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Smart Home

Ensembl modular speaker lets you hot-swap and stack parts on the fly

This concept speaker from Ashley Chloe gives you the choice of adding a projector, a 360-degree camera and more.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

In a sea of smart-home speakers making their debuts at CES 2018, one in particular stands out.

It's called Ensembl (yes, without the "e") by the startup company Ashley Chloe. Right now, it's only a concept device, but what makes it unique is that it's modular, allowing users to swap out and add key components similar to how a Rock-A-Stack toy from Fisher-Price works.

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Currently, there are seven modules in development: a Qi wireless charging base, a battery, a speaker, a control module that turns the speaker into a smart-home speaker, a lantern light, a projector and a 360-degree camera. The company says that the control module will let you program your assistant of choice, like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. The lantern light can also be programmable for different hues.

Customize Ensembl however you like.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Lastly, there's an attractive leather handle so you can take the whole thing on the go.

Because it's modular, you can pick and choose only the parts you want at any given time.

For example, if you just want to chill and listen to music on your own, you can start with just the smart-home speaker. But if you have friends coming over later, you can add the projector for an impromptu movie night or add the 360-degree camera to take pictures of your get-together.

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The Rowkin Ascent wireless earbuds.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Ashley Chloe estimates that a base unit, which includes just the speaker, control module and wireless charger, will start out at about $200 (roughly £150 or AU$260, converted). The other modules will be sold separately; no pricing estimate were given for those components.

In addition, Ashley Chloe's sub-brand, Rowkin, showed off its latest pair of wireless in-ear earbuds, called Ascent. Expected to launch later this summer, the sweat-resistant earbuds work with iOS and Android phones. They have about a three-hour usage time and charge in a compact case that adds an additional 45 hours of charging. The charging case charges wirelessly or through a USB Type-C connection. Together with this charging case, the earbuds retail for $129 (£100 or AU$170, converted).

As a concept device, the Ensembl smart speaker is far from a finished product. The unit I checked out was tenuously held together by magnets, but the final modules, the company said, will snap together more securely.

I like the idea of a modular smart home speaker. Being able to customize your device for different situations allows for more flexibility, and the fact that it can be either an Alexa or Google Assistant speaker means you can use the platform you're already comfortable with. The overall product also has a sleek aesthetic that is stylish and minimalist. Fingers crossed it avoids the sad fate of becoming CES vaporware.

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