Apple just announced HomePod, its worst-named product ever but also its most interesting for several years, if you're into music.
It is a voice-controlled, high-end, Wi-Fi speaker with seven 'beam forming' Tweeters and an upward-firing woofer. It kind of takes on Google Echo but mainly it's going up against wireless, multi-room speakers from the likes of Sonos.
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If Apple has had a defining feature in its post-iPod glory years, it's not that it is very good at innovating per se.
What it's been great at is taking other brands' existing but rather half-arsed ideas, and finding a way to make them work either aesthetically, technologically, or in terms of marketing. Or, with its greatest successes, all three.
However, what's changed is that its rivals' devices are no longer half-arsed.
In the field of, for instance Amazon Echo-style home assistants, that could leave Apple HomePod looking very much like it's arrived late at the party, because it couldn't decide what tie to wear, and then it took the wrong route.
That's in contrast to the old days, when Apple stuff always arrived fashionably late and insouciantly pointed out that really, the party should have been hosted round at Apple HQ all along, cos it's just so much more swingin' there. "We got touchscreens and control crowns, girl. Mmm-mm."
However, while the Siri-powered HomePod speaker wouldn't necessarily seem very good if passed off primarily as a 'smart home assistant', due to Siri being not very good, what Apple's nailed is that it is straight away by far the best smart speaker built to play music.
Despite everything Google and Amazon's devices can supposedly do, the fact is, everyone uses them for two things: playing music and being a kitchen timer.
However, Google and Amazon's speakers sound like, respectively, absolute arse, and merely arse. So by employing advanced DSP and using decent speaker drivers, HomePod immediately is more appealing.
It's a smart, voice-activated Sonos rival rather than a late, unwanted Echo rival. You can buy several and use them for multi-room, or even pair two of them in stereo. Just like a Sonos/Sonos rival.
The "beam-forming", "direct energy", "ambient audio" and all the other buzz phrases Apple's Phil Schiller trotted out to explain quite why it sounds good are largely irrelevant compared to the more basic fact that it doesn't sound like arse.
Access to Apple Music immediately makes that service more valuable, just as Amazon Music Unlimited benefits from serving Echo.
The voice searching elements for finding tracks from Apple Music also seem more sophisticated even than what Amazon Echo offers.
So, although Apple is largely quite dull these days, it can still bring the old magic.
HomePod is a late-arrival rival to Echo and Google Home, but the brand that invented the iPod and made music such a major part of selling the iMac and iPhone has nailed it here by concentrating on HomePod's audio prowess
Yes, it then mentioning in passing that it can do all that boring stuff about telling you the news, weather and the sporting results of the "Red Sox" whoever they are. But you won't be buying it for that.
At £349, I still think you'd be better off buying an Echo Dot and plugging it into a £300 speaker but Apple's solution is, characteristically, more elegant.
Here's the official word
Apple would like you to know the following, delivered via the magic of copy-and-paste:
"At just under 7 inches tall, HomePod represents years of hardware and software innovation:
– Apple-designed upward-facing woofer, paired with the custom A8 chip, enables bass management through real-time software modelling that ensures the speaker delivers the deepest and cleanest bass possible, with low distortion;
– custom array of seven beam-forming tweeters, each with its own amplifier, provides well-balanced smooth timbre as well as precise directional control of a multitude of beam shapes and sizes;
– Apple-designed A8 chip provides the brains behind the advanced audio innovations;
– automatic room-sensing technology allows HomePod to quickly learn its position in a room, whether it’s in a corner, on a table or in a bookshelf, and within seconds, is perfectly optimized to deliver an immersive music listening experience wherever it is placed;
– six-microphone array with advanced echo cancellation enables Siri to understand people whether they are near the device or standing across the room, even while loud music is playing;
– Siri waveform appears on the top to indicate when Siri is engaged, and integrated touch controls also allow easy navigation;
– automatic detection and balance of two speakers using both direct and reflected audio to deliver amazing audio wirelessly for an even more immersive experience; and
– easy setup that is as intuitive as setting up AirPods — simply hold an iPhone next to HomePod and it’s ready to start playing music in seconds.
Security and privacy are fundamental to the design of Apple hardware, software and services. With HomePod, only after “Hey Siri” is recognised locally on the device will any information be sent to Apple servers, encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier."