Apple joins the smart home speaker race

by Haadi Bakar
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Apple hasn’t been making any new speakers since it ceased production of the iPod Hi-Fi in 2007, but now the company is back to making them in the form of a Siri-enabled smart speaker.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Apple to enter the smart speaker race which now has Amazon and Google in the lead, and with Microsoft recently teaming up with Harman Kardon to catch up.

But unlike Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Apple is positioning its new Wi-Fi speaker, called the HomePod, as a music-focused premium speaker with Siri baked in, rather than a smart home appliance.

Apple insists that the HomePod will sound amazing, as the company yesterday heavily emphasised on the HomePod’s audio quality as being comparable to leading streaming speakers in the market like those from Sonos and Bang & Olufsen.

Inside the HomePod’s mesh cylinder lies an upward-facing 4-inch woofer and seven beam-forming tweeters at the base. In contrast, the Echo and Google Home only has one driver – they’re great for voice assistants, but not so great for music listening.

The speaker is also intelligent at detecting its placement so that it can direct a more balanced audio sound in the room. You can also purchase a second HomePod and set up both speakers into stereo mode.

At the heart of the HomePod is Apple’s A8 chip, the same chip used to power iPhones.

Meanwhile, Apple’s personal assistant Siri is the smart speaker’s soul, and it has been tweaked to be more of a “musicologist’ that helps listeners discover new artists. Pulling music from the Apple library, Siri can tell you information about the song that’s playing, like what year the album was released or the name of the drummer playing in the band.

You can also throw in requests like “play a chart topper from the 1980’s”, “play something new” or “play hardcore punk”, and Siri will intelligently play the song that fits your request.

Siri can also respond to other non-music related requests like the weather forecast, search information online, set a reminder and check sports scores.

The HomePod also supports HomeKit, Apple’s smart home platform, so Siri can respond to voice commands to control internet-connected home appliances.

Since Google’s and Amazon’s smart speakers aren’t making their way to our shores anytime soon, Apple’s HomePod is probably the closest thing we could get to a smart home speaker here in this part of the world once it’s released in December.

But with all the advanced features and that premium design, the HomePod is also pretty expensive for a smart home speaker. At US$349 (around B$500), it’s only probably going to win those who are already locked into the Apple ecosystem.

At least it’s a lot better than Apple’s iPod Hi-Fi from 2006. That one was equivalently priced but only played music from iPods and nothing else, not even an AM/FM radio.

https://youtu.be/1hw9skL-IXc

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