Which has better music smarts? Amazon vs. Apple vs. Google
We put these speakers to the voice-command test
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.
❚ 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.