Smart speakers can make your everyday life easier – and they sound pretty good, too.
In just a few years, smart speakers have become the fastest growing consumer technology. Research firm Canalys is predicting that global shipments of smart speakers will jump from 33.2 million units in 2017 to 56.3 million in 2018.
Smart speakers include digital assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, which are often hyped as artificial intelligence. Yet however you want to categorise these devices, they offer many everyday conveniences by letting you use voice commands to ask the speaker to play your favourite music, read the news, place orders online, control smart home devices such as lights, and more.
Google Home was the first smart speaker in Australia, arriving in 2017, but the competition is heating up with other tech giants recently launching models here, too.
Artificial intelligence and the privacy question
Digital assistants become more effective as they learn more about you, and that means sharing your data with the cloud-based artificial intelligence services owned by the world’s biggest tech companies.
In addition, when smart speakers are switched on, so are their microphones, although according to the companies that make them, the device only records and processes what you say after it hears the trigger word for voice commands (such as “OK, Google” for the Google Home).
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Google allows you to view and delete these recordings – and everything else it knows about you – with its My Activity service, as does Amazon with Manage Your Content.
Ultimately, however, you are trusting these companies with a lot of personal information and audio recorded inside your home, and you have to decide whether the convenience of a smart speaker is worth the potential privacy concerns.
Amazon Echo, the smart speaker that started it all in 2014, is finally available in Australia. Well, it’s actually Amazon’s second generation smart speaker, the Echo 2, and it’s selling for a very competitive A$149.
The brain behind the Echo is Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, which having been developed and improved on for several years now, does a fine job of responding
to voice commands. It supports a range of devices and services, including Spotify, Philips’ smart lights and Amazon’s various services.
In the end, the Echo 2 is still a speaker, of course, and inside there’s a 2.5in woofer and 0.6in tweeter that creates pretty good audio quality for a unit
of this size – only 148mm high and 88mm wide.
If you want bigger, better audio, there’s the A$229 Echo Plus, which includes an 0.8in tweeter and a larger case, measuring 235mm high and 84mm wide. Alternatively, you can use your own speakers (or headphones) with the tiny A$79 Echo Dot.
Being somewhat late to the smart-speaker party, Apple needed a point of difference and it’s done that with audio quality. The Apple HomePod features seven tweeters and a 4in high-excursion subwoofer, along with technology that automatically adjusts the audio to room acoustics.
The result is very impressive sound quality for what is still a compact unit, measuring 172 x 142mm. Thanks to Apple’s Siri assistant, the HomePod can tell you the latest weather, set reminders, control smart home devices, make hands-free calls and more.
The only significant downsides are its price – A$499 – and it’s only compatible with Apple devices, Apple Music and HomeKit-enabled smart home devices.
Google Home’s main strength is its intelligence, with Google Assistant able to draw from the massive amount of data derived from Google Search, not to mention personalised information from Gmail, Android devices and all other Google services you use.
The A$199 Home also supports a wide range of smart home devices and entertainment services, including Spotify, Netflix, and all of Google’s services.
The audio quality is good, too, for a speaker measuring 143 x 96mm, and housing a 2in woofer and two 2in passive radiators.
As Amazon does with its Echo device, Google gives you the option of using your own sound system with the A$79 Google Home Mini.
Sonos has made a name for itself with its good-quality speakers that can be connected wirelessly as a multi-room system, and now it has released its own smart speaker, the A$299 Sonos One.
The speaker uses Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, although it doesn’t support all of the Echo’s voice commands. However, being broadly based on the Sonos Play:1 speaker, the One’s audio quality is excellent for a speaker of this size – 161 x 120mm – and it can stream a wide range of music services.
If you’re concerned about privacy, there is an alternative digital assistant – a voice-activated software called Mycroft. The company behind the software, Mycroft AI, promises that it doesn’t sell your data to third parties and doesn’t preserve data unless it’s given explicit permission.
The software is open source and, therefore, free for developers to use to create their own smart devices. However, the company has also created its own Mycroft smart speaker. Mycroft Mark 1 sells for US$179.99; Mark II should be available at the end of 2018 and will have one key point of difference – a screen, so you can view as
well hear information.