At Samsung’s lavish Unpacked 2018, the tech powerhouse announced two new gadgets we all expected — the Galaxy Note 9 phone and a new Galaxy Watch — as well as one we didn’t: the Galaxy Home smart speaker. You know, the speaker that looks like a cauldron, fondue pot or backyard grill.
The Home is Samsung’s first speaker based on Bixby, a voice assistant that debuted with the Galaxy S8 phone and has since made its was to Samsung’s TVs and smart appliances. Its competition includes Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri, all of which have a pretty healthy head start. The Home is trying to break into a market with three of the most aggressive competitors out there — and that’s not even including other players like Microsoft, Xiaomi and Alibaba.
Samsung didn’t provide many details about the speaker at its event, leaving the meat and potatoes — like pricing and when you can actually buy one — for its Developer’s Conference in November. Until then, the Home is ripe for speculation, much like a big, black, three-legged pear. To the suggestion box!
It needs to cost $200
Once the superb Sonos One hit the marketplace its $200 price became the sweet spot for good-sounding smart speakers, but I won’t be surprised if the Home costs more than that — something closer to the $350 HomePod. That would be a mistake in my book.
Emulating Cupertino is no guarantee of success. While Siri is the most popular voice assistant on phones — thanks to the massive install base of iPhone users — it’s far from tops in the home. According to a recent report, the HomePod had a mere 6 percent of the US market, dwarfed by Amazon’s 70 percent and Google’s 24, respectively. Of course, Amazon and Google have a head start measured in years, and offer devices that sell for as little as $35 to $50. If Samsung wants to compete, it needs competitive pricing.
The Alexa-powered Samsung VL350 is $250, so I’m guessing the larger, “premium” Galaxy Home will be at least $300. That’s just too much. People will swarm to the popular restaurants, but no one wants to go to an expensive place where they’re dining alone. Which leads us to…
It needs Google Assistant as well as Bixby
In what could be a blueprint for Bixby’s future, Microsoft and Amazon have made Cortana and Alexa interoperable. If you’re looking for the closest analog to a Bixby speaker it’s the Harman Kardon Invoke (ironically, produced by Samsung-owned Harman), which uses Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant. While the Invoke was introduced at $200 six months ago it is now going for $100. Adding Alexa (and dropping the price) could help it boost sales.
Given Samsung’s strong ties with Google (it’s the top vendor of Android-powered phones), it would make sense for the Galaxy Home to offer Google Assistant as well as Bixby. This would bring with it built-in Chromecast media streaming and that system’s excellent multiroom audio capabilities, and jibe well with Samsung’s SmartThings smart home ecosystem, which already works with Google Assistant.
Sonos promises it will add Google Assistant sometime this year — it already supports Alexa and Apple’s AirPlay 2 in its newer products — so Samsung should follow suit. In the near future it is likely that “choose your own assistant” speakers, at least high-end ones, will be the new normal.
Make the microphones at least as good as Apple’s
There are dozens of smart speakers out there, from the dirt-cheap Insignia Voice and up. While most of them offer variations on “cruddy sounding,” there’s one thing that really separates them: the quality of the microphones used to “listen” for your spoken commands.
Of all the models we’ve tested, the HomePod again stands out as the best listener. The microphones are very sensitive and can pick up the wake word (“Siri”) when you’re in another room or even if the speaker is blaring. And that’s hard to get right. If Samsung is really going after Apple, it needs to compete on the microphone front, too.
It needs stereo pairing (and line-in)
A single speaker is fine for the kitchen or the bedroom, but some people want their speakers to perform in a larger room, too. The best smart speakers offer features such as stereo pairing for improved sound quality — two Galaxy Homes as a stereo system, yes please — as well as multiple inputs so people can hook it up to their TV.
While we’re on the stereo-pairing thing, if you’re using two Homes on stands or having them flank a TV on a wall, those spindly legs need to be removable. Or at least offer a floor stand as an option.
Samsung’s strange-looking Galaxy Home speaker has promise, if only because the company makes quality audio gear already, such as the HW-K950 sound bar. All it needs is a competitive price, solid performance and a little help from another Assistant.