Editorial: Amidst cries for a cheaper HomePod, Amazon now has a higher-end Echo

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in iPod + iTunes + AppleTV
To compete with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, critics have insisted that Apple would need its own drastically cheaper HomePod. But instead of Apple moving down into the loss leader territory of $30 Echo Dots and Google Home minis, Amazon has unveiled its much more expensive Echo Studio, with a $200 price tag equivalent to a half dozen Echo Dots.

Amazon Echo Studio
Amazon Echo Studio looks cheaper than it is


This April, Apple did lower the price of HomePod from its $349 introduction to $299. But it was still almost unanimously called "too expensive" in comparison to the super cheap, entry-level WiFi microphones offered by Amazon and Google. A flurry of reports noted that while Apple reached estimated sales of 1.6 million during the 2018 holiday quarter, it still "lost market share" when compared to large volumes of those $30 impulse-buy offerings from rivals. This media-fed delusion fails to grasp that Apple isn't following Amazon's voice first game plan.

Apple isn't trying to connect the Dots

It appears pretty clear that Apple doesn't care about WiFi mic market share. Unlike Amazon, Apple has a vast installed base of 1.5 billion active devices, most of which can access Siri on the go, from anywhere there's internet service. Siri is on iPhones, Watches, even on the road in CarPlay. Apple isn't hard-pressed to distribute standalone microphones just to reach its users.

At $350, Apple's holiday quarter HomePod sales alone would have delivered the same revenues as 17.5 million Echos Dots, and most assuredly delivering much greater profits. A variety of commentators predicted that Apple might launch a much cheaper version of its HomePod this fall just to "compete" in the low end of these speakers. But It didn't. Instead, Amazon has now joined Google in floating a product that looks a lot more like Apple's HomePod.

Echo Studio inside
Echo Studio internals depict a single tweeter


Is it possible that the same pundits who thought Apple wouldn't be able to sell enough Apple TVs and HomePods, on the heels of thinking Apple Watch wouldn't matter and that AirPods weren't going to "move the needle," are also wrong in thinking that Amazon will easily walk right in and take over sales of higher-end speakers after it failed to do this in tablets and phones?

Looks alike, but there's big technology differences

Amazon's new Echo Studio is currently available for preorder. It uses a downward-facing, larger-sized woofer than HomePod, which it ports out the front and back through a slit in the speaker itself. Apple opted to use an upward-facing woofer in HomePod, noting that its custom-designed "high-excursion woofer is positioned at the top of the speaker facing upward, creating a wide range of deep bass that surpasses any traditional speaker."

Amazon didn't detail the design of Echo Studio's microphones, but Apple does outline that HomePod has a six-microphone array and an internal bass-EQ microphone that "analyzes and compensates for the effect of the room on the bass response, providing rich, consistent sound." It further states that "a powerful motor drives the [woofer] diaphragm a remarkable 20 mm, so the bass shines through even when the volume is low."

Amazon breezed past the qualitative aspects of Echo Studio to outline that it uses three midrange speakers for the left, right, and top, with a single directional tweeter at the front, and a 5.25-inch bass driver in the base feeding sound out of the bass port. Apple's HomePod uses a circle of seven beamforming tweeters "each with its own amplifier" for "tremendous directional control" the company states in its marketing.

HomePod
HomePod features a radically different speaker design


Apple states that HomePod's array of tweeters, using a folded-horn design, "send the flow of music toward the center and then out the bottom in a 360-degree pattern, resulting in an all-encompassing sense of space. This virtually eliminates early table reflections and allows for consistent high-definition sound." That might sound excessively flowery, but it compares to a single tweeter and two midrange speakers on the Echo Studio.

Each HomePod unit by itself delivers wide, stereophonic sound. Two units can be paired together to create an even wider soundscape. Yet with just a single high-frequency tweeter, Amazon's Echo Studio sound will be much more directional-- effectively mono in upper frequencies where our ears derive the most directional sense of sound. Amazon notes that two units can be paired together with a standalone woofer, but that raises more questions: does this setup use sophisticated processing, or are the two speakers just acting as a stereo pair? And with each unit having a large woofer already, why would such a setup need a third subwoofer?

Further, will buyers who opt for one of the cheapest possible TV boxes from Amazon be interested in buying a couple $200 speakers, along with a dedicated subwoofer, just to watch their Fire TV content? The same people who think nobody can afford an Apple TV or a HomePod don't seem to be raising objections about the concept of Amazon selling a set of speakers that cost a similar amount, a remarkable inconsistency in logic.

