At the recently-concluded IFA 2017 consumer electronics show in Berlin, voice-activated speakers aimed at Amazon Echo, Google Home, and the soon-to-come Apple HomePod were front and center, competing for a share of the burgeoning voice activation market. But rather than developing new genres of conflicting voice-activation technology, these new speakers from established audio-centric manufacturers integrate existing Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant software and chips into their housings. And these new smart speakers are welcome additions to the connected home, as the existing Amazon and Google speakers are not known for their high levels of audio fidelity.
If you’re having a double-take moment, there is good reason for that: The Sony LF-S50G wireless speaker has more than a passing resemblance to the Apple HomePod. There are no connections with the Apple Siri digital assistant, however—the new Sony speaker integrates Google Assistant for voice activation commands. So, in addition to playing your music selections, voice commands can be used to activate smart-home accessories such as lighting, door locks, and thermostats—as long as they are supported in the broader Google Home ecosystem.
Similar to the HomePod, the product features a 360-degree, vertical two-way speaker layout to fill a room with sound while enabling response to multi-directional voice commands. Sony has also integrated a digital clock into the housing, and says the speaker is suited to kitchen or bath duty with its splash-proof design and water-repellent skin. Onboard Bluetooth wireless networking will enable audio streaming from paired mobile devices.
The Sony LF-S50G wireless speaker will retail for $200 when it begins shipping in October 2017, undercutting the $349 Apple HomePod by $150 yet priced above the $129 Google Home.
Harman Kardon Allure
Tipping its hat toward Amazon, the Harman Kardon Allure is another hands-free, voice-activated speaker and integrates the existing Amazon Alexa voice service, making it a good fit for homes where there may already be speakers from the Amazon Echo line—and instantaneously connecting with the growing juggernaut of over 20,000 Alexa skills readily available.
There are few visual similarities to any other voice-activated speaker, as Allure has a unique transparent dome topping its cylindrical base, a design departure that clearly sets it apart from the crowd. The dome will glow with ambient lighting from within, and react in response to wide-field voice commands plus follow along with the beat of the music that is playing.
Certainly, the audiophile heritage of Harman Kardon is expected to ring true with Allure, given the expected advantages of its 360-degree speaker design—fitted with transducers and a built-in subwoofer. Wireless Bluetooth integration will allow easy audio streaming from mobile devices.
Harman International says the product will retail at $250 when it begins shipping in Winter 2017. That cost will be a premium to the $180 Amazon Echo and $50 Echo Dot speakers it will be competing with. Harman, by the way, is a subsidiary of Samsung.
JBL LINK Series
Also from Harman International, the JBL LINK Series of voice-activated speakers differentiates from its sibling Harman Kardon Allure by integrating with Google Assistant for its smart-home capabilities. By using the “OK, Google” command, connected homeowners can initiate voice commands to control their music or smart-home accessories supported in the broader Google Assistant ecosystem. Given their JBL heritage, these speakers can also be expected to deliver high levels of audio fidelity.
In addition to Google Assistant, the new LINK 10, LINK 20, and LINK 300 speakers feature built-in, high-definition music streaming through Google Chromecast to extend their depth of audio capabilities.
In contrast to most other voice-activated speakers, the LINK 10 and LINK 20 products are designed with mobility in mind, and can function for 5 and 10 hours, respectively, on strictly battery power. The larger LINK 300 needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet and engineered to deliver more athletic levels of audio. In much the same way as the Sonos music system works, multiple speakers can be linked to simultaneously deliver multi-room music over the home’s Wi-Fi network.
The speakers will initially be released for the European market only and begin shipping in Fall 2017. The JBL LINK 10, 20, and 300 products will cost 169 EUR, 199 EUR, and 299 EUR, respectively.
Tom Kolnowski is the Chief Content Officer & Founder of Digitized House Media, LLC, the publisher of Digitized House | Guide to the Connected Home. When he isn’t writing about smart home technology, sustainability, and high-performance architecture, you’ll find him exploring faraway destinations with his family.