SMART SPEAK­ERS

Smart speak­ers are here. Ama­zon’s Alexa range, Ap­ple’s HomePod, Google Home — they’re all now avail­able in Aus­tralia. What do they do? And how do they sound? In the fol­low­ing pages we aim to let you know, start­ing with two Google-equipped de­vices, as we p

Sound+Image - - Contents - Jez Ford

Three Googles in a room. One says...

We’ve al­ready seen Google’s Chrome­cast plat­form make its way into an ever-in­creas­ing va­ri­ety of au­dio and AV prod­ucts — now it’s the turn of Google’s Voice As­sis­tant. Voice con­trol, if it works, is not merely use­ful, it’s a game-changer. But what can you do with it? And since these are smart

speak­ers, how do they sound? The first non-Google Google As­sis­tant speaker to reach us was JBL’s Link 10, a slightly taller slim­mer ‘smart speaker’ with the same As­sis­tant in­side, but adding Blue­tooth stream­ing and bat­tery op­er­a­tion (along with suit­able rugged­ness for a por­ta­ble de­vice). JBL would fur­ther claim a third bonus abil­ity — bet­ter mu­sic play­back. A win­ning com­bi­na­tion? Let’s put them side by side and see.

‘What is it for?’

Of course if you haven’t yet played with a Google Home, your first ques­tion will be ‘What is it for?’ That’s the ques­tion ev­ery­one asked when iPads first came out, and the an­swer here is the same — what­ever you want. Ev­ery­body finds it use­ful for some­thing.

‘Hey Google, what’s the time in New York?’ ‘Hey Google, five-minute timer.’ ‘Hey Google, add eggs to my shop­ping list.’ ‘Hey Google, will it rain to­day?’ ‘Hey Google, what’s the best Thai food in New­town?’

It can tell jokes, make an­i­mal noises, run a trivia com­pe­ti­tion. It’s prob­a­bly best to keep chil­dren away from it, as they will scream ‘Hey Google’ at it for the rest of your life (un­less you get them a Google ac­count, teach Google their voice, and then at­tempt to put lim­its on their ac­tiv­ity).

Then there are its abil­i­ties to play mu­sic and con­trol smart-home de­vices. For mu­sic you need a paid Spo­tify or Google Play ac­count, then you link this to your Google Home app, and use voice to re­quest ‘Hey Google, play Pink Floyd’ and off it goes. Rather bet­ter, you can say, ‘Hey Google, shuf­fle Pink Floyd’ — oth­er­wise you’ll get Wish You Were

Here every sin­gle time. Got an An­droid TV, or a video Chrome­cast plugged into your TV? Say ‘Hey Google, play LOL­cats on the tele­vi­sion’, and your TV will switch to LOL­cats so long as: • you’ve re­named your TV’s Chrome­cast ti­tle from PL-KR44AV65 to ‘tele­vi­sion’; • you only want to watch YouTube; • the man­u­fac­turer got it all right; and • the TV is was al­ready on (none of the An­droid TVs we’ve tested can yet be pow­ered up by a Google Home).

With sim­i­lar care, Google As­sis­tant can con­trol smart lights, smart sock­ets — you are, as they say, lim­ited only by your imag­i­na­tion (and by third-party com­pat­i­bil­ity). For most users, in­for­ma­tion and mu­sic will be top of the Google Home list.

How is it so smart? Well, it isn’t re­ally. The unit it­self is ac­tu­ally quite dumb; that’s how they make them so rel­a­tively cheap. It doesn’t come up with any an­swers it­self — just like the Google search en­gine on your browser isn’t it­self clever. You ask it a ques­tion, it sends the ques­tion to Google HQ, Google searches its mas­sive brain and the in­ter­net for an an­swer, then sends it back. On one level a Google Home is not much more than a search en­gine with voice in­put.

‘Does it lis­ten all the time?

