The always-on, always-listening "smart speakers" made by Amazon and Google, the Echo and Google Home, sound great when asked to read news headlines or the weather. But if you care about audio quality when playing back music, both kind of suck.
Solutions exist today for music-centric Alexa and Google Home users who want better sound. You can hook an Echo Dot up to a decent sound system or do the same with Home-commanded Chromecast or cast-enabled speaker, for example. But what if you just want a self-contained all-in-one smart speaker that actually rocks?
Don't hold your breath. Here's why.
Voice first, music last
Smart speakers enable users to use their voice as a remote control -- whether it's to request a song, or to do something more complicated such as operate the lights or watch Netflix. As of September 2016, Alexa was capable of over 3,000 "skills", a list that's growing all of the time.
We've tested the audio quality of Amazon Echo and the Google Home in-house, and while they sound fine for voice, they fell far short of a similarly priced wireless speaker, the Sonos Play:1, at music playback. Our advice for people who want better quality is simply to use another speaker.
The friendly female voices of Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant can be built into just about anything with a mic, a speaker and a Wi-Fi antenna. And sure enough, wherever you looked at CES 2017 there seemed to be a speaker or doo-dad with Alexa or Google on board. Unfortunately, none of the ones I heard sounded very good.
I had high hopes for the Onkyo VC-FLX1, given the manufacturer's hi-fi expertise, but my enthusiasm faded once I went hands-on with the product. While the demo we heard was only of the BBC World Service, the sound quality, even on voices, wasn't all that notable. The device doesn't do much to dissuade you from first impressions: It's an Amazon Echo clone with a camera embedded in it. Of course, we'll wait to test the Onkyo with actual music before we give our final judgement.
Save our ship Sonos
Meanwhile, companies like Sonos and Sony have released products that can be controlled by a voice speaker retroactively -- thanks both to Alexa skills and Chromecast onboard, respectively -- but this seems rather kludgey. Why can't your assistant be your speaker? In the same way that your phone is also your camera?
As the leader in multiroom wireless music, Sonos is especially feeling the pinch from Google and Amazon. The founder and CEO of the company stepped aside this week with the promise of moving forward with voice control -- a central tenet of the Sonos press conference late last year.
Could it be that Sonos, Onkyo and others are readying "serious" attempts at smart speakers for later in the year? I doubt it. I've been told that all of the speakers announced at CES are using their own microphone arrays in Alexa-compliant products -- there are no "native" third-party Alexa speakers yet. In the other camp, competitive Google devices won't come until 2018.
In the meantime you're stuck with the Echo, the Home or one of the army of clones. If you are itching to give your speakers some smarts right now, the best option would be to add a $50 Amazon Echo Dot. Alexa is way ahead of the Google Assistant, given Amazon's years-long lead, and that's unlikely to change in the next 18 months.
Adding a Dot to your Sonos or other decent speaker won't be as well-integrated as the Echo, but it will do pretty much the same things and sound a lot better to boot.