Another aspect of HomePod that Apple details is the use of an extraordinarily powerful-- for a speaker-- custom A8 chip to perform advanced signal processing "so Siri can hear you over the music." It also handles "real-time studio-level processing that maximizes the bass while minimizing distortion. Buffering that's even faster than real-time. And upmixing of both direct and ambient audio. You get amazing sound, every single time," the company's market sings. But the reality is that HomePod does sound great, and is effortless to set up and use.

As is common with Android camera phones, Amazon focuses attention on the hardware more than the processing behind it. While it states that its new Echo Studio speaker 'tunes audio to match the room,' it doesn't provide any of the detail that Apple has of how it goes about that. Google made similar claims for its premium-priced Home Max, but in real user testing, its sound is not on the same level as HomePod. Its sales aren't either.

Pearls before online

Beyond the technical aspects, it's not clear whether Amazon can sell more expensive products to its almost exclusively mail-order customers. The company was famously unable to sell Fire Phone, its response to Apple's iPhone, even after discounting its unlocked price to $450 and offering it subsidized from select carriers. It has also struggled to sell its Amazon Fire tablets even at garage sale prices ranging from $50 to $150-- its most expensive tablet maxes out at an economical 32GB model. That's even as Apple sells iPads starting above $300 and continuing into high capacity, cellular iPad Pro territory that reaches up toward $1,700.

Amazon's tablets have occasionally bested iPads in some hardware respects, including offering stereo speakers for years before iPads finally got high quality, stereo sound. Yet, Amazon couldn't leverage any of its advantages to outsell iPads or even reach upward in price to the cheapest iPad models Apple offered.

That says something about Amazon's prospects for up-selling its budget-minded customers to much more expensive speakers.

And while Amazon offers a popular Prime subscription that delivers streaming music and movies along with grocery store discounts and free basic Amazon shipping, it's not nearly as popular as Apple Music and iTunes movies. As with its Echo WiFi mics, Amazon ships impressive numbers of Fire-branded streaming TV boxes, which outnumber Apple TV sales by unit volume. Yet Amazon was also among the first to adopt support for Apple's AirPlay 2 streaming protocol, indicating the importance of Apple's installed base of iOS and Mac users.


Apple's HomePod strategy is obviously not aiming to achieve market share in low-priced devices


While Amazon will no doubt continue to rule to roost in shipping the most WiFi mics, most of these are $30 Dots. Its ability to ship large numbers of better quality speakers at $200 is likely to look more like Google's Home Max effort, which despite shipping before HomePod, failed to outsell it in the premium tier. Apple is selling HomePods in volumes like Sonos, at similar prices. Amazon and Google are quite obviously not in the same tier.

Google itself has previously discovered that while it is easy to ship some quantity of partners' low-end, ultra-cheap phones and tablets under the Nexus brand, it has had little success in moving upscale to sell Pixel branded notebooks, netbooks, tablets, or phones that were priced closer to Apple's offerings. This makes it clear that consumers don't see Amazon or Google on the same quality tier as Apple.

Ring around the privacy issue

Another difference: privacy. While Apple has made a compelling case to consumers that it doesn't want to see their data and will actively protect it from marketers seeking to abuse it, Google and Amazon are principally advertisers that use consumers' data to sell them more products. They rent out buyers' eyeballs to their advertising partners-- who are the real customers in such transactions.

Both companies embarked upon voice assistants specifically to gain entry into users' homes and understand more about them. Apple's Siri did not. Siri is a consumer feature that takes great pains to prevent collection or use of identifying data for marketing purposes. Apple is working to make Siri useful-- and sometimes fails in that regard-- but it's not trying to use Siri to push marketing or access private data on users. And buyers increasingly recognize this.

In a statement this week, privacy advocacy group "Fight for the Future" took issue with the claims Amazon made during its launch event regarding privacy. Evan Greer, the deputy director of the digital rights group, stated, "we can't trust Amazon when it comes to privacy. Amazon claims 'customers control their data' yet they had plans for 911 calls to trigger all Ring cameras in the surrounding neighborhood to wake up and start recording.

"This is what Amazon does. They make empty statements to sell their products and then continue to build a for-profit, surveillance dragnet without oversight and accountability."

Fight for the Future noted that Amazon's Ring subsidiary, which showed off products at its event yesterday, "has entered into partnerships with police departments in over 400 cities, most of them were entered into without any debate or approval from local elected officials or the community. These partnerships provide an end-run around the democratic process and pose serious privacy and civil liberties threats. Amazon gives police a warrantless process for requesting and storing unlimited footage, giving them a literal eye inside residents' homes and the surrounding area, and in exchange, the police department markets Amazon's surveillance technology.

