Smart Speak­ers

The smart speaker is about to change the way you live. Are you ready?

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - by Michael Antonoff

Your Es­sen­tial Guide

It’s not ev­ery day that a new con­sumer elec­tron­ics cat­e­gory comes along that has an adop­tion rate pro­jected to be faster than that of any other de­vice, in­clud­ing smart­phones, com­put­ers, TVS, and ra­dios.

Some 56.3 mil­lion smart speak­ers are pro­jected to ship this year, nearly twice as many as last year and 10 times the num­ber shipped in 2016, ac­cord­ing to Canalys. In the first quar­ter of 2017, only 7 per­cent of

U.S. house­holds had smart speak­ers. By the end of 2020, 75 per­cent are ex­pected to have them, ac­cord­ing to Gart­ner and Edi­son Re­search.

Elec­tri­fied speak­ers, the type that put out sound but didn’t lis­ten to users’ march­ing or­ders, have been with us for a cen­tury. Maybe be­cause they’ve been around so long and been rel­e­gated to sec­ond-class sta­tus be­hind big screens and pow­ered bling, there’s now a sense of sweet re­venge as a new kind of speaker— but a speaker none­the­less—is sud­denly the belle of the ball.

What dif­fer­en­ti­ates a smart speaker from a con­ven­tional one is the built-in ar­ray of mi­cro­phones, typ­i­cally about a half-dozen, and far-field voice-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy used for pro­cess­ing hu­man queries and com­mands from a va­ri­ety of di­rec­tions, all while dis­card­ing am­bi­ent noise. The speaker is con­nected through Wi-fi to the in­ter­net and re­mote su­per­com­put­ers steeped in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that trans­late our ut­ter­ances into ma­chine-un­der­stand­able lan­guage. Although a smart speaker looks like a stand­alone de­vice, it is in fact at­tached to a global well so broad and deep that no phys­i­cal li­brary could hold all its knowl­edge.

To­day’s voice recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy is im­pres­sive, though speech-to-text con­ver­sion used to get a bad rap. In the 1990s, com­puter dic­ta­tion pro­grams had to be trained to “type” a par­tic­u­lar per­son’s speech to the screen—and even then, the re­sult­ing ty­pos hardly made the ef­fort seem worth it.

That may be one rea­son why the con­sumers em­brac­ing smart speak­ers most quickly are mil­len­ni­als. Weaned on smart­phones, they’re at ease with dic­tat­ing a Face­book re­sponse, and

when they call an air­line, they ex­pect the au­to­mated prompt to ask them “to say in a few words what you’re call­ing about” rather than a hu­man to pick up. Ac­cord­ing to emar­keter, mil­len­ni­als are the most pro­lific dig­i­tal-as­sis­tant users, with 35.8 mil­lion of them in the U.S. this year ver­sus 16.7 mil­lion mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion X and 9.9 mil­lion baby boomers. (Note to boomers: There will be 19.1 mil­lion of you us­ing a dig­i­tal as­sis­tant in 2019 ver­sus only

17.2 mil­lion Gen Xers, though both gen­er­a­tions will pale by com­par­i­son to the 39.3 mil­lion mil­len­ni­als con­vers­ing with their as­sis­tants.)

Much of the credit for the growth of smart speak­ers goes to Ama­zon, which, just in time for the 2014 hol­i­day shop­ping sea­son, un­veiled the Echo speaker—home to Alexa, an in­tel­li­gent per­sonal as­sis­tant. While other com­pa­nies have since in­tro­duced speak­ers of their own, of­ten li­cens­ing Alexa or Google As­sis­tant (first re­leased in 2016 as part of the Google Home speaker), Ama­zon-branded Alexa prod­ucts have con­tin­ued to be the most pop­u­lar. Ac­cord­ing to the Statista Global Con­sumer Sur­vey, for which more than 10,000 in­ter­net users were con­tacted be­tween Novem­ber 2017 and Jan­uary 2018 (be­fore Ap­ple’s Homepod came out), own­er­ship of smart speak­ers in the U.S. was led by Ama­zon Echo at 15.4 per­cent and Google Home (run­ning Google As­sis­tant) at

