Sonos One review: Sweet sound mixed with Alexa voice and smart home controls

It was over a year ago that Sonos announced its strategic partnership with Amazon, saying it would bring Alexa voice integration to Sonos speakers. Fast forward 14 months and that integration is finally here for existing Sonos device owners who also own an Amazon Echo product. The Echo acts as the microphone for voice controls. However, there’s also a new device, the $ 199.99 Sonos One, which works with Alexa without needing an Echo or a Dot.

I’ve spent a week with a loaner Sonos One and overall, I’m very impressed. here are some limitations worth noting if you’re a current Echo device user. And just to level set my observations, I’ve never owned a Sonos product before, while I have purchased one Amazon Echo, an Echo Tap and two Echo Dots.

For those not familiar with Sonos, the company has pioneered Wi-Fi speakers and multi-room audio. Sonos opts for Wi-Fi over Bluetooth because the former can transmit more information, so audio files aren’t as compressed and sound better. Wi-Fi also allows the same audio to be sent to multiple devices, although you can do that with Bluetooth 5.0 to a lesser extent. The Sonos product line boasts compatibility with more than 80 unique streaming services, ranging from Apple Music to Tidal and just about everything in between including Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, SiriusXM, TuneIn, Napster and more. Essentially, if you can stream it, chances are good that Sonos speakers can play it.

Simple setup in just a few minutes

For this review, I used a beta version of the Sonos app, which could be tweaked or different from the app when Sonos starts shipping the One next week. Setup was super simple: I plugged the speaker into an electrical outlet and then pressed a button on the back of the One to start the pairing process.

I signed in to the Sonos app on my iPhone, walked through a few steps to get the One on my Wi-Fi network and told the app which room my speaker would be in; useful if you plan to put speakers in different rooms.

Once the speaker was connected, the app walked me through an optional Trueplay Tuning activity. This fired off test tones for about 3 minutes while I walked around the kitchen waving my phone up and down. Sonos uses the microphone in your handset to gather spatial data and then custom tunes the One for optimal sound in that room, which is clever. You can skip the TruePlay Tuning if you want (sorry Android folks, it’s an iOS-only feature), and there’s also EQ Settings in the app if you prefer to customize sound on your own.

Of course, you need music before using the speaker, so the next part of the process is where I connected the Sonos app to a few music services. In my case, I used Amazon Music and Apple Music although I was able to use other music services without directly connecting them to my Sonos account – I’ll explain that in a bit.

Lastly, I set up Alexa on the One, which connects your Amazon account to the app. I also had to download the Sonos skill for Alexa, which is the secret software sauce to support voice services. Overall, expect to spend 10 minutes at most to set up a One.

Excellent sound plus voice controls

The new Sonos One looks similar to the existing Sonos Play:1 speaker, but don’t judge this book by its cover. The company tells me only two minor parts of the speaker base are re-used in the updated model: Everything else has been redesigned inside and out.

With just a quick look at the two, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. The most obvious difference, however, is the top of the speakers. Instead of hard buttons, the new Sonos One has touch sensitive controls for play/pause, volume up/down and a mute button for the microphone – remember, Sonos One has Alexa built in, so there are far-field array of six microphones listening like an Amazon Echo.

Inside is a pair of Class D amplifiers, one tweeter for high frequencies and one mid-range woofer of mid- to low-frequency sounds. I can’t compare the output to an older Sonos device, and to be honest, sound quality can be fairly subjective.

To my ears, however, the audio output is excellent: Crisp and clear highs and midrange tones along with strong, but not overwhelming, thump-y bass you can feel. The rich sound is more powerful than I expected in a speaker that’s 6.36 x 4.69 x 4.69 inches in cubic volume. In fact, I used a decibel level app on my phone to compare the output of the same song on both my original Amazon Echo and the Sonos One with both devices at 50 percent volume. The Sonos sound levels were typically 10 to 13 decibels louder at the same test distances and with no audible distortion that I could hear.

While you can control and choose all of your music with the Sonos app — the app acts like a centralized repository for all of your music services — the big improvement in this iteration is the addition of voice controls using Alexa.

The experience was no different than doing the same thing on my Echo devices, which is to say, it’s pretty good. I rarely experienced any hiccups when voice controlling the One for music, even with the music volume up fairly high. I’d say the microphone array is at least as good as the one in my Amazon Echo, if not better. Those touch screen controls work well too for changing volume or tracks but I rarely used them because the voice controls are so good.

I should note that even though I didn’t link my SiriusXM account with the Sonos One, I could still use voice commands to fire it up. Saying, “Alexa, play channel 18 on Sirius XM” started up my beloved Beatles Channel on the speaker, likely because that music service is tied to my account in the Alexa app.

Exactly what you’d expect as a smarthome assistant

Music is clearly in the roots of the Sonos One, but adding microphones, Alexa Voice Services and the Sonos skill to the speaker turns it into a solid smarthome assistant. There’s no need to set up any smarthome integrations on the Play One if you’ve already done so previously with an Echo device. Everything just works as it does on Amazon’s own devices for lighting controls, smart locks, thermostats and more.

There’s not much to say here because Sonos is — smartly, in my opinion — tapping into Amazon’s existing smarthome control services. Put another way: If you can control a smart device by voice with an Amazon Echo, you can do it with a Sonos One.

It’s not an Echo device but that may be OK for some

While I came away impressed by everything the Sonos One with Alexa can do, there are things it can’t do. Remember, this is not an Amazon Echo device, so some features found in an Echo aren’t here.

For example, you can’t use the Alexa Drop In feature on a One, so you won’t be having any intercom conversations around your house. Alexa can do voice calls too as of a few months ago but only if she’s inside an Amazon Echo device: You can’t make voice calls from a Sonos One.

And when it comes to grouping speakers for multi-room playback, there’s a bit of a hitch unless you’re all in on Echo or Sonos devices. I can group my Echo speakers in the Alexa app and play music on some or all of them at the same time, but I can’t add a Sonos speaker to a group in the Alexa app. Likewise, I don’t see a way to add Echo devices to a Sonos room or group. If you have other Sonos speakers, or Amazon Echo devices for that matter, you can tell them which Sonos speaker to play on, however. I told the Echo in my living room to play music in the kitchen on the Sonos and it worked just fine.

Alexa’s Flash Briefing isn’t yet available on the One but Sonos says it’s coming soon. Sonos will also be adding additional features over time to Alexa inside the One. At launch, Alexa voice controls for music are limited to Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, SiriusXM and TuneIn. Spotify is expected soon soon after the launch, however. And until then, you can easily control music in the app, like I had to for my Apple Music tunes.

Are any of these deal breakers? Not for me, but I’m sure some folks might raise an eyebrow over these limitations when considering what smart speakers to purchase: Something we recently discussed on video to help understand all of the different choices currently available or coming soon.

After such a positive experience with the Sonos One review unit, I’m leaning towards buying one or two of my own while retiring a pair of Echo units. I can live without the Alexa Drop In and voice calling features while still using Alexa to control my smart home with a Sonos One. I’d also get what I think is better sound quality and what I know is device that supports more music services. Looking ahead, the Sonos One will be getting Google Assistant integration in 2018, making it more agnostic when it comes to voice assistants.

Keep in mind that Amazon has new Echo speakers available later this month, Google recently announced its Home Max, and Apple’s HomePod is also on the way before year end. We’ll be sure to compare each of these to each other and the Sonos One as these products launch.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

How to review and permanently delete voice recordings from a Google Home or Amazon Echo

Digital assistants are great, except when they aren’t.

This week, for example, a software glitch recorded everything people said when doing their reviews of the new Google Home Mini. Yes, everything they said all day and all night was stored on Google’s servers, which is not how these devices are supposed to work. The only voice recordings saved in the cloud for a Google Home or Amazon Echo product are supposed to be short snippets captured after saying the wake word, such as “OK Google” or “Alexa”.

Google has already patched the Home Mini software so don’t fret if you pre-ordered a device. Even so, it’s not a bad idea to periodically check to see what’s actually being recorded and saved by your digital assistant. Here’s how to do it.

Removing what Google Home and Google Assistant have heard

Google lumps the recordings into your Google account, which also captures search history, Google Assistant usage, and Play Music usage, to name a few things. So you’ll have to dig a little to get at your cloud-stored voice recordings. To do that, navigate to http://myaccount.google.com and make sure you’re signed in with your Google account.

On the main My Account page, look for the card titled “My Activity” and click the “Go to my activity link”. Here you’ll find a chronological stream of the data Google has captured and stored that’s associated with your account. While it’s generally a good idea to review all of the data, if you want to filter it for just the voice data, click the “Filter by date & product” link and then choose “Voice and Audio”.

Now you can easily see all of the stored voice snippets, complete with a Play button for each one so you can hear what your Google Home or Google Assistant app recorded.

While you can delete individual recordings, removing them all will take time. That’s where the “nuclear” option comes in handy because it will remove all recordings from Google’s servers in one fell swoop. To do this, choose the “Delete activity by” option in the menu on the left. Here you can choose a time-frame, with “All time” being one of the options. You can also limit the action to “Voice and Audio”.

Choose those, click “Delete” and all of your recordings will be erased from the cloud. Keep in mind, however, that if you continue to use Google Home or Assistant going forward, all new voice commands will be saved. And it’s possible that the digital assistant experience will be worse, at least for a little while, since Google uses the recordings to make its assistant smarter and personalized for you.

