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Apple’s HomePod: Paying $350 for a speaker that says “no” this much is tough (arstechnica.com)
35 points by Osiris on Feb 14, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

Once upon a time, there was something called a "personal computer", which executed any program chosen by the person who paid for the device.

There is no technical reason why an Apple speaker could not be connected to Alexa, Google or private/niche speech recognition, when desired by the person who paid for the speaker.

This is a $350 device which runs only one app. Why?

> This is a $350 device which runs only one app. Why?

Because the consumer doesn't care about the things you care about - they truly don't care at all. Zero. Nil.

The consumer wants to play music, they want it to sound good, they want zero setup or calibration involved, they want good software integration with the ecosystem they're already familiar with and they want the device to look good alongside their home decor. Oh and they want reliable, no-lag, multi-room audio so that their setup can expand throughout their home.

Now go in the market and tell me which device accomplishes these things. The answer is very very very few. There's Sonos, and really that's about it. There are a bunch of major drawbacks with Sonos: the Sonos app is complete garbage, there's calibration required, it doesn't sound as good, it doesn't look as good and the software integration with any ecosystem let alone Apple's is subpar.

With HomePod, those in the Apple ecosystem finally have a best-in-class sounding speaker which is deeply integrated into the software they already know and use throughout their life (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Watch, etc), looks beautiful, is small, and just works with no setup (AirPlay, Real time whole room calibration). To achieve that in one elegant package is no small feat.

The reason many people are getting mad is because it's not a device that's for them - which is completely OK. This is a product that is targeted at Apple's consumer base which if you're counting is at nearly a billion users or more. They do not need to appeal to those with an Android phone or those who use Spotify to sell this thing at scale and be successful by any reasonable metric. They simply don't have to, and people can get angry about it all they want.

I'd be careful drawing definitive conclusions about the success of a product that shipped last week, then using them to drive larger generalizations about what "many people" think, and after setting up the strawmen, knock them down with arguments about market share in unrelated products.

It's okay to criticize flaws in a product, even if this modern-day golden examplar of a vertically integrated company can leverage its integration to move a ton of product.

I've drawn no conclusions about the success of HomePod. I'm explaining why consumers have indicated that they want it, and why people are excited by it despite it being a "dumb computer" as so many others seem to think.

The thing is, whether you like HomePod or not depends on if you want a smart assistant or if you want a really good speaker for your home. If you want the latter, there are few good solutions as elegant as HomePod and if you're in the Apple ecosystem - it's a no brainer at the $350 price point - it really is. It will sell and I think anyone in the market for a high quality audio solution for their home recently will agree (if this is you, then chime in with your experience!). If you want a smart assistant and don't care about the speaker quality as much, then there are tons of alternatives in the market for you at far cheaper price points. HomePod doesn't make sense if all you care about is a smart assistant.

Now if you think the metric of success always has to be "Oh but it doesn't match iPhone sales numbers" then Apple will never succeed in your eyes. iPhone is perhaps one of the greatest businesses to have ever been conceived in history by all metrics. Grading a business against that kind of success for literally every subsequent product is not realistic (not saying you are, but many people do tend to do this and it baffles me).

I stopped at "Customers have indicated they want it": that's vague enough to be unassailable, yet crucial backbone for 2 essays about how "many people" are fundamentally misunderstanding consumer electronics demand, thus they're not qualified to critique HomePod as a product.

I don't think there's much chance of having a productive conversation

Look, obviously we don't have sales data - I'm not oblivious to that fact, and I know it's early - the product just launched last week. The only thing we can have a conversation around is the general sentiment among the audio community and the general excitement about the product by people in the press, and various market analysts' proxies.

The perspective I'm trying to give you is just one of the product landscape in the market. If you're in the market for this type of device, there aren't many out there and the ones that are out there have significant flaws at any price point. Look at how successful Sonos is - there is clearly a market for this kind of device - at the very least you must see that. Then look at how large Apple's consumer base is and look at the recently reported numbers for the growth of Apple Music - their paid subscriber rate is about to eclipse Spotify's.

