Rip Van Winkle Is the Only Person That May Not Have Noticed
The big news last week is the shipment (finally) of the long-awaited Apple HomePod smart speaker. The reviews are in and now all the early adopters are jumping in with their reviews, blog posts, and click-bait comments. I am not going to join the swamp with everyone else - it is easier for you to read the existing reviews and it saves me the trouble of repeating what has already been said.
I am limiting my opinion to this specific question: “If you are interested in a smart home and home automation, should you buy an Apple HomePod”?
Sounds Great to Me
Let me get this out of the way first. The HomePod sounds great. The audio quality is superb and vastly exceeds the quality of anything from Amazon or Google. But it should! There is no surprise here that a $350 product sounds better than a $50, $100, or $200 speaker. That’s really table stakes in this game. If the HomePod didn’t sound really good, it would be in a lot of trouble.
The Easy Choices First
I like to use a process of elimination to help make decisions. Find the easy flaws first, and use a process of elimination to reduce the selection further. It is easier to choose between two or three options than twenty or thirty.
Since the HomePod can be many things - a smart speaker, a voice assistant, a home automation controller, a TV sound system, a music player, & more, it risks being a “Jack of all trades and master of none”. If you narrow down what you want or need the decision process is much simpler.
If you want to listen to great music then audio quality should be a key requirement. If you want to control your smart home then the range of devices it can control will be important. If you want to ask questions (“Who played first base for the Giants in 1973?”) then the quality of the answers should be what sways you.
Any Color So Long As It Is Black
Henry Ford’s famous quote fits perfectly - “Any smartphone or tablet as long as it runs iOS”; “Any computer as long as it runs MacOS”; and “Any music as long as it is Apple Music”.
If you are not heavily into the Apple eco-system, the HomePod is not for you. You must own an iOS device (iPhone or iPad) to even set it up. If you only use Samsung or other Android smartphones and tablets, the decision has been made for you - move on.
Your music collection must be stored in iTunes, bought from Apple’s iTunes Music store, or streamed using an Apple Music Subscription in order for HomePod to be able to access it. Anything else and you’re stuck using AirPlay, if you can, to stream from your Apple device instead.
This is a real limitation. Apple makes great products and I use a lot of them. But I also know that Apple has only 15% market share of worldwide smartphones, and 7% of worldwide desktop/laptop market share.
When it comes to streaming music services (the obvious primary use for wireless speaker) the numbers are equally revealing: Apple has 15% compared to Spotify’s 35%. Even if you use only Apple products, many of you don’t use Apple’s streaming music service so no music for you!
(These are approximate numbers I found using a basic Google search; take them as approximate, but meaningful information).
No Man Is An Island
Most families have a mix of technology in their home. If you have a household where both Apple and PC laptops are used, some family members like iPhones, others (perhaps your kids) prefer Samsung, and you have an eclectic mix of saved digital music, streaming services, etc. then a HomePod is not a practical solution unless you don’t mind leaving out a significant portion of the people, and music, in your home.
Don’t forget about friends and visitors. If your kids friends come over, will they be able to listen to their music on your speakers? Do you let friends stay in your home while you are away? Do you rent a room using AirBnB? These are all considerations for choosing smart speakers and music products that may have to serve many different “masters”.
Bring your Bitcoins
The Apple HomePod is beautifully designed and sounds great. It is elegant, stylish, and has every attention to detail in both physical design, ergonomics, and usage.
If absolute price is important or more important than value, you’ve probably already thought the $350 price tag is sky high. There are so many other speaker and smart speaker options that are much more budget friendly and no eco-system lock-in so you can choose something else if you are not comfortable with the cost.
There are tons of decent Bluetooth speakers from $10 to $50. Just as many or more high quality speakers from $100 to $200. My current favorites are the UE Boom Mini and UE Megaboom. Bluetooth speakers work well with any kind of computer, tablet, or smartphone so they are a good universal choice if affordable music is your primary need.
My Way or the Highway
Apple’s HomeKit is a complete home automation solution. You can control lights, appliances, security cameras, motion/door sensors, and, of course, music and entertainment. The selection of smart home products that work with HomeKit has increased dramatically. At this point, just about everything is available, but you will find a smaller number of brands and products to choose from and the prices are a little higher, but no biggie.
If you are already using Apple HomeKit (or considering it’s use), The Apple HomePod is an great choice. With the excellent built-in microphones that can hear you from across a crowed room, you have full voice control of your smart home devices.
Personally, I prefer “talking into the air” as more natural and easier than pulling out my phone from my pocket. (This is also true for Amazon Alexa’s and Google Home’s “voice in a can”. All smart speakers work much better than trying to control devices from your phone.)
The HomePod can also function as a HomeKit Hub and gateway. This provides remote access when you are outside your home from anywhere in the world. This is a great free added benefit - especially if you don’t own an AppleTV or wish to leave an iPad running 24 x 7 (the only other options for HomeKit remote access).
