Apple will enter the smart speaker market this year with a pricey new product that it claims combines everything a music lover wants with all the bells and whistles of a digital assistant.

The HomePod, unveiled Monday at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, is a direct challenge to already popular devices made by Amazon and Google.

Set to go on sale in December for $349, the HomePod is significantly more expensive than Amazon’s Echo ($179) and Google Home ($129). But what sets it apart from the competition, says Apple, is superior audio quality. According to Consumer Reports testers, the Echo rates just good for sound and the Google Home is only fair.

“Just like we did with portable music, we want to reinvent home music,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said.

Apple senior vice president of world marketing Phil Schiller noted in his presentation that while there are great-sounding speakers and great digital-assistant speakers on the market, nobody has succeeded in combining the two. But, he added, the HomePod will do just that.

The Apple HomePod speaker sitting on a desk.
According to Apple, the $349 HomePod will distinguish itself from the competition with superior sound.
Photo: Apple

The new speaker, which stands just under 7 inches tall, will be able to adapt to its surroundings, according to Apple, providing high-end sound no matter the size of the room. It sports the same A8 chip found in iPhones, which the company claims will supply the processing power needed for such innovations.

The speaker is designed to work with the Apple Music service. Consumer Reports has reached out to Apple to ask if the device will support popular services such as Pandora and Spotify, too. We will update this story with any response.

At the same time, the HomePod will provide a new outlet for Siri, supplying information on demand through voice commands and integrated controls via Apple HomeKit for the operation of connected devices such as electronic home locks, lights, and thermostats.

And yet, the introduction of the HomePod marks a belated entry into the smart-speaker market for Apple. Although Apple’s Siri digital assistant has been around since 2011, the company has not rushed to build it a device of its own.

With the introduction of the Echo in 2014 and Google Home in late 2016, though, smart home hubs have become the new must-have tech item for many Americans. And so, Apple's conspicuous lack of a smart home speaker has made Siri easy to overlook, despite the fact the digital assistant is available on millions of iPhones.

By contrast, analysts say the Echo has been a hot seller for Amazon, though it's hard to measure just how hot because the company doesn't break out hardware sales in its quarterly earnings.

On top of the traditional smart home voice controls, the Echo benefits from its nearly seamless integration of Amazon.com, allowing users to order everything from groceries to books just by telling the device to do so.

But if Apple’s HomePod is able to deliver the high-end sound quality it promises, it might gain an edge despite its late entry into the market.

It's worth noting, however, that Sonos—a manufacturer known for delivering exceptional sound quality—has been working to integrate Alexa into its speaker line. A Sonos spokesperson says the company is currently beta testing a setup that would utilize the far-field microphones of an Amazon Echo or a Dot to bring voice commands to its speakers through a free software update. But the company hopes to one day produce speakers with built-in voice support.