Right now, we can only have a conversation around proxies for reasons you pointed out, but all proxies indicate a high probability of at least moderate success.

> The consumer wants to play music, they want it to sound good, they want zero setup or calibration involved, they want good software integration with the ecosystem they're already familiar with and they want the device to look good alongside their home decor. Oh and they want reliable, no-lag, multi-room audio so that their setup can expand throughout their home.

This is exactly why I bought one, and it's fulfilling that job admirably. (It's replacing an AirPort Express for AirPlay + small amp + bookshelf speakers + sub.) I didn't care at all for the "smart" aspect and in that sense had zero expectations, but I've used Siri more in the last week than I have since it was released (and the kids love it).

I have Libratone speakers [0]. They do all of that. (Alexa is integrated; off by default should you not want it.) And they sound fabulous. Streaming is available via Airplay and Bluetooth.

The Libratone also contains a 10-hour battery, so you can take it wherever you want – stream from your phone in the park, if you like.

Oh, and it doesn't leave white marks on wood surfaces [1].

(I'm not affiliated; just a content user.)

[0] https://www.libratone.com/ [1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-43064772

Could not disagree more. We use our Google homes all the time for a variety of things beyond music. One of my favorite is controlling the TV with YouTube TV.

Anecdotally, almost everyone I know that got an Alexa has resorted to only using it for weather and settings timers.

At first they tried all the cool tricks like asking it trivia questions and cool integrations - but gradually they stopped using those as the novelty wore off. The other big use-case is home automation like turning off lights with voice, but I see this far less since it's expensive to outfit homes with these kinds of IOT devices.

I personally think voice will continue to mature, but we're just not there yet where it's something that's critical. We'll get there, but that's just not reality today for most people which is why I reject the notion that any company is "late" to the game. When we do get there though, I think there's room in the market at all price points, which is the beauty of cheap microphones. Amazon might even decide to give away cheap Alexa devices (they already practically are with FireStick, etc).

Of course take my comment with a grain of salt. We still don't have reliable publicly reported metrics in this space.

> One of my favorite is controlling the TV with YouTube TV.

What actions are you taking with the voice control?

I have an AppleTV setup, and we 99% use the remote, then the voice recognition for text entry for searches.

You're most likely not the average consumer either.

People pay $800+ for home entertainment systems which run no apps, for the singular purpose of playing music.

If the sound is as good as the Reddit comment said, I can see people thinking "yeah, that's worth it."

Ignoring the technical reasons (for which there are a couple, non-standard software APIs for one), In that same time, you would have likely paid a fee to have Alexa/Google/Private app to run on your "personal computer".

My chipset contains another built-in CPU with flash storage and dedicated RAM. It runs UNIX-like operating system, presumably to act as a backdoor. There's no technical reason why I can't install another operating system and use this hardware for my own tasks (for example remote control like HP iLO). And my motherboard have price around $350 as well.

Companies like to abuse their users into locked-down ecosystems, that's why. And the only way to resist it is to hack device and develop your own software.

The HomePod is a redux of the Apple HiFi from 2006–2007.

It's a high-quality, high-priced speaker meant for the Apple music ecosystem. The first time they tried this, the Apple HiFi got great reviews for its sound quality, but failed in the marketplace.

The question is whether the HomePod will meet the same fate. It's got more functionality than the HiFi, but even less utility outside of the Apple walled garden. What's worse, they've got a fundamental mismatch between consumer perception (people think it's an Alexa / Google Home competitor) and what seems to be Apple's intent (it's an audiophile device for streaming music).

If they pivot quickly and release a small, competitively priced version that can compete directly with Amazon and Google, it could survive. But as it stands, it's a niche product for a small market that looks likely to meet the same fate as the HiFi.

