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Five things to know before you buy an Apple HomePod

Apple’s talking speaker, the HomePod, goes on sale Feb. 9. Post tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler says there are five things you should know before buying one. (Video: Patrick Martin, Jhaan Elker, Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post)

Hey, Siri, play “All About That Bass.” Because HomePod’s all about that bass. Not that brain. Oh, Apple.

Apologies to Meghan Trainor for my geeky remix of her ode to bottom notes. It sums up how I feel about the first talking speaker from the company that gave us the first talking artificial intelligence, Siri.

No matter how much boom-boom Apple packed into the $350 HomePod, it can’t make up for poor old Siri, which somehow became even more dopey. Inside this speaker, Siri can’t even do all the things it stumbles through on an iPhone, Apple Watch and Mac. The HomePod was years in the making and delayed months before it finally arrived Friday — yet it still feels like an unfinished product.

The speaker, which I’ve been testing for a few days, probably sounds better than what most people use today on a kitchen counter or bookshelf. But it’s only of use to people who buy all their technology from Apple. You need an iPhone and a $10-per-month subscription to Apple Music, the only music service it lets you control with your voice. You can’t use it as a traditional Bluetooth speaker. You're paying a lot to get even more entrenched in Apple's world.

Even if you’re deep in the Apple camp, there’s more to keep in mind. Buy a HomePod for the music, not the help from Siri. And if you’re a sound hound, you’ve got options. Here are five lessons from my test lab.

1. Yes, the HomePod sounds good. But not as good as two Sonos One speakers for the same price.

Apple engineers and marketing people will talk your ears off about the HomePod’s innovations in high-excursion woofers and flimflam flibbertigibbets.

But if you cared about audio that much, you probably already own good speakers. Can most people tell the difference?

Here’s how I found out: Beyond trying the HomePod myself in multiple rooms, I asked volunteers to compare it with the $100 second-generation Amazon Echo featuring Alexa, the $400 Google Home Max featuring Google Assistant and the $200 Sonos One which will work with both talking AIs.

We tested them using a blindfold. Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all technology with the same critical eye — or ear.

Everyone could tell the difference between the least-expensive, the Amazon Echo, and the HomePod — which you’d expect, given the price difference. The Echo is probably fine if you want a soundtrack for your dishwashing or showering, but it sounded tinny next to the HomePod.

For the rest, results were mixed. The HomePod had more bass than the Sonos — sometimes too much. The Sonos was more pleasing in the midrange tones that make vocals sound bright. The Home Max did a better job at filling the room with sound than the HomePod, but had so much bass it was often muddled.

For my money, the best choice is a deal Sonos is offering (for an undisclosed amount of time) to get two of its One speakers for $350. They can form a pair that offers real stereo separation that sounded better than any of the solo speakers. Or you can put Sonos speakers in different rooms, giving you tunes all over the house.

2. HomePod Siri isn’t even the best Siri.

Siri does best at music: It can summon songs, make playlists (“play ’80s party music”), and offer factoids about songs. I’d grade it a B-minus for delight when I asked it to just “play some music.” Alas, it had no idea what to make of the request, “Play my favorite song.” (It offered Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things,” which is fun but not, in fact, my favorite.)

But Siri really struggles on assistant tasks. It comically mishears dictation. It can’t answer as many basic information requests as Google Assistant. It can’t even set more than one simultaneous timer.

Wait, there’s less: On the HomePod, Siri can’t place phone calls, read your calendar or hail an Uber. What’s mysterious is that Siri can do all those things on an iPhone. Only third-party apps related to messaging, taking notes or making lists have been enabled on the HomePod. Apple may have focused on the most-useful functions, but it fumbled a chance to reintroduce Siri to a world that’s grown skeptical of it. (The bot, for one, apologizes: “I wish I could, but I can’t access your calendar here.”)

If you’re building a smart home, the HomePod can control lights, thermostats and locks. But Apple’s HomeKit is only compatible with certain devices; for example, you can’t use it to control Google’s popular Nest thermostats. Amazon’s Alexa works with far more.

3. There’s no physical button to turn off the HomePod microphone. But it is better about privacy in other ways.

The creepy factor on all smart speakers is that they’re constantly listening. But sometimes you just want to turn them off.

Amazon’s Echo speakers come with a button that mutes its microphone — the HomePod has no such button. But you can turn off Siri by asking: “Hey, Siri, stop listening.” (Annoyingly, she asks you each time if that’s what you really want.) To make Siri resume listening, you either tap on top of the speaker or use an app on your phone.

The HomePod is more careful about what it does with your requests. Amazon and Google keep a log of everything you ask. All your requests to Siri are sent to Apple anonymously and encrypted, so you leave less of a digital trail.

One privacy decision you’ll have to make: How much of your personal life do you want to make accessible? Each HomePod is associated with one iPhone, even though an entire family might share it. During setup, Apple asks whether you want to allow anyone using the HomePod to send and read messages, add reminders, create notes and more. There’s no way to make the HomePod access only those functions when it recognizes your voice — Siri treats everyone the same.

4. You can’t make two HomePods into a stereo pair or fill multiple rooms with music — yet.

Apple hasn’t finished delivering on some HomePod capabilities that rivals such as Sonos mastered years ago. The ability to turn two HomePods into a stereo pair is coming “later this year.”

Same goes for the ability to have your music follow you from one room to the next. Only after an update to Apple’s AirPlay software will you be able to ask Siri to play a song in a particular room, or play the same music everywhere — a “party mode” so to speak.

One related concern: I was disappointed the HomePod doesn’t have a closer relationship with the Apple TV. Why not allow Siri to order up shows and movies as you do with the Apple TV remote? If you suffer from terrible speakers built into your TV set, you can dig into the Apple TV's audio settings to let the HomePod be the default speaker for whatever show or movie you’re streaming.

5. When you call out to Siri on the HomePod, sometimes your Apple Watch or iPhone answers instead.

About 20 percent of the time I call out to the HomePod, the Siri on my Apple Watch or iPhone answers instead. One time, when I asked Siri to play Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” both the HomePod and iPhone started playing … with just enough time in between that it sounded as if they were trying to create a musical round. Apple says software updates should have fixed this, and it is looking into my continuing problem.

That goof was pretty funny. But more often the bug is annoying — and surprising from Apple, which charges a premium for polish.

This post was updated to include details about making a HomePod the default speaker for an Apple TV.