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
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.
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.
‘Hey Google! — we never asked about chicken...’ False positives can be quite common, but can they affect your Google profile?
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 be grouped for multiroom playback.
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’, but if you’ve cranked the Link 10 up, it may not hear you! The on-device volume and pause buttons will rescue you (or use the Google Home app). Google Voice Assistant ready The four lights indicate the status of Google Voice Assistant — they’re white if it’s ready. If they’re orange then the microphone is muted; use the button on the back to turn it on. There’s also a power button at the rear, though you only need turn it o if you’re on battery power (and it’ll do that aer two hours anyway). Wi-Fi on The Wi-Fi symbol at the bottom illuminates when your Link is connected to your home network. So this makes a handy visual indicator when your network goes down.
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.