Problem is the sound quality is getting mixed reviews and the assistant gets poor.

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/head-head-apple-homepod-reall... A home sound test of the Apple HomePod - Yahoo Finance

http://www.techradar.com/news/google-home-max-tops-apple-hom... Google Home Max tops Apple HomePod for audio, says Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports is an awful publication. Their methodologies are often very flawed and very opaque. I also would not trust Yahoo finance for audio reviews.

As an example of CR's egregiously bad testing, they run battery tests by cranking brightness up to 100% on various devices. However if you have half a brain, you'll realize that display technology matters and is different across phones. At the very least, you want to set the different phones to a certain level of "nits" which is a measure of brightness rather than an arbitrary "100%" which can mean wildly different things. It actively penalizes phones with better display technology just because their displays can output brighter light.

I think they need to work on improving Siri before they can even enter the Echo/Home competitive ring. The other virtual assistants are leaps and bounds ahead of Siri.

Can a mono speaker be considered an audiophile device?

It isn’t a mono speaker.

It's not mono, but might as well be when all seven "horn loaded tweeters" are within a 6" space.

The thing can only be considered audiophile if you redefine the word "audiophile" to suit the cult-of-apple narrative.

Just like the macbook "pro".

With a "proper" stereo setup, you have one place where you need to be to get the benefit. If you want to fill a space with sound then the beamforming of the HomePod is just fine. And I've been quite happy with it.

tl;dr - this is a living area speaker, not a home theatre one.

I'll reserve judgement on using HomePod as a stereo setup until that functionality is actually available.

I would personally rather a single OK bookshelf speaker with a T-Amp or any small amp.

Bouncing sounds in every direction is bound to sound crap even with the Apple magic fairy dust sprinkled everywhere. "Beam forming", Lol!

What does "this is a living area speaker" actually mean anyway?

Edit: sorry for sounding aggressive... It's just not a product that I'd buy. Good luck to you.

Sorry, slow on checking my comments over the weekend. I took your comment as bluntness, not aggressiveness, and am happy to explain why I think it's a great product. You also appear to be quite cynical that the HomePod actually sounds good and delivers on its promise, right? ;)

I would be happy to spend more, if it were just me. But my wife has more say on the appearance of our living space, and my large, self-built speakers long since made their exit to the garage. I wasn't actually going to spend the money to get one, but when she saw it, she was the keen one!

> What does "this is a living area speaker" actually mean anyway?

As compared to a dedicated listening setup, where everything is set up to sound good when you sit in a single "sweet spot" location.

> Bouncing sounds in every direction is bound to sound crap.

As I understand, it works out where it is in the room, and uses that to act more like a speaker with an omnidirectional response except towards the walls. So in that sense, it does the opposite of "bouncing sounds in every direction".

> I would personally rather a single OK bookshelf speaker with a T-Amp or any small amp.

The previous setup was exactly this, but with two OK bookshelf speakers. Given the positioning of them; it sounded great at the kitchen table, but the couch in the same room was so far off the axis of the speakers that it sounded pretty bad there. The HomePod sounds great in both spots.


The HomePod is a redux of the Apple HiFi from 2006–2007

There's a lot more people in that walled garden now.

I share the opinion of many that it's not a worthy contender in the market at this point. However, Apple released the iPhone without basic functions like copy and paste but focused hard on a user experience no one else had worked on to create the most valuable mobile phone product in history.

There is potential here for a high quality speaker like this to mature into a quality product.

Unfortunately for Apple though I'm not interested in helping fund that market for them. I will keep my Amazon Echo's in the home until I feel compelled to switch because they have leapfrogged the competition.

The original iPhone made a point of doing three things well: being an iPod, being a phone, and being a mobile internet appliance. Basically everybody had a phone and an iPod at the time, the combination was enough to sell a lot of people. Having an excellent real browser and very good mail app certainly helped a lot. But I think the "third heat" effect there had a lot to do with the success of it.