US Senator Ed Markey sent a letter to Jeff Bezos asking questions about the partnerships, and even The Monitoring Association, a security industry trade association, issued a statement expressing concern.

Fight for the Future has launched a national campaign calling on local elected officials to cancel police departments' existing partnerships with Amazon Ring and enact policies to prevent them from doing so in the future.

Despite its saccharine promises on privacy and basic product design that's value-engineered, Amazon will certainly be able to sell some of the 15 devices it threw out to the media this week. But it remains unlikely that Echo Studio will be perceived as being on the same technical or desirable level as HomePod even within the U.S.

And notably, Apple has entered Japan and mainland China this year with HomePod sales, vast markets where Amazon and Google have limited or no presence entirely. The anguish that HomePod is too expensive and too fancy to find buyers is simply misguided.

In a world of with companies offering different quality tiers at respective prices, consumers win and technology advances.
lolliverapplesnorangeslkrupp
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 43
    the iPhone 11 price eliminates all my fear whether Apple and Tim Cook understand the dynamics of the market. HomePod at $299 is still a bit too high but better price could be had at Costco and numerous other retailers. And I am sure during this year's BlackFriday there would be great opportunity to snatch up some HomePods and the newly minted 10.2" iPad (the iPad 6th Gen 128G has become my favorite device). Way to go, Apple. And I beg yet one more time again, please go back to the Network market and give us an Apple mesh network solutions.  
    applesnorangesp-doghmurchisonAppleExposedwatto_cobrawilliamlondon
  • Reply 2 of 43
    Another stellar editorial by DED!

    He always manages to hit the nail on the coffin so to speak, with the coffin being the braindead deadbeats in the mainstream tech media.

    Reading some of their articles literally makes me throw up in my mouth sometimes at how inept, borderline criminal, their misinformation can be!
    lolliverDeelronapplesnorangesp-dogAppleExposedlkruppwatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 43
    Bit disingenuous to quote a discounted holiday price for a product and then call it a “loss leader”.
    At $50, Amazon is making a profit on every Dot.
    bigtdsgatorguymuthuk_vanalingamCarnagelkruppwilliamlondon
  • Reply 4 of 43
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,896member
    There does need to be a range of HomePod devices. The existing HomePod is just a toe in the water. An expensive toe for what it is.  It would be nice to see a lower end portable speaker a la beats pill, a lower price adjustment for homepod, and an even higher end (and expensive obviously) sound bar with Dolby Atmos etc and HomePod sound management smarts, maybe even capable of further upgrades with wireless rear speakers and a subwoofer.
    I would pay serious cash for that.
    applesnorangesAppleExposedkitatitCloudTalkinmuthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 5 of 43
    A cheaper HomePod? Screw that. I want a more expensive, better, more powerful HomePod, and a high resolution AppleMusic. 
    applesnorangesp-dogrobjnmobirdwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 43
    You don’t need a bunch of HomePod laying around if your home has iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch laying around. 

    When you’re the dominant mobile hardware supplier the need for toy speakers is severely lessened. 


    AppleExposedwatto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 43
    Which is still less expensive than the HomePod.
    muthuk_vanalingamwilliamlondon
  • Reply 8 of 43
    (posted earlier) Amazon Echo Studio should give Apple a run for the money against the Home Pod. Priced at $199, supports Dolby Atmos, 3D audio, and initial tests appear promising.  I agree that the Home Pod is better with many specs, except for a few. Amazon’s product also supports Bluetooth and has an audio input jack. What has held me off from Apple’s product is that when it eventually is no longer supported, it ends up being an expensive paperweight while the Amazon speaker will still work and can do so without software.   Will Apple really support the home pod 10 years from now? Or even 5?  The Amazon speaker gets around that issue with still having audio input alternatives.  
    AppleExposed
  • Reply 9 of 43
    AppleExposedAppleExposed Posts: 1,687unconfirmed, member
    hentaiboy said:
    Bit disingenuous to quote a discounted holiday price for a product and then call it a “loss leader”.
    At $50, Amazon is making a profit on every Dot.

    Every time I'm on Amazon I get bombarded with FREE-$20 Dot offers. Never seen them go for $50.

    entropys said:
    There does need to be a range of HomePod devices. The existing HomePod is just a toe in the water. An expensive toe for what it is.  It would be nice to see a lower end portable speaker a la beats pill, a lower price adjustment for homepod, and an even higher end (and expensive obviously) sound bar with Dolby Atmos etc and HomePod sound management smarts, maybe even capable of further upgrades with wireless rear speakers and a subwoofer.
    I would pay serious cash for that.

