Techilicious by Rajiv Makhni: The two smart speakers to watch out for
Let’s face it. You may buy a smart speaker for all kind of reasons. To control lights, get information, monitor your security camera, use multiple units as room to room video conference system, check out a YouTube cooking video – which explains why this is such a hot category and sells so well. But eventually after the initial euphoria and excitement settles down, you’re going to use them for one thing and one thing only. To listen to music. Almost 90 per cent of smart speakers are used for their primary purpose: to play songs at a voice command. Thus when Apple finally decided that India was worthy of getting the HomePod (two years late!), it was time to find out which smart speaker has the best sound. There are lots of smart speakers out there but I’m going to restrict this to the two latest additions to the category and my primary criterion is going to be the sound.
Amazon Echo Studio
The Studio was more or less built to take on the HomePod and all the other speaker companies that were getting into the smart speaker market. This is an acoustically- engineered smart speaker from the ground up. Unfortunately, that seems to indicate that the design engineers didn’t get too much time with it. It follows the Echo tradition of ‘cylindrical’ design and in this one the design just made it look bulky and big and it weighs in at 3.8kg. Of course the minute you have it set up and hear the first musical notes – all that is quickly forgotten. The Studio has three mid-range drivers, a 25mm tweeter firing upwards and a 133mm subwoofer firing downwards. The highs are crisp, the vocals are clean (fantastic, in fact) and the bass cavity truly thuds out some seriously deep lows. The additional Dolby Atmos technology adds a great sense of depth. This is easily Amazon’s best-sounding Echo yet. Amazon went one step further and added a voice-controlled equaliser setting. You can just ask it to increase the bass or anything else and it does. The studio is also ‘space aware,’ which means it will adjust sound according to room and placement. You can link two Echo Studio speakers in a stereo setup and you can also connect it to a Fire Stick device and get sound from your TV. The rest of the device is pretty much standard Echo with a light ring, Alexa being truly fantastic in what all it can do and this one has a built in smart hub and can thus handle all kinds of home automation. The Echo Studio is priced at Rs 22,999. My ratings purely on sound would be 9.5/10
It’s late to the party but this could well become the party starter. It’s stunningly minimalistic, has an intricate mesh design to give it a very soft look, the top panel is intuitive (but they should use the small display to convey more information than those fancy Siri light effects), Siri responds well and does a good job – but it’s the sound that really sets this one apart. Apple really went all out with the acoustics and got them bang on. It’s 6.8 inches tall, but nice and heavy at 2.5 kg and most of that is taken up by woofers and the 7 down-firing tweeters. The HomePod comes with spatial awareness, which means it adjusts the acoustics according to the room. The bass is clear, well defined and it gives an overall full bodied sound. The vocals are crisp in songs and the highs are clean. The HomePod is powered by the A8 chipset, thus it can handle pretty much anything you throw at it. Once connected, Siri is the source through which the speaker comes alive. Airplay 2 can be used from iPhones or iPads and you can find out the news, play particular music from your playlists on Apple music and even carry out personal requests like send a message to a contact. There are six microphones around the speaker and thus even normal commands at conversational volume will have the HomePod respond. You can set up two to give you a stereo effect and the white is the better looking one purely in terms of eye candy. Do remember, as always, you need to be in the Apple ecosystem to use it. The HomePod is priced at Rs 19,999, which is a surprisingly aggressive price considering it’s Apple and considering its price abroad. My ratings purely on sound would be a 9/10.
There are many others like the Harman Kardon Citation ONE (fantastic) or some stuff from Bose (mediocre) but the Studio and the HomePod lead the market right now. Thus if it’s audiophile level sound you want from a smart speaker, either of these two would work. Maybe the phone you use (the OS) may define the sound that plays in your room.
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
Techilicious appears every fortnight