The rise of smart devices in our lives has created a serious need for additional control for users.
Today’s devices are highly eager to adapt to our specific needs. Thus, we find ourselves acting as test subjects for a new generation of speakers that listen as well as they sound.
These so-called smart speakers can not only play high quality Bluetooth audio, but also follow voice commands to automate thousands of digital tasks.
These include handy functions like controlling music playback, as well as neat gimmicks like ordering a pizza.
They can’t quite do as much as your smartphone, but this field of technology is rapidly growing.
Currently, there are four different digital assistant platforms vying to become a part of your virtual life: Alexa, Google, Siri, and Cortana. Each one has been debuted with a Wi-Fi speaker that showcases their unique talents.
On top of that, almost a dozen other manufacturers plan to release their own Wi-Fi smart speakers by the end of 2017. Many will use one of these established AIs, while new digital assistants may still yet emerge.
In the meantime, we’ve got all the latest intel on how today’s smart speakers size up. Be sure to check back later as more smart speakers are announced and released.
1. Amazon Echo
The Amazon Echo is the groundbreaking device that first introduced the smart speaker to the world. Accordingly, the Echo sets itself apart by having the most polished and robust selection of skills to perform.
Once you plug this cylindrical speaker in and connect it to your Wi-Fi, it links with Amazon’s cloud-based AI Alexa. Alexa knows over 10,000 commands, and is always learning more through both Amazon and third party developers.
It can open your favorite streaming service; read audiobooks; create a shopping list; gets news, weather, or traffic info; order a pizza; call an Uber or Lyft; control various smart home platforms; and so much more.
You can also ask it questions or just chat with it. Alexa’s clear and polite voice has a charm that adds personality to each response. She even knows a couple of jokes and songs.
Anytime you want to use one of these services, you need to say a simple wake word, which can be set to “Alexa,” “Echo”, “Amazon,” or “Computer.” Whatever makes you feel the least awkward.
The Echo picks your voice up effortlessly over loud music and ambient noise thanks to its beam-forming seven microphone array, which is complemented with noise-cancelling technology. This is a welcome feature, as the Echo can get decently loud.
Speaking of the Echo’s audio output, its 360º omni-directional sound is of acceptable quality, but likely won’t be your first choice for detailed listening. The single woofer and tweeter sound fairly balanced, if not a little flat.
At times, the sound can feel empty or overly dispersed. The bass is present but lacks clarity. And while other smart speakers allow you to port audio through a higher quality sound system using and auxiliary cable, the Echo does not.
Still, not many other speakers are connected to as many music services as the Echo. You’ll get over the mediocre sound quality once you get connected to your choice of Amazon Music, Spotify Premium, Pandora, SiriusXM, and more.
All in all, the Echo is one of the most impressive smart speaker experiences you’ll have today, and it’s only getting better. Will the competition be able to keep up with this rapidly growing interface? Only time may tell.
- Alexa offers a massive selection of skills and commands
- Easily picks up your voice over loud music
- Plentiful music streaming options
- Audio quality could be better
- No way to port audio to another speaker
- Can’t interact with other Amazon devices
2. Google Home
Though the plainly named Google Assistant AI doesn’t have as much inherent personality as Alexa, the Google Home speaker it powers does.
This vaselike smart speaker is functional and attractive, sitting on an interchangeable base. It has a compact form factor that easily blends into the room’s décor.
The Home connects to your Wi-Fi so that Google’s digital assistant is only ever a short invocation away.
Simply say “OK Google” or “Hey Google” around the speaker and you’ll have access to the Home’s full selection of media controls, task management, and general trivia.
This speaker can’t quite do everything that the Echo does, but it excels at certain tasks that you’d expect a Google device to excel at.
For instance, the home can sync with multiple Google accounts to provide personalized information for everyone in your household.
The Home is also better at answering verbal queries. When Statista recently asked each voice assistant software 5,000 common knowledge questions, Google Assistant answered them 68.1% correctly — the highest percentage out of any option.
It still struggles to grasp context in conversation, though, meaning you will have to fully repeat commands that would make perfect sense to another person.
And many commands are simply things that Google Assistant doesn’t know how to do yet. For example, you can tell Google to play a show, but not a specific episode.
Otherwise, it performs the regular suite of smart speaker tasks competently. It has more limited smart home compatibility, but its options will only improve once Google opens up its platform to third party developers.
When it comes to audio options, the Home already outperforms the Echo. It offers streaming from YouTube Music, Google Play, Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn, and more.
You will be able to enjoy this music in decent quality, even though audio fidelity is still clearly an afterthought to the design.
The Home’s mids are nice and present, but suffers from muddy lows at higher volumes. If you want the best sound, you can port its audio to a more high-end speaker via Bluetooth, aux cable, or Chromecast.
The Google Home only packs two microphones for listening to commands, so it won’t pick up your speech as clearly as the Echo.
A nice bonus feature is a set of controls on the top, plus a dedicated mute button that turns the microphone off for private conversations.
The Google Home still has some learning to do, but it is already proving to be one of the most useful smart speakers.
Considering how well it competes with the Echo, which has had two extra years of development, the Home is a device to look out for.
- Plentiful music streaming options
- Better able to answer general knowledge questions
- Remote media streaming with Chromecast
- Fewer smart home compatibilities
- Doesn’t always pick up your voice commands
- Full skill set is still growing
3. Apple HomePod
Even though Apple’s entry into the smart speaker arena is still a ways off from its December release, it is already poised to be a top pick for iOS users and audiophiles alike.
