What’s a HomePod and Who’s Alexa?
Apple’s new wireless smart speaker, the HomePod, gets it’s smarts from Apple’s Siri voice assistant – and Apple wants it to be your new high-end home music system of choice this holiday season.
The Homepod wireless speaker and Siri assistant is a direct attack against Amazon’s Echo, with their popular Alexa digital assistant, Google Home, and a new Sonos smart speaker that’s due soon.
If you haven’t noticed, the experience of playing your favorite music at home has changed almost unrecognizably with the appearance of the growing 7 billion dollar Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and smart speaker market.
So what defines a smart speaker, a wireless speaker, and a dumb (wired) speaker?
- Smart speakers are both home assistants and all-in-one music systems. Most of them are wireless and self contained – and, just like in your favorite sci-fi movie, they actually listen to you and obey your commands. They’re smart enough to find and play whatever song you tell them to, and some of them can even figure out what groups and types of music you like. Just plug them in and you’re ready to listen to music. Most Popular Brands: Amazon Echo, Google Home; New this Fall, Apple’s Homepod and a new entry from Sonos
- Wireless speakers range from simple all-in-one active Bluetooth speakers to sophisticated wireless living room and multi-room speaker systems. Your audio source can be a smart phone, or a computer, or any source you’d connect to a regular stereo. However, they’ve done away with most of those pesky wires, and made it easy to play your music anywhere you want to. In the past, wireless speakers were often limited in sound quality, but modern wireless speaker systems deliver the same great sound as a regular high-end stereo system, and are a lot more convenient. Most Popular Brands: Sonos, Audioengine, Bose, KEF, Devialet, B&O, Klipsch. See our Wirless Speaker Finder for more detailed information on these speakers.
- Dumb speakers aren’t so dumb really - but they can be challenging to set up. These are the speakers that attach to a traditional stereo system. They require some sort of amplifier or receiver to power them, and some sort of music source, like a turntable, CD player, or tuner. While you can use a Bluetooth receiver, or even a home assistant or digital streamer, as your music source, the speakers themselves still require a direct wired connection to your stereo. Most Popular Brands: Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, B&O, Klipsch, KEF, Focal and thousands more!
Wireless Music has Come of Age
The recent proliferation of wireless audio for the home has been driven largely by a virtual explosion of powerful new features. Modern products deliver the features and capabilities they need to grab the attention of both convenience minded listeners and serious music fans. Now, with just a powered speaker, you can wirelessly connect to all the music you have on your phone, and to streaming music services that put millions of songs at your fingertips – just there for the asking.
If you’ve looked at wireless audio in the past, and were less than impressed, it’s time to look again. Wireless has finally come of age!
You won’t learn much about wireless speakers and smart speakers if you spend all your time between the covers of most print and online audio publications. The high-end audiophile publications still live for the most part in an alternate universe of expensive passive loudspeakers – all of which need a full set of audio components to go with them.
Wireless speakers and music servers are starting to garner occasional mention, but it’s usually limited to a few very expensive models, and they’re treated more as accessories than as true independent audio systems. Fortunately, if you keep your eyes peeled, you will see advertisements, and even occasional reviews and write-ups, for wireless products from brands like KEF, Devialet, Sonos, Audioengine, Bose, and B&O.
The lack of coverage in the Hi-Fi rags is surprising, because industry experts predict that wireless speakers and smart speakers will soon make up 90% of all home audio systems sold. Research also shows that the majority of today’s consumers want a Wi-Fi connected whole home / multi-room audio system.
Introducing HomePod — Apple [Video]
How did Home Audio and Audiophiles Move On?
High-end audio publication prejudices aside... If you now look at audio retailers, you can see the tipping point in consumers tastes first hand. We spoke with Jason Eslinger, at Audio Consultants in Chicago, about this hot topic.
Jason helps customers build music systems of all sizes, as well as full-fledged home theater systems, and has seen first hand the rapidly changing tastes in the home music systems people now desire.
Jason’s story about what his clients want goes something like this...
Over the past 20 years, most of his audiophile clients were quite content to purchase expensive passive loudspeakers, along with all of the luxury priced traditional stereo components necessary to run them, and provide the music to play on them.
