Apple's HomePod may be its worst-named product ever, but it's also its most interesting for several years, for music lovers.
Slated for release in December (no precise date), HomePod is is a voice-controlled, high-end, Wi-Fi speaker with seven 'beam forming' tweeters and an upward-firing woofer.
It's a hybrid disruptor: taking on Google Echo and Amazon Home as a voice-controlled AI – Siri in a box, in effect. However, more significantly, it's a high-end wireless speaker going up against the multi-room likes of Sonos and Naim.
It looks like the HomePod will be the first to market in the 'hi-fi AI' sector but a number of rivals are incoming from Denon, Sony, Panasonic and probably Sonos itself over the next 12 months.
We were hoping there would be more HomePod details at Apple's recent iPhone event. There wasn't but perhaps that's because there isn't a lot more to learn about the speaker. It already has a page on the Apple Store, although no pre-orders as yet.
HomePod is an Amazon Echo rival
Amazon Echo-style home assistants are already well established and widely loved. That could leave Apple HomePod looking very much like it's arrived late at the party.
Siri is a fairly decent voice assistant and from HomePod will be able to do similar things to Echo and Google Home: reading news headlines, giving calendar updates and controlling smart home equipment.
However at launch in December the range of connected kit Siri can control is likely to be narrower than Amazon or Google's devices. That's because devices must be Apple HomeKit compatible and not many are, to date.
HomePod is also a Sonos rival
While Siri has some issues as an AI, what Apple's nailed is that HomePod will by default be by far the best-sounding smart speaker.
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 quality is not great by any means. So by employing advanced DSP and using decent speaker drivers, HomePod immediately is more appealing.
You can buy several and use them for multi-room, or even pair two of them in stereo in the same room.
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.
Apple HomePod: should you buy one?
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-baked ideas, and finding a way to make them work either aesthetically, technologically, or in terms of marketing. Or, with its greatest successes, all three. The HomePod looks like an example of that in action.
Yes, it's a late-arriving 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
The fact that Siri can also operate your smart lights and tell you the news, weather and the sporting results of the "Red Sox" is some tasty icing on top.
At £349, you might be better off buying an Echo Dot and plugging it into a £300 speaker but Apple's solution is, characteristically, more elegant.
However it's also worth keeping in mind that there will be new rivals from third parties appearing in 2018.
Sony and Panasonic, among others, have devices lined up that combine their audio and design expertise with Amazon or Google's AI software. It's going to be a good year for
Here's the official word
The official Apple release on the HomePod contained the following.
"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."