HomePods are Better with Tidal HiFi

Posted on August 5, 2020
Updated August 23, 2020

At first, I was a little dissapointed with Homepod, even with a stereo pair. They have a cold sound that depended on the low end to keep it balanced, but the low end didn’t fill the room, but gathered in certain spots (Honey, I found the bass, it was at the other end of the house). They also seemed to require fairly specific placement, which was very different to what I was used to with traditional speakers.

A lot of the issues were minimised with the right placement: a foot from a corner, with plenty of surrounding flat surface. But when I rejoined Tidal to see how they sounded with a higher bitrate, I at once realised both the value of Tidal as a service, and the quality of the homepods as speakers. It’s such a great shame that Apple Music, compressed for the masses (in more ways that one?) brings out the worst in them.

Tidal tracks are quieter, and this seems to work much better with whatever bass processing is happening in the homepod’s chip. Comparatively, bass seems to get squashed out, sometimes unpredictably, of Apple Music tracks.

Maybe together with less-hot tracks, the higher bitrate of Tidal (I listen at CD quality) offers the music a lot more space, and just sound nicer. A better source = a better defined and distributed sound, but the difference is more marked here than I’ve experienced before.

At first I blamed the homepod’s sound profile for the harsh treble I heard when testing the homepods with Apple Music. But through Tidal, the top end was a lot more balanced and listenable. This might be to do with all of the above, but I think higher bitrate really paid off in that register. The treble might be just as prominent in the overall sound profile, but it’s smoother (and perhaps not as compressed?). Conversely, the homepods really punush some tracks through Apple Music with treble. Some. Most are fine.

So although I have more playlists organised in Apple Music, I’m switching back to Spotify. Nevermind, building playlists is fun.

Long story short, I feel like I’ve got the hifi setup I wanted: simple, cloud-based and quality listening. I’m just sorry I couldnt quite get there inside Apple’s garden of pleasure.

Join Tidal with a 60 day free trial

Use this link to get the extra month. I will also save on my own subscription costs by referring you. I recommend the Hifi if you like listening to music, and have a decent set of cans or speakers to use it with.

First thoughts…

What follows are my original thoughts on the homepods before trying out Tidal.

This is a hard one for me to write, really, as I want nothing more than to love the HomePod. The truth is that I am very used to traditional stereos when it comes to listening. The sparkly top end and muted high bass mean some music doesn’t come out as balanced as it could.

I’ve tested HomePod as a singular device and also in a stereo pair, in a variety of home settings and positions. Disclaimer: I like a deep, warm sound, and I’m a picky bastard.

The HomePod does great justice to some music but not to others. It has a distinctly V shaped equalisation that seems to bring out the best and worst in many mixes. In general, it makes most of my music sound fantastic but the exceptions are notable. If a producer has added, or god forbid over compressed the top end for sparkle or to compensate for commercial speakers, you’re in for for grief. All it takes is for a song to have a prominent high hat to throw the HomePod off. However songs that are a bit cold out of the deck, lacking a warm mid-range, suffer the most.

I’ve come to accept that there is some music I won’t be able to listen to on the HomePod. And that I will adjust to the sound over time. There is one compromise too many there really, but it’s still a convenient extension of Apple Music and AirPlay, a ecosystem I’ve committed to and enjoyed.

Take Rolling in the Deep – when the Tamborine starts jingling over the introduction, it’s quite sharp. Even with the whole band joins it still just above the mix abrasively. That’s a song with quite sparse treble arrangement.

In a radio banger like Pnau’s Chameleon, the whole top end feels a decibel or two too loud severely reducing the listenability of the track.

More subtle and clean electronic music is reproduced well though. The luscious compositions of Self Tape shine well.

Hip hop, especially the older variety of the likes of Tribe called Quest, does well.

More analog music such as Bitches Brew which has no constantly chirping hats, and prominent, clean instrumentation, sounds great.

Homepod rocks with spacious mixes that have clear separation of instruments. Mile’s Davis’ Bitch’s Brew, Angel Olsen’s My Woman and Jen Cloher’s self-titled albums, all deliciously analog and underproduced, are done great justice by the HomePod.

Despite intentions (and reviews) its sound is at least a little dependant on where the HomePod is placed, and where you are in relation to it. There are a few things at play making it hard to understand.

Bass is a weird thing on the HomePod. There’s no getting around that in many songs, some bass notes are empty while others are full, especially evident in a song like Black Hole Sun, with it’s slow but dynamic baseline. Other songs, such as Smells Like Teen Spirit, seem to have forgotten to plug the bass guitar in entirely. On the other end of the scale, songs with ever present sub bass are pervaded by a glossy boom, also dependant on the particular octave – or even note – being played. Then you play Fleetwood Mac’s Rihanna and are blown away, with all the instruments where they should be, and are confused. For people who really listen to music, HomePod can be a bit like that.

Despite marketing, the level and frequency of bass that reaches your ears also depends pretty highly on where you are in relation to the speakers. You can be standing in the middle of the room and get the full lot, then take a step backwards and sit down only to have what you hear change. HomePods can sound great, but they are not the speakers we have known, and they are not for “serious listening,” to my disappointment. I intend to find a good spot for mine and leave them there forever. When they work they sing.

I think there is a lot of room for improvement in the home pod’s sound. I don’t know what kind of limits physics has placed on the engineers. Having some predefined sound profiles, if not an actual EQ, would be great. I’d love to have it flatter.