Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Which smart speaker should you choose?

We pit the speaker heavyweights against one another

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo

If you think it's time to get yourself a smart speaker, the Apple HomePod and Amazon Echo should be at the top of your wish-list.

Amazon has been filling its speaker line with different versions for some time now, with the popular Amazon Echo Dot now joined by devices that have a screen – the Echo Spot and Echo Show. Here, though, we’ll be focusing primarily on the headline act, the second-generation Echo.

Essential guide: The best smart speakers

We’ll also be comparing it with Apple’s debut smart speaker, the HomePod. Read on to see which device comes out on top in design, sound quality, music services and more.

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Design

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Which smart speaker should you choose?

Considering both of these smart speakers are vying to become the centre of your smart home experience, you have to like the design; that’s a given. But not all of these devices are created equally, and Apple’s HomePod has easily the most premium build of any smart speaker right now.

Wrapped in a mesh fabric, the HomePod sits at 6.8-inches tall and 5.6-inches wide, while a shiny touch surfaces is up top to allow you physical controls. It’s not a display, as such, but you will be able to turn the volume up and down, skip tracks and play/pause, while Siri’s visualisation will also pop up in this area.

In short, it’s a winner. And that’s not to say that the 5.9-inch x 3.5-inch Amazon Echo is ugly — it’s certainly an upgrade on the original — but it just doesn't look as good. It is, however, available in more colours than the HomePod, which only comes in white (shown above) or black. Those interested in the Echo will be able to choose from six Echo Shells: charcoal, sandstone, heather grey, oak, walnut or silver.

Similar to Apple’s option, you also control the speaker from the top, where there are volume buttons, a microphone-off button and an action button. When Alexa is listening, this is signified through the illuminating blue ring around the top.

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Sound quality

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Which smart speaker should you choose?

If you’ve been paying attention to opinions on the HomePod, you’ll know that its main draw is the sound quality. It’s tough to actually quantify this or put it into words just how good it sounds in person, but our ear tests rank it far higher than any other smart speaker from the big players, as well as more dedicated speakers like the Sonos Play:3.

And this is largely down to Apple’s engineers going big on the audio tech. Packed inside the HomePod are seven beam-forming tweeters and a four-inch, high-excursion woofer. That’s all impressive, but the A8 chip inside is doing the real legwork, continuously analysing your music and adapting to the acoustics by working with the six-microphone-array setup. That means if your HomePod is surrounded by books or furniture, the sound will adapt to compensate.

The Amazon Echo isn't as dexterous, though, again, this has improved since the first-generation speaker was released. This time around, there’s a new speaker (0.6-inch tweeter; 2.5-inch woofer) with Dolby processing attempting to bring you richer sound. It does achieve this to a degree, sure, but the improvements aren’t the kind of overhaul the Echo needs to compete seriously with Apple.

Part of that, of course, is to do with the price of the unit, which we’ll explore further below. But if this is a concern to you, the good news is that you’ll be able to use the 3.5mm audio output and connect to your more advanced speakers. That 3.5mm output is something the HomePod doesn't offer.

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Multi-room and stereo

Both the Echo and the HomePod are capable of multi-room, or grouped audio. Apple only added this functionality with the arrival of AirPlay 2 though – it wasn't available at launch. Multi-room audio went live for Amazon's smart speaker back in 2017 and now every Echo speaker is capable of being synced up.

However, Apple has the upper hand here because, while multi-room audio and grouping speakers works well on both smart speakers, it's only the Cupertino contender that has stereo skills. And it is proper stereo, not just an exact match of sound from each – the A8 chips sync and split the left and right stereo channels between the two devices.

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Smart assistants

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Which smart speaker should you choose?

Amazon may be trumped in design and sound quality, but one area it's able to best Apple is in the actual smart assistant. And Alexa doesn’t just beat out Siri — in our view, it's the best voice assistant in the business right now.

