Want to know more about what this “Smart Speaker” your colleague over at the next cubical bought and bragged about? We are here to teach you the way to preach the Smart Speakers like the ‘pro’ next time someones asks you about it.
So what are exactly Smart Speakers?
By definition, technically any speaker that can do things other than just playing sound can be defined as a “Smart” Speaker.
But by definition of the tech-industry, it is defined as a wireless speaker that has voice recognition for you to scream at it and make it do things for you.
It is also by far not the newest idea out there. Not-so-smart speakers have been on the market for years now, but people have not taken notice because the big players like Google, Amazon and Apple haven’t gotten their hands dirty in this business, yet.
Smart Speakers made by the big guys are looking at 3 things, artificial intelligence, audio quality, and design (people really do buy them just because they looked cool and some bragging rights).
Who would want to buy them?
In fact, a study made by an American company, Nation Public Radio (NPR) has shown that over 39 million of their citizens actually owns a smart speaker.
That is nearly 16% of their population, does it seem a lot to you now?
Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Samsung (The Big 4) are expecting the adoption rate for smart home systems to increase further over the next few years.
Should I get one now?
The smart speakers are sure fun to have at home, for you to shout things like asking it for a weather report or to book a couple of movie tickets without moving your body at all (Wall-E scene appears in my head).
If you love to play music at home, most of they produce sound quality comparable, or even superior to the existing expensive stereo systems out there. You can get a few of the same ones together, and pair them up to enjoy a full stereo system os smart speakers in your home.
Some of them can even connect to apps like Spotify or Apple Music directly to play your favourite songs.
They are designed to look great. Those companies spent millions-over-billions to make sure that these things will make you think they will look great in your home, and sure enough, it actually does for me.
Having one at home will surely impress your guests when you let them play with it (saving you the trouble of thinking how to entertain them) without actually entertaining them. Serving its purposes of providing convenience.
You can ask the smart speakers to tell you jokes if you are really bored.
To call them smart is an exaggeration. They are just able to pull things they can find on the internet, with a constant network access for sending audio to their main server for diagnosis then bringing the information back. (Basically an electronic pet that can bring fetch you information rather than a stick)
They are constantly (All. The. Time.) listening, so if you really value your privacy, I’m not so sure if having them listen to all your creepy talking-to-myself conversations is a good idea.
You don’t really know if the companies are recording/spying on everything you said, or not. They will always say “We will never collect data from you” but who the heck can prove that?
If you don’t mind that, then this is a non-issue for you.
Limited access to services
Even though those apps are decently good at doing things you say, there are some things that they just cannot do due to them not having the rights to access that information.
Alexa is by far the smartest of the speakers, with it having a greater library of third-party apps (such as National Rail Enquiries, Just Eat, Uber, Lyft, Hive, Expedia, Fitbit, Tube status updates and Amazon Music), it even works cross-platform with Google app suite.
What Smart Speakers are out there?
The ones listed below are the smart speakers we have tested and reviewed, but do take it with a grain of salt.
- Amazon Echo 2nd Gen
Price: US$85 (~S$112)
This is the second generation of Amazon Echo, after the extreme popularity of its predecessor. Being the first one to start the ball rolling, Amazon sure had more time and experience into the Smart home systems business.
Alexa is the Artificial Intelligence system used in the Echo. You can talk to it by saying the ‘wake word’ of your choice, default being saying ‘Alexa’ before your questions.
It can do things like playing music from your favourite music streaming apps, to booking tickets from the closest movie theatre.
Differentiating your voice from a noisy environment doesn’t seem to be a problem as well, as it can hear you from 20m away through a room running heavy duty vacuum.
The new Echo also has an improved sound system, packing more bass and clarity into its single 2.5in woofer and a 0.6in tweeter, easily filling the entire room.
Setting up the virtual assistant is also relatively easy, as it comes paired with a smartphone app, simply key in the information requested and it will be done in no time.
Echo also comes with a physical mute button in which you can switch off the listening mode for your privacy reasons. When it is in mute, a ring will glow red on the top of it, which can be easily seen from across the room.
Verdict: Amazon Echo is a really well rounded smart speaker at a reasonable price range of S$85, great for people who are new and interested in getting a device like this.
2. Apple HomePod
Price: US$349 (~S$459)
After its debut release months ago, Apple HomePod has gotten some mixed reviews. Some say it is the perfect speaker for Apple users, while the rest just says its just not good enough compared to the rest.
Through our testings, we have come to a uniform agreement with the other reviewers that Apple HomePod does produce the best sound quality of all smart speakers out there, and beating many expensive dedicated stereo speakers too.
