Apple’s HomePod had a notably mediocre reception to the world of smart speakers, thanks to a too-high pricetag, lack of basic features like multi-room pairing, and a lock-in to Apple Music. But amidst all the HomePod criticism, we’ve lost sight of one important detail: HomePod is the only smart speaker that I’m not embarrassed to have sitting out in my house.
I do appreciate that there’s a lot of engineering that goes into smart speaker design that no-one really talks about. Not only does it have to sound good (and the physical design of a speaker’s body has a huge impact on the sound), but it also has to be compact, fit in a handful of buttons, and have an array of microphones so that you can shout at it from across the room. But it seems that along the way to making speakers that sound good and work well, companies have forgotten how to make a speaker that fits in with your home.
The latest example from Polk Audio, the Polk Assist, isn’t exceptionally terrible compared to its peers: It’s just as ugly and intrusive as the original Google Home, or the Amazon Echo for that matter. It’s not particularly offensive; it just looks like any other mesh router or smart home hub, and that’s not a good thing.
But the reason this is surprising is because Polk is a home audio company with a long and storied tradition of making excellent-sounding and excellent-looking speakers. Look through its current hi-fi product lineup, and it’s an impressive collection of things that you would be happy to have in your living room. The Polk Assist, on the other hand, looks like a bad knock-off of the HomePod that was described to engineers over the phone.
The point of this isn’t to trash the Polk Assist — actually, a $199 speaker with good audio, Google Cast abilities and the Google Assistant built in sounds highly appealing — but more to complain about the lack of innovation in smart home speaker design. Not everything has to be a uniform shape covered in monochrome mesh fabric with buttons on top, and the sooner designers start putting smart speaker guts into good-looking speakers, the faster things will change.