Apple HomePod $349 smart speaker - big focus on music and sound quality

Trevory MoggerDec 10, 2017Gadgets23614
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HomePod – the new sound of home. Check out some photos below for a first look (if you have not seen). HomePod will be available in White and Space Gray for $349 in December.

The big reveal in June 2017 at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose was the unveiling of the company’s much anticipated standalone Siri speaker device officially called “HomePod”. As expected, Apple unveiled an Amazon Echo and Google Home-competitor of sorts with the new HomePod, bringing Siri into the living room for voice commands at home without having to reach for an iOS device or Mac.

© Article’s author: Jordan Kahn.
© Source: 9to5Mac

HomePod - new sound of homeIn December 2017, at its Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple officially took the wraps off of its oft-rumored speaker in the form of HomePod. The device acts as a standalone way for users to interact with Siri, play music, and more. Tim Cook touts this as Apple’s effort to “reinvent home music” just as it did with products like the iPod.

Siri is an intelligent personal assistant, part of Apple Inc.’s iOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS operating systems.

Prior to announcing Apple’s product, Phil Schiller explained that Apple has worked to take what companies like Sonos and Amazon have done and create a “breakthrough home speaker.” Schiller explained that a successful speaker must “rock the house,” have “spatial awareness,” and “be a musicologist.”

Here’s how Apple describes HomePod:

HomePod is a powerful speaker that sounds amazing, adapts to wherever it’s playing, and together with Apple Music, gives you effortless access to one of the world’s largest music catalogs. All controlled through natural voice interaction with Siri. It takes the listening experience to a whole new level. And that’s just the beginning.

Unlike most of the competitors, however, the HomePod has a big focus on music and sound quality with the $349 speaker packing in a 7 tweeter array with precision acoustic horns and directional control. You’ll also find an Apple-designed 4-inch woofer, 6 microphone array, and Apple’s A8 chip to power it all. Apple also noted that multiple speakers can be paired meaning it’s expecting some people to buy more than one to use as a multi-speaker setup or around the house.

To accommodate for the included woofer and speaker setup the HomePod comes in slightly bigger package than the competitors too, measuring in at 6.8 inches tall by 5.6 inches wide, and weighing 5.5 pounds.

In person, the speaker doesn’t exactly do anything to set itself aside from the competition design-wise – it’s a pretty basic speaker design with mesh fabric that looks similar to other Bluetooth speakers. But from Apple’s presentation of the device, it sounds like it’s hoping audio quality will be HomePod’s big differentiator.

Apple didn’t let us actually get hands-on with the HomePod during WWDC, and they didn’t have any functioning units for showing off features of the product in the demo area. One thing unique to the HomePod, however, are lights on top of the device that indicate when Siri has been activated, which can be done with the usual “Hey Siri” command that works on iOS devices.

Bloomberg’s opinion: “HomePod project cancelled & revived several times. Was originally three-feet tall. ‘Blindsided’ by Amazon.” Bloomberg says that it started as a hobby project by a group of engineers who originally envisaged it as a proper HiFi speaker.

The HomePod was originally a side project cooked up about five years ago by a group of Mac audio engineers, who wanted to create a speaker that sounded better than the ones sold by the likes of Bose, JBL and Harman Kardon. Side projects aren’t uncommon at Apple, where employees are encouraged to follow their muse so long as their day jobs come first.

The engineers wanted a product that would past muster with audiophiles. Several members of the impromptu team hailed from big-name speaker makers.

One prototype was said to be around three feet high, putting it in the company of conventional HiFi speakers.

It was two years before the project got as far as an official codename – said to be B238 – and was adopted by Apple’s accessories division, the engineers being relocated to an office close to the company’s Cupertino campus. By that time, it was conceived as a smart speaker, and the team was said to have been blindsided by Amazon beating them to market with the Echo.

Apple audio engineers had been working on an early version of the HomePod speaker for about two years in 2014 when they were blindsided by the Echo, a smart speaker from Amazon.com Inc. with a voice-activated assistant named Alexa. The Apple engineers jokingly accused one another of leaking details of their project to Amazon, then bought Echos so they could take them apart and see how they were put together. They quickly deemed the Echo’s sound quality inferior and got back to work building a better speaker.

More than two years passed. In that time Amazon’s Echo became a hit with consumers impressed by Alexa’s ability to answer questions, order pizzas and turn lights on and off. Meanwhile, Apple dithered over its own speaker, according to people familiar with the situation.

Apple’s far more limited ambitions were said to be a source of frustration to some of those working on the project.

The HomePod won’t be able to do many of the things the Echo can. Amazon offers thousands of “skills” (voice-activated apps) that let users do a range of things (including buy stuff from Amazon). The Google Home, which debuted earlier this year, is similarly endowed. The HomePod will be mostly limited to playing tunes from Apple Music, controlling Apple-optimized smart home appliances and sending messages through an iPhone.

“This is a huge missed opportunity,” said one of the people, who requested anonymity to discuss an internal matter. Apple declined to comment.

Unlike Echo, which is a standalone device, HomePod can only access apps on an iPhone – and only a handful of those.

