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Here's why your next wireless speaker will listen to your every word

Commentary: Speakers with integrated voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant will soon become the norm, not the exception.

Smart speakers are here to stay
Sarah Tew/CNET

There will come a day, and probably pretty soon, where pretty much every standalone speaker will have a voice-operated assistant inside of it. In the same way way that most TVs today have integrated "smarts" in the form of streaming apps for video, "smart speakers" will simply be the default, offering streaming audio apps and music at your voice's beck and call.

At CES 2018 there were a raft of new models were announced with either Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or a mixture of both. From the JBL Link View to the Polk Command Bar to Klipsch's The One, most audio brands had at least one speaker on display. And the list is only going to grow, and move far beyond traditional audio brands.

As the audio reviewer at CNET, I am particularly focused on sound quality for music, so I'm psyched to see these speaker makers offer better-sounding alternatives to the Echo and Google Home speakers, let alone the terrible-for-music Echo Dot and Google Home Mini. My current favorite, the Sonos One, is a great example of the standalone smart speaker done right, and competition from other audio companies, or even sound-first smart speakers like the Google Home Max -- is definitely a good thing.

Even for people who crave good audio, the convenience of being able to ask for a song or artist by name is powerful. It's enough, for example, to force just about every speaker maker to follow Sonos' lead, and sign on with one of the two major digital assistants. But what does having Alexa and Google inside everything really mean? 

Cheap, convenient and capable

Much like Smart TV, a big reason voice assistants will be so widespread is that they aren't prohibitively expensive to add. We spoke to one manufacturer recently who told us that it costs around 10 dollars to add a "smart" microphone to each speaker. 

As the technology improves and price comes down, having an assistant onboard shouldn't pass much extra cost on to the consumer. Even now, the Sonos One smart speaker is the same price as the "dumb" Play:1 it replaces. Secondly, smart speakers have a clear benefit to us as consumers. Want to know what the time is? Or find your telephone? It's just an "Alexa" away.

If you want to see where we see the future of wireless speakers heading, look at the humble headphone. The microphone in a set of portable headphones has become so ubiquitous that most people simply forget about them. You buy a portable headphone and the mic is built right into the cable. 

The same thing is likely going to happen with portable and tabletop speakers -- they'll all get microphones eventually. It's not just table speakers that will get mics either -- for example, the Polk Command Bar brings a fully formed Echo Dot to a sound bar.


The Polk Command Bar integrates a Amazon Echo Dot into a sound bar


For clarification here, we're specifically talking about bringing voice assistants to Wi-Fi-connected speakers -- the kind that let you stream Spotify Connect, for example -- and see this feature as an evolution of the hands-free microphone now available in most Bluetooth speakers. But there's no reason Bluetooth speakers themselves can't get assistants and microphones too, provided they're high-end enough to justify the (falling) cost.

While smart toilets are also a thing for some reason, smart speakers are far more useful because of where they sit at the intersection of music replay and voice control. These devices bring the user experience back to the fore, something that has suffered since wireless speakers started ditching user interfaces for smartphone control. 

Voice control brings the fun back, because now instead of having to fish out -- if not go looking for(!) -- your smartphone, then unlock it, scroll to the app, wait for it to load, search for the content and press Play, you can simply say "Hey Google, play X," and moments later it's on. And if you have a bunch of Chromecast built-in devices or Google Homes, you can control speakers all around the house without ever taking out your phone.

Smart speakers can be used to control your smart home


Smart speakers are so much more than on-demand jukeboxes though. They control your lights, help organize your calendar, dictate recipes while you cook or help you load up the latest season of "Black Mirror." They're a lot more "fun" than a simple remote control, and not only that but they're also more featured and getting better all the time.

But what about privacy?

There is an obvious and significant difference between the mics in headsets or Bluetooth speakers and those in voice assistants. The fact that they are always listening is what has privacy advocates concerned. 

To use a microphone in your handset, you need to activate a button, software or otherwise to get it to start listening for commands. The equivalent "button press" that activates a smart speaker is a spoken "wake word," namely "Alexa" or "OK Google." OK, so maybe this isn't the kind of feature you necessarily want for your kid's room, but how easily can hackers or third parties just record everything you say? How secure are they?


The Sonos One has a "microphone on" LED but it's tiny compared to other smart speakers

Sarah Tew

The companies involved will tell you they're very secure, and more so than a PC or smartphone. One of the essential differences between a phone and smart speaker is that the smart speaker is locked down. There's one input (a microphone) and it's overseen by a single company that controls all of the development for each new software "skill" or hardware implementation. 

Even though there was an Amazon Echo surveillance hack in August 2017, for example, it needed actual physical access to the device. That's because the switch that turns the microphone on and off is analog -- it can't be altered through software, Amazon's Jeff Bezos confirmed


The Google Home Mini voice assistant is $50

Chris Monroe/CNET

When the Google Home Mini was first introduced, there was a bug in the touch controls that meant the microphone could remain on, essentially recording everything you said. But Google has since patched the problem, and if you're worried about it, you can see everything the mic has heard you say within the Google Home app.

The risks of surveillance aren't limited to smart speakers, of course, and some researchers say that any microphone in your house -- and most households now have dozens -- could potentially be used to spy on you. From your cellphone, to your computer, to your kid's teddy bear and finally to your smart TV, each built-in mic could be vulnerable if not suitably protected. 

Unless you want to cosset yourself in cotton balls and live in a forest, I think you should vote for the security of your home with your wallet: if you can't trust a manufacturer to maintain your device's security, don't buy it. You can help ensure you're protected by periodically checking your connected devices are running the latest firmware.

Time to get smart, speakers

Devices such as the Sonos One have shown us that a smart speaker can cost the same and still perform as well as or even better than the model it replaces. The added capabilities of the product over the speaker's "dumb" predecessor arguably make up for the potential loss in privacy. The fact that more and more speakers will soon let you choose which assistant you want to use will also mean you aren't tied down to either Google, Amazon or whatever else comes down the pike (paging Bixby). 

There's only one thing we can suggest to manufacturers when designing these things: make the microphone off switch a physical toggle, which could help make privacy-sensitive folks a little more comfortable.  

If companies can get the privacy implementations right, it's likely that soon we'll see "smart speakers" as just "speakers" in the same way that smart TVs are just "TVs". It's well-considered products like the Sonos One and the Google Home Max with their combinations of convenience, performance and intercompatibility that will usher in a new era of at-home listening.

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