The HomePod will not be saved by being the best at one of the two or three major functions of these things, when it is so absolutely sucky at the other two. I'm sure a cult following will develop around the audio quality. But this product is going to fail unless they address the elephant: Siri is worst-in-class on an iPhone, and it's apparently even more hampered on the HomePod. What are the "platform" effects you think are going to sell this, like the original iPhone had? What exactly could Apple do to enhance this, beyond the obvious one of getting Siri to work?

Apple TV is kind of in a similar boat. The sales numbers are not that great, the competition is stiff, and the refreshed Apple TV has continued to not get enough love to really address this. They just seem like they can't keep it together.

I got an Amazon Echo as a present a couple months ago. I haven't even bothered to unbox it. What can it really do, besides order stuff from Amazon for me? Play Amazon music? Not a subscriber. Turn off my lights? Nice party trick, but I live in a small apartment, not much use there. Look stuff up on Wikipedia?

It also supports spotify, pandora, etc.

For me Alexa is great for Home Automation (which while turning off the lights is a night party trick, it's pretty great to turn down the lights when you're already on the couch. Yes, 100% unneeded, but it is nice.), Cheap Sonos Style Music in Every Room sync'd, and yes, ordering stuff from Amazon. Again, totally unneeded, but for certain goods, I've found it nice to just say, "Alex, order me more blah" and it replies, "These that you recently ordered?" "Yep" "Ok. Done."

All of this isn't stuff you need, but hey, it's pretty rad nerd stuff.

I use my dot almost exclusively for music. Hook it up to a nice stereo system and it turns a dumb stereo system into a Spotify device that i can control with my voice or from my phone.

Same. I just have a nice little bluetooth speaker paired to it that I can move around my space whenever I like.

I agree with you.

Its most useful features so far have worked best in the bedroom.

Alexa, set my alarm for 7AM. Wake me up in 2 hours. what's the weather in X? What's my commute? Nightlight.

That's about it.

Play music (spotify, amazon music, pandora, etc), control any home automation you have (hue lights, etc), be a super easy hands-free kitchen timer ("Alexa, set a timer for 45 minutes"), answer basic information questions (forecast, store hours, unit conversions). If you have more than one, it can be an in-home intercom.

edit: I started this before you edited in your examples, so sorry for the overlap :-)

I find it useful for just three things:

1. Play music

2. Timers, especially when cooking

3. Turn lights and heating on and off. It's nice to be able to control them while in bed with just your voice.

Nothing I couldn't live without, but it adds convenience.

I get daily use from my two echos with these functions: set a timer for x minutes, remind me to x at y am/pm, set an alarm for y am/pm, connect to my phone (so I can play bluetooth music), what time is it (when I'm in bed at night; I prefer not to have a bright clock splitting the darkness). A lot of this stuff my phone can already do, but it's easier not having to always pull out my phone. I've never used it for ordering, amazon music, lights, or to ask it questions for its biased responses.

>> it's easier not having to always pull out my phone.

Not just that, but you don't have to hunt for apps and fiddle with UI. Asking Alexa to set the heat to 21.5 degrees is way faster than finding the closest mobile device, unlocking, launching the app and doing a bunch of taps.

While I'm missing a couple of skills in Canada (stupid region locks!), the smart home control has been fantastic for our household. We also find the shopping list helpful.

Hooking it up to my lights and playing music is nice, but honestly having a hands-free timer when cooking can't be beat.

So yes, a $40 timer. Still worth it.

You can write new skills very easily, or use IFTTT with it, so it can actually do pretty much anything.

> it's not a worthy contender in the market at this point

However I'm not aware there's anything else comparable on the market: 7 separate tweeters with 7 amplifiers in such a small unit -- which to me means it's much more capable in reducing distortions compared to anything it competes with. In short, I don't know there's any exact contender in the market.

