Ikea isn’t the first name that comes to mind for smart home products, but the Swedish home furnishings magnate has been making a steady push into the space since 2015. First came its Qi wireless charging accessories, which made sense: One of the benefits of wireless charging is that charging pads can be built into furniture, desktop, and countertop accessories, minimizing the number of unsightly wires hanging around—not to mention the growing number of compatible smartphones. Next came smart lighting, which arrived late last year. While reviews are mixed, the company already sold its own lightbulbs, so it may as well offer shoppers a smart alternative. Now, Ikea has made its latest move into the smart home with connected speakers.
U.S. and U.K. buyers will soon be able to buy the Eneby, a square Bluetooth speaker fronted with a polyester fabric speaker grille. It comes in two sizes, 8-inch and 12-inch, and two color variants: all black or white plastic with a gray speaker grille. The smaller $49 model is meant to be portable. (It even comes with a handle). The larger model costs $89. Optional accessories include a $10 speaker stand and a $20 battery pack that gives the speakers up to 10 hours of battery life. While the detailed audio specs aren’t yet known, each speaker can pair with up to eight devices and also includes an auxiliary port for listening to music from non-Bluetooth devices.
For a company known for economically priced DIY furniture, debuting connected speakers might seem unusual. However, it’s also perfectly on trend. With the rise of streaming music services, Bluetooth speakers have become a popular consumer electronics segment, providing more robust, higher quality audio than phone or laptop speakers. They can also be useful for augmenting conference and speakerphone calls. Playing in Ikea’s favor is the fact that for many, the looks of the speaker are just as important (or more) than its audio performance.
Ikea’s entry into the connected speaker space makes one thing clear: Speakers have transcended from gadgetry—a seminiche purchase limited mostly to audiophiles and music or movie buffs—into a design item in the home. Google, Apple, Amazon, and other audio-makers have put a premium on design in their smart home speakers, incorporating high-quality materials, colors, and finishes that match various home aesthetics and atypical shapes that soften the speakers’ look. Rather than going with the spheroidal shapes tech-makers have embraced, Ikea took the opposite approach, making its speaker a clean-lined square with a single retro-style knob on the front. It’s fresh and fun, appearing both retro and modern at the same time, yet still doesn’t scream “speaker” the way the standard black blocky speakers of yesteryear did.
Ikea’s implementation does buck one prominent speaker trend, though: Unlike the speakers from Amazon, Google, and Apple, Ikea’s doesn’t tout a virtual assistant. The smart speaker trend has grown so much that it seems like any product that can have a speaker does, and it’ll include Alexa or Google Assistant, too. Sales of smart assistant-imbued speakers tripled in 2017; they were also the most popular consumer gadget gift this holiday season. At Ikea’s price points, you could get a Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot instead; the second-generation Amazon Echo is only $10 more than Ikea’s larger Eneby speaker. Is there really a reason to purchase a connected device that’s not future-proofed with a virtual assistant?
There are noted privacy and security concerns about virtual assistants and their invasion into our daily lives. But the larger reason is that Ikea and smart speaker–makers are largely going after different market segments. The connected speaker isn’t an item exclusively for techies. Ninety-five percent of Americans own a cellphone and 77 percent own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center’s latest stats, published in February. Mobile is an integrated part of our lifestyle now, and speakers are too. The Amazons and Apples of the world are going after people familiar with Bluetooth speaker technology, who are looking to augment their home not just with audio, but with additional voice-based functionality. Ikea’s audience may be less technologically inclined. They may simply want a speaker for streaming music—they may even want the speaker just because it will look cool on their Kallax shelf unit next to their Knoppäng framed poster set.