Sonos

Sonos took the mic out of its smart speaker for the $179 Sonos One SL

Posted by | Assistant, Gadgets, Google, hardware, play:1, play:3, smart assistant, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, TC | No Comments

Sonos has a new entry-level connected speaker that will give you all of its multi-room, high-quality sound — without the onboard microphones and smart assistants of the Sonos One. The microphone-free Sonos One SL retails for $179.99 ($20 less than the existing Sonos One) and comes with AirPlay 2, delivering good functional upgrades over the Play:1 it replaces.

Visually, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the Sonos One from the Sonos One SL, especially at a distance. It has the exact same dimensions, and the same industrial design, featuring a matte black or white finish and controls on the top. Those controls are the one place you’ll notice an obvious difference, however — the Sonos One has an additional LED, microphone icon and capacitive touch surface above the playback controls for turning on and off the built-in smart assistant and microphone. The Sonos One SL, lacking a mic, has none of these.

Unlike the Play:1, Sonos One SL can stereo pair with a Sonos One, which is a nice feature, because when using two of these in tandem in one room you actually only need one to have a mic for use with Alexa or Google Assistant. Two Sonos One SL speakers will also pair with one another, of course, and with combined savings of $40 versus the Sonos One, these are naturally great candidates for use with the Sonos Beam for a home theater surround setup.

Sonos OneSL 4

Sonos OneSL 1

Of course, you can also still use the Sonos One SL in combination with a smart assistant — just like you can with any other Sonos speaker, so you can specify to play music to them via voice control using any other Alexa or Google Assistant-enabled device.

The $179 Sonos One SL is now the least expensive offering in Sonos’ own lineup — but the $149 Sonos x Ikea bookshelf speaker is the lowest-price Sonos-compatible offering overall. They’re a lot closer than you might think in terms of quality and other factors that would contribute to a buying decision, but the Sonos One probably has a slight edge in sound, where the Ikea bookshelf speaker is a bit more versatile in terms of mounting and installation options.

Sonos One SL is up for pre-order now, and will be shipping as of September 12.

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The new Sonos Port connects your existing stereo setup to Sonos and AirPlay 2

Posted by | ethernet, Gadgets, Google, hardware, play:3, rca, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, TC | No Comments

Sonos has a new addition to its ecosystem for connecting in your existing stereo and AV equipment, and for adding sound out and AirPlay 2 capabilities to existing speaker setups connected via an amplifier. It’s the $399 Sonos Port, and it replaces one of the older devices in the Sonos lineup, the Sonos Connect, with updated specs and a smaller footprint.

The Sonos Port is a small, matte-black box, which has RCA and digital coaxial audio outputs for connecting to your existing home stereo or home theater sound system, and an RCA audio in port for connecting audio sources, including things like a turntable, projector or other AV device that may not connect so easily to something like the Sonos Beam.

Sonos Port has a built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which makes it much more attractive as an option to sound-quality buffs who want to add some connected and internet-capable media playback to their existing setup. Plus, if you connect it to your amplifier, any speakers you have connected to that automatically become AirPlay 2-compatible — and it works with Sonos’ existing Alexa and Google Assistant integration, meaning you can use voice commands to control playback (provided you also have a Sonos or Alexa device with a mic).

Sonos Port 4

The Sonos Port includes two built-in 10/100 Mbps Ethernet ports, so you can wire right into your router if you need a more reliable connection, and it has a 12V power trigger, which means it’ll automatically turn on stereo or receiver equipment when they’re connected and in standby mode.

A lot of the Port’s specs are similar to the outgoing Connect’s, but the more compact package, and its new matte-black look seem much better in terms of integrating unobtrusively with your existing setup. The asking price may seem a bit steep for what is essentially a connectivity accessory, but the Sonos Connect basically replaces a DAC entirely, which can be quite expensive on its own, and uniquely provides Sonos connectivity and streaming capabilities as well.

Pre-orders for the Sonos Port begin today, and it’ll be available starting September 12 in the U.S., with a global rollout to follow early next year.

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Sonos Bluetooth-enabled, battery-powered speaker leaks ahead of official launch

Posted by | Assistant, Bluetooth, ethernet, Gadgets, Google, hardware, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, TC, technology, telecommunications, usb, wi-fi | No Comments

Sonos has an event coming up at the end of the month to reveal something new, but leaks have pretty much given away what’s likely to be the highlight announcement at the event: A new, Bluetooth-enabled speaker that has a built-in battery for portable power.

