Jun 23, 2017
No one is building the smart speaker we actually want
The perfect smart speaker for the home is easy to describe, and completely elusive. Ask anybody what they wanted in an Echo or HomePod, and the majority would likely land on more or less the same features. And after they finished describing it, and went out to buy it, they would learn that it doesn't exist. Can someone build us the speaker of our dreams already?
First, let's describe it. The speaker of our dreams delivers high-quality audio, links with other smart speakers, plays music from all the major streaming services, can be controlled by voice, and is relatively affordable. You can get any three of those five in a smart speaker on the market today, but you'll never be more than 60 percent satisfied.
Amazon's Echo is a relatively affordable product that you can control with your voice. It plays music from several big streaming services, including Spotify and Pandora, though Google Play Music and Apple Music are notable exceptions. But you can't yet link your Echoes together, and the quality of the sound is passable at best. I have an Echo in my bedroom, and when I crank up the volume so I can hear music in the shower, the sound becomes unpleasantly tinny.
Google Home is affordable at $129, and its voice controls give you access to the Google Assistant. But it plays fewer streaming services than the Echo, even as it offers otherwise similar trade-offs. While you can link multiple devices together, the sound quality is merely decent. Throw in the fact that it began life by barking ads at you, and I'm not sure why you would invite it into your home. (Google apologized for its ad, saying it was a one-time thing and that there are currently no ads in Home.)
The Sonos family of speakers delivers beautiful, room-filling sound from every major music service. Link a couple Play:1 speakers together in your living room and the audio is thrillingly good. After moving into a new place recently, I've spent more than one afternoon shuffling through tracks on Spotify just to marvel at the sound quality.
But Sonos has no voice controls — you have to swipe and tap your choices into an app, which ranges from awkward to unusable. And because its speakers lack sophisticated microphones, it has no equivalent to Alexa or Siri, either. Sonos is for music, and that's it. And it will cost you $200 to buy a single entry-level speaker. The company says it plans to include microphones and voice assistants in future products, but it just released a $700 speaker that has neither.
When it arrives in December, Apple's HomePod will deliver the high-quality audio that Apple promised at its Worldwide Developer Conference, according to colleagues who spent time with it. You can link HomePods together for more robust sound. And you can control it with your voice, which gives you access to Siri and all that Siri does. But when it comes to streaming, HomePod appears to be limited to Apple Music. And a single pod will cost you $350.
After moving into my new place a few months ago, I was determined to put a smart speaker in every room of the house. And yet the more I looked into my options, the more helpless I felt. None of the speakers on the market do what I want them to do. And it's unclear when the speakers I do want are coming to market — what they'll cost when they arrive.
Earlier this month, Sonos put a pair of Play:1 speakers on sale for $50 off. I thought about the deal every day they were on sale, and came close to buying them several times. But paying $350 for a pair of speakers that might feel obsolete in six months seemed like a terrible bargain. And every time I try to play Spotify through Sonos and fail, for whatever technical reasons, I feel more anxious about investing in its products.
If anyone gets it right in the next few years, I suspect it will be Amazon. The company committed to an open ecosystem, and it's maniacal about driving prices down. It seems obvious that you will one day be able to link Echoes together to play music. The only question is how much — and how quickly — Amazon can improve the quality of the sound coming out of its speakers.
In the meantime, I'm paralyzed. I know what I want, and I can't have it. The company to build the smart speaker we want stands to make huge profits. But to get there, they are going to have to think differently about the products they have in the pipeline.
by Casey Newton