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Apple HomePod vs. Amazon Echo and its rivals: Here"s how it stacks up

2018.01.30 05:16

Now its Siris turn.

Were about to find out if the  HomePod smart speaker using digital assistant Siri that Apple — following a lengthy delay — finally starts shipping on Feb. 9 can lure listeners away from Amazons Alexa, and to a lesser extent, the Google Assistant.

Apple starts taking preorders Friday for HomePod, which its positioned as a high-end speaker and, at $349, has priced accordingly. That price tag, Amazons three-year head start making its Echo tower synonymous with the phrase "smart speaker," and Siris mixed reputation for accurate responses, mean Apples success isnt a sure thing.

Still, the worlds most valuable company has a track record of being late to a product — then owning the market — and its positioned this debut HomePod as targeting a premium segment of Apple loyalists and audiophiles.

Itll rank as one of the most costly smart speakers, at the opposite end of the range from the $50 or so Google Home Minis and Echo Dots that were deeply discounted last holiday shopping season. The cost actually undercuts what Google charges for its own sonically-charged multi-room capable speaker, the Google Home Max with the Google Assistant, by $50. But it is considerably higher than the $199 youll pay for another sweet-sounding speaker, the Sonos One powered by Alexa.

In this increasingly crowded market, the Harmon-Kardon Invoke speaker with Microsoft Cortana also costs $199 and boasts excellent sound.

Meanwhile, Amazons own second-generation Echo costs around $100, but while it provides richer sound with an assist from Dolby than the original Echo, the pitch seems less about the audio, and more about Alexas 25,000-plus skills.

You can pay even less, about $50, for an Echo Dot, and while its small speaker is nothing to write home about for audio, you can pipe the sound wirelessly via Bluetooth to another, better sounding, audio option.

Along the way, Alexa and the Echo series of products not only helped define the smart speaker category, but staked Amazon out to a lead.

In reaching out to potential customers for whom the sound is the be-all reason to buy, Apple is promising such advanced audio technologies inside HomePod as beam-forming tweeters, a  fancy woofer and automatic spatial awareness, that the speaker (much like the Google Home Max) promises to adjust accordingly depending on where you place it.

People who got to hear the 7-inch tall HomePod when it was demonstrated under Apples close watch back in June raved about the sound. But the real test will come when we get to hear it in our homes, and see if it lives up to its advanced billing.

At this point we dont know if it will sound demonstrably better than Google Home Max or Sonos One, both of which are sonic winners for the price.

Sound and services

Buying into HomePod also means buying into Apples own $9.99-a-month Apple Music subscription service, which sports a catalog of some 45 million tracks, at least  if you want Siri to help identify the drummer in the song youre listening to, or to discover your musical preferences over time. And yes, using your voice, you can ask Siri to help you choose what to listen to based on your mood at the time ("Hey Siri, play R&B.).

As an AirPlay-compatible speaker, youll be able to use apps on your phone, say, to listen to Spotify or other services on the HomePod.

Youll be able to take advantage of multi-room audio, too, asking the speaker (through Siri) to simultaneously play classical music, say, in the living room and maybe rock in the kitchen on a second HomePod, though regrettably not right away. Youll have to wait for a software upgrade promised later in the year. Thats a capability other speakers can do now. Youll also be able to set up two speakers in the same room as a stereo pair. Alas, that comes later as well.

As with other virtual assistants, Siri can also deliver headlines, sports scores or the weather, control the lights or the thermostat and tell you a joke. You can use HomePod as a speakerphone for your iPhone, too. (Besides voice via Siri, HomePod can respond to touch.)

This is where Apple, renowned for its hardware and elegant software interfaces, may face the toughest competition from its rivals. While Siri is the most widely used digital assistant, by virtue of its early entry into hundreds of millions of iPhones, it gets beaten by Google Assistant on the ability to answer factual questions, one common use for smart speakers. And its aim of getting third-party developers to work with it to expand into many more apps fell short of early expectations. Amazon, in contrast, says its Alexa can tap 25,000 skills, from tracking your spending via voice to helping you pair wine with food.

But Im thinking those of you inclined to give HomePod a listen will do so because of music. Keeping that in mind, let the sound-off begin.

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