Unlike other smart speakers, the HomePod puts audio quality first, with an impressive array of acoustic technology to enhance your listening.
The HomePod’s most exciting feature is its seven beamforming tweeters. This speaker array works in conjunction with six internal microphones to detect its location in a room.
It then automatically adjusts its audio for the most balanced and stereo-rich sound. This ensures you can enjoy the sounds of this compact speaker even if you place it in the corner of a room.
We’ll have to wait and see how it ends up sounding in person, but hopefully it justifies the speaker’s $350 price tag.
So far, Apple Music is the only music service that the HomePod supports, which could be a hindrance to those already invested in Spotify or Pandora.
However, Apple Music has become an encyclopedic powerhouse, with the ability to learn your musical taste and provide new suggestions. The app is also getting some upgraded features specifically for the HomePod.
You can ask the HomePod (which uses Apple’s signature AI Siri) who is the vocalist or guitarist of a particular track, or which artists sounds similar.
Some of Siri’s other new functionalities are still under wraps, but we have a pretty good idea of what this AI is capable of based on how it works with iOS devices.
Simply call out “Hey Siri” and you can ask your smart speaker to read the news, play media, and set reminders. Siri doesn’t always do exactly what you want it to, but it will usually make a decent effort.
For example, neither Siri nor Alexa will currently answer when you ask “can I machine wash silk?”, but Siri at least pulls up a Bing search.
As far as smart home peripherals, the HomePod will only link with HomeKit, Apple’s solution for controlling third-party smart home accessories.
Bluetooth connectivity hasn’t been announced yet, but we know that the speaker will employ the AirPlay 2 protocol for multi-room speaker setups.
In terms of form factor, the HomePod looks clean and compact, standing less than 7 inches tall.
At five pounds, it is twice as heavy as the next heaviest smart speaker, the Echo. But this shouldn’t matter as it is meant to remain stationary.
The speaker has integrated touch controls on the top like the Google Home. With a somewhat limited ecosystem, the HomePod really has to blow us away to make the price tag worth it. But if the HomePod sounds as good as its supposed to, it most certainly will.
- Audio dynamically adjusts based on spatial position
- AirPlay 2 and Homekit compatibility for Apple homes
- Easily picks up your voice or touch controls
- Limited music streaming options
- Only compatible with Apple peripherals
- High price tag
4. Harman Kardon Invoke
The Harman Kardon Invoke smart speaker combines the audio technology behind renown speaker brands like JBL and AKG with Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant.
While every other smart speaker seems to compromise one function for another, this partnership appears to produce a device that is built on equal parts sound quality and digital assistant skills. And it is slated for a Fall 2017 release.
Microsoft’s AI Cortana brings the Invoke to life when you say “Hey Cortana.” You can also reassign Cortana’s wake word to anything you want, allowing you to live out whatever sci-fi fantasy floats your boat.
If you’ve used an XBox One or Windows 10 computer recently, you know that Cortana is perfectly capable of performing the basic digital assistant tasks.
You can draft an email, perform unit conversions, look up sports scores, schedule appointments, and the likes. The one downfall of Cortana is that it will default to Microsoft software like windows maps, Bing, and Microsoft Edge. And how many of those do you ever actually use?
For music, this is the fairly new Groove service, though the Invoke will supposedly allow you to change the default app for this one category.
Like other AIs, it completely fails at context. You can ask Cortana “What will the weather will be like tomorrow?”, but you can’t ask it “what about in Los Angeles?”.
One feature unique to the Invoke is its ability to send and receive voice calls to Skype users, cellphones, and landlines.
The Invoke will have a seven-microphone far-field listening array that should match the highest of volumes, allowing you to talk to Cortana over some serious racket.
As would be expected from this partnership with Harman Kardon, audio quality should be a big focus for this speaker. This is backed up by its specs: three woofers and three tweeters will fill the room with sound no problem.
Not much more is known about this speaker, and we are still waiting to hear about the final price. It might be around $200, putting it on the high end.
- Three tweeters and three subwoofers for full sound
- Sends and receives calls on Skype and phone lines
- Will be a US only release
- Defaults to less popular Microsoft software
5. Echo Dot
The Echo Dot is Amazon’s stripped down version of the Echo. It is quite a bit smaller, but packs the same impressive functionality as its predecessor.
At only 1.3 inches tall, the Echo Dot is about the size of a hockey puck. Yet, because smart speaker AIs are cloud-based, the Echo Dot still grants you the full range of features from Alexa.
This includes adding tasks to your to-do list, ordering items on Amazon, and finding your lost phone — all on top of features I’ve already highlighted.
The one department in which the Echo Dot truly suffers is its audio. The small single speaker is left to drive the whole range of audio without a woofer to carry the lows, and the sound ends up tinny and weak.
The Echo Dot makes up for this by allowing you to port your audio to a better speaker or sound system via Bluetooth or the unit’s aux port.
This is a really nifty feature, as you can use anything from a hi-fi setup, to PC speakers, to a wireless Bluetooth speaker. It just makes me even more frustrated that they couldn’t include this feature on the still mediocre-sounding Echo.
If you have a high-end speaker set, the Echo Dot is a useful and economic choice for a smart speaker. The same applies if you only ever listen to alarms, timers, and news radio.
- Does everything the Echo does at a lower price
- Can port audio to a hi-fi speaker via Bluetooth or aux
- Plentiful music streaming options
- Low audio quality
- Can’t interact with other Amazon devices
- No microphone mute button
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