Ever since Alexa arrived in my life I’ve probably spent more time talking to speakers than I have members of my extended family - and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon.
There’s barely a room left in my flat now that doesn’t have a voice-activated speaker of some sort in it. My Echo Plus lives on the kitchen windowsill, there’s a Sonos One in the bedroom, and the waterproof, Google-infused JBL Link 20 is in the bathroom.
The HomePod, though, is in my office and there’s one main reason for that: it sounds much better than the others. While the Echo spends most of its time playing podcasts when I cook or wash up, and the JBL provides the backing tracks for my shower karaoke sessions each morning, the HomePod has pretty much become my main stereo system (if such an archaic terms can be used for something so high-tech), often soundtracking my working days for eight hours or more.
Never mind the confusion I often find myself in when asking Siri to play music on the Echo, or Alexa to activate the JBL, it’s actually one of the few flaws of the HomePod that has led to my listening habits changings - and what annoyed me at first has started to feel more like a benefit.
I don’t know about you but I find having 45 million songs at my fingertips slightly daunting.
When streaming music via an app, those songs are structured and compartmentalised in such a way that choosing something to listen to is that bit easier. I’ve got a library of stuff I listen to regularly, it shows me what I’ve listened to recently, and makes suggestions based on both.
Streaming services also now do an excellent job of editorialising their offerings, with curated playlists galore, not to mention Spotify’s excellent Daily Mixes and Discover Weekly.
But the HomePod does everything it can to make you use Siri to control it. There’s a screen on top but it’s only really there to show you when Siri’s listening.
Without that library to look at and inspire me, I’ve found myself sitting in silence while I desperately try to think of something I want to listen to, and even when I do, I can’t always remember the name of it.
Instead, I’ve found myself seeking inspiration from the racks of CDs that stand untouched behind my desk, or firing up Spotify or iTunes on my computer to help me choose, which seems like a pretty back-to-front way of doing things.
You can use the music app on your iPhone to manually select what the HomePod’s playing but it’s a clunky, convoluted process that has about five more steps to it than is convenient.
As a result, it’s brought back a start-to-finish listening habit that had become increasingly rare for me, when something different was always just sitting there a couple of mouse clicks away. Now when I decide on something I tend to stick to it.
It turns out that visual browsing process is crucial in inspiring me - and it’s not an entirely new feeling.
I remember standing on station platforms heading home from work, putting my old iPod Classic on shuffle and skipping track after track until I found something I actually wanted to listen to. I think the most I ever rejected before finding something was about 120.
But now I have Siri to do that for me. Apple’s AI assistant has not only proved it can understand me over the music, it’s also shown that it knows what I like.
That’s crucial in convincing me to hand over DJing responsibilities, so I tend to just say: “Siri, play some music I like,” and wait for something to take my fancy, at which point I tell her to play the album.
Even if I do know what I fancy hearing, I’ll often put it on and leave til the end it rather than getting restless halfway through and switching to something else. Ironically, skipping around between songs has become too much like hard work, so I don’t bother.
Is that really a flaw with the product? Possibly, but if it means I spend more time listening to albums as the artists intended, is it really a bad thing?
Return of the album
I suppose there are parallels to be drawn with the resurgence of vinyl. People put up with the inconvenience of records because they sound better than streams or CDs and there’s probably a similar situation at play here.
The HomePod certainly sounds better than any other standalone speaker I have in the house even if its source is the same quality.
Streaming and social media seems to have eroded our attention spans to the point where we need to be forced into committing our attention to anything for more than a few minutes, whether it’s an album, a book or another human being.
If moving towards the exclusive use of voice control is going to improve that then I’m all for it, especially if streaming services get even better at guessing what I want to listen to and when I want to listen to it.
For now, though, anyone heard anything good lately?