The speaker originally leaked earlier this month, with Dave Zatz showing off a very official-looking image, and The Verge reporting some additional details, including a toggle switch for moving between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modes, and a USB-C port for charging, along with rough dimensions that peg it as a little bit bigger than the existing Sonos One.

Screen Shot 2019 08 19 at 9.02.48 AM

Source: Win Future

Now, another leak from Win Future has revealed yet more official-looking images, including a photo of the device with its apparent dock, which provides contact charging. The site also says the new speaker will be called the Sonos Move, which makes a lot of sense, given it’ll be the only one that can actually move around and still maintain functionality while portable.

Sonos Move 1566013610 0 6

Source: Win Future

Here’s the TL;DR of what we know so far, across all the existing leaks:

  • Can stream via Wi-Fi (works with your Sonos network like other Sonos speakers) and Bluetooth (direct pairing with devices), with Bluetooth LE included for easier setup
  • USB-C port for power and Ethernet port for connectivity
  • Similar design to Sonos One, with more rounded corners, but wider and taller (likely to allow room for integrated battery)
  • Built-in handle in the back for easier carrying
  • Contacts on bottom for docked charging (as alternative to USB-C)
  • Supports Alexa and Google Assistant and has integrated mic (neither available via Bluetooth mode, however)
  • Suports AirPlay 2
  • Offer Auto Trueplay, which automatically tunes speaker sound to your place using onboard mic

No word yet on official availability or pricing, but it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll arrive sometime this fall, following that late August announcement.

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Ikea doubles down on smart home tech with new business unit

Posted by | Companies, Gadgets, hardware, head, ikea, retailers, Sonos, Sweden, TC, wireless chargers | No Comments

Ikea’s smart home investments to date have been smart but scattered – now the Swedish home goods brand says it’s going to amp up its smart home bets with a brand new dedicated business unit.

The company’s smart home endeavors began in 2012, and focused on wireless charging and smart lighting. It’s iterated in both areas since, developing self-installed integrated wireless chargers for its furniture, as well as light/charger combos, and finally with a new partnership with Sonos that produced the Symfonisk line of wireless smart speakers.

Ikea also has its own ambitions in terms of being the hub for future smart home products, not only from a hardware perspective, but also via its Home smart app, which it rebranded from being more strictly focused on its Tradfri line of connected bulbs in June. During the Symfonisk launch, Ikea told me it has broader ambitions for the Home smart app as a central hub for connected home control for its customers.

“At IKEA we want to continue to offer products for a better life at home for the many people going forward. In order to do so we need to explore products and solutions beyond conventional home furnishing,” said Björn Block, Head of the new IKEA Home smart Business Unit at IKEA of Sweden, in a press release from the company.

Ikea also characterized this as its biggest new focus area in terms of the overall business and brand since it introduced its Children’s Ikea line.

The partnership between Sonos and Ikea that produced the Symfonisk line is a long-term one, and both companies told me to expect more products to come out of that team-up in future. But it sounds like Ikea intends to explore how smart home tech might touch all aspects of its business, so it’s fair to anticipate more partnerships and product categories to follow as a result of this new investment focus, too.

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Analogue’s Mega Sg is the Sega Genesis Mini alternative for the discerning retro gaming fan

Posted by | Analogue, controller, fpga, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, HDMI, HDTV, LG, Nintendo, oled, Reviews, sega, sega genesis, sega genesis mini, sonic, Sonos, TC | No Comments

The official Sega Genesis Mini is coming in September and hopes to capitalize on some of the retro gaming hype that turned the Super Nintendo and NES Mini Classic editions into best-sellers. But there’s already a modern piece of hardware out there capable of playing Sega Genesis games on your HDTV — plus Mega Drive, Master System and Sega CD, too.

The Analogue Mega Sg is the third in a series of reference-quality, FPGA-based retro consoles from Analogue, a company that prides itself on accuracy in old-school gaming. It provides unparalleled, non-emulated gameplay with zero lag and full 1080p output to work with your HD or even 4K TV in a way no other old-school gaming hardware can.

