- The HomePod has gotten a lot of bad feedback for its limitations as a smart speaker and voice assistant, but the reviews on its sound quality — especially for its size — have been pretty good.
- Apple says it spent six years and 200 patents to make its smart speaker sound “amazing,” dubbing the final product “the ultimate music authority.”
- The technology that it attributes its good sound quality to is called “beamforming,” which detects the shape of the room and then emits three beams of sound accordingly.
The HomePod is out and while it is not the first smart speaker — it comes years after Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home — Apple claims that it has worked for six years to make the HomePod sound “amazing” using the innovative technology beamforming and it has over 200 patents to back it up.
Here is how Apple itself describes the new HomePod:
“HomePod is a powerful speaker that sounds amazing and adapts to wherever it’s playing. It’s the ultimate music authority”
The ultimate music authority. These are some strong words. So what is the mysterious technology that Apple uses to make this the ultimate music authority and how is the HomePod different from all the other smart speakers out there? Let’s find out.
Inside the HomePod
While you usually associate great sound with big speakers, the HomePod is a speaker that measures just 6.8 inches high and 5.6 inches wide, bigger than the Google Home, but still clearly a very, very compact speaker. Obviously, it is not engineered just like any other speaker of its size. Inside, everything is carefully arranged and tightly packed to fit an innovative idea: “beamforming.”
Before we look into that, though, let’s look at what is inside the HomePod. While most speakers place the woofer, the larger part of the speaker that is responsible for boomy bass, on the bottom, the HomePod has its rather large 4-inch woofer on the top.
Then, on the bottom, tightly packed are not one or two, but a whole seven tweeters, each of them equipped with its own amplifier. Making it all work together is a circuit board in the middle with the Apple A8 chip, the same on Apple used on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, but tuned to the needs of a speaker.
Additionally, there are six microphones around the center of the HomePod for Siri and one in the middle that measures the location of the woofer.
Location awareness and Beamforming
Apple says the HomePod automatically senses its position and tunes the sound to its location. Here is what this means: while other speakers require manual setup, the HomePod automatically senses its position and adjusts the output from each speaker accordingly.
This is not done for stereo effect (for stereo sound, you would need to wait for the AirPlay 2 update coming later this year and you will need two HomePod speakers), it’s done to eliminate excess sound.
The first thing the HomePod does is detect the rough shape of the room it’s placed in. It measures how far away it is from walls by firing sound and measuring how much time it takes for the soundwave to reflect and come back to the speaker. The bass output from the top is important for this measurement that happens in two stages, the first one a more rough and a second one that is more refined after that.
Once it detects its position in a room, the HomePod separates sound output from its seven tweeters into three “beams.” This separation is called beamforming.
The main beam fires sound directly towards the open room — vocals and guitars sound directly at you — while the other two beams (ambient sounds) are reflected off the “back tweeters”, the ones that sound against a wall.
To understand which part of a song is vocals and should sound directly at the listener and which one is ambient sound it compares the left and right channels of a song. This separation is what surround systems have traditionally been using.
While all of this is happening, a dedicated microphone inside the HomePod constantly measures the level of bass and controls it automatically to keep bass audible, but not overwhelming a song. As the speaker knows the position of the bass woofer, it can push it to the maximum distortion-free level.
All of this detection happens within just 10 seconds and is completely automatical. Whenever you move the HomePod it will automatically do the adjustment all over again, as an accelerometer inside the speaker detects when it’s moved.
The HomePod is not only a technologically advanced speaker that is surprisingly powerful for its size, it also has clear output with great bass that is not too overwhelming. Best of all, it all just works, without a complicated setup process and it automatically adjusts it sound even as you move the speaker around.
While the HomePod has a lot of deficiencies as a voice assistant and some weird limitations, it is a pleasure to listen to.
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