We're about to find out if the HomePod smart speaker using digital assistant Siri that Apple — following a lengthy delay — finally starts shipping on Feb. 9 can lure listeners away from Amazon's Alexa, and to a lesser extent, the Google Assistant.
Apple starts taking preorders Friday for HomePod, which it's positioned as a high-end speaker and, at $349, has priced accordingly. That price tag, Amazon's three-year head start making its Echo tower synonymous with the phrase "smart speaker," and Siri's mixed reputation for accurate responses, mean Apple's success isn't a sure thing.
Still, the world's most valuable company has a track record of being late to a product — then owning the market — and it's positioned this debut HomePod as targeting a premium segment of Apple loyalists and audiophiles.
Here's how it stacks up:
It'll rank as one of the most costly smart speakers, at the opposite end of the range from the $50 or so Google Home Minis and Echo Dots that were deeply discounted last holiday shopping season. The cost actually undercuts what Google charges for its own sonically-charged multi-room capable speaker, the Google Home Max with the Google Assistant, by $50. But it is considerably higher than the $199 you'll pay for another sweet-sounding speaker, the Sonos One powered by Alexa.
In this increasingly crowded market, the Harmon-Kardon Invoke speaker with Microsoft Cortana also costs $199 and boasts excellent sound.
Meanwhile, Amazon's own second-generation Echo costs around $100, but while it provides richer sound with an assist from Dolby than the original Echo, the pitch seems less about the audio, and more about Alexa's 25,000-plus skills.
You can pay even less, about $50, for an Echo Dot, and while its small speaker is nothing to write home about for audio, you can pipe the sound wirelessly via Bluetooth to another, better sounding, audio option.
Along the way, Alexa and the Echo series of products not only helped define the smart speaker category, but staked Amazon out to a lead.
In reaching out to potential customers for whom the sound is the be-all reason to buy, Apple is promising such advanced audio technologies inside HomePod as beam-forming tweeters, a fancy woofer and automatic spatial awareness, that the speaker (much like the Google Home Max) promises to adjust accordingly depending on where you place it.
People who got to hear the 7-inch tall HomePod when it was demonstrated under Apple's close watch back in June raved about the sound. But the real test will come when we get to hear it in our homes, and see if it lives up to its advanced billing.
At this point we don't know if it will sound demonstrably better than Google Home Max or Sonos One, both of which are sonic winners for the price.