Apple is finally jumping into the smart speaker craze.
At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference held in San Jose on Monday morning, the iPhone giant announced HomePod, a 7-inch tall speaker for $349.
Apple is facing some serious competition from the likes of tech rivals Amazon and Google in the race for voice-powered computing. While Apple was an early entry into voice assistants with the introduction of Siri in 2011, voice assistants from Amazon and Google have largely surpassed Apple with the launch of Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers. This new breed of speaker presents a tantalizing future powered by voice, where computing is not tied to a screen.
Similar to Google and Amazon smart speakers, the HomePod has an intelligent voice assistant baked in. Siri can be activated using the command “Hey, Siri.” Apple said HomePods can pick up the commands from across the room with a 6-microphone array (compared to the Echo’s 7 microphones and Home’s 2 microphone). Like other smart speakers, audio information isn’t sent to Apple’s cloud until this voice command has been issued, Apple said.
But none of that is much different from what Amazon and Google speakers already offer. Where Apple is really focusing on differentiating the HomePod is in pure audio quality.
The speaker has 7-beam forming tweeters and a 4-inch woofer facing upwards. The speaker comes equipped with the A8 chip, the same processor found in the iPhone 6 from 2016. The chip does all the fancy audio engineering – real-time acoustic modeling, audio beam forming and echo cancellation.
Apple said the speakers have “spatial awareness” that adjusts the speaker’s sound levels to the acoustic conditions of the particular room. This is very similar to Sonos’ Trueplay feature, which similarly tunes its speakers to any room.
Schiller said the HomePod will be deeply integrated with the Apple Music streaming music service. Users can ask HomePod to do simple things like play a song or a Apple’s Beat 1 Radio, or even ask who is singing or playing drum on a track. Users can tell HomePod that they liked a song or to play more songs like the one they’re listening to. One issue here is whether the HomePod will play nice with other music streaming services like Spotify.
The introduction of a high-quality smart speaker from Apple puts some serious pressure on Sonos, an early leader in the connected speaker market. While Amazon Echo and Google Home began stealing some market share from the Santa Barbara-based speaker company, Sonos prided itself on the excellent audio engineering that went into its speakers as well as the fact it played nicely with almost every streaming music service out there. Sonos also has ambitions on integrating with every intelligent voice assistant out there. At WWDC, Apple announced the speaker category for HomeKit, so other speaker makers could more tightly integrate with iOS. Interestingly, Sonos was absent from the list of early speaker partners.
Regardless of whether consumers care enough about audio quality, there are enough Apple fans who are likely hungry for a product like this as rivals Amazon and Google have come out ahead. But the real competition between Apple, Google and Amazon in smart speakers may come down to the quality of their intelligent assistants. And fortunately for Google and Amazon, Apple’s Siri is widely seen as lagging behind the competition in both its quality and capabilities.
The HomePod starts shipping in December and costs $349. Pricier than the Google Home at $129 and Amazon Echo at $180, but the speaker quality may justify the higher price.
– By Aaron Tilley, FORBES STAFF
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