    Canceling the world-popular Beats Pill was a stupid decision by Apple. I guess they wanted everyone to upgrade to HomePod. Beats Pill was dominating.

    Would love to see a new "Apple" version with Siri, W-chip, privacy etc.

  • Reply 10 of 43

    Amazon Studio is no audio competition for HomePod.

    The studio has a front and back with a single forward facing tweeter. HomePod has 7 far more capable, horn loaded tweeters and uses imaging techniques that are sought after in the high end audiophile world.

     HomePod can beam form to focus audio in specific directions in order to create an immersive sound stage. If HomePod is near a wall it uses the tweeters at the back to bounce beam formed sound off the wall. Some very highly rated audiophile grade speakers have a backwards facing tweeter in a simpler arrangement called a di-pole, HomePod is extremely sophisticated. Whilst HomePods can adapt to their environment, high end di-pole designs must be just the right distance from the back wall.

    On the low end, HomePod has a high excursion woofer. Higher excursion woofers produce higher SPL and typically have a more powerful motor with a taller voice coil stack with more windings, higher sensitivity and better power handling. The HomePod woofer has a microphone in the back that enables the software to measure distortion and dynamically correct it.

    So whilst Amazon came up with a interesting design for the Studio, it’s not in the same league as HomePod.
    edited September 26 kevin keewatto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 43
    Which is still less expensive than the HomePod.
    You pay peanut you get monkey.
    watto_cobrawilliamlondonbadmonk
  • Reply 12 of 43
    kevin kee said:
    Which is still less expensive than the HomePod.
    You pay peanut you get monkey.
    I don’t get the point of this editorial. A better sounding Echo that’s still cheaper than a HomePod isn’t good for Apple. We know HomePod has been a dud so far because nobody at Apple ever talks about it. Cook never mentions it on earnings calls. Yet he brags about AirPods and Apple Watch all the time.
    muthuk_vanalingamCarnagebigtdswilliamlondon
  • Reply 13 of 43
    You don’t need a bunch of HomePod laying around if your home has iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch laying around. 

    When you’re the dominant mobile hardware supplier the need for toy speakers is severely lessened. 


    I respect your 12,000 posts. But I don't understand what you are getting at here. I don't understand either of your two sentences. Is your first sentence saying that Apple doesn't need to make cheaper Homepods because most people already have tiny little speakers around the house called iOS devices? Is your sentence repeating the same point?
  • Reply 14 of 43
    This review states, "Each HomePod unit by itself delivers wide, stereophonic sound." That is absolutely untrue! One HomePod delivers only MONO sound. It's dispersed in all directions (on a horizontal plane) for a wider soundstage, but when using only one HomePod the two stereo channels are combined and folded down to MONO. To listen in stereo, as Apple clearly states, (https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT208807), you must use two HomePods and use the Home app to set them up as a stereo pair, with the result that one HomePod will deliver the left channel of the stereo signal and the other will deliver the right channel.
    muthuk_vanalingambigtdswilliamlondonFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 15 of 43
    This review states, "Each HomePod unit by itself delivers wide, stereophonic sound." That is absolutely untrue! One HomePod delivers only MONO sound.
    Incorrect. Seven tweeters = stereo reproduction in highs/mids. One woofer = mono reproduction in lows. So although HomePod is not capable of delivering true stereo (more than one channel for both tweeters and woofers) with a single unit, it's not a mono speaker. 
    edited September 27 correctionswatto_cobraStrangeDayswilliamlondonFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 16 of 43
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 21,289member
    robjn said:

    Amazon Studio is no audio competition for HomePod.

    The studio has a front and back with a single forward facing tweeter. HomePod has 7 far more capable, horn loaded tweeters and uses imaging techniques that are sought after in the high end audiophile world.

     HomePod can beam form to focus audio in specific directions in order to create an immersive sound stage. If HomePod is near a wall it uses the tweeters at the back to bounce beam formed sound off the wall. Some very highly rated audiophile grade speakers have a backwards facing tweeter in a simpler arrangement called a di-pole, HomePod is extremely sophisticated. Whilst HomePods can adapt to their environment, high end di-pole designs must be just the right distance from the back wall.

    On the low end, HomePod has a high excursion woofer. Higher excursion woofers produce higher SPL and typically have a more powerful motor with a taller voice coil stack with more windings, higher sensitivity and better power handling. The HomePod woofer has a microphone in the back that enables the software to measure distortion and dynamically correct it.