If you like HomeKit, but are a little worried of locking yourself “in” while smart home technology is still rapidly evolving, no problem. There are a range of products such as Lutron Caseta and RA2 Select lighting controls that work with everything - Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, & Google Home. With careful selection, you can keep all your options open.
We’re #2 (or #3) And We Try Harder
For other Smart Home control options, the leading contenders are Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Amazon was first over four years ago (November 2014) and has supplemented the original “black cylinder” Echo with a lot of options at a range of prices.
From the low-cost Echo Dot to the Echo Show with a built-in screen, or the new cute “alarm clock” style Echo Spot, there are a lot of models you can choose from.
Google has entered the market very strongly starting with the Google Home and recently adding the Google Home Mini and the Google Max.
Once again, each company is playing to their strengths. The Google voice assistants excel in answering just about any question you can throw at them. Google home automation is less versatile than Amazon, but catching up. Google also has a few voice recognition tricks up it’s sleeve so Amazon and Apple better watch their backs!
Both Amazon and Google smart speakers support bluetooth for near universal input, and some models also have conventional audio out (AUX) jacks for more flexibility. So for many households, Amazon or Google can be a great choice.
The Trojan Horse
The ancient Greeks conquered the city of Troy by hiding inside a large wooden horse presented as a gift. No discussion of smart speakers and music systems would be complete without including Sonos products. With the recently introduced Sonos ONE for $199, they have executed the perfect “Trojan Horse” strategy.
Sonos has a long established reputation as the inventor and leader in modern wireless whole-home audio systems. Although the diehards will argue whether Sonos is a consumer product or an audiophile high-end solution, they have brought easy to use wireless music systems to a wide range of households.
Sonos has had a reputation like Apple - beautiful design, superb technology and a meticulous attention to details that come with a large price tag. (So similar that many had predicted Apple might have bought the company to jump-start getting into the wireless speaker / higher-end audio business.)
Sonos has had ups and downs as a company and that story alone would fill a book. The really short version is that they have made a huge comeback with the Sonos ONE smart speaker. This product took their most popular and affordable product, the Sonos Play:1 and built-in a complete Amazon Alexa voice assistant (with full cooperation of Amazon).
Take the Amazon Echo and replace the “ok” audio with Sonos hardware and add Sonos’ proven multi-room audio, stereo pairing, and support for over 56 (and counting) different music services and you have the Sonos ONE. Basically, an Amazon Echo on steroids.
But Wait, There’s More!
Sonos has built-in software that allows every Sonos product to access and stream Apple Music - both iTunes and Apple Music subscriptions. This was done with the full cooperation of Apple and does not rely on flaky back doors or reverse-engineered tricks that might stop working at any time. No other manufacturer has been granted this access by Apple.
This is a huge competitive advantage and Sonos has announced that the new Sonos ONE, along with the rest of their products, will also fully support the new Apple AirPlay 2 system when it becomes available later in 2018.
But wait, there’s even still more! Sonos has announced that the Sonos ONE will also fully support Google Home Assistant voice input. This means the Sonos ONE will simultaneously have Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple AirPlay 2 capability all in one product.
Price War Anyone?
Sonos knows they have a unique place in the market right now. Just before Apple started shipping the HomePod they came out with a special deal for a limited time. You can purchase two Sonos ONE smart speakers for only $350 - the same price as a single Apple HomePod.
With two Sonos ONE speakers, you can put each one in a different room and have synchronized live multi-room audio or you can put them both in a single room and use them as a combined stereo pair. Both of these capabilities are promised for the Apple HomePod for a “future software update” but no specific timeframe has been stated.
And in case you are wondering, although a single Sonos ONE sounds just about as good or better than an Apple HomePod (depending upon the review you read or music you listen to), everyone agrees that a pair of Sonos ONE speakers sounds much better than a single HomePod.
If this isn’t a Trojan Horse, I don’t know what is!
Should You Get An Apple HomePod?
If you are all-in on Apple, using HomeKit for home automation, and appreciate awesome sound, then the Apple HomePod is the hands-down choice for you.
Otherwise, if you want awesome sound, a pair of Sonos ONE speakers, for the same price as a single Apple HomePod is my recommendation. (I’ve used both and I prefer the Sonos - the sound, the software, the app and flexibility is much better.)
If you have a mixed tech household; you are ok with good but not great audio quality; you don’t use HomeKit; you prefer other subscription music services; and you have a smaller budget; you’ll want to consider the products from Amazon or Google instead.
If you simply want the least expensive external speaker for music, then a bluetooth speaker will be the most cost effective choice.
Don’t sit on the sidelines - With a range of choices and prices there is no reason not to enjoy the benefits of great music and voice control for your smart home.