If you’d rather do all of this in the Google Assistant app, you can. The process is generally the same. Just look for the “My Activity” option in the app settings to review or delete saved voice conversations.

Removing what Amazon Echo and Alexa have heard

You can actually do this at an individual snippet level right in the Alexa app for iOS and Android as well. Just open the Alexa app and tap the little Home icon at the bottom left to see a stream of cards, which each card representing a voice interaction. Each of these has a little “More” link, so tap it to see or hear what Alexa heard.

To remove all voice history from Amazon’s servers, however, you have to visit their website here and log in. Tapping the “Your Content and Devices” tab will show all of your Echo devices. Click the little menu button to the left of any Echo device for a pop-up menu that provides a “Manage Voice Recordings” option.

You’ll get an informational warning message explaining that your Echo experience may degrade since like Google, Amazon uses the recordings to make Alexa smarter and personalized.

If you’re OK with that just tap the “Delete” button and the recordings will be erased.

What you give and what you get

Remember that our personal digital assistants are just that: Personal. For them to be customized to individual users, they need to learn about us. And not just how we speak, but also about our preferences, purchases, and the type of information we search for. So yes, we’re giving up that data for any of these devices. In return, for those who find that acceptable, our assistants can make our life easier. It’s a trade-off for sure, and one that we all need to individually decide if we’re willing to accept it or not.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

How voice calls could move beyond smart watches into a range of wearables

Next month will be the third anniversary of Samsung Gear smartwatch, one of the first mass-market wearables with phone capabilities. We’ve since seen two successor devices from Samsung as well as several Android Wear watches with voice capabilities, and most recently, the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE.

I’ve been using the latter for nearly two weeks, having purchased one. I’ve also tested many of the Samsung and Android Wear devices over the past few years. Throughout all of these experiences, one thing is becoming clear to me: The decoupling of voice calls from actual phones is gaining momentum and it’s quite liberating. I don’t have to worry about carrying (or dropping) an expensive phone when leaving the house to walk the dog or run errands. This connected freedom, combined with technology advances can lead to brand new opportunities for future wearables of every shape, size and budget.

Before looking to the future though, it makes sense to look back in the past. How did we get to where the “Dick Tracy communicator” is essentially now a reality? The short answer: radical evolution in chip, radio, network and other technologies.

Smaller and faster “things” over the past 25 years

For example, the current state of taking phone calls on the wrist couldn’t happen without the gradually disappearing SIM card. You may not remember what SIM cards looked like in the early 1990’s so let me refresh your memory. Take a credit card out of your wallet. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Got it? Good. The first SIM card I had in my mobile phone was exactly the same size as what you have in your hand and had a surface area of 3,512 square millimeters.

It truly was a “card” although only a small part of it had the electrical circuits to store subscriber information and contacts. In 1996, we saw the useless plastic card go away, leaving just the gold circuitry, but even that was big by today’s standards. Seven years later, the micro-SIM appeared, making the module even smaller. Then in 2012, the nano-SIM used in most phones today arrived, but even these take up more space than necessary in a wearable device, so the industry has turned to embedded-SIMs, or e-SIMs for today’s voice-enabled wearable devices. These e-SIMs measure 5 mm x 6 mm, or 30 square millimeters, which is 100x less area than the first SIM cards.

Even as the SIM cards for voice devices got smaller, our mobile broadband networks became faster. Fifteen years ago, I thought the EVDO cellular modem I used was blazing fast. And compared to prior wireless technologies, it was.  At roughly 2 to 3 Mbps. Now, we’re hearing about Gigabit-capable networks — that’s 1,000 Mbps — phones and tablets, or roughly a 500x increase in transfer speeds.

I’m sure I don’t need to illustrate the advances in mobile chips in detail, but for a simple example, Apple’s touts its new A11 Bionic chip in the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X phones as 70 percent faster than its predecessor, the A10 Fusion. And according to Apple, the 2016 A10 Fusion is 120 times quicker than the chip in the original 2007 iPhone.

Everything we need for voice calls in wearables is here

Add all these developments up and combine them with other recent evolutionary ideas and you have the perfect storm for bringing voice calls to any number of form factors.

For example, moving voice from traditional cellular technology to VoLTE, or Voice over LTE, completes the “voice is just another form of data” transition. And even though many mobile broadband networks are blazing fast (and getting faster) you don’t need much bandwidth, i.e.: throughput speed for VoLTE calls. Using a new codec — capable of HD Voice quality — a call only needs about 49 kbps of bandwidth: 24 kbps for the voice information and the remainder for overhead. Note, that’s not Megabits per second, but kilobits per second.

