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