Voice-commanded devices and their apps are turning up the volume in the market, but who will get your ear?
When Apple finally entered the wireless speaker market with HomePod, which can be voice-controlled by Siri, its competitor Sonos, which now responds to voice commands via Amazon’s Alexa, took a swipe at the launch with a tongue-in-cheek playlist on Spotify, a service that the HomePod cannot access except through a workaround using other devices. While gags like this make the rivalry of these manufacturers sound like fun and games, the truth is that they are in a ruthless race to gain market share among literally dozens of new players in the space, from some you may have not yet heard of, like the TCL Xess video home hub ($499), to spin offs to the most popular devices, in different sizes and colors.
Some of these speaker systems and their attendant voice-commanded assistants are better than others, and some are simply clones. Here’s a short list of the ones we like, and why.
HomePod is a powerful speaker and sounds amazing, but Siri has a lot of catching up to do in order to hold a candle to Alexa, and at the sticker price of $349 and its inability to work with streaming music services besides Apple Music, there’s better bets out there, unless you are simply an Apple fanatic and will have nothing else.
Sonos remains a favorite, with its first-to-market Hi-Fi Wi-Fi streaming abilities and pairing with speakers in the Sonos family, including the new single speaker silo, Sonos One ($199), with Alexa built in.
808 XL-V smart speaker is a new entrant to the Alexa-enabled speaker systems, with a design closely resembling the original Amazon Echo, though the 808 has a bit more style than the original with its fabric-like wrap, resembling a traditional Wi-Fi speaker. Using the 808 audio app, you can use voice commands to control all the smart devices in your home, like thermostat and lightbulbs, and you can access your Amazon music and book library as well as premium accounts on Spotify and other music streaming services; or you can always use the Bluetooth connection to stream audio from other Bluetooth enabled devices or hook it up devices to the aux-in jack. The 808 XL-V also has the ability to stream the same music simultaneously from another 808 XL-V, you can play the same music in every room where you have a speaker.
Of course, you can’t talk about Alexa, without talking about the Poindexter stepsister-from-another-mother, Google Assistant, originally developed for Google Home and now expanding into a number of devices, including the adorable Google Home Mini ($49).
The TicHome and TicHome Mini are two great entrants into the Google Home voice command family. These speakers have great audio quality, especially for their size, and they also come in a variety of attractive colors to spruce up your countertop, desk or wherever they sit with their compact footprint. Like Google Home, they access the massive knowledge base of Google search, so by comparison to Alexa-enabled devices, The Google Assistant-enabled devices are far superior. The one big downside is that Google Assistant is not able to access your Amazon Music account at this time, obviously because their competitor controls the behemoth Amazon enterprise, but if you subscribe to premium services on Pandora and other listening services, you won’t miss a beat.
Amazon has had to up their game with more exciting speakers to compete with all the other Alexa-enabled systems now on the market. Amazon has met the demand for variety by adding not only an assortment of devices, such as the Dot ($49), Tap ($129), featuring both wi-fi and Bluetooth capabilities, and the tablet-like Show ($229), they’ve also added colors to the scheme. Now you can choose from hues like a teal and orange to liven up your table top and blend in with your decor.
As the creator of Echo ($129), of the first-to-market voice command speaker, Amazon Alexa is still king, or queen as it were, when it comes to audio quality and responsiveness, with its Dolby-powered omni-directional seven speakers that detect voice from multiple directions around it. And because Amazon’s signature Alexa-enabled speakers were build to work with the Alexa app, they are the most seamless in performance with Alexa and experience much lower rates of error than the other systems built by third parties.
With all of these systems, there is still work to be done to perfect their interactions with voice command. Expect that for no reason at all sometimes these speakers drop off Wi-Fi, requiring a reset or other intervention, and no matter how clearly and loudly you command them, sometimes you have to repeat yourself and yell at them like they are a petulant child to get them to do something or stop doing what they’re doing. But just like our kids, once we have them, we wonder how we ever lived without them.
Make Over Your Home for the Holidays with These Hot Tech Products
‘Tis the season to host holiday guests and spend time nesting around the hearth with family. Give your home a holiday hi-tech boost, and turn up the holidays festivities to 11.
Holiday Home Movie
Turn a ho-ho-hum holiday movie night into a big screen experience with the plug ‘n play BenQ EP5920 Video Projector. The compact projector can sit on a coffee table or stand or mount on the ceiling and project huge, vivid HD images that make you feel immersed in the viewing experience. Features native resolution of 1920×1080 and 4500:1 ration renders videos or games in full sharp detail. The 1800 ANSI lumens provides a bright image even in low light, and the built in 10W speaker completes the picture with great sound. With two HDMI inputs, D-sub, S-video and other connection options, the EP5920 can be used with just about any source. The projector features a EcoMode for low power consumption and long lasting lamp life up to 9.6 years. Sale price $799. Available at BenQ.com.