When someone asks the HomePod to open a third-party app, the request won’t go directly to the cloud, as with the Echo, but to an iPhone. As a result, developers can’t write apps for the HomePod. They must create tweaked versions of existing iPhone apps. What’s more, Apple has limited the kinds of apps to messaging, to-do lists and notes. If Alexa is the beating heart of the Echo, Siri is almost an afterthought.

The concern is that HomePod will look like an inferior version of Echo – despite what is expected to be vastly superior audio quality.

Apple does at least appear to be on safe ground among its hardcore devotees. In a poll currently running on popular website, 60% of users are waiting for the HomePod, compared to 12% planning to buy a Sonos and less than 10% an Amazon or Google speaker.

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Total: 6 comments
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  1. Chris Maccenroy
    5
    10
    Chris MaccenroyJournalist
    2017-12-11, 12:24PM
    Apple doesn't need to sell to "most people" right away. 10 years ago it would have been very easy to argue that most people would not pay a lot of money on a phone. Today, most people do not have a so-called "smart speaker" so Apple does not need to rely on people switching sides.

    In fact, most people do not have a HiFi system or a home theatre system. Most homes don't have a good listening experience inside - so there is a huge gap in the market. I don't believe most people want to engage in voice-first-computing so this battle of the assistants narrative is not very meaningful and it should not keep being put at center stage in the media.

    Sure Amazon and Google have rushed stuff to market and given their assistants more "skills" - but at what cost? They were blind-sided when Apple released Siri. In order to catch up and claim superiority over Siri they have played dirty with the privacy of the users.

    +3
  2. iNexussbeene
    1
    5
    2017-12-11, 11:42AM
    I have the Amazon Echo kit in every room of my home - it's really useful and because the price is so low, it's not a major thing to get it everywhere. It continually gets better and adds new functionality. For a quick listen in a kitchen whilst you're preparing food with all the other noise it's more than sufficient.

    HomePod sits awkwardly in a Sonos style price but without the flexibility - for me purchasing HomePod is not going to happen as I use Spotify not Apple Music so whilst apple might improve the signups for Apple Music when people buy home pods they'll certainly have people like me avoiding the product because it's not open enough.

    Plus Amazon Echo has some models that can be a generic bluetooth speaker (handy since the apple HomePod sounds like it will only work with Apple devices, no use for visitors or mixed environment homes), as well as ability to be connected to a decent audio service - e.g. various amplifiers etc as it has line out on some models.
    +8
  3. Alan Greener
    5
    2017-12-11, 10:42AM
    Ok. So a couple of things I take away from this. If nothing else, Amazon has proven that an "ecosystem" will only get you so far. People with iPhones and Macs are still opting for Alexa-powered smart speakers. They're cheaper and more capable overall, even if they don't mesh perfectly with their iDevices. The same goes for Google Home, especially since many people with Apple ID's are using their existing Gmail accounts to register, meaning they are drawing from much of the same user base, except Google (for better or worse) uses user data to make their platform more intimate (at least to the user's eyes).

    Finally, if these smart speakers have shown us anything, it's that MOST users (not all) don't care about audio quality. In an age where many people are listening to shows and music through their built-in speakers (be they laptop, phone, or TV), the Amazon Echo's middling audio quality probably feels like a professional setup compared to what most users are used to hearing - the same way a pair of $100 headphones sounds better than the in-box set that came with your phone.

    +3
  4. Michael John
    3
    2017-12-11, 10:29AM
    I was saving up for a Devialet Phantom, but wait I can buy four HomePods for the price of one Devialet! - now let’s wait and see how it sounds.

    I would not consider buying a personal-assistant-first speaker that can’t do a decent job of playing music. Neither would I use an always listening device that relies solely on cloud computing with no reasonable protection of my privacy (Amazon, Google and Sonos have all failed spectacularly in this regard but the media keeps giving them a free pass it would never give Apple).

    +5
  5. Dave Smartier
    6
    10
    Dave SmartierJournalist
    2017-12-11, 10:12AM
    This is mostly about music. It's competing primarily against Sonos and Devialet. The Amazon and Google products don't reproduce quality music. It is only competing against them in the voice assistant department but this device isn't primarily a voice assist it's for filling the room with decent quality audio.

    I was about to spend a thousand bucks on a Devialet Phantom, I can buy two these and AirPods for the price of one Phantom! I can hear the accessory makers scrambling to make floor stands and wall mounts for HomePod. I'd like to see Apple reveal these accessories before December.
    +8
  6. Trevory Mogger
    1
    6
    2017-12-10, 3:53PM
    Set the first iPod next to any of the MP3 available at the time, or set the first iPhone next to the Treo or Blackberry, and it was striking how Apple had leapt past the competition... is that true of the HomePod? I don't think so. I love my Sonos speakers, and by the time this is released my Echo Dot should be able to control the Sonos, so while I'll almost certainly buy a HomePod because I'm an Apple fanboy with a credit card, I don't really expect this to become the defining product in the category. I don't even expect it to be the most used speaker in my house. neutral_face
    +11
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