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smart speakers in digital living room

Smart speakers and the battle for control of the digital living room

We’re seeing a wider range of size, shape, and functionality when it comes to A.I. assistant-powered smart  speakers. The first-generation speakers were tabletop devices designed to get us used to the notion of speaking to Google Now, Amazon Alexa, and Microsoft Cortana.

These were followed by smaller, puck-like speakers, which were less powerful, but much friendlier to the eye and to the wallet. The likes of Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini sell for less than $100.

Now that the idea of a device that is constantly listening inside our homes (and sometimes transmitting the wrong
recordings to god-knows-where) has become widely accepted, we are seeing the third wave of smart speakers.


Hi-Fi in the mix

The next wave comes from companies aiming for the Hi-Fi segment of the market. Not only are we seeing smart speakers with all the requisite features to control smart homes, search the Web, set alarms and appointments, and access a wide array of music streaming services, these devices now also sound great.

Apple has released its HomePod, a crowning achievement in terms of miniaturizing a smart speaker. The HomePod has Siri and some smart home functionality, but right now it is conduit for Apple Music. Tiny yet powerful, the HomePod is also locked into the Apple ecosystem, which is ideal for owners of iPhones, iPads, and Macs but a bit of a stretch for anyone else until Apple opens it up to competing services.

Still, it is hard not to desire the HomePod, especially with all the technology and innovation it brings, including the ability to create simulated stereo sound from one device.


Sonos makes serious moves

Sonos is the company to watch in this space. Not only is it a bonafide speaker company, it is also open standard and eager to work with all smart assistant and music platforms. The Sonos One, their first smart speaker, is a remarkable product that gives the HomePod a run for its money.

An even more remarkable product from the American company is the Sonos Beam, a smart speaker that’s a triple threat because it is a smart speaker in a soundbar form factor.

Sonos Beam is more affordable than other Sonos products. It has Amazon Alexa built-in and can be used to control a TV by voice, or even to turn it on or off. Sonos Beam is also AirPlay 2-compatible, so it will work with iOS devices and Macs as well.

What makes the Sonos Beam such a compelling product is that it serves three functions. It is a soundbar that will enhance any TV’s audio. It is a smart speaker that can rule people’s living rooms and serve as the conduit for smart home lights, appliances, cameras, locks, and services. And finally, it can be easily combined with other Sonos speakers to create a wireless surround sound setup.

Smart speakers are no longer competing simply on price or technology. It is now about value and expansion. Sonos has an advantage because it is diametrically opposed to the competition. It’s open to Alexa, Google Home,
and Siri and it can play nicely with each of these platforms while still making itself useful as the standard for wireless high-fidelity speakers.

Consumers now are left with a lot of choice. Will they choose a speaker because of the assistant and what it can do, the convenience and audio quality, or the range of functionality that it can offer for the money?

Words Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
First published Speed July 2018

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