The new sound of music

, Tech

Speakers no longer just play your favourite song. They answer questions, read out the news and give weather reports, says Kunal Doley

When Amazon launched Echo in 2014, it took the world by storm. Creating a new category of products in a relatively nascent smart home market, the Echo smart speaker went on to become a bestseller, with a growing number of people relying on the device to run their homes and automate their lives. As per a report from US-based Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) released earlier this year, there are now over 8.2 million customers who own an Echo device, which first went on sale in late 2014 to Amazon Prime members and gradually became available in the market by June 2015.

Two years down the line, there is a renewed buzz of activity. Giving a new thrust to the space is Apple, which recently unveiled HomePod – the latest smart-tech product from the American tech giant. The unveiling of HomePod comes close on the heels of another tech behemoth, Google, announcing its smart speaker Google Home in May last year and releasing it in the US a few months later, in November.

Despite the availability of a range of options now, HomePod – the first new device that Apple has announced in almost three years – is expected to change the rules of the game, as it is being pitched not just as a smart home assistant but also as a way to reinvent the experience of listening to music.

So what exactly are smart speakers? Adoption of connected smart home products has been growing at a remarkable pace. Accelerating this momentum is the emergence of smart speakers – voice-activated, Internet-connected speakers that not only play music, but also answer questions and provide information on a whole lot of things, such as the news, match scores and weather.

Google might have established itself with voice automation on phones a long time ago, but Amazon was the first to build a voice assistant into a static home speaker in 2014. Google followed up with Google Home, a smart speaker that made use of the company’s own Google Assistant voice technology. And now, two years after Echo’s launch, Apple has entered the fray with the Apple HomePod, which establishes Apple’s Siri voice assistant in your home. Here are the top three smart speaker devices you should take a look at:

1. Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo consists of a 9.25-inch-tall (23.5 cm) cylinder speaker with a seven-piece microphone array. The device connects to the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant, Alexa. It responds to the name Alexa; however, this ‘wake word’ can be changed by the user to incorporate words such as Amazon, Echo or Computer.

The device is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks and providing weather traffic and other real-time information. It can also
control several smart devices using itself as a home automation hub. High-quality audio may not be the defining characteristic of the Amazon Echo but what sets it apart is Alexa, and the growing array of thirdparty skills that it can perform – controlling a wide range of smart home devices.

2. Apple HomePod

The official launch may still be months away (some reports say it may be available starting in December, initially in Australia, the UK and the US), but Apple’s much-talked about HomePod has already become an object of desire. Apple’s Siri assistant will be integrated into the smart speaker, which can make music recommendations that pair with the company’s Apple Music service, send text messages, check news and sports scores, and control compatible home gadgets like light bulbs and thermostats. The HomePod speaker stands just under 7 inches (18 cm) in height and is covered in fabric mesh in shades of white or grey. A computer processor will also beam specific parts of the music, such as the singer’s voice, towards the listener. Unlike Amazon’s new Echo Show, Apple’s device does not have a screen. Also, in contrast to Echo, high-quality audio will very much be Apple’s pitch about why consumers should buy a HomePod at nearly twice the cost of an Echo.

3. Google Home

Google Home was announced in May 2016 and released in the US in November that year – with a release in the UK in April this year, followed by Australia, Canada, France and Germany, and soon Japan. The device enables users to give voice commands to interact with services through Home’s intelligent personal Google Assistant. A number of services, both in-house and third-party, are integrated into the device, allowing users to listen to music, look at videos and photos, and receive news updates entirely by voice.

Google Home also has integrated support for home automation features, letting users speak commands to the device to control smart home appliances. Multiple Google Home devices can be placed in different rooms for synchronised playback of music too. An update in April 2017 brought in multi-user support, which enables up to six people to engage with the device at once.

The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are his own

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