Let it Show
Cozy up to watch all your favorite holiday DVDs and TV shows or play a slideshow of family holiday photos from your computer in sharp detail on a Coby LEDVD2396 23” wall-mountable widescreen LED TV with 1080p resolution. This affordable all-in-one system features a side slot for DVDs and dual tuners for standard and digital TV reception. Two HDMI ports makes it hassle-free to connect your HD devices for the best-possible picture – without having to swap out cables to use a second device, and the USB/SD card slots makes for easy playback of your digital files. You can hook up your computer via the 15-pin VGA connection to use the widescreen to share slideshows, videos or other files, or connect other external devices with the AV input. An easy-to-follow menu of on-screen controls makes customizing the picture and sound, such as settings for theater, music or news, and V-chip allows for parental control of viewing. $279.99. Available on Amazon.
If you desire an immersive and truly robust sound experience, pair your TV with a soundbar, like the super slim Coby CSMP95. This wall-mountable space saving home theater system uses a powerful 2.1 Channel and built-in amplifier and 2.4GHz wireless subwoofer for full bass sound. The high-gloss lacquered front of the soundbar is designed to complement your flat panel TV and can be operated by its own remote or front panel controls. $129.99 Available on Amazon.
Built for Sound
Play it from the mountain top, play it anywhere you want. The waterproof and dust impervious OT Turtle Shell Bluetooth Boombox ($149.95) can take whatever nature can throw at it while you enjoy the great outdoors to your favorite music played wirelessly from any Bluetooth device, or gather round it for speaker-enable calls using its built-in microphone. The rugged Turtle Shell, named for its unique geometric dome shape, features Hi-Fi sound and deep bass and can deliver 10 hours of sound with its equipped rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Clip it on to your bike for mobile music or calls with the easily removable OT Turtle Claw ($19.99) all-purpose mount. Comes in white, red, blue, green pink and seafoam. Available at outdoortechnology.com.
Give the electronics lover and gadget guru on your holiday gift list a plug-and-play present that will keep them turned on all season and into the New Year.
Hi-Fi Wi-Fi at its Finest
For audiophiles, Sonos is the ultimate gift of music. The Sonos wireless music system allows you to stream music from your iTunes library, Pandora , SiriusXM talk or whatever is your listening pleasure on an expandable receiver speaker system that you can place in your home, office, or anywhere there is a an electrical outlet. You control what you stream from your computer, iPhone, iPad, or Android device. The Sonos PLAY3 ($299) is a great starter kit, which includes a compact player that can operate alone, or pair it with an optional Sonos Bridge ($49) to boost your wireless signal to reach faraway places in your home, office, or wherever you like to listen. For a limited time, PLAY3 and Bridge are packaged together for the price of $299. Available at Target, Best Buy, Amazon and Sonos.com.
Game On … the Wall
Gamers will love the portable Optoma GT750E ($799) projector, compact enough to carry in in its own backpack yet packing a big picture that can turn any video game into a full-emersion experience. Even just five feet away from a wall or screen, the short-throw projector creates a huge 99’ diagonal image, and as the projector moves farther the image grows bigger. Perfect for gamers who to be close up to the image without blocking a projector, and with Optoma’s 3D RF glasses ($99) gamers will truly feel like they are in the middle of the action. The GT750E boasts a native widescreen display and bright 3000 ANSI lumens picture, DPL Link 120Hz#D-capable display technology options and 1080p signal inputs. Find dealers at OptomaUSA.com.
A Century of Memories
You can’t guarantee any gift will last forever, but 100 years isn’t bad. That’s how long you can preserve priceless photos on the SanDisk Memory Vault which can safely store data for at least a century. The cell-phone sized vault uses Chronolock technology that protects against degradation, and its durable hard-shell design is built to endure. The vault comes with a USB 2.0 transfer cable, writable labels and a storage pouch. 16GB, $89.99. Available at SanDisk.com.
Square Plug in a Round Strip
So many electronics, so little space on power strips. The cleverly designed Pivot Power flexible power strip bends to accommodate any plug, and it can wrap around furniture legs or form a right angle for a corner. Available in black, white and green. ($29.99) at quircky.com.
Hark, Can You Hear Me Now?
Give a boost to the phonephile on your list with the Wilson Electronics’ Sleek all-in-one cell phone signal booster. The magnetic antenna mounts on a car roof, and the handset cradle mounts inside the car and plugs into a car cigarette lighter for handsfree use with a headset or Bluetooth connection. The booster amplifies weak signals for fewer disconnects, dropped calls and faster data transfer rates on 3G networks $129.99 Available at WilsonElectronics.com.