The good news for Jason was that most audiophiles follow a basic rule of thumb: That no component is ever good enough, so there’s always something better just around the corner, and so there’s always a potential new upgrade just waiting to be purchased – as soon as they can afford it. With an upgrade path always in mind, and a continuous cycle of new products on the horizon, the enthusiast was always tempted to add or upgrade something in their music or home theater system.
Jason mentioned that the first wireless speakers seemed to appear right around the time many of his clients were downsizing their homes, or just their music systems, or (dare we say) had found that their big home systems, with their racks of expensive components and big floor-standing speakers, simply weren’t being used as much as in the past.
Many found that they couldn’t spend as much time as they liked in the one room where their big component stereo system was installed, and wanted to be able to listen to music wherever it was convenient for them; others were redecorating, and looked to new solutions that could deliver great sounding music without demanding that their living room be designed around the stereo system.
The timing was perfect for Sonos in particular, who built relationships with consultants like Jason, and a dealer network of high-end salons like Audio Consultants, along with retailers like BestBuy - and it helped the consumer conversion to wireless home audio.
In the end, Jason’s audiophile clients may have been a little reticent about replacing their high-end music systems with lower cost wireless systems, but they couldn’t deny the triumph of wireless convenience and good sound.
People say that “the best camera is the one you have with you when you need to take a picture”. In that same sentiment, “the best music system is the one that lets you listen to great sounding music when and where you want to”. Most of us simply cannot live our lives around our music system; we need a music system that serves our needs.
Apple HomePod Special Event in 8 minutes [Video]
Sonos Rules Wireless Speakers but What About Smart Speakers?
Sonos has quietly ruled the majority of the wireless connected home audio market since 2012 - with a 50% market share. Sonos won over everyone – from music geeks and audiophiles, to home decorators, to just ordinary folks who love music - with their mix of great sounding music, convenience, and the ability to fit in with almost any room décor.
Sonos won this market share by delivering audio systems that offered up decent sound, incredible convenience, and a handy control App that offered access to a vast variety of the world's music on any smart device. Finally, a great music system could be easily and conveniently added to any room, and at a consumer friendly price.
Audio reviewers and critics downplayed the success of Sonos, insisting that Sonos didn’t invent sending music over a wireless connection, or that Sonos products were easy to use but didn’t deliver “real audiophile sound quality”. They complained that Sonos had too many file type limitations, and was a closed platform, with a “walled garden” controlled by its dedicated app on a (yuck) touch device. (Similar criticisms, especially about creating a closely controlled technology “walled garden”, are often leveled against Apple.)
In the end, nobody much cared that the critics disapproved. The public voted with their wallets, and Sonos has reigned ever since as the best selling wireless music system around. Interestingly, this was about the same time that many audiophiles got off the treadmill of continuous, and ever more expensive, upgrades… and many gave up their expensive stereo and home theater systems in return for the flexibility and convenience of wireless and whole home systems.
Suddenly, wireless speakers replaced dumb speakers in the living room and the rest of the house, and Sonos was at the head of the wireless pack, with their range of products that were easy to use as a single speaker, or to integrate into multi-room and whole home audio systems.
The one complaint commonly heard over the years from Sonos fans is that they are slow to announce exciting new products; and, in accordance with this trend, Sonos is a few years behind many of their competitors in offering a smart speaker or digital assistant.
Breaking News: October 4th seems to be the day these complaints go away, thanks to an announcement, and lots of intriguing chatter, about the release of a new game changing smart speaker with cross-platform capabilities. Their CEO proclaimed Amazon’s Alexa was “the first voice assistant” for Sonos along with launching a public beta.
Careful analysis of the FCC filings also suggest that the new Sonos system may let you choose between the Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa voice assistants. This is great news to folks who find all of those options exciting, but chafe at being limited to one or the other.
Introducing the Amazon Echo Plus [Video]
It Was 2015 When Voice Activated Smart Speakers Arrived
Who is Alexa?
Who is Alexa? She is smart voice assistant that was built into the Amazon Echo wireless speaker - the very first smart speaker. For the music minded, Alexa is the voice assistant built into the Amazon Echo – and several other smart devices. Alexa responds directly to a variety of voice commands, like “play my favorite song” or “play the new album from my favorite group”, and works with most of the popular streaming music services like Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Amazon Music.
Alexa works quite well, and its inclusion in the economical Amazon Echo has led to Sonos taking a direct hit in sales. As a Strategy Analytics report shows, Amazon Echo and other Alexa-enabled WiFi speakers was recently able to surpass shipments from Sonos, who has has ruled the majority of the market since 2012.
