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Everything you need to know about voice command speakers

15 December 2017

Discover all there is to know about voice command speakers before you invest.

Long ago, some forward thinking people envisioned a world in which we could make technology do things just by speaking to it. A staple of science fiction, today this has become reality. It’s a phenomenon that people are starting to refer to as 'The Internet Of Things' (IoT) or the 'Smart Home'.

Connecting all of your devices together and controlling them from one point is the basic premise of the smart home. At the lynchpin of all of this is the artificial intelligence (AI). It’s through this that you can control all of your appliances.

Smart AIs and voice command software are a feature that has existed on some select devices for awhile. You may even have similar kind of functionality on your computer or phone. But in 2015, the first smart speaker hit the market which took everything up a notch.

A smart speaker is essentially a bluetooth or Wi-Fi enabled speaker with two added features: voice recognition and a built-in AI. This AI is the what makes the speaker 'smart' - the voice recognition allows you to control the AI, and the AI allows you to do things that a regular 'dumb' speaker cannot.

So, what’s the appeal of a smart speaker? From our perspective, there’s definitely some advantages.

The ‘Smart Home’

This is probably the main selling point for smart speakers. The premise is that you can use your voice to control everything: garage doors, thermostat, lighting, power outlets, air purifiers, or any other 'smart' appliances in your house (and there will be more as the technology grows in popularity).

The catch, of course, is that your appliances have to first be 'smart' enabled, to work with your speaker - you won't have any luck trying to tell that fifteen-year old kettle what to do.

In this regard, a smart speaker is very similar to your phone or computer. You can use it to add calendar appointments, shop online, answer your questions, make Skype calls and so on. It can even tell you some bad jokes.

Audio playback

Yes, a smart speaker is still a speaker. As such, it can be used to play back music or any other kind of audio. You can stream music directly from services such as Spotify, or from your phone via Bluetooth. Some of the smaller smart speakers allow you to connect to other, larger and better sounding 'dumb' speakers. AI adds additional options, such as musical recommendations based on your mood.

The cons

Now we've discussed some of the cool things that you can do, it’s worth highlighting some of the drawbacks of smart speakers. As with everything, there's usually a catch.

Privacy

The glaring negative is privacy - or the lack of it. As a general rule, smart speakers are always listening in, waiting to pick up on your command word, and logging your commands. And, as far as we are aware, recorded audio is stored in the cloud - which is quite obviously not ideal for the privacy minded user.

Security

Though there doesn't appear to be any obvious examples (yet), smart speakers also present a security hazard insofar as they are, theoretically, another piece of potentially hackable software - one that could be used to gain information and control appliances in your house.

Playback quality

Predictably, this is a big one for us. As a general rule, the vast majority of smart speakers are not optimised for audio quality, and out the box, will not be able to provide the kind of listening experience that a dedicated audio speaker will. It's safe to say that even the best of them will not be able to compete with a high end speaker (though it’s worth mentioning that a high end speaker system will likely cost more than a smart speaker).

Comprehension

Just like with human listeners, comprehension is not perfect. Picking up your voice can be harder at certain times, for example, if there's a lot of background noise or when there are lots of other people talking in a busy room.

Compatibility

As alluded to earlier, things have to actually be 'smart' to talk to your speaker. It is very likely that, in future, more and more home devices and appliances will be designed to play nice in the IoT, but it is early days yet and the majority of devices cannot interface with your smart speaker. And those that can are often more expensive than their 'dumb' counterparts.

Should you choose a smart speaker?

It really does depend on your priorities. When you’re thinking of getting a smart speakers, there’s a few things to consider before you reach for your debit card.

Budget

With pricing ranging for around £50 to £200 and over (and the likelihood of more expensive models coming to market soon), first you'll want to decide how much you're willing to part with.

Compatibility

Next it may help to consider how compatible the speaker will be with the things you already have. If you're locked into one manufacturer's 'ecosystem', you may find it more convenient to try and stick with a model that you know works with the things you have.

To make things easier, many manufacturers provide regularly updated lists of hardware and software that is compatible with their AI.

Portability

A small number of smart speakers are portable - which means you can take them around the house with you, or outside. It's worth bearing in mind however, that for your smart speaker to work fully, it will need an internet connection.

Audio quality

What do you want to do with your smart speaker? If you're looking purely for a device that will act as your digital butler and IoT hub, and you're not bothered too much about audio quality, a smaller device might suit. However, if you're an audiophile, and you're planning to use yours for music - you probably won't want to settle for a smaller, cheaper model.

If sound quality is your biggest priority we can only recommend you choose a dedicated speaker system and use your smart speaker for the rest. We’re obviously a little bias, but at Orbitsound we take sound quality very seriously. It’s our absolute priority when creating new speaker systems and we’re confident the best way to achieve a one box, wireless speaker system that delivers perfect stereo sound is to build a system dedicated to sound. If you’d like to learn a little more about this kind of design approach can result in, you can read a little more about our Airsound technology here.

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