    So whilst Amazon came up with a interesting design for the Studio, it’s not in the same league as HomePod.
    You don't yet know, nor does any other consumer. Speakers are subjectively about the sound, not necessarily the technical aspects. Surely you saw early on that the less technical Home Max was considered the better sounding speaker over the 7-tweeter beam-forming HomePod in some blind tests. 

    Wait for the Amazon Studio to get into owner's hands and wait to see what buyers say. Tech specs aren't going to tell you what it sounds like in your own space compared to competing devices. 
    edited September 27 muthuk_vanalingambigtdsFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 17 of 43
    gatorguy said:
    Wait for the Amazon Studio to get into owner's hands and wait to see what buyers say. Tech specs aren't going to tell you what it sounds like in your own space compared to competing devices. 
    Consumers are not really going to be doing A/B tests of speakers from Amazon and Apple. 

    Amazon buyers (which include many iOS users) wanting to try out Alexa will be (are!) mostly opting to get a $30 Dot. 

    Apple Store customers who have Apple Music and want a speaker to “just work” with their equipment will get a HomePod or two. These buyers are not really price sensitive. 

    The point of the article is that frequent blog commenters and review sites are confused about what is actually happening. 

    AirPlay and HomeKit and Siri are selling premium hardware. Alexa is selling cheap gadgety microwaves and automation stuff that frequently stops working after the manufacturers abandon them. It’s much like Android vs IOS. 
    watto_cobraStrangeDays
  • Reply 18 of 43
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 21,289member
    gatorguy said:
    Wait for the Amazon Studio to get into owner's hands and wait to see what buyers say. Tech specs aren't going to tell you what it sounds like in your own space compared to competing devices. 
    Consumers are not really going to be doing A/B tests of speakers from Amazon and Apple. 

    Amazon buyers (which include many iOS users) wanting to try out Alexa will be (are!) mostly opting to get a $30 Dot. 

    Apple Store customers who have Apple Music and want a speaker to “just work” with their equipment will get a HomePod or two. These buyers are not really price sensitive. 

    The point of the article is that frequent blog commenters and review sites are confused about what is actually happening. 

    AirPlay and HomeKit and Siri are selling premium hardware. Alexa is selling cheap gadgety microwaves and automation stuff that frequently stops working after the manufacturers abandon them. It’s much like Android vs IOS. 
    Daniel, nothing in your reply has anything to do with the OP's post or mine.

    The discussion the two of us were having wasn't about the relative audio quality of Dots compared to the HomePod.  Your comment is not at all germane.
    Perhaps you meant to quote someone else? 


    edited September 27 bigtdsmuthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 19 of 43
    gatorguy said: Speakers are subjectively about the sound, not necessarily the technical aspects. Surely you saw early on that the less technical Home Max was considered the better sounding speaker over the 7-tweeter beam-forming HomePod in some blind tests. 
    Individual perception of audio quality can be subjective, yes, but that doesn't mean audio and sound reproduction is independent of the technical aspects of the speaker. Home Max is a "dumb" speaker in terms of how it distributes sound. Centering yourself in front of the speaker is going to be a better audio experience than standing to the side or behind. That isn't true of the HomePod due to the technical aspects of the speaker design. Someone could believably say they prefer the Home Max sound if they limited the parameters of the test to "dumb" speaker territory, which is a way of intentionally avoiding HomePod's technical advantages.  
    edited September 27 watto_cobraFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 20 of 43
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 21,289member
    gatorguy said: Speakers are subjectively about the sound, not necessarily the technical aspects. Surely you saw early on that the less technical Home Max was considered the better sounding speaker over the 7-tweeter beam-forming HomePod in some blind tests. 
    Individual perception of audio quality can be subjective, yes, but that doesn't mean audio and sound reproduction is independent of the technical aspects of the speaker. Home Max is a "dumb" speaker in terms of how it distributes sound. Centering yourself in front of the speaker is going to be a better audio experience than standing to the side or behind. That isn't true of the HomePod due to the technical aspects of the speaker design. Someone could believably say they prefer the Home Max sound if they limited the parameters of the test to "dumb" speaker territory, which is a way of intentionally avoiding HomePod's technical advantages.  
    Intentionally or just not finding any advantage to it in their personal spaces? By the way Home Max also analyzes its sound to adjust to the acoustics of a room, so framing it as a "dumb speaker" is a misnomer.  It was also the first of the premium smart-speakers from Apple/Amazon/Google, the HomePod following it about 9 weeks later, and probably due for a mid-range update. Maybe in October? 
    edited September 27 muthuk_vanalingamFileMakerFeller
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