For $189.99 (which is just about double the asking price of the Sega Genesis Mini), you get the console itself, an included Master System cartridge adapter, an HDMI cable and a USB cable for power supply (plus a USB plug, though, depending on your TV, you might be able to power it directly). The package also includes a silicon pad should you want to use it with original Sega CD hardware, which plugs into the bottom of the SG hardware just like it did with the original Genesis. It includes two ports that support original wired Genesis controllers, or you can also opt to pick up an 8bitdo M30 wireless Genesis controller and adapter, which retails for $24.99.

Like the Nt mini did for NES, and the Super Nt did for SNES before it, the Mega Sg really delivers when it comes to performance. Games look amazing on my 4K LG OLED television, and I can choose from a variety of video output settings to tune it to my liking, including adding simulated retro scaliness and more to make it look more like your memory of playing on an old CRT television.

Sound is likewise excellent — those opening notes of Ecco the Dolphin sounded fantastic rendered in 48KHz 16-bit stereo coming out of my Sonos sound system. Likewise, Sonic’s weird buzzsaw razor whine came through exactly as remembered, but definitely in higher definition than anything that actually played out of my old TV speakers as a kid.

Even if you don’t have a pile of original Sega cartridges sitting around ready to play (though I bet you do if you’re interested in this piece of kit), the Mega Sg has something to offer: On board, you get a digital copy of the unreleased Sega Genesis game “Hardcore,” which was nearly complete in 1994 but which went unreleased. It’s been finished and renamed “Ultracore,” and you can run it from the console’s main menu as soon as you plug it in and fire it up.

Analogue plans to add more capabilities to the Mega Sg in the future, with cartridge adapters that will allow it to run Mark III, Game Gear, Sega MyCard, SG-1000 and SC-3000 games, too. These will all be supported by the FPGA Analogue designed for the Mega Sg, too, so they’ll also be running natively, not emulated, for a true recreation of the original gaming experience.

Analogue Mega Sg 8

If you’re really into classic games, and care a lot about accuracy, this is definitely the best way to play Sega games on modern TVs — and it’s also just super fun.

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Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk wireless speakers are a symphony of sound and design

Posted by | albums, Assistant, audio equipment, energy consumption, ethernet, Gadgets, hardware, ikea, Philips, play:1, play:3, retailers, Reviews, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, Symfonisk, TC, wireless speakers | No Comments

Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk collaboration took a lot of people by surprise when it was announced earlier this year, but the match-up is less unlikely than it might appear at first glance. Ikea’s entire mission has been delivering practical, quality design concepts at price points that are more broadly accessible — and that’s exactly what it’s done with its collaboration with Sonos, albeit with sound instead of furniture. The new $99 Symfonisk Wi-Fi bookshelf speaker and the new $179 Symfonisk table lamp with Wi-Fi speaker both deliver the excellent performance and sound quality that’s expected from the Sonos brand, in beguilingly practical everyday designs created by Ikea.

Symfonisk bookshelf speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 10The descriptor “bookshelf speaker” in this case means more than it usually does — Ikea has designed these to either blend seamlessly in with your actual book collection on existing shelf units, or to actually act as shelves themselves, using a simple add-on accessory kit that includes a flush wall mount and a rubber mat to protect its top surface while holding your gear (up to 6.6 lbs). They can also rail-mount on Ikea’s kitchen rail products for convenient kitchen installation, or they have rubberized pads on both the bottom and side surfaces for either horizontal or vertical surface mounting. Each speaker has two channels for cables to exit both vertically and horizontally for flush mounting, and there’s an Ethernet port on each and a cable in the box for hardwired connections to your home network.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 12At $99, they’re the new most affordable way to get into the Sonos system, undercutting the Play:1 by $50. Leaving aside their utility as free-floating shelves (with a decent 12″ x 6″ surface area, likely suitable for bedside tables for many), they’re a perfect introduction to the Sonos ecosystem for anyone who’s felt that Sonos hardware is too expensive. And they’re almost tailor-made to act as rear speakers in a Sonos surroundsound home-theater configuration. I paired mine with my existing Sonos Beam soundbar and Sonos Sub, and they delivered to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Symfonisk bookshelves and the Play:1 operating in that capacity.

