My Smart Speaker Conundrum

We’ve had an Amazon Echo in our kitchen for over a year now. We use it for the things people use an Echo for, including check the weather, get caught up on the news, turn on light, set timers and listen to music.

That last use is an important one. Most evenings, we have something playing. I pay for a Spotify account that I have hooked up to the Echo, as Amazon’s Prime Music offering only includes around 2 million songs, and in our testing last year, often lacked what we (or the kids) wanted to listen to in the kitchen.

This has been the setup for a while now, and it works well. Spotify has a large music library, and it can be set as the default source the Echo uses when it is asked to play music. I’ve been fine paying the $9.99 a month for it.

Recently, I signed up for Apple Music, and just a few weeks ago, upgraded to a family plan so my wife could use it as well. We’re both really liking it, but I’m not thrilled at the thought of paying for both Spotify and Apple Music. Spotify’s apps are great, but it plays music at a noticeably lower volume than Apple Music, and that was an issue when paired with my car’s mediocre stereo.

When Amazon introduced the new Echos a few weeks ago, I pre-ordered a new one, hoping that the speaker really is improved. The sound quality out of the original Echo is fine but it could be a lot better. I had settled into the thought of paying for two music services. I even thought about trying out Amazon Music Unlimited, which at $7.99/month, would be $2 less than Spotify Premium. There is a $3.99 Echo-only plan, which does help.

Then Sonos went threw a real wrench into things. The new $199 Sonos One will no doubt sound way better than the new Echo, and it supports Apple Music. Unfortunately, that has required the use of Sonos’ somewhat clunky iOS app. However, the Sonos One has a trick up its sleeve: Alexa.

That means I could use the music service I want, on a device that sounds great and use that device for all the other Alexa-powered stuff I have come to enjoy using. As a bonus, the new Sonos One will support Google Assistant and AirPlay 2 in 2018, meaning I could have two assistants in my kitchen and be able to stream stuff like podcasts to it.

There’s a problem though. It appears that Apple Music will not be accessible by voice commands. Here’s a bit from The Verge’s article on the new speaker:

Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeart Radio, and other music services can play music through Alexa commands at launch. A few key popular music services including Spotify and Apple Music won’t immediately support voice controls, however. Sonos has said Spotify in particular is coming “soon” after release. Until then, you’ve still got the option to play Spotify on the Sonos One through both the Sonos and Spotify mobile apps, and some voice commands like “pause,” “skip this track,” and volume controls work for all services out of the box.

And then there is this reply by a Sonos support staff member to a forum post about using Alexa with Apple Music:

In regards to the question on plans to extend Alexa functionality to Apple Music, I would forward that feedback directly to Amazon. They are still the main point of contact in regards to future functionality with Amazon Alexa. Defaults for Alexa are all handled inside the Amazon Alexa app itself.

That doesn’t sound super promising, given Amazon and Apple’s cold war, but maybe the forth-coming Prime Video app for Apple TV could be the start of a new chapter.

Until then, I feel a little stuck. We are not in the market for the HomePod, as we’ve come to like a bunch of Alexa-specific features and don’t want to drop $349. I would cancel my second-generation Echo order and order a Sonos One if Apple Music could be controlled by voice, but in the kitchen, fiddling with an app for music isn’t easy much of the time. I think I’m on the hook for two music services for the foreseeable future.