Apple has finally entered the smart speaker market in Canada, releasing today its long-awaited HomePod, which its going up against the Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Sonos One. And while, somewhat uncharacteristically, Apple is playing catch-up to the other companies in terms of entering the market, Apple is clearly putting music fans at the centre of its market strategy. And when you look at the data, it’s easy to see why. Smart speakers are not only the hottest consumer electronics items of the past two years, but are already radically changing music consumption trends.
Because of how quickly they’ve been adopted, it’s worth remembering how new smart speakers are in the Canadian market. The Google Home, for instance, was only launched in this country in July 2017, but already nearly 10 per cent of Canadian homes have a smart speaker, according to data from Edison Research and Triton. And people aren’t just using these AI assistants to find out the weather forecast or ask how many milliliters are in a cup. Smart speakers are quickly becoming people’s primary way of listening to music around the home.
Earlier this year, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the trade association representing Britain’s recorded music industry, along with the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), released a report detailing on how smart speakers are changing music consumption habits. The findings were pretty striking. For one, smart speaker owners listen to 10 per cent more music per day than the general population (34 to 24 per cent). Especially good news for music rights holders is, according to the BPI/ERA report, smart speaker owners are 48 per cent more likely to pay for a premium subscription to a music streaming service. When you look at the revenue returns on premium versus free streaming subscriptions for the music industry, anything that boosts paid subscriptions is great news.
So when you look at the specs and functionality of the Apple HomePod, in light of the above data, it’s obvious that Apple sees music fans as a key part of its smart speaker strategy. This also explains why they reached to Canadian Musician and lent me a HomePod to test out. From my brief experience with the Apple HomePod so far, compared to the standard Google Home that I own, the HomePod is more music-oriented. Right out of the box it’s significantly larger and heavier than the standard Google Home or Echo, which is the first sign of its audio-centric design. The Siri AI assistant is very good and pretty accurate, though that’s not a surprise to iPhone owners, and is supposed to get better with time as it learns (machine learning is the whole point of artificial intelligence after all). In terms of voice recognition, the one that thing that stood out to me about the HomePod in comparison to the Google Home is its ability to hear and accurately respond to my voice while it’s also playing music loudly.
But it’s the sound of the HomePod that stands out to me.
With the Google Home, it’s been a very useful tool around the house for random questions or to listen to podcasts and news radio. But I’ve avoided using it for music listening, opting instead for my home stereo that is equipped with ChromeCast Audio when streaming music. But the HomePod could very well do what Apple clearly intends for it, which is become a go-to option for casual music listening.
Working in conjunction with its paid-only Apple Music streaming service, the HomePod is meant to be a hi-fi system. It has custom-designed woofer and tweeter array to provide high-fidelity audio, but the coolest feature is its spatial awareness. The HomePod is able to automatically sense its location in a room. Using a six-microphone array, during the first few songs it plays when set up, the HomePod analyzes the reflections coming back at it and adjusts the audio’s directionality accordingly. And according to Apple’s product specs sheet, the A8 chip powers real-time modeling of the woofer mechanics, audio buffering faster than real time, upmixing of direct and ambient audio, beamforming so the microphone can hear the user’s voice over loud music, and advanced echo cancellation.
It’ll be interesting to see how the HomePod’s entrance affects the streaming wars in Canada. Unlike the service-agnostic Sonos One and Google Home, which allow you to choose your streaming service of choice, the HomePod pretty much mandates that you pay for Apple Music. This could go either way for Apple. It could mean increased subscriptions for Apple Music as people with HomePods adopt the service, or it could cut out a chunk of the potential market for the smart speaker as people opt to stay with another streaming service that they’ve already invested money and time into, and therefore buy a speaker that works with it. But overall, for iOS users and Apple Music subscribers, the HomePod is a pretty exceptional product for music fans. And anything that encourages more people to pay for a music subscription is good news for the music industry.