That said, you do notice a difference between the Symfonisk bookshelf and the Play:1, or the Sonos One, when it comes to sound quality when they’re used on their own as individual or stereo-paired speakers. The bookshelf speakers contain entirely new internal speaker designs, as the form factor is nothing like any existing Sonos hardware on the market, and that means you end up with a different sound profile versus the more squat, rotund Sonos One and Play:1.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 7To my ears, the Symfonisk bookshelf speaker sounds slightly worse when compared to the Sonos One and Play:1. This is not that surprising — those Sonos speakers are more expensive, for one, and they really out-punch their weight class when it comes to overall sound quality. And even if the Symfonisk shelves are not quite up to par, they’re still excellent-sounding wireless speakers for the price — without a doubt I would opt to pick these up in place of Play:1s for parts of my house where I don’t need the built-in Alexa or Google Assistant of the Sonos One, but want high-fidelity sound. In stereo pair configuration, the difference is even less noticeable.

The Symonisk shelf speaker design seems mostly focused on practicality, but it’s a good-looking speaker (available in both black, as tested, and white). The rectangular box look is a bit harder to integrate as flexibly with your decor when compared to the Sonos One, in my opinion, but, on the other hand, there are some settings where the Symfonisk shelf fits far more seamlessly, like when wall mounted behind a couch, or when acting as a bookend on an existing bookshelf. The fabric speaker grill is removable, and you can expect Sonos to look at aesthetic updates to potentially change the look in the future, too.

Because these are wireless speakers, there’s another aspect of performance that’s important: connectivity. Symfonisk’s speakers (both these and the table lamp, which I’ll talk more about later on) worked flawlessly during my multiple days of testing in this regard, with zero drop-outs that I noticed when it came to music playback, and flawless integration with my existing Sonos network of speakers. I’m also likely one of Sonos’ outlier customers in terms of the number of speakers I’m using — I have 14 active currently, including the Symfonisk speakers, all operating fully wireless and without the included Ethernet connection, and wireless playback has been rock solid during tests of this new Ikea line.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 8Set up is also a breeze, whether you’re new to Sonos or an existing user, and is handled via the Sonos app (Ikea will also eventually add it to its own smart home control software, the company tells me, and you’ll be able to control it from both). Once added to your app, you can also use them via Alexa or Google Assistant if you have those linked to your Sonos system, and they show up as AirPlay 2 speaker for iOS and macOS users, too.

Symfonisk table lamp speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 4Like the bookshelf speaker, the Symfonisk table lamp is incredibly easy to set up and manage using the Sonos app, and works with Alexa/Google Assistant and AirPlay 2. It was also outstanding in terms of performance with wireless connection and working with other speakers, and you can use Sonos’ TruePlay sound tuning feature to ensure that it provides the right sound profile for your space with a quick adjustment process using your phone’s microphone (this also works with the shelf speakers, by the way, and I recommend it for any Sonos equipment).

The table lamp really impresses in two ways, including sound quality and — this might seem obvious — by virtue of it also being a great lamp as well as a speaker. The base of the lamp is where the speaker resides, and it’s wrapped in a removable fabric cover that looks great from afar and up close. The shade is a single piece of handcrafted opaque glass, which provides a very pleasant glow when lit from within, and which uses a bayonet mount to lock into place.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 13This mount and shade choice are not just about looks — Sonos and Ikea evaluated different options and found that this was easily the best when it came to minimizing reverb and rattle for a lamp that’s also capable of outputting a lot of high-volume sound. The choice appears to have been the right one — in testing, I never noticed anything that suggested there was anything rattling or shaking around as a result of loud music being played through the Symfonisk lamp speaker.

As mentioned, the looks benefit from this design decision, too. This table lamp at first struck me as maybe a bit too modern in photos, but in situ it looks great and is easily now a favorite item among my overall home decor. I do have a few small complaints, like that the large dial on the side is actually a simple on/off switch, rather than a dimmer or a volume knob like I assumed it would be. The controls are on the front of the saucer-like base instead, which is a clever way to make the lamp look less like a gadget and more like furniture.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 14The light itself supports bulbs with E12-style threaded connectors and a max of 7 watts of energy consumption, which are more commonly seen in chandeliers. Ikea sent over one of its Tradfri smart bulbs, with wireless connectivity and adjustable white spectrum temperature control. It’s the perfect complement to the lamp, and I was even able to quickly connect it to my existing Philips Hue hub for control without an Ikea smart bridge. With a smart bulb, the Symfonisk speaker lamp offers voice-control for both the lightning and the speaker component.

Where the Symfonisk shelf speaker differs from its Sonos brethren a bit in sound profile, the Symfonisk lamp speