This weekend, a highly questionable rumor from China’s Sina claimed that Apple will release a lower-priced HomePod under the Beats brand. The rumor said that Apple is working on the new device with MediaTek, a company that makes Amazon’s Echo speakers, but provided no other details — size, price, availability, or otherwise.
That lack of specificity didn’t prevent the rumor from spreading quickly across the world, offset by only a modest degree of skepticism. Few writers openly dismissed the rumor, but many suggested that it be taken with a significant quantity of salt.
I’ll be the first to point out that whatever’s going on right now with Apple and Beats is confusing — so confusing that something like this could happen. But I don’t think it will, at least as it was written. Apple’s not the type of company that would just slap the Beats name on a HomePod Mini, as doing so would likely signal the end of Beats’ distinctive identity and therefore make using the Beats name pointless.
However, there are two ways the rumor could become reality. Apple could add Siri “smart speaker” functionality to a prior Beats design (say, Pill), or design a new line of Echo-like Beats speakers with Siri built in. From my perspective, either option would make a lot more sense than the HomePod does now, while the latter might even rejuvenate the stagnant Beats brand.
HomePod vs. Beats: Identity crisis
Summing up the marketed differences between HomePod and Beats is pretty easy. HomePod was pitched as a deluxe, audiophile-quality speaker with Siri intelligence, wrapped in a classically neutral Apple design. Beats has been known for tasteful but decidedly plastic enclosures, edgy branding, and a bassy, arguably populist sonic skew.
But why launch Apple headphones and speakers at all when Beats has seemingly been so successful — and well-liked by virtually everyone except audiophiles? The answer appears to be that Apple would rather release accessories under its own name and industrial design ethos than another company’s. So there is now only a single Beats speaker, versus the all-in-one speakers, computer speakers, phone speakers, and car speakers that once bore the Beats name. Similarly, Apple has released several Beats headphones, but they’re largely continuations of what came before the acquisition, and their marketing has been subdued.
On the other hand, Apple’s single most significant audio accessory over the past several years was AirPods, its only new pair of headphones to launch without a Beats badge. Similarly, it put a lot of marketing muscle behind HomePod, and noted that the speaker was designed to blend into any home.
Putting the marketing aside, however, the Beats and HomePod lineups have more in common than not. The supposedly audiophile HomePod had an unquestionably bassy sound signature, just like Beats, and yet lacked stereo sound, unlike Beats. Despite a much higher price, HomePod was a substantially plastic speaker — its differences were largely internal, focused on enabling the speaker to project sound in multiple directions and to offer Siri.
Yet Siri was certainly the biggest misfire of the HomePod’s troubled launch. Even otherwise positive reviews of the speaker’s sonic performance found Siri to be a weak spot. Relatively few of the reviews found anything about HomePod worthy of recommending to a mainstream audience.
Today, the Beats brand is in a state of reversible decline, and the HomePod name isn’t exactly bringing people into Apple Stores. If Apple needs to preserve a nearly 40 percent margin and all but static prices for its own-branded accessories, it would make sense to leave speakers and headphones under the Beats name.
Does the brand matter? Sort of.
I’d argue that the brand of a less expensive HomePod matters for a couple of reasons. First, the HomePod name is damaged right now in a way that the Beats name is not — putting the Pill XL battery issue aside, Beats doesn’t have the “flop” reputation of a weak predecessor to market around. Making a line of Beats-branded Amazon Echo competitors would let Apple reapproach the smart speaker market from a place of strength and let the company flex a different set of industrial design muscles.
Second, Apple thinks of products holistically, shaping the entire design to match branding. Just like the iPod Hi-Fi, it designed the $349 HomePod to appeal to wannabe audiophiles — a comparatively small but wealthy market that was never going to sustain a thriving smart speaker business. By comparison, the Beats lineup has a youthful identity, more aggressive (but not cheap) price points, and purports to play music the way it was intended to be heard.
The Beats brand already possesses what sounds like a winning formula to take on Echo, a product family that’s largely about cheap, ubiquitous assistance, not really focused on sound quality at all. And if Apple just tossed Siri support into existing sub-$200 Beats speaker designs as a “bonus,” the expectations bar for the feature would be lower than for a brand new speaker at a $350 price point.
What will happen?
If I were placing a bet on what Apple will do, I would start by assuming that it won’t repeat the iPod Hi-Fi situation and just abandon the speaker market after a year. Just like the Mac Pro, Apple’s going to continue releasing smart speakers because it feels that it needs to participate in the market, but it will belatedly reconsider how it should play in that space. That process is certainly already underway on both the hardware and software side.
Given how late it was with HomePod, I wonder whether Apple can bring itself to release a new, largely redesigned speaker that didn’t take six years to develop. Other companies do that all the time — generally with positive results — but the HomePod story was that the speaker was the result of years of secret testing in specially built labs and employees’ homes. (Except for the fact that it left permanent rings on common oiled and waxed wood surfaces. Oops.)
Just like the second-generation Apple TV, I’m guessing that Apple will launch a less expensive, stripped-down smart speaker with the same basic concept — but if it’s a substantially new design, it may take longer than some have predicted. I’d put even odds on it having the Beats or HomePod name, but bet heavily that it won’t be called the “Beats HomePod Mini” or look like a HomePod if it’s part of the Beats family. If it looks like a HomePod, it’ll most likely carry the Apple name and HomePod branding.