7.7 per­cent. These were fol­lowed by the Len­ovo Smart As­sis­tant (Alexa), 2.5 per­cent; Pana­sonic SC-GA10 (Google As­sis­tant), 2.3%; Sony LF-S50G (Google As­sis­tant), 2%; Har­man Kar­don In­voke/al­lure (Mi­crosoft’s Cor­tana/ Alexa), 1.9 per­cent; JBL Link se­ries (Google As­sis­tant), 1.4 per­cent; and Sonos One (Alexa), 1.2 per­cent. Not men­tioned in the sur­vey are the grow­ing num­ber of homes with newer Sam­sung TVS com­pli­ant with the com­pany’s Bixby voice as­sis­tant for con­trol of TV view­ing and home au­to­ma­tion. (Note: 79.5 per­cent of the re­spon­dents did not yet own a smart speaker.)

Where are those speak­ers go­ing? In house­holds with just one smart speaker, the ma­jor­ity (52 per­cent) of re­spon­dents said they put it in the liv­ing room, a fam­ily room, or a den, ac­cord­ing to the Smart Au­dio Re­port from NPR and Edi­son Re­search. The next most pop­u­lar lo­ca­tions were the kitchen (21 per­cent) and the master bed­room (19 per­cent). It went on to say that the top rea­sons for own­ing a smart speaker were to lis­ten to mu­sic and to ask ques­tions with­out need­ing to type.

In­ter­est­ingly, the top three ac­tiv­i­ties in­dexed by cer­tain parts of the day (in or­der) were get­ting traf­fic, weather, and news re­ports (5 to 9 a.m.) and find­ing restau­rants/ busi­nesses, re­quest­ing recipes/ cook­ing ad­vice, and or­der­ing food (5 to 7 p.m.).

Nev­er­the­less, play­ing mu­sic was the most fre­quently spec­i­fied voice com­mand in al­most ev­ery sur­vey. Ac­cord­ing to Adobe An­a­lyt­ics

(see page 37), 61 per­cent of their re­spon­dents put play­ing mu­sic first. Yet peo­ple aren’t nec­es­sar­ily buy­ing a smart speaker for its au­dio qual­ity. With speak­ers rang­ing in price from as lit­tle as $50 or less for an Ama­zon Echo Dot (the mini-me ver­sion of the $100 Ama­zon Echo) to $349 for the Ap­ple Homepod (see our re­view in this is­sue), you can bet that not all of them are cre­ated equally, in the tra­di­tional sense of be­ing mu­sic out­put de­vices. And there are dif­fer­ences among the voice plat­forms, as well.

Smart speak­ers are show­ing up in a va­ri­ety of form fac­tors from sound­bars to shower speak­ers. The Polk Com­mand Bar with Alexa built in is a 43-inch-wide sound­bar with an out­board sub­woofer that houses a 6.5-inch driver; it’s a combo that should ap­peal to any­one who wants to up­grade the sound of their TV in a room tight on space. On the other hand, the point of the iluv Aud Click Shower Speaker with Alexa em­bed­ded is less about mu­sic fi­delity than show­er­ing you with an­swers even while you’re in a soapy con­di­tion.

Au­dio­philes may have a sense of déjà vu. In the same way that the MP3 rev­o­lu­tion once cap­tured the hearts and minds of

con­sumers—who over­whelm­ingly chose con­ve­nience over sound qual­ity—those shop­ping for a smart speaker to­day aren’t nec­es­sar­ily be­holden to how it sounds as much as to how smart it is at an­swer­ing a query and whether the par­tic­u­lar stream­ing mu­sic ser­vice they sub­scribe to is sup­ported. Still, a num­ber of smart speaker man­u­fac­tur­ers stress the su­pe­rior sound qual­ity of their mod­els, some­thing an on­line buyer can’t re­ally ver­ify with­out first kick­ing the tires in per­son and hear­ing a work­ing demo, ideally in an iso­lated sound room. Bar­ring that, re­li­able prod­uct re­views, like those we run in Sound & Vi­sion, can give you a good clue.

