You’d think I’d be right on board with the HomePod, Apple’s Siri-powered speaker coming out later this year. I actually really like Apple Music as a service, and after buying a Google Home six months ago I’ve grown quite fond of talking to a speaker to tell it what song to play. Something with better sound quality and slicker execution should be an obvious purchase.
Well, the problem is I’ve already rolled my own Apple-speaker-with-smart-assistant solution, and I’m not convinced the HomePod will be much better.
The iPod Hi-Fi is one of Apple’s most maligned products. Unveiled with characteristic hubris at an overblown event, the $349 price was seen as wildly excessive at the time for what amounted to a glorified iPod dock. I loved the design, though, as well as its bassy, room-filling sound. I bought a used one for my bedroom last year because I just missed having it around.
Amazon’s Echo, meanwhile, is the product that defined the whole voice-assistant-speaker category that Apple just entered with the HomePod. It’s not available where I live, but I picked up a $50 Echo Dot when I was in the US for CES this past January. It’s a little microphone-equipped puck that plugs into any speaker and pretty much turns it into a better-sounding Echo.
See where I’m going with this? That’s right — my bedroom speaker is an Apple iPod Hi-Fi equipped with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. And it’s great! So great that I’m really not sure I’ll want to pick up a HomePod.
I think Apple was smart to focus the HomePod presentation on music. Everyone loves music, and positioning the HomePod as a smart, modern way to listen to your favorites gives the device a clear use case. Compare the muddled introduction of the Apple Watch to the confident, fitness-focused Series 2 announcement last year — it’s important to explain to people exactly why they might want a given product.
The problem is I have my doubts that the HomePod will be a better speaker than the iPod Hi-Fi. It’s way smaller, for one thing, and I am pretty suspicious of Apple’s claims about its audio processing. We’ve reported that it sounds good in a controlled demo, but who knows how that’ll translate to reality? It’s hard to imagine the HomePod reproducing the Hi-Fi’s thumping sound in such a small enclosure.
But let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and assume its sound quality is on par with the Hi-Fi. Is Siri really going to be on par with Alexa at launch? I vastly prefer Alexa at this point, and it’s hard to see how Apple will catch up with its functionality and flexibility by the end of the year. The company certainly didn’t show much intent to open Siri up to a wider range of developers at WWDC, whereas it’s trivial to get Alexa working with Spotify and countless other services.
That said, the only reason I keep up my Spotify subscription at all is so that I can invoke songs by shouting at various speakers. The $349 HomePod — same price as the iPod Hi-Fi was in 2006, remember — would pay for itself in two and a half years if it got me to cancel Spotify. And maybe that’s the only way Apple can win me over — if its integrated approach results in a notably better experience.
That is, of course, the principle that drives Apple’s entire business model. From the iPhone to the MacBook Pro, the company justifies its high prices by positioning its products as experiences that you just can’t get from competitors. And that’s why I might end up getting a HomePod after all, even if I do own a better speaker with a better voice assistant plugged in. If nothing else, Apple is good at providing new experiences, and they’re rarely less than intriguing.