Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Apple HomePod, A Thought or Two

Apple is heaving their latest product onto an unsuspecting world. It's called HomePod and it's Apple's entry into the smart speaker market. It has typical Apple pricing, i.e., too high for what you get, yet it also performs like a typical Apple product, i.e., generally really well.

At least according to initial reviews, that is; I'm unlikely to experience this myself. Because I'm not an Apple guy (PC computers, Android phones, Amazon/Spotify music), I'm not looking to buy a HomePod. As such, I'm not going to pretend to review the product. Rather, what struck me was the irony of the state of the smart speaker market, and a lot of the blame lies with Apple.

I've owned an Amazon Echo since day one. I preordered the product when it was announced and had it setup in my apartment by Christmas 2014, that first generation product that came with it's own remote control (which I've never used and I'm not really sure where it is right now). Since then, I've moved into a house and that first Echo has been joined by several of its cousins. I'm perfectly happy with the lot, though I'll be the first to admit that the music quality isn't the best.

But that's all right. When I want better sound, I fire up the Bose or put on headphones. For background, ambient music, the Echoes are great.

As I said, much has been made of the HomePod's sound quality. It's miles ahead of any of the Echoes, or the Google speaker range, or even the Amazon Alexa-enabled Sonos One. (Strangely, the Harman Kardon Invoke isn't mentioned...) What I find ironic is that prior to this, Apple had trained us all to accept crappy music quality.

Apple fans may now scream, but look at the history. The original iPod, which is not the original digital music player but the device that made portable music a thing, came with for crap earphones and had music recorded at a for crap bitrate. People bought them by the bushel, even when they were essentially Apple exclusive (much like the HomePod is now). That is, to use them (or the HomePod) you had to be running Apple hardware. Once iTunes made it onto PCs, the iPod market just went berserk.

With crappy earphones playing crappy quality music. And people did not care.

Apple only improved its game when forced to by competition, not because of any great consumer demand. The earphones became somewhat better and the digital files are now at a higher bitrate, with some even "tuned to iTunes" for subtle improvements. Nonetheless, my old Zune sounded worlds better than my 4th generation iPod (which now languishes in a drawer because it's just no longer needed).

And then Apple undercut that by eliminating the headphone jack and driving all iPhone users to Bluetooth. Bluetooth is notorious in how it diminishes audio quality. Everything remains "good enough," but if you get the chance, listen to a speaker utilizing first Bluetooth and then with either a direct connect wire of WiFi. You can hear the difference.

Today, Apple, which has grown wealthy by training us that when it comes to audio quality, good enough is, well, good enough, is now a late entry into the smart speaker market and is touting its sound quality.

So I'm more than a little amused by the irony of it all. The HomePod will, undoubtedly, sell by the ton, despite costing over three times what an Echo does, more than twice a Sonos One or Invoke or Bose. The buyer, at least at first, will be totally locked into the Apple ecology (Apple Music only), but since they have to use an Apple device to set things up, I doubt they'll care.

Meanwhile, I'll be happy with the good enough quality that Apple trained us all to accept, and take advantage of that deal Microsoft is still offering, $100 for an Invoke, for those times I want Spotify to sound really great.

In addendum: Having had to edit this in order to fix Blogger formatting, I wanted to add that for people like me (i.e., doesn't own an Apple product), the cost for a HomePod is actually the price of the speaker itself plus the cost of the iOS device that's required to setup the speaker. Plus the monthly cost for Apple Music. In other words, this is a hard pass.

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