Which has bet­ter mu­sic smarts? Ama­zon vs. Ap­ple vs. Google

We put these speak­ers to the voice-com­mand test

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - MONEY - Jef­fer­son Gra­ham

MAN­HAT­TAN BEACH, Calif. – There are so many things Siri can’t do, but if you ask Ap­ple’s per­sonal dig­i­tal as­sis­tant to play you the lat­est Ed Sheeran al­bum on the HomePod speaker, tell you when it was re­leased and give you a lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about the top-sell­ing mu­si­cal per­former, Siri is sur­pris­ingly chatty.

And it doesn’t even once say, “Here’s what I found on the Web,” to make you read the in­for­ma­tion on web­sites.

But is it re­ally smarter when it comes to re­spond­ing to our mu­sic-re­lated com­mands than its ri­vals Ama­zon Echo and Google Home, which dom­i­nate the smart speaker mar­ket?

We de­cided to find out, pos­ing 40 mu­sic ques­tions to all three and then play­ing a bonus round with 10 re­quests to play a song based on sam­ple lyrics from the tune. That last chal­lenge proved to be the tiebreaker.

Mu­sic is a big deal for Ap­ple’s push to sell the HomePod.

A year ago at its Ap­ple World­wide De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence, Ap­ple pitched the higher-priced smart speaker — $349 vs. $50-$75 for mid-level Ama­zon and Google speak­ers and $200 for Sonos, which works with all the ma­jor voice as­sis­tants — with an em­pha­sis on sound qual­ity and abil­ity to an­swer our mu­sic ques­tions.

“We never wanted to lose the fo­cus that (HomePod is) first about mak­ing a speaker that plays back mu­sic in a sur­pris­ing, re­ally great way,” Ap­ple ex­ec­u­tive Phil Schiller told jour­nal­ists ear­lier this year, as the speaker was about to hit store shelves.

So far Ap­ple has yet to cre­ate an­other iPhone- or iPad-sized hit. Mar­ket re­search firm Strat­egy An­a­lyt­ics says Ap­ple sold 600,000 HomePod speak­ers — which first went on sale in Fe­bru­ary — dur­ing the first quar­ter, rep­re­sent­ing 6% mar­ket share of the smart speaker mar­ket vs. 43% for Ama­zon and 27% for Google.

But its fo­cus on mu­sic as op­posed to skills like call­ing an Uber or check­ing your bank ac­count could res­onate with fu­ture buy­ers.

For own­ers of smart speak­ers, mu­sic is the No. 1 ac­tiv­ity, ac­cord­ing to eMar­keter.

Be­fore ask­ing our mu­sic ques­tions, we set up the speak­ers with the premium mu­sic ser­vices that make each most re­spon­sive to spe­cific queries, sub­scrib­ing to Ap­ple Mu­sic, Ama­zon Mu­sic and Google Play Mu­sic (gen­er­ally $9.99 monthly each).

Siri on Ap­ple HomePod will only re­spond to voice-com­manded mu­sic re­quests if you have a monthly sub­scrip­tion to Ap­ple Mu­sic or the iTunes Match ser­vice, which makes the mu­sic you’ve al­ready pur­chased avail­able on mul­ti­ple de­vices.

For voice com­mands, Ama­zon Echo works with Ama­zon Mu­sic, Spo­tify and Pan­dora.

Google Home works with Google Play

Mu­sic, Pan­dora, Spo­tify, YouTube Mu­sic and Spo­tify Premium.

The com­mands for our ques­tions mostly came from the help pages cre­ated by Ap­ple, Ama­zon and Google on cool things you could do with mu­sic on the HomePod, Ama­zon Echo and Google Home speak­ers.

The ver­dict: a vir­tual tie on the first round, which in­cluded ques­tions like these:

❚ Play mu­sic I like.

❚ What song is this?

❚ Play the No. 1 song from Jan­uary 2015.

❚ Play “Up­town Funk,” by Mark Ron­son.

❚ Play some sad jazz songs.

Ama­zon and Ap­ple both got 35 out of 40, while Google re­sponded suc­cess­fully with 37.

All could do the easy stuff — play songs, artists, al­bums and gen­res on com­mand.

Misses in­cluded:

❚ Ap­ple Mu­sic couldn’t play clas­si­cal gui­tar mu­sic (both Alexa and Google could).

❚ Alexa couldn’t play my pur­chased songs I’d bought from Ama­zon.

❚ Google and Ap­ple couldn’t “play a song I haven’t lis­tened to in a while,” while Alexa could.

Then we added the lyrics, ask­ing each to “play ‘all the sin­gle ladies,’ ” and “‘I’m too hot, hot damn, called a po­lice and a fire­man,’ ” as well as sev­eral oth­ers.

It was in this test that Ap­ple to­tally fell apart, only find­ing one of the 10 songs we teased, while Google sussed out seven of them on first try, and Ama­zon got all 10.

Ap­ple says it doesn’t sup­port song se­lec­tion by lyrics but can pick out a frac­tion of the ti­tle — which is why it found “Sin­gle Ladies,” by Bey­oncé, and “We’re off to see the wiz­ard,” from the movie “The Wiz­ard of Oz.”


Whether on the Ama­zon Echo, Ap­ple HomePod or Google Home, users of smart speak­ers ask for mu­sic more than any­thing else.

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