The Apple HomePod has officially been announced as the iPhone maker’s competitor to the Amazon Echo. Despite it being in direct competition with Amazon’s offering, many will be more likely to compare it to what is offered by Sonos – after all this is a speaker first, smart assistant second. That’s why users are unlikely to be umming and ahhing about whether or not they should buy Amazon’s Echo over the HomePod, rather they’ll be weighing up the Apple HomePod vs Sonos Play:1.
Apple’s answer to the smart speaker craze is the oddly-named HomePod. Underneath the marshmallow-shaped body users will find seven tweeters and a 4in subwoofer. That’s because this smart speaker is putting music front and centre, something that has been largely snubbed by the likes of the Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Early reports surrounding the speaker’s sound quality are good, although it’s far away from being a final product. After all, the HomePod won’t be officially released until December, giving Apple plenty of time to tweak things to make it sound even better. Despite having a good sounding speaker, Apple have made the HomePod expensive – blowing past the price points of the Sonos Play:1, Amazon Echo and Google Home.
At its event on Monday, Apple officially confirmed that the HomePod speaker will cost $350 in the US, while UK pricing has yet to be announced. That puts it at a considerable premium to the Google Home, which costs $129 and is currently on offer for $109, the Amazon Echo, which costs $179.99, and the Sonos Play:1, which costs $199. In fact, Apple’s HomePod is even more expensive than a Sonos Play:3, which costs $299.
Those who have used Google Home will openly admit it’s not the best sounding speaker on the market, but it’s also far from the worst. Users can also use the Google Home to control other speakers, as long as they’re Chromecast-enabled, or they have a Chromecast plugged into them. That means users can simply use a Google Home to control speakers from respected audio brands, such as Bang & Olufsen and Harman/Kardon. At $109, users could actually buy three Google Home speakers for the price of one HomePod speaker – and still have almost enough left over to buy a Chromecast Audio.
While pricing will be of concern to some, Apple believes it can justify the higher price of its smart speaker due to its sound quality prowess and the power of the Siri assistant. Unfortunately, many users have been disappointed by the lack of support for any music streaming service that isn’t Apple Music. That means users acquiring an Apple HomePod will have to be deep into the company’s ecosystem, as Spotify, Deezer and Pandora will all be unavailable.
There are other issues surrounding the Apple HomePod too. While Amazon and Google have opened their arms to third-party developers, and made their speakers the heart of any smart home – Apple is being a little more restrictive. Those wishing to control their smart home with the HomePod will have to ensure their devices are compatible with HomeKit which, as it currently stands, isn’t all that many. Users certainly won’t be able to use the Nest thermostat or Samsung SmartThings devices, although Philips Hue and the August Smart Lock are still supported.
By far the biggest problem facing the HomePod’s success will be Siri. While Apple users will be familiar with the digital assistant, independent research suggests that Siri is far from the rousing success that the iPhone creator makes out for it to be. Comparing Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri, the researchers posed 5,000 questions to each digital assistant and marked it based on the questions that it answered, and which questions it answered correctly. Out of the 5,000 questions, Google Assistant came top, answering 68.1% of the questions, 90.6% of which were correct answers. Cortana closely followed Google’s success, answering 56.5% of the questions, 81.99% of which were correct answers. Alexa answered the least amount of questions, just 20.7%, although when it did answer, it was correct 87% of the time. Siri was left in last place, however, answering 21.7% of the questions, and with a success rate of just 62.2%.
So why buy the Apple HomePod at all? Well, if you’re deep into the Apple ecosystem, then it’s a good bet. It can send messages, it works with all your iOS and Mac OS devices, and it’s the only smart speaker to support Apple Music.
Sonos’ most affordable speaker is probably the best one to compare with the Apple HomePod, despite the Play:3 being around the same price point. That’s because it’s only slightly smaller than the HomePod, and has been equally praised for its sound quality – with most regarding it amongst the best multi-room speaker money can buy.
Underneath the metallic body of the Sonos Play:1 users will find a 3.5in mid-woofer, a single tweeter and two class-D digital amplifiers. While there have been no side-by-side comparisons between the Sonos Play:1 and HomePod, early tests with the speaker suggests Apple comes off well. Some say it delivers a ‘more vivid and crisp’ sound than the Play:1, which is not all that surprising considering the 4in subwoofer, and seven tweeters.
Until the HomePod is released, it’ll be hard to judge which one is actually the victor, although users will have to be serious about sound to buy a HomePod over a Play:1, considering the gulf in price. There’s definitely a market for a premium speaker, with Bang & Olufsen often commanding a price point in the thousands, rather than the hundreds, so Apple’s speaker is by no means overpriced in that sense. Given the universal praise for the Sonos Play:1, it’s likely going to be enough for most users – especially given its affordability.
The Apple HomePod does have one advantage over the Sonos Play:1, however. That’s because it ships with a smart assistant out of the box, while there’s currently no such smarts available for any of Sonos’ speakers. That’s likely to change by the time the HomePod is available in December, with Sonos hard at work with Amazon to bring Alexa voice control to its entire line-up.
Apple is no stranger to the audio game, and it could find itself in the exact same position with round two. Back in 2006 the company launched the iPod Hi-Fi, a speaker dock for charging an iPod and listening to music. While that dock didn’t have the smarts of the HomePod, its sound quality was praised as being better than much of the competition. Despite being acoustically better, it was only marginal, while the price was significantly higher. That led the Apple iPod Hi-Fi to poor reviews, and a quiet death. Let’s hope the same isn’t true for the Apple HomePod.