Apple has designed for it to be installed with 7 tweeters, along with software to detect and adjust sounds level and richness. This system will map the room and decide which direction should it pumps the sound to.
Siri, Apples’s default voice assistant, can be found in this item as well. The integration of Siri will mean that once you ask Siri to set a reminder on HomePod, it will automatically synchronize with all the other Apple devices you own.
HomePod however, is only fully compatible with Apple Music. If you are a user of this service, you will have full access to your collection, and know what kind of songs you play and how often you play it. Most importantly you can use Siri to play songs from your Apple Music collection.
Spotify does sort of work with it, but you cannot ask Siri to play songs from your Spotify collection, it will just work like a good quality speaker.
The comprehension of HomePod is strong, with it able to catch what I say over a room playing loud music, without me raising my voice.
3. Sonos One
When purely comparing sound quality, Sonos one is the next closest in terms of audio quality, after the HomePod.
The Sonos One is part of the Sonos home sound system and can work seamlessly with other Sonos speakers. It can be used as a standalone speaker, link up wirelessly with another one for stereo sound or use with Playbase or Playbar for theatre surround sound experience.
It is driven by two Class D digital amplifiers, one tweeter and one mid-woofer. Other specs include a six-mic array and an adaptive noise suppression algorithm to focus on the right person and ensure the Amazon Alexa voice service understands everything clearly.
The company also says that it is future ready for voice control with support for multiple voice services. For example, it will be enabled to support Google Assistant sometime next year.
4. Google Home Mini
It’s the size of your fist, but it packs a punch. Google Home Mini is designed to be smart first, audio second, kind of device. Integrated with Google’s Assistant, the knowledge base will as big as you can get right now with the current technology.
Armed with the search engine giant’s vast library of things, it can request for nearly anything informatic for you, as long as it is reachable by Google.
You can set alarms and reminders, and it is very responsive and quick with other smart home gadgets like Nest and Samsung SmartThings.
The accompanying app is also very intuitive, allowing you to get used to the device fast and able to adjust minute settings too. It can also be paired with Chromecast, which allows you to stream things from Netflix, Spotify and many more through it.
As I had mentioned above, they did not focus on the sound quality for its speaker. It could play music and does it pretty well, but it is still a pitfall when compared to what HomePod could do.
5. Google Home
Price: US$129 (~S$170)
This is the better sounding version of Google speaker when compared to Google Home Mini.
It has all the features that the Mini has, but was installed with a better microphone which performs better at picking up speech and understanding your questions.
The smartness of it too comes from Google’s Assistant, backed by the search engine’s vast library of knowledge.
The base purpose of it still works great, compatible to most smart devices out there, such as Nest, Samsung and many others.
6. Sony LF-S50G
Price: US$200 (~S$263)
Sony’s LF-S50G harnesses the smarts of Google Assistant to do the usual tasks, but it’s far from perfect.
The most standout feature for this device will be its built-in clock, showing boldly on the fabric cover.
The speaker itself does sound good, but not as good as what HomePod can or Sonos One can do. With a 360-degree speaker, it can spread out the sound pretty evenly by firing it towards a diffuser.
It also comes with a proximity gesture detection, whereby you could wave your hand above the speaker and for it to pause or adjust the volume of music without touching it, though you could just do it with simple voice command so why is this feature needed?
Speaker’s microphone is actually very good at picking up voice commands, and understand the command well. It also works well with Chromecast, can be easily set up as an additional speaker along with the other speakers you have.
Overall, this smart speaker does well in all areas, the only problem is that every other speaker out there does the job a little better than it can.
7. Google Home Max
Price: US399 (~S$525)
Max as its name, is the XL version of what Google had offered previously. The size of it is justified with the volume and quality of sound it can produce, which is comparable to an extremely loud boom box.
Even though it is loud, it does not diminish the sounds quality. Because of its large size, the speaker is able to push some air to add some bump to the bass, and though it isn’t what I would call “bass-heavy”, it’s definitely noticeable.
However, a major issue arises when the volume was increased to a certain point, it destroys its ability to pick up my voice, leading to me unable to tune it down with speech. Problems problems…
The shape of it was designed to be able to both used laying flat, or standing vertically on the side. Pairing two of this up and you will have a perfect stereo system.
As for the smartness of it, Google’s Assistant will prove to you that it can answer nearly everything you throw at it. It will only get smarter as the updates for its software progress.
General for all the Smart Speakers out there, their functionality are still very limited to the capability of their Artificial Intelligence module. However, it could be easily fixed with a few software updates to improve the smartness, then it will be good to go for a long time.