For news, weather, calendar updates, reading out recipes, controlling music and smart home gadgets, Alexa is the most accurate and helpful of the bunch. The Echo 2’s seven-microphone-array means you’ll easily be heard from across the room (even when it’s a bit noisy). We’re not trying to say it’s perfect, but it’s streets ahead of Apple’s offering.

So, what’s the problem with Siri on the HomePod? Well, it can still give you the news, weather and the like, but generally the assistant is lacking when compared to rivals. As we’ve detailed in our review, the iMessage compatibility needs an overhaul, as well as making calls through Siri, and we’ve often found inconsistencies with just getting Siri’s attention — that’s something that should be a lay-up for any smart speaker.

Add to this another base-level issue: Siri still sounds like a robot. The cadence and pronunciations are all wrong, no matter whether you switch between the male or female voice, or even switch up the accent.

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Music services

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Which smart speaker should you choose?

In typical Apple fashion, it pays to be all-in on the company’s arsenal of devices, and the HomePod is one the best examples of the walled garden in action. Things are great if you’re aligned with Apple Music — Siri can handle advanced track controls, song and artist info, playlist curations and more — but there’s none of that if you’re subscribed to Spotify or Deezer.

That’s not to say you can’t play your music or listen to other radio stations through HomePod, it’s just nowhere near as seamless when you’re operating through AirPlay, and you’ll have to break out your smartphone or tablet in order to get things going. As a result of this going through AirPlay, the commands available to you are also much more basic. In short, it’s great if you’re an Apple Music user, but you can do much better if you’re knee-deep in Spotify or others.

Read this: How to stream and control Spotify on your Apple HomePod

It’s a different story on the Amazon Echo, which actually lets you set the likes of Spotify as your default option ahead of its own in-house streaming service, Amazon Music. Interestingly, Apple Music users on Echo won’t be able to get any voice control (though you can still play music by simply using the Echo as a Bluetooth speaker), but the rest of the music streaming crop can be accessed through Alexa — and it’s a job the voice assistant is able to handle just as well as Apple takes care of its own users.

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Ecosystems

Apple is also lagging behind in its ability to be the force behind your smart home, with HomeKit still some way behind the Works with Amazon Alexa ecosystem. We’ve also found some glaring inconsistencies with its command carry-outs, as we alluded to earlier; things that work fine on the iPhone simply don’t translate to the HomePod, for example.

The small list of compatible HomeKit devices also doesn’t help lift Siri’s middling ability to play point guard in the home, and the HomePod’s automation and scenes are basic, too.

Switch over to Amazon, and it’s very clear this is a much more mature ecosystem and assistant. After years of building, Alexa is able to work with just about every smart gadget in the home, and is really the best option if you already have the likes of bulbs, thermostats and cameras raring to be paired with a smart speaker.

Apple HomePod vs Amazon Echo: Price

So, there are certainly positives and negatives to take from each smart speaker here, but price is also a major factor. And these two vary greatly.

To pick up the Apple HomePod, you’re going to have to shell out a cool $319. That’s way above its rivals in the space and, unlike them, there’s obviously not a cheaper variant available to buy instead. Amazon, as we’ve covered, is quite the opposite. There’s currently five smart speakers in the Amazon crop (not including older generations), with the second-gen Echo coming in at $84.99.

Verdict

When you weigh up all the factors here, the Amazon Echo is still a better, more rounded smart speaker than the Apple HomePod.

There’s no question that Apple’s option sits at the top of the pile when it comes to sound quality, but in its quest to revolutionise how you listen to music in the home, it's perhaps forgotten to make sure it can compete on smarts. It's hard to make a case for it over the Echo if smart home control is in any way important to you, especially when you consider the lofty price tag. Of course, if music is your primary concern, you should certainly be looking in Apple's direction and not Amazon's.

Amazon didn't fix everything with the updated Echo, but it did improve on what was already a very strong smart speaker. If you can handle the refreshed design and you value wider smart home integration over the likes of audio quality, the price makes this one a no brainer.


TAGGED   speakers   apple   amazon

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