2017 has been the year that saw the boom of smart speakers in homes all around the world, but there’s one notable exception that won’t be seen this side of Christmas. So now Apple’s HomePod has been officially delayed, has it missed its chance to make an impact?
The smart speaker revolution has been a rapid one. It’s only two years since the launch of the very first Echo, a product that changed the whole marketplace, not least because its maker Amazon was previously seen as very much an outsider to the big players of Apple and Google.
Getting to launch first gave Amazon a huge leap on its rivals. Google quickly followed with its Home range of speakers, which, much like Amazon’s Echos are now on their second generation with an expanding product range. With Sonos also recently launching a high-end smart speaker, where exactly will Apple’s HomePod sit in the market?
Although it’s clear Apple want the HomePod to be a premium product, priced at £349 1 it already sits uncomfortably amongst the competition. You can pick up a base-level Amazon Echo for £89.99 or a Google Home for £129. Both are regularly discounted much lower as well, something Apple almost never offers on its products.
Google and Amazon also offer mini versions at incredibly affordable prices – a Google Mini retails at £49, and an Amazon Echo Dot at £49.99, again with both often around only £35 when on sale. So far Apple has announced nothing to compete with this level, meaning you could conceivably kit out your entire home with several Google or Amazon multiroom speakers cheaper than buying a single Apple HomePod.
So what about the top end of the market? A higher level Amazon Echo Plus costs £139.99 (often reduced to £109.99), while the Sonos One – with guaranteed quality audio output – is only £199.
HomePod’s closest rival, however, comes from Google in the shape of its new Google Home Max, which debuted in the US this month. Costing $399, it’s priced slightly higher than Apple’s HomePod, but is a much larger and more robust speaker with two woofers, two tweeters, and Bluetooth, USB-C and 3.5mm jack capabilities. It’s a clear message to Apple that for only $50 extra, you can get a whole lot more of a smart speaker.
First up, the lightweight Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini are not designed to play music, with speakers no better than your average smartphone. The standard Echo and Home offer better speaker quality, and suit small areas, but are comparable to bluetooth speakers of the same size – fine at medium sound levels, but lack any depth of bass or quality of tone to fill a room at a reasonable volume.
As for the larger models, it really gets interesting. The Google Home Max has launched to fairly decent reviews, and with its two 4.5-inch woofers and two 0.7-inch tweeters is a properly decent sound system. The Sonos One is of virtually the same sound quality to its well-respected Play:1 model, which – like the Google models – are designed to be paired with multiple speakers to give true stereo sound.
HomePod is more compact than its rivals, but is being much-touted for its single high‑excursion woofer and seven 360° tweeters, alongside a spacial awareness feature that allows it to produce sound best catered for wherever you position it in a room. Whether or not that proves to be enough to offer a serious challenge to the Sonos One or even the Google Home Max remains to be seen.
There’s no doubt this is one area in which Apple has always excelled, and the aesthetics of the HomePod are unrivalled. Whereas all of Amazon’s smart speaker range are decidedly plastic looking and clunky, Apple have used a seamless mesh fabric (available in white or space grey) that will look genuinely elegant on any shelf or table. The Google Home products lie somewhere between the two with a mix of plastic and mesh, and the Sonos One looks stylish but inelegant, as per the rest of their usual line-up.
The Voice Technology
Here begins the Achilles heel for Apple, namely in the form of Siri. For years Siri has lagged behind Google’s Assistant in terms of search, and now with smart speakers at the centre of our homes, is going to be put under its toughest test yet.
Of course, there is also now Amazon’s personal assistant Alexa to contend with – built specifically for smart home technology, its range of customisable skills and integration with appliances keeps putting it top of many tests.
As for the Sonos One, it may well be the dark horse in this area. Already featuring Amazon Alexa, next year should see Google Assistant and Siri support, meaning it will be the only device not stuck with its own proprietary voice assistant, instead combining all three rival services.
Apple would have been hoping that the HomePod will become a central hub for its HomeKit technology, but that too seems to be suffering from several false starts and lack of third party take-up.
Many critics think the Apple HomePod will live and die by its third party integration, and top of that list is Spotify. Unfortunately for Apple it’s a no-win situation: Support Spotify and Siri intergation on the HomePod and drive customers away from Apple Music; don’t support Spotify and lose a huge potential chunk of your customer base.
So what have the others done? Google Home currently offers most music services including Spotify, Pandora, Google Play and YouTube. Amazon Echo adds Amazon Music to that list, but once again Sonos One comes up best with full support for all platforms with the exception of YouTube.
There’s no doubt that if you are looking for the best all-round smart home speaker, the Sonos One is the easy choice. Sonos has done a great job of integrating with all the major players and producing a quality speaker – as you would expect from a company rooted in audio – all at an affordable price.
So where does that leave the HomePod? Aside from the Google Home Max – which, for only a small price increase, eclipses it in terms of quality – Apple’s speaker is by far the most expensive option on the market, and one that already seems to be falling behind the competition even before release. And with many an Amazon Echo and Google Home sure to be under people’s Christmas trees this year, it may already be an insurmountable dent in Apple’s market share.
Unless Apple can make a huge leap forward with its Siri technology, and get a big player such as Spotify on-board, the HomePod is looking increasingly like an expense too far for all but those seriously committed to the Apple ecosystem.
- Expected price based on US cost of $349 and Apple’s usual pricing structure. ↩