Commentary

Apple Pipes In With A Speaker That Sounds Better Than It Thinks

Amazon’s Alexa may not have really lost her voice, but the din in the smart-speaker listening room is getting louder with the imminent release of Apple’s HomePod this week. The early reviews are decidedly mixed. The sound is great, most agree, but mitigating factors such as price and utility would lead one to believe that the Amazon Echo and Google Home are not going the way of those jumbo Bose 501s in your den anytime soon.

“Apple’s HomePod speakers will be the best-sounding ones you’ve ever owned,” reads the hed above Ben Bajarin's gushing review for ReCode

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“Apple is explicitly advertising the HomePod as a sound-focused device — it sits under the ‘Music' tab on its website, and its tagline is ‘The new sound of home.’ It also just happens to feature Siri for some added, voice-based functionalities,” points out Edoardo Maggio for Business Insider.

“Because of this, the HomePod is significantly distancing itself from its main competitors, the Amazon Echo and Google Home families of devices. Apple is willingly sitting out of the smart speaker race,” he continues.

“That leads to my conclusion: The $349 HomePod, which costs roughly three times its competitors and arrives in stores on Friday, is tough to recommend to you, dear reader,” writes Brian X. Chen for the New York Times.

Initially, it seems, Chen reached that conclusion because rather than learning, over the course of a week, that his musical tastes lean towards artists such as Beck, Talking Heads and David Bowie, Siri was serving him the likes of Taylor Swift and Leroy Francis.

In reality, Chen’s methodology is not so facile. He tested the HomePod side-by-side with the Echo and Home, “grading them on their ability to accomplish 14 tasks across several categories, including music, productivity, commuting, home automation and cooking.” On a scale of zero to 4, the Echo won with a 3.4 and Home scored 3.1. The HomePod trailed at 2.9.

Apple is, of course, accentuating the positive in its positioning.

“‘We never wanted to lose the focus that [HomePod is] first about making a speaker that plays back music in a surprising really great way,' Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide marketing Phil Schiller said moments after leading a tour of journalists through a working audio testing lab where acoustic and engineering teams first started working on HomePod a half-dozen years ago,” writes Edward C. Baig for USA Today.

“In terms of using the Apple HomePod, it’s so, well, Apple in the way you’ll use it,” writes Gareth Beavis for TechRadar. Fret not, fanboys. That’s a good thing. “Like with the AirPods, simply hold your phone near the unit and your handset will send over your Apple ID, Apple Music preferences and enter all the long-winded Wi-Fi passwords you’re proud that you remember but thankfully don’t have to type in.”

But as many observers point out, the functionality is a two-way street, with the cash flowing in one direction. Towards Cupertino. 

“Apple’s vested interest is in having you boogie with them, and it is banking on a loyal fan base that is accustomed to, if not exactly jazzed about, having to pay a premium for Apple products,” Baig writes. “HomePod pretty much demands consumers embrace the Apple ecosystem, requiring an iOS device, and for full functionality, a subscription to Apple Music.”

Fortune’s Jonathan Vanian rounds up some other reviews here, as does David Phelan for Forbes here.

Most observers find the looks appealing, but so, too, may the four-legged creatures among us, observes Nilay Patel for The Verge.

“Nothing about the HomePod when you see it in person is what you’d expect. It’s been both smaller and larger than people I’ve shown it to have thought, as it’s so minimally designed that it’s hard to get a sense of scale from photographs. It’s also heavier than it looks, and it doesn’t feel at all like other speakers: the outside is wrapped in a custom spongy mesh fabric Apple proudly told me was developed by its ‘soft materials team.’ I do not know if that team has any cats, but I suspect cats are going to love the HomePod.”

Pro observation: They loved those Bose 501 speakers, too, but shredded fabric has no effect on the sound output.

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