Ah, well, yes it does. It has to lis­ten all the time so that it can hear you say ‘Hey Google’. So it’s sit­ting there in your home lis­ten­ing to ev­ery­thing that hap­pens. Re­ac­tions to this vary from wide-eyed hor­ror to a shrug of the shoul­ders. The more im­por­tant ques­tion is re­ally ‘Does it send ev­ery­thing it hears back to Google?’ And the an­swer to that, at least so far as we have been able to dis­cover, is no. It only sends back what you say af­ter ‘Hey Google’. Or so we be­lieve. No­body has yet proved oth­er­wise, and it would be a big big story if they did. Talk­ing pri­vately with a tech re­searcher at IFA last year, he said “This is our pre­dic­tion for smart speaker sales...”, and pushed his hand high into the sky. Then “...and this is our pre­dic­tion if there’s a sud­den pri­vacy back­lash”, and his hand nose-dived to the floor. Although many of us have given up try­ing to pro­tect much in the way of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, “al­ways lis­ten­ing” would be too much. Some­one would prove it was hap­pen­ing, and then scan­dal. So they wouldn’t do that. Would they?

Be­sides, it’s freaky enough to learn that ev­ery­thing you say af­ter the key word may be stored for­ever-more as part of an on­go­ing data­base of hu­man speech to make recog­ni­tion al­go­rithms all the more ef­fec­tive. But you can go into the Google Home app, go to My Ac­tiv­ity, see ev­ery­thing you’ve said and what it replied, and delete things you don’t like. In­deed this may be reg­u­lar good prac­tice, given that (as any owner knows) Google Homes can be trig­gered ap­par­ently ran­domly by di­a­logue on the tele­vi­sion caus­ing a false pos­i­tive. Re­cently our own Google Home sud­denly an­nounced the lo­ca­tion of Ace’s Char­coal Chick­ens in our lo­cal high street. When we checked the app it had thought we’d said ‘Hey Google — Aces’. Since all this most likely counts to­wards your Google pro­file, heaven for­bid the long-term con­se­quences of a false pos­i­tive trig­ger­ing a search on haem­or­rhoids, say, or on how to in­vade Texas.

But in fact the true tech mir­a­cle here is how few false pos­i­tives Google Voice As­sis­tant does de­liver, and how very good voice recog­ni­tion has sud­denly be­come. Voice recog­ni­tion has been around for decades, but has been laugh­ably use­less up un­til very re­cently, re­quir­ing only some­one from York­shire for the whole sys­tem to fail ut­terly, and serv­ing Aus­tralians al­most as poorly. The com­bi­na­tion of cen­tralised rather than lo­cal anal­y­sis, backed by vast ac­cu­mu­la­tions of voice data, has sud­denly made voice recog­ni­tion in­cred­i­bly re­li­able — you don’t need to shout, you can be in the next room. And the mar­ket lead­ers to­day are likely to be un­catch­able for all time — Google and Alexa, Siri and to a lesser ex­tent Cor­tana. Chances are when you talk to your home in 2050 you’ll still be ad­dress­ing the off­spring of one of those sys­tems. And it’ll re­mem­ber those char­coal chick­ens; yes it will.

Ask nicely

Words it un­der­stands very nicely. Sloppy syn­tax — not so much. You have to ask nicely. Clar­ity is good, though as noted, the speech recog­ni­tion is amaz­ingly tol­er­ant. But the or­der can be cru­cial, as it is with any voice sys­tem. In­voke Siri on your iPhone and say ‘Give me the lyrics to Bo­hemian

Rhap­sody’, and it of­fers to sell you a Queen doc­u­men­tary or send you to Wikipedia. Say “Search the in­ter­net for lyrics, Bo­hemian Rhap­sody’ and you’ll get what you want.

With Google Home this gets par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when try­ing to cast mu­sic to an­other de­vice. With more hi-fi and AV prod­ucts get­ting Chrome­cast in­side, this is get­ting very pow­er­ful — but only if you set it up right. Most kit comes with a strange or al­phanu­meric Chrome­cast ‘name’. Re­name them as sim­ply as pos­si­ble. The Chrome­cast we keep plugged into our Oppo’s HDMI rear in­put is called ‘The Oppo’. The tele­vi­sion is called ‘the tele­vi­sion’. When we had the Naim Atom un­der re­view (see else­where this is­sue) we thought ‘Naim’ might be a lit­tle am­bigu­ous, so we named it The Hi-Fi’. That

makes com­mands easy. ‘Hey Google, shuf­fle Pink Floyd to the Hi-Fi’. ‘Hey Google, play LOL­cats on the Oppo’. ‘Hey Google, did you fart?’ (Sorry, that last one was the mis­sus. And generously, Google takes the blame.)

Google Home vs JBL Link

The JBL Link proved easy to con­nect, join­ing the net­work like any other Chrome­cast de­vice, us­ing the Google Home app. If you al­ready have a Google ac­count, and es­pe­cially if you al­ready have a Chrome­cast de­vice, you will be set up in mo­ments. Link Spo­tify or Google Play to en­able mu­sic. We re­named the JBL to be ad­dressed as just “the Link”.

We then used the Link for a full month else­where in the home be­fore sit­ting it down next to the res­i­dent Google Home for a side-by-side ro­bot bat­tle. In­deed we had been won­der­ing what would hap­pen when we said ‘Hey Google’ to both, but that proved rather the an­ti­cli­max (see ‘Two Googles in a Room’ panel).

But first, the JBL’s ob­vi­ous ad­van­tages. That bat­tery power, for ex­am­ple — our first thought had been that this might be of lim­ited use, since Google Voice needs your Wi-Fi net­work, so if you take it some­where else, all you have is a Blue­tooth speaker. But we soon found porta­bil­ity use­ful in the home, too — no fum­bling for the mains ca­ble, just take it out to the deck, or into the kitchen, and you have a quoted five hours of op­er­a­tion from the 4000mAh lithium-ion bat­tery. It recharges when­ever it’s plugged in, so it’s al­ways ready to wan­der.

Bet­ter still, JBL has made it not only splash­proof but wa­ter­proofed to IPX7, which means you can ac­tu­ally drop the thing into wa­ter (strictly mea­sured as up to one me­tre deep for 30 min­utes). That adds the bath­room as a place to take your Link, where you can ask it the news and your linked Cal­en­dar events and if it farted and any­thing else that comes to mind while pre­par­ing for the day.

Blue­tooth is def­i­nitely a ma­jor bonus also, and not only when you’ve left the home net­work. Google Home re­mains rather re­stricted in what ser­vices you can stream — no in­ter­nal link­age with Tidal, for ex­am­ple (although you can cast Tidal to the Link as a Chrome­cast de­vice), and most def­i­nitely no Ap­ple Mu­sic. But with Blue­tooth you can at least use your smart de­vice of choice and stream any­thing you like to the Link 10. We were pleased to find that you can still talk to Google while play­ing via Blue­tooth — the Link just ducks the level while re­ply­ing then con­tin­ues play­ing.

Plenty of rea­sons there to favour the JBL so­lu­tion. But does adding all these ex­tras have any down­side? Does Google’s own prod­uct do any­thing bet­ter?

Round 1: In­for­ma­tion

‘Hey Google, what’s the cap­i­tal of Swe­den?’ The re­sponse time was barely a sec­ond from ei­ther the Link or the Google Home. In­deed for any­thing we asked, any in­for­ma­tion-based query, both units re­sponded with an al­most iden­ti­cal lag. The man­ner of re­ply­ing clev­erly dis­guises some of this lag as well — in­stead of sim­ply re­ply­ing ‘Stock­holm’, Google As­sis­tant tends to re­peat your ques­tion in the an­swer — “The cap­i­tal of Swe­den is Stock­holm”. Any­way, in this re­gard, it’s a dead heat — there seems no dif­fer­ence in the im­ple­men­ta­tion of Google As­sis­tant and its path to knowl­edge.

Round 2: Play­ing mu­sic

One thing we had no­ticed with the JBL dur­ing our pre-re­view use was that the voice re­sponses some­times seemed too loud — most def­i­nitely louder than for the Google Home. Was the bal­ance of mu­sic ver­sus voice dif­fer­ent?

Once we got the sound level me­ter out, the an­swer seemed to be no. We set

both speak­ers to hit about 80dB at 40cm when play­ing Crowded House, then asked (sep­a­rately) each de­vice the same ques­tion, and both an­swers were de­liv­ered at around 75dB, the same.

The dis­par­ity comes be­cause of their abil­i­ties. The Crowded House on the Google Home sounded rather dull, the open­ing gui­tar brit­tle. We ad­mit to of­ten play­ing a few tunes through our Google Home, but every time we’ve gone over to lis­ten in depth, we’ve been dis­ap­pointed by what is su­per­fi­cially lis­ten­able but, when given your full at­ten­tion, proves a lumpy old sound with a high level of dis­tor­tion. We would not con­sider turn­ing it up much be­yond this level.