The capability to control distortions by using the separate amplifiers and a fast CPU means that any reviewer who compares it with anything else while keeping it in the middle of the room is missing the point. This device is supposedly made to sound good when located on the place where the "audiophile" wouldn't put, that is, where "normal" people put the devices, not because they spend the energy to figure out what sounds best but because the convenience, existing furniture etc. Whoever can organize the whole room around the best sound doesn't have to buy anything small anyway.

I haven't heard this product but can't believe it could work in anything even in the same universe as "audiophile" speakers, or even less than average speakers.

Bouncing sounds around the room does not "control distortions". In fact it does the complete opposite. That's exactly why actual audiophiles spend thousands of dollars on room treatment to deaden reflections.

It's the same as those Atmos speakers that attempt to bounce the sound off the ceiling. It's impossible to do that without introducing a massive amount of distortion, also the frequency response of the bounced sound waves is completely screwed even if it works at all. It will also depend on the surface material and the angle of those surfaces, something the Homepod couldn't possibly know.

It's just a misunderstanding of the physics of sound to think this could work in anything close to an "audiophile" way.

Do you put a measurement microphone at the listening location to optimize for that location? Otherwise how could it possibly know where in the room the listener is to align those 7 bounced audiophile signals? That might be the only thing to possibly make this product not a complete joke.

I'd rather have a single reasonable speaker with a T-Amp plugged into a phone than what this must sound like. And that would cost maybe $100, if that.

A silly bound-to-sound-crap speaker locked into the Apple ecosystem, with microphones that can record your conversations in the living room... for $350!! I would literally never even consider buying this product.

Man, I feel more and more removed from the average consumer every day.

You are of course right that it can't "optimize for location" of the listener. But it can, at least theoretically, estimate the "environment acoustics" from its own standpoint and somehow adjust itself to it. I'm not claiming it does, it doesn't fit much to the Apple's concept of "it works as soon as you plug it in." So some honest review is still needed.

350 USD is expensive, but it "competes" with a lot of the small consumer products that have just one or two speakers, one amplifier and still cost, for example, in the range of 200 USD. Apple can of course easily double the price when competing with them.

It's simply a different market: a lot of people do want the small device that "just" works in the given (possibly small and with "wrong" configuration) room, even if making the room to be good for the sound is the best way.

> 350 USD is expensive, but it "competes" with a lot of the small consumer products that have just one or two speakers, one amplifier

What I'm saying is it just shows a lack of understanding of how sound works to think that more speakers/amps would ever sound better than less speakers/amps in a tiny box. Throwing more tiny speakers in there is always going to make it sound worse.

Bloody marketing. And they'll probably be successful with it too...

Seven speakers!! Did we say it has seven speakers?!! The HomePod Pro next year will have ten!!!

Also did not fair well in a blind test up against the Google Home Max and Sonos based on sound quality.

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/head-head-apple-homepod-reall... A home sound test of the Apple HomePod - Yahoo Finance

Also saw consumer report was meh on the Homepod. The hope was fantastic sound but not a great assistant. Does not appear they nailed either.

https://9to5mac.com/2018/02/12/google-home-max-sonos-one-hom... Consumer Reports: HomePod audio quality 'very good' but Google ...

Is there any reason for these "intelligent" speakers to exist except novelty?

HomePod should have been an integrated AppleTV/Speaker/Siri. That would have made people actually buy it

I don't understand music quality arguments with these small systems - Sonos/Homepod/etc.

Get proper speakers - 8.5" drivers ($600) and a decent amplifier (Yamaha $250). This stereo will out compete any of these intelligent speakers.

Whats missing (except Alexa) is an auxiliary audio out that can be hooked up to existing system like the one I mentioned above. Google Home doesn't have it but it works with Chromcast add on. I personally use apple TV as my Airplay hub. So, about all that's missing is a microphone.

