomePod launched, I wrote up about why I was still on the fence with Apple’s first smart speaker. I hadn’t really been won over by any of the options on the market, for a variety of reasons, and, simply put, I’m a Spotify subscriber that doesn’t quite yet see a reason to switch to Apple Music. I will say that Apple’s streaming music service is getting there, but there are still features in Spotify that I don’t want to give up.
Plus, I’ve got years of listening history with Spotify. So it gets me, and Apple Music feels like a stranger in comparison.
Apple won’t let HomePod owners connect to the smart speaker via Bluetooth — basically, the way you’d connect to a different smart speaker, like a Google Home. AirPlay is an option, though, even if you use Spotify, so one of the things I wanted to test out more than anything else was how Spotify worked with Apple’s smart speaker, and if there was any kind of difference between the this-party option and Apple Music.
The results surprised me. But not necessarily for all good reasons.
First, I want to point out here that this isn’t the review of the HomePod. That’s coming later this week. This particular piece of the puzzle is just some insights into what I’ve run into in my usage with the device since last Saturday, switching between Spotify and Apple Music.
Next, my daily usage. When I was using the Google Home, I’d tell Google Assistant to play a playlist and just let it go. Talking to the smart speaker came naturally enough for the most part, telling it to pause or stop, skip forward or play a song again. But I’m also a creature of habit, and utilizing the music playback keys on my keyboard still feels more natural.
Which means I tend to stream content from my (2016) MacBook to the smart speaker, whether it’s the Google Home or the HomePod. Which means utilizing AirPlay now, thanks to switching to the latter. I have never used AirPlay that often, so maybe this isn’t new to any of you readers, but there is a definitive lag when playing and controlling music. It’s two seconds, actually. Hitting play, wait two seconds, song starts. Hit next, wait two seconds, song skips.
It’s really annoying. And I thought it might just be Spotify, but it isn’t — happens when streaming Apple Music, too.
Compound that with the fact that there isn’t any delay when using Bluetooth and connected to a Google Home and it’s even more frustrating. The only saving grace here is that there isn’t any lag when using AirPlay to stream to the HomePod from the iPhone X. If this is a technology thing, then so be it. Whatever the case, I just wanted to point it out because when dealing with it every day it can get feel like a dealbreaker sometimes.
So, all that out of the way, let’s talk music quality. A lot has been said about Apple’s autotune feature baked into the HomePod, which will change the EQ in real-time, based on what the person is listening to. So the user doesn’t have to make any adjustments depending on the genre of music they’re listening to.
Simply put, it works really, really well. When you’re listening to Apple Music. I have no idea if this is a feature that’s even supposed to work with third-party apps streamed to the smart speaker with AirPlay, but if it is I don’t think it works. In the case of Spotify versus Apple Music, the former’s audio quality is distinctly flat in comparison. Spotify is louder, but it just feels sort of empty. Less robust.
Meanwhile, listening to songs through Apple Music is where the device really shines. There’s more bass, midrange is more distinct, and even the treble is more present. Listening to the Black Panther soundtrack, there is a discernible difference between Spotify and Apple Music. So much so that if someone offered a conspiracy theory that Apple was actively reducing Spotify’s (or other third-party offering’s) quality on the HomePod to promote Apple Music, I don’t think it would seem that crazy.
Here’s the thing, though: Spotify still sounds great on the HomePod. It’s definitely better than what’s available on the Google Home or the Amazon Echo. I can’t speak to the Sonos speakers, or the Google Home Max, but others can, and the mileage varies quite a bit.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Apple Music sounds better on the HomePod than Spotify does. If that is indeed because the autotune feature is only available for Apple’s streaming music platform, the results are ridiculously good — but it also means I want it available for third-party options immediately. If that isn’t the case, and autotune is working on Spotify, too, then I don’t know what’s going on. But the differences are distinct.
Still, if I don’t stick with Apple Music and I switch back to Spotify — and if I’m being honest, that will probably happen — I’m going to be happy with the audio quality. The HomePod is a great speaker, well worth the sticker price for the quality present.
So, my conclusion is this: If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, you’re going to get the best possible listening experience out of the company’s first smart speaker. That probably won’t surprise you. However, if you’re a Spotify subscriber and you want to pick up a HomePod, I still say you’re making a worthwhile investment in sound quality.