The JBL, on the other hand, presents only a slight in­sta­bil­ity on that open gui­tar, and a far su­pe­rior midrange with Mr Finn’s vo­cal clear and smooth, com­pared with brit­tle and edgy. There’s gen­uine stereo from the JBL too, not widely spread but cer­tainly dif­fer­en­ti­ated thanks to its pair of 45mm driv­ers, whereas there is a bucket of mono from the Google’s sin­gle 50mm ac­tive driver and twin pas­sives. The bass re­sponse was in­ter­est­ing — the Google Home rolled off more slowly and ac­tu­ally went deeper, still au­di­ble at 40Hz, when the JBL’s cut-off was nearer 50Hz. But the JBL’s bass stayed stronger higher up, pro­vid­ing more level from 50Hz up, and a lit­tle notch in the mid-100s, which gives it quite a strong sound.

Con­se­quently we had been turn­ing up the JBL Link 10 far fur­ther than we ever would the Google Home, lis­ten­ing at far higher lev­els, be­cause the JBL is far more mu­si­cal. Then we’d pause it and go on our way. At two in the morn­ing the mis­sus would be up watch­ing a ren­o­va­tion show, the Link would pick up a false pos­i­tive from the TV sound­track and, be­ing cranked up to the nines from ear­lier, would scare the be­jeezus out of her by bel­low­ing that Aces Char­coal Chick­ens was no longer open. This is, as the song says, no­body’s fault but mine; we can’t blame the JBL for be­ing good enough to turn up. But it can pay to read­just the lev­els af­ter lis­ten­ing to mu­sic. On­go­ing, one might hope for sep­a­rately set mu­sic and voice lev­els, like you get on an in-car sat-nav unit.

There is an ad­di­tional penalty here. The Google Home is re­mark­ably good at hear­ing you say ‘Hey Google’ even when it’s play­ing mu­sic, when clearly that mu­sic might make in­ter­pre­ta­tion rather harder. With the Link play­ing louder, of course, it’s harder to in­ter­rupt with a ‘Hey Google’ call. But even af­ter we level-matched their out­puts, the Google Home’s dual mi­cro­phones proved sig­nif­i­cantly more sen­si­tive to quiet com­mands. Con­clu­sion It’s worth not­ing that JBL has larger As­sis­tant-equipped mod­els avail­able or im­mi­nent, while Google has a smaller of­fer­ing — the Google Home Mini. At $79, the Mini of­fers min­i­mal out­put for mu­sic, but rep­re­sents an ex­tra­or­di­nary bar­gain for ex­tend­ing in­for­ma­tion and con­trol into ad­di­tional zones.

But with the more di­rectly com­pa­ra­ble pair here, we found quite the weight of ex­tras to rec­om­mend the JBL Link 10, led by the great im­prove­ment of sound qual­ity over the Google Home, which would lead us to judge the JBL Link 10 well worth the price dif­fer­ence (which is $31 from their RRPs, though on the street as we search to­day, both units are avail­able at $199). There are mi­nor con­se­quences of the JBL be­ing good enough to play loud and thereby mak­ing it hard to de­liver fur­ther com­mands over the mu­sic, but that’s not much to put on the other side of the scales. For this pair, it’s a clear win for the JBL.

LEFT: A list of de­vices on our home net­work to which Spo­tify of­fered to stream, with the ‘Link’ se­lected. The Google Home is at the top (re­named ‘Bed­room’), while the rest are ei­ther Chrome­cast or Spo­tify Con­necten­abled de­vices. Chrome­cast de­vices can...

‘Hey Google! — we never asked about chicken...’ False pos­i­tives can be quite com­mon, but can they af­fect your Google pro­file?

Blue­tooth Press­ing and hold­ing puts the Link into Blue­tooth pair­ing mode. Google As­sis­tant but­ton Sick of say­ing ‘Hey Google’? You can press the cen­tral but­ton in­stead. Play/pause + vol­ume You can say ‘Hey Google, turn it down’ or ‘Hey Google, stop’,...

BE­LOW: The Google Home Mini — all the in­for­ma­tion and con­trol abil­i­ties of Google Voice As­sis­tant, just less of the sound qual­ity. At $79 this is a su­per­stonk­ing bar­gain for sim­ply ex­tend­ing voice con­trol around the house.

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