That reminds of me of the often minimal bandwidth requirements for today’s IoT devices. These don’t send gobs of data through the internet like web pages and video streams on a phone, tablet or connected TV. Instead, small bits of information, often only when there’s actually information to send or receive. Indeed, we have new networks just for the internet of things that use much less bandwidth than our mobile devices. Think CAT-M1, Sigfox and narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT networks. It makes me wonder if we eventually see mobile “slowband” networks just for VoLTE and/or messaging wearables in the future.

Of course, the more devices that can handle phone calls, the more phone numbers we might have, right? Nope, that obstacle is going away too thanks to advanced call forwarding and number linking carrier services. My Apple Watch does have its own unique phone number, but it’s tied to my main T-Mobile phone number. T-Mobile calls their number linking service Digits, while AT&T has NumberSync; other carriers have their own branded solutions.

What are the remaining challenges?

New networks aside, there are still some issues to tackle before we see wearable communicators in various form factors similar to today’s Bluetooth headphones, fashionable connected jewelry and other devices we put on instead of carrying around.

First and foremost is battery life. That’s the one technology that has made the least progress relative to everything else in a voice call wearable.

Currently, using the Apple Watch for voice calls roughly drains the battery by 1 percent per minute in my testing, so there’s more work to be done here. Some of this challenge could be mitigated by application specific processors that are engineered for efficiency of a given task such as voice calls. Frankly, it doesn’t take much processing power to run the basics of a cellular phone these days. Nor would the chip need to be large. The S3 and W2 system on a chip in the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE isn’t much bigger than the e-SIM, for example.

Then there’s the need for an antenna to stay connected to an LTE network. Apple has wrapped the antenna of the Apple Watch Series 3 around the edge of the display. It works well, but we’ll need smaller amplified antennas if we want smaller wearables with voice capabilities.

Once those two challenges are mitigated however, you might be able to leave your phone behind and simply take calls from a fashionable bracelet, your glasses or some other everyday device similar to today’s headphones that can store music for playback and just leave the phone behind. After all, not everyone wears a watch.

Stacey on IoT | Internet of Things news and analysis

Voice Calls Solution For Wearables

Voice Calls Solution For Wearables

As new wearables technologies are becoming popular in the tech industry, Ericsson has enabled voice calls on wearables to help children, elderly and sportsperson. IoT startup GuardHat brings big data to employees’ heads in the form of ‘hard hats’ in order to boost their safety and efficiency. Finally, Silicon Labs is claiming the industry’s first wireless clocks combining 4G/LTE and Ethernet allowing wireless system designers minimize the cost, power and complexity of small cells, distributed antenna systems, micro-BTS, baseband units and other designs.


Wearable Voice Call Solution

Ericsson has launched a new Voice over LTE (VoLTE)-based core network functionality to enable one mobile phone number for multiple SIM based devices, such as wearables. With this solution, operators can provide voice services with the same mobile phone number as the smartphone also on wearables.  For instance, you can now be reached on your LTE/VoLTE enabled smartwatch with your mobile phone number, even if your smartphone is not with you. The solution can be useful while playing sports, performing challenging physical activities or simply when you are on the go. It is also handy for young children who could lose their phone, and elderly people for connecting in case of emergency situations. Ericsson said the solution is already deployed in more than 10 Ericsson VoLTE-enabled operator networks in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific. Read more.


Bringing IoT Intelligence To Hard Hats To Keep Workers Safe

A new innovation in wearable technology is an overprotective hat that helps to monitor the locations of workers, as well as detect if they may be entering or exposed to dangerous conditions, via sensors on their hard hats. This ‘hard hat’ from IoT startup GuardHat uses the firm’s wireless sensor-based technology, beacon devices with multiple communication technologies, sensor data management software, and data-analytics software platform from HPCC Systems. According to the company, the system is currently being tested by three oil and gas companies in North America and Europe, while several metal and mining operations are also planning to deploy the technology. Read more.


Wireless Clocks Support 4G/LTE & Ethernet

Silicon Labs has claimed the first wireless clocks that support 4G/LTE and Ethernet clocking in a single chip. The Si5381, Si5382 and Si5386 eliminate the need for multiple clock devices and VCXOs in demanding applications including small cells, distributed antenna systems (DAS), micro-BTS, baseband units and fronthaul/backhaul equipment. Read more


 

 

 

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Add voice control to your 3D-printed desk lamp

Nikodem Bartnik had a small problem. When soldering, he had to move his light around in order to properly see what he was working on. In order to avoid this constant interruption, he built a 3D-printed lamp capable of manuevering like a small robot arm under voice command.

An Arduino Uno controls the light’s movement directly via three servos, and a relay flips the switch on and off. Instead of adding voice recognition hardware to his robotic light, he cleverly linked it with an Android app over Bluetooth, using his phone to translate spoken words into serial commands.

Although great for soldering, this device can certainly come in handy when reading books or even finding your way to bed at night. Want to create your own? You can find more details on Bartnik’s Instructables page here.

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