That said, it’s not al­ways an ei­ther/or choice when it comes to smart­ness ver­sus sound qual­ity, es­pe­cially in homes hav­ing mul­ti­ple speak­ers. With proper setup and a com­pat­i­ble sound sys­tem, you can use a less mu­si­cally in­clined smart speaker mainly for voice in­put and speech out­put, and you can tell it to send mu­sic to an­other home-net­worked speaker of what­ever qual­ity you as­pire to. The af­ford­able hockey-puck-like Ama­zon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini are ideal for this. Or if the smart speaker sports an aux­il­iary out­put (as the Echo Dot

does), you should be able to tether it to your A/V re­ceiver and its set of speak­ers or di­rectly to an­other pow­ered speaker.

Once you start a re­la­tion­ship with your smart speaker, you can train it to work with a mul­ti­tude of other house­hold gad­gets and ap­pli­ances that can be con­trolled wire­lessly or through a com­pat­i­ble smart speaker. The Alexa uni­verse, for in­stance, pur­ports to sup­port more than 15,000 skills now, at least through Ama­zon’s own Echo se­ries speak­ers. (See the side­bars “How to Ed­u­cate Your Speaker” and “Ac­ces­soriz­ing That Smart Speaker.”)

From the per­spec­tive of home au­to­ma­tion, smart speak­ers and their abil­ity to in­ex­pen­sively lever­age the Wi-fi and broad­band con­nec­tions ubiq­ui­tous in to­day’s homes have re­made an in­dus­try once rel­e­gated to the res­i­dences of mil­lion­aires. While com­pa­nies

like Cre­stron, Sa­vant, Lutron, and Con­trol4 pi­o­neered the pos­si­ble with au­to­mated con­trol of light­ing, HVAC, win­dow shades, door locks, se­cu­rity cam­eras, and mul­ti­room au­dio, their pro­pri­etary sys­tems typ­i­cally re­quire spe­cial­ists to per­form cus­tom in­stal­la­tions and make fol­low-up vis­its to add de­vices and ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Now, if you’re at all tech-savvy, you should be able to set up ev­ery­thing your­self us­ing off-theshelf prod­ucts at a frac­tion of the cost and do most of what you want to with your voice.

As it be­comes the pri­mary in­ter­face for con­trol­ling the con­nected de­vices in your home, the smart speaker is dis­rup­tive tech­nol­ogy in­deed. Think of it as the new dy­namic duo, in which the voiceto-mi­cro­phone in­ter­face re­places finger-on-screen. Seen on a con­tin­uum, the mi­gra­tion to voice con­trol comes a decade af­ter the mo­bile touch­screen usurped the mouse-driven graphic user in­ter­face, which a decade be­fore had dis­placed the key­board and the C:\ prompt.

Lo­ca­tion is ev­ery­thing, of course. It’s clear that nei­ther com­put­ers nor mo­bile de­vices are go­ing away any­time soon. PCS con­tinue to dom­i­nate the work­place, phones and tablets our in-tran­sit and pub­lic spa­ces. It’s ob­vi­ous, though, that in­stances of hands-free con­trol within the home—to play mu­sic, launch a pod­cast, lower the vol­ume, turn on the lights, turn up the air condi- tion­ing, un­lock the door, find a recipe, turn on the faucet, or­der take­out, place or an­swer a phone call, get the weather, or change the TV chan­nel—all rep­re­sent re­mark­able ad­vances in con­ve­nience. The new in­ter­face is in­vis­i­ble, with nei­ther a re­mote nor a smart­phone to reach for. It re­quires the least amount of hu­man en­ergy ever ex­pended in our mas­tery of the dig­i­tal world—that is, aside from hav­ing to mouth such words as “Alexa, tell me a joke.”

Above left, the Ama­zon Echo One; above, the more slen­der Ama­zon Echo Plus.

Ama­zon Echo Show

Polk Com­mand Bar

Top: The speed of smart speaker adop­tion is pre­dicted to eclipse other tech. Bot­tom: Pro­jected smart speaker ship­ments for 2018.

Sonos One

Pana­sonic SC-GA10

Google Home Max

Ap­ple Homepod

The Ama­zon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini pro­vide af­ford­able en­try to voice con­trol.

Har­mankar­don Al­lure Por­ta­ble Speaker

iluv Aud Click Shower Speaker

Klip­sch Three Speaker

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