Speakers Are Bringing Smart Assistants Home in New Ways

With the release of new smart home gadgets and speakers, consumers who talk to their virtual hubs and ask “Hey ____, play me a song” are slowly becoming grouped into two categories: The ones who value which particular virtual assistant may fill in that blank, or the ones who value hardware and the sound quality of the song they just shouted at a speaker to play.

Despite the fact that virtual assistant hubs were some of the highest-selling gifts of the past holiday season, there are still groups of people who avoid putting one in their homes. That leaves the biggest virtual assistant purveyors including Amazon and Google to find new ways of putting that know-all voice into a consumer’s home. This will eventually happen through the widespread smart home and IoT adoption but in the meantime, these two tech behemoths have found alternatives, and frankly, they sound pretty great.

Not every home has a virtual assistant, but nearly every home has either a TV or set of speakers, and in many cases, both. That kind of widespread adoption is the reason the biggest tech companies are either creating their own speakers or making sure to partner with world leaders in the space. The effort to introduce virtual assistants to as many people as possible is important for the companies that create them, as they provide a direct avenue into interacting more deeply with their other services, as well as hopefully building a preference into that customer so that when they buy connected devices in the future, they want the one that has a virtual assistant they’re familiar with.

The Sonos Beam ($499) and the Google Home Max ($499) are great examples of that mantra. The former sports a built-in Amazon Alexa compatibility, while the latter uses Google own smart assistant. While the Beam is more focused on appealing to those who want a sound bar for their TV, it still sounds great as a stand-alone speaker. The Google Home Max is itself a speaker that can easily replace older high-end rigs. Both of them have the ability to measure a room’s acoustics and change the sound accordingly, creating a truly personalized listening experience.

These two speakers still have a somewhat niche appeal to them, as it’s hard to justify spending over $500 if you’re not a big music fan. But that price tag now comes with the added appeal of having integrated assistants. Very few people would consider buying a generic speaker at the price, and even less would buy a virtual assistant for that kind of money—but lots of people would buy a combination of both. It also helps that both the Beam and the Home Max sound incredible and are built for both typical music fans as well as audiophiles.

Sonos Beam

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To set up the Beam, users have to download the Sonos app and sync the new device with their smartphone. This sounds a bit annoying until the realization that an app can offer so much more functionality than a remote sets in. The Beam is meant to live in front of a TV and it is beautifully designed to not block a view or draw away from what’s on a screen. With several built-in speakers and a booming bass, the Beam can impersonate a 5.1 setup—and for those who do want that true 5.1 experience, they can sync the beam with Sonos Ones or other speakers around a room.

The Beam has a few fantastic features geared towards TV fans as well. The speech enhancement feature raises the volume coming out of the central tweeter, boosting dialogue in movies and TV shows. Night mode will enhance quiet sounds and suppress loud ones.

This is all bundled with Alexa capabilities as well as Apple AirPlay 2, and Sonos has promised further brand agnosticism with Google Assistant integration down the line as well. The Sonos app supports dozens of streaming platforms, from Spotify to CBC Radio. Users may need an Amazon Fire TV stick to get the most use out of voice-controlled TV functions, but the Beam still works wonders as a sound bar and a music hub for any kind of consumer, with Alexa able to control volume, change radio stations and more.

As a pure sound company beginning to enter the smart device network, Sonos has taken a noble step to include as many virtual assistants as they can. It’s a refreshing take on the IoT world and one that new partners with the big three virtual assistants can look to build off.

Google Home Max

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The fun with the Home Max starts with the Google Assistant and its integration with streaming platforms like Spotify. The assistant excels at tracking down any kind of song, even when poorly described. A query to play “that 90s song with woohoo” correctly produces Song 2 by Blur, while “that White Stripes song everyone sings in stadiums” plays Seven Nation Army in less than a second.

The Home Max is not pulling any punches in terms of looking like a speaker. It can be sat sideways or upright, and easily fills large rooms at 50 per cent volume. It also requires syncing through an app to setup, but as many people—and especially tech enthusiasts—already live with the Google Suite of product’s it’s nothing new. The Home Max is also Bluetooth capable, which is a huge boon.

At a relatively pricey $499, it might be hard to buy this as a speaker alone. But for consumers who want a smart assistant and have skipped buying one so far, this acts as a useful upgrade to a home’s speaker and virtual assistant environment.

Both the Beam and the Home Max are speakers at their core. But the way they seamlessly integrate virtual assistants is a sign pointing towards a more fruitful IoT ecosystem and one where products can work off each other to help a consumer get the most out of what they enjoy.