I simply do not understand - perhaps I am a minority - the argument and discussion around sound quality. There is no replacement in my opinion to a standard large diameter floor standing speaker. If I want to listen to music, I don't want any compromise - I want to be able to play it on my main stereo. Some people just don't care and they'll put music on their phone or some random bluetooth doodad. Why?

So, a $850 system will outperform a $350 system in terms of sound? I can't say I'm surprised.

If you need a $850 setup to get what you consider to be "good sound", you're not the audience for these kinds of speakers.

And yes, this is from someone who also has a Yamaha receiver and good speakers.

Who's spending $350 on an Apple speaker and has no other Apple products? How would you even get set up with Apple Music without at least an iPhone or an iPad, both of which get you into the territory of traditional entertainment center expenditures?

Errr, I already had the other Apple product(s), as do millions of people, and owning those was completely tangential to my "traditional entertainment center expenditure"?

So, you're the target market, and that market is "people who care about music enough to spend $350 on an Apple product to play it, but not enough to spend $850 on decent speakers, but still insist it's important enough that they want to spend more than $100 for the Amazon product that does the same thing only with the rest of the non-music features."

Sounds like a genre-defining winner to me.

A fairly good sounding room-based speaker with voice controls that fits nicely into your existing ecosystem. Honestly, I wish my Yamaha could do that.

I use an Echo. I don't care a great deal about music quality. Inevitably the music being played is selected by my young children, or is background music when people are over or I'm cooking/cleaning. Convenience (I can request music by voice mid-task) and size (Echo sits in the corner out of the way) trump quality for me. I have large speakers and an amp in each of two living rooms, but they have sat there unused for years.

These products are about ease of use and convenience, not absolute performance. My father bought my grandmother a bookshelf audio system, and the only thing she actually uses is the TV to play music because it’s easy and familiar, though the quality is crap.

I just wish they wouldn't call them audiophile. Words are important.

This crap is basically almost the complete opposite of audiophile, convenience and physical size obviously put so far above sound quality.

I suspect that at least some audiophiles are going to judge the HomePod in the context it’s presented, understand the constraints and limitations of any speaker system so small. I’m not going to compare what’s essentially a bookshelf speaker against a pair of floor-standing speakers or a 5.1 system (or in-ear monitors, for that matter): they’re going to compare it with something of a similar class. That’s part of what being an audiophile (or someone who dives into any domain) is: understanding something in the proper context. I don’t know how it compares with other similar speakers, so I’m not going to say it’s audiophile-quality or not, but that’s beside the point: judge it for what it is, not what it isn’t.

> judge it for what it is, not what it isn’t

It's 7 minuscule speakers crammed into a shiny box within a 6" space.

Comparing it in a blind test to a single bookshelf speaker with a small amp, I guarantee such a $50-$100 setup would sound better.

I probably wouldn't call myself an audiophile because I've seen how serious some people can be about audio, but I am an enthusiast who is interested in getting the best sound quality for my buck. I wouldn't put this product in any room of my house, and for $350 it's ridiculous.

I absolutely agree, and the fact that Apple TV works in such a configuration, but apparently is unable to pair permanently with the HomePod speaks to Apple's complete disorganization around this.

HomePod does persist Airplay connection with AppleTV as long as you don't Airplay directly to HomePod from a separate source. You can still Airplay to AppleTV that is Airplay'ing to HomePod but that will turn on your TV. It's not perfect but I have enjoyed using HomePod as my primary AppleTV speaker since launch and hope they introduce multiple Airplay streams with Airplay2 release.

That's good to hear. One of the reviews I saw said that it did not maintain that connection; maybe that was a bug or I misunderstood.

>Paying $350 for a speaker that says “no” this much is tough

A year ago, people were paying $350 for speakers that don't say anything — they just play music. Hooked up to a stereo with WIRES! Some people still do.

Funny how technology makes us feel entitled.

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