… “(sales of) all Wi-Fi based speakers grew by 62% in 2016, to 14 million units, with Amazon accounting for 77% of the increase in volume demand from the previous year. The company estimates that Amazon shipped over 5 million Echo speakers in 2016, compared to just over 4 million (units shipped) from second placed Sonos.”
It also seems obvious that, with the explosion in the smart speaker and digital assistant market, we will continue to see heavy R&D spending in this sector, and the introduction of even more innovative wireless and smart products, as consumers continue to set aside traditional speakers and audio components and replace them with smart speakers and other wireless audio products.
Amazon's Echo Plus wants to mastermind your smart home [Video]
Google’s Assistant is Better
Google has also now entered this market, introducing their smart speaker - Google Home - in November of 2016. Google Assistant, which is the digital assistant which powers Google Home, is an even better alternative for music fans because it can respond more flexibly to commands than Alexa, and can engage in human-like two-way conversations. Google Assistant also supports control by up to six specific users, and can be used to control Google PlayMusic, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, and TuneIn.
Google’s specialty has always been search technology, and Google Assistant is both wildly intelligent as a personal assistant, and amazingly capable as a search engine. This is great for music lovers. As a musicologist, the assistant has a massive song library it can interact with, and it adds the ability to discuss the information it finds conversationally – which is something that Alexa isn’t able to do as well.
The Google Max Smart Speaker
Breaking News: Google Home smart speakers is now a family of three products. On October 4th Google announced two new Home speakers. They are, the $49.99 Google Home Mini, which competes directly with the entry level Amazon Echo Dot. For the high-end market Google Max priced at $399.99 has more powerful speakers and room correction and will compete with Apple HomePod and Sonos Play:5 with Alexa software.
Introducting Google Home [Video]
Here Comes Apple and Siri
Should we feel bad for Sonos, and Amazon, and Google, if Apple’s HomePod with Siri is a hit? Or should we worry about the fate of beautifully designed high-end home wireless loudspeakers from the likes of Bang & Olufsen, KEF and Devialet? Should we really be concerned that the best of the high-end home audio market will soon shrivel after everyone owns a piece of low cost voice controlled music gear from Apple, Google, and Amazon?
All I can say is…. “Thanks so much Apple”! The HomePod speaker may or may not be the game changing home audio product Apple’s industrial designers and global marketers hope it will be. That said, no matter how that particular product ends up, Apple is using its considerable clout to bring the attention of a lot of shoppers, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise have even considered themselves to be interested in home audio, back to home audio systems and home music listening. (It’s especially interesting since, until recently, Apple has focused almost entirely on portable audio.)
Apple’s past influence on the audio industry, and on music awareness in general, has been largely positive. Under Steve Jobs rule, Apple Corporation has always been deeply engaged with every aspect of how they can do a more effective job of helping you enjoy your music on their devices. (To some, the downside of this has been Apple’s willingness to utilize proprietary technology, and to sometimes seem to be doing their best to make sure you can’t easily enjoy the music you purchase from Apple on anything other than Apple branded devices.)
However, we mustn’t forget that it was Jobs and Apple, with the game changing iPod music player, and online sales of music through iTunes, that forever changed how we listen to music. We can certainly credit the iPod with sealing the fate of the music distribution business and physical media like CDs.
Once the iPod offered a practical and elegant solution to portable digital music storage, and the iTunes store offered a convenient way to purchase music to fill it with, it didn’t take long for consumers to make it plain that they preferred the convenience of digital downloads and online streaming over physical media like CDs.
The world embraced the iPod’s ability to store both music ripped from your own CDs, and music purchased from the iTunes store, and allow you to listen to both at reasonable good quality without the need for a cumbersome and expensive home stereo system. After the iPod showed up, everyone pretty much ignored almost every other form of portable music player, and a proper revolution in portable music began.
However, while Apple has plenty of clout, and they did revolutionize our views on portable music, phones and tablets, does the HomePod really have any better chance than the failed iPod Hi-Fi they launched in 2006? (Regardless of how much influence the iPod had on typical music consumers, we should also keep in mind that the iPod has itself largely been supplanted by modern smartphones… and there are now many music download and streaming services in competition with the iconic iTunes store.)
Some folks also note that, while Siri revolutionized the idea of a practical voice operated digital assistant, it has recently been surpassed in capabilities by both Alexa and the new Google Assistant.
Apple vs. Google vs. Amazon vs. Sonos
Apple may not bring on a home audio revolution when they enter the market, but, at the very least, they will expand the market by increasing consumer awareness of the newest options available, selling to consumers who would not otherwise have considered purchasing a home audio product in the first place.
If the HomePod introduces some of those customers to higher fidelity sound (and the idea of investing a bit more money to get it), some of those consumers will almost certainly eventually seek out even more upscale wireless audio speakers and other products.
It seems clear that smart speakers, digital assistants, and wireless speakers will feature prominently this holiday season – at least if product vendors and online retailers have anything to say about it. We shouldn’t underestimate how much our buying habits have changed, and how much of our current shopping is done online.
If you search online for a “music system” for your home, or the perfect holiday gift for your favorite audiophile, you will find the options and reviews dominated by WiFi and Bluetooth wireless speakers and voice activated smart digital assistants. You’ll find that they comprise virtually all of the top recommendations from search engines like Google, and online stores like Amazon.com.
Make no mistake that smart speakers and wireless speakers are the new high-end audio lifestyle products for the modern home - and there's lots of competition. You’ll find exciting and feature-rich products from a wide variety of companies, including Amazon, Google, Sonos, KEF, Devialet, Bose, Bang & Olufsen, Dynaudio, and Audioengine, and you’ll soon see the Apple HomePod added to the selection. Expect holiday competition amongst these systems to be fierce as consumers shift their focus away from more elaborate and much more expensive traditional stereo systems, and continue to gravitate toward these smarter and more practical solutions.
Introducing The Google Gnome - April Fools Day Video From Google
Anything To Worry About With Apple’s HomePod?
- Is Apple really trying to draw from their engineering and product design legacy, or is HomePod just a pure marketing play? I do wonder. After all, in the proverbial Internet years, it’s the fourth quarter in a crowded field, and, in terms of being a shot at the ideal home music system, HomePod seems more like a small stab than a bold statement
- Some parts of Apple’s “fresh take” on a smart speaker really don’t seem all that fresh. In fact, it’s a lot more like a rehash of the Amazon Echo or Google Home than a paradigm shifting piece of whizzy smart audiophile hardware
- Already some things have not started well. I’m most worried about the Siri assistant being up to the task of being a conversational musicologist; something the Google Assistant has already proven it excels at. Most technology is absolutely terrible to use, and I’m saying that as a person comfortable with technology. Is Siri terrible?
- At the HomePod launch, Apple did not demonstrate HomePod using Siri, and only promised we’d be hearing more about that in the future. And Siri is getting a little dated, compared to recent advancements among its competitors. I’m not going to be very interested in Homepod, with it’s requirement that I only use Apple Music, unless the Siri voice-assistant is clearly better than the competition, which seems questionable at this point
- Still, unlike Echo or Google Home, the Homepod may be small, but it does carry on the Apple tradition of nicely designed high-end hardware. With a sophisticated driver and a seven-tweeter array it is more focused on music and sound quality
- Homepod also has more processing power than any of the competition, and is capable of doing a lot more number crunching, with its direct and ambient digital signal processing (DSP), handled by Apple’s iPhone A8 Fusion chip. Its DSP probes the room with its six separate microphones, then uses that information to optimally tune it’s audio output for its particular location in the room.
Apple has a long history of thinking up new features that allow their products to offer unique improvements to the user experience – many times even offering improvements that become wildly popular after they’re introduced, even though there was no demand for them until Apple showed that they were possible. We’re sort of hoping that the HomePod has excellent audio quality and that will turn out to be one such “advantage”.
IT’S JUST SMALL: Of course, Apple will position the HomePod as “the ultimate solution”, and claim that “they’ve thought of everything”. Still, I thought they could have made the HomePod “a little more high-end”. As I await the actual launch of Homepod, and the opportunity to use it myself, I found myself wishing that the speaker enclosure used higher quality materials (aluminum would have been nice), and that it looked a bit less like a plastic table light.
For more extended frequency response, I would have wanted the enclosure to be a bit bigger, and to house a somewhat larger main loudspeaker. Some other things on my wish list include: a 24 hour smart battery, a MagSafe connector, a subwoofer input, and a hidden handle for carrying it around, and the ability to connect to most streaming services, instead of just Apple Music.
Wouldn’t it be great if Apple could deliver a HomePod stereo pair for $1000 that sounded as impressive as KEF LS50, or maybe Dynaudio or Devialet wireless speakers. Maybe, if the current version of HomePod is a big hit this season, next year Apple will debut the higher-end HomePod I’m dreaming about.
Pet owner left shocked after Parrot figures out how to shop online with Alexa!
Privacy: Should You Use Smart Assistants?
When a parrot can figure out how to shop online, and charge purchases to his owner’s Amazon account. Or, equally as embarrassing, Google disabling a glitch on its brand new Mini that was quietly recording conversations and uploading them to Google, there isn’t much point trying to claim that there aren’t a few privacy and security issues involved in owning the latest smart assistant technology.
Artificial Intelligence is quietly doing its work in all of these devices and, if you invite Alexa, or Google, or Siri into your life, and you want it to be able to make your life simpler and more convenient, then you are going to have to sacrifice a little bit of both privacy and security.
In order to be truly helpful, your home assistant is going to have to get to know you – quite thoroughly. And, if you want Alexa or Google to be able to order pizza or buy music for you on voice command, then you’re going to have to trust her (it) with permission to use your credit card.
The Google Mini Smart Speaker
You may think it’s cute to come home and find out that Polly has a thing for listening to the Eagles, but you may not think it’s cute at all when he orders all the products on your Amazon Wish List or your kids inadvertently order toys and games.
You should be prepared to treat the decision to allow AI into your home, and to entrust it with the authority to carry out instructions for you, as an important personal decision – and one that entails a bit of thought and consideration. As with any product you use, it’s important to understand what the device can and cannot do, and to understand the settings and controls you have available to you.
Internet-connected smart speakers give owners a variety of choices and settings, so always look at the options carefully, and choose settings that balance the level of convenience, privacy, and security that suits your needs. (So, for example, if you really do have a talking parrot, or an inquisitive toddler, you may choose not to enable the feature that allows any user to make purchases by voice.)
Using A Smart Assistant With Your High-end Music System
If you’re a bit more of a music aficionado, and you’re worried about the sound quality you’re going to get with small speakers in most of these smart assistants, then you should know that many of them offer a variety of options to help you out there. Both the Amazon Echo or Dot, and the Google Home assistant, can be easily connected to your regular home stereo system, and some can even interact with your high-end Bluetooth-enabled wireless music system.
If you’re intrigued with the idea of a real hands-free music system, then you really should give one of these a try. You’ll be able to tell it which song or album to play, when to turn the volume up or down, and when to switch the music on or off. And you can even tell it to play a certain album at a certain time, or to remind you when it’s time for your favorite show.
Many of them can look up basic information, like the capital of Sierra Leone, or the birthday of your favorite singer, and some, like the Google assistant, can even discuss artists and music with you, just like a real live assistant. If this sounds like something you would like, then you really should check it out. It’s fun, and these devices start out around $50. (If you're wondering whether the new Apple HomePod can connect to an existing audio system, and other details like that, we’ll tell you as soon as Apple lets us in on more detailed information.)
The home audio market includes a wide variety of users, each of us with unique expectations, and our own set of features we’d personally find useful – and it’s far too easy for us to become prisoners of our own expectations about the ideal way to enjoy our music. Only you can decide if you’d really enjoy having a smart assistant to play your music for you, or whether you’re really happier with your old standard CD player, or even whether you really like spinning vinyl.
Remember, it’s still an audio system, and it’s your audio system, so you get to decide what you want it to be – and when. You can trade in your old system, with the big tower speakers and the turntable, and replace it with a new multi-room setup from Sonos, Apple, or Google…. or you can simply buy an Amazon Dot or the new Google Mini, connect it to one of the spare inputs on your big stereo, and invite Alexa or Google to help you find new albums to enjoy every now and then. If you're shopping: It should come down to your preferred virtual assistant, your budget, sound quality, and the aesthetic that suits your environment.
When the smoke clears, we can all hope that our smart assistants will hang on our every word, give the perfect answer, carry on a conversation, and make us forget everything we know about finding, collecting, and playing our favorite music. They may not have reached perfection quite yet, but today’s crop of digital assistants are really getting close to achieving that lofty goal. Meanwhile, kick back and drool over our top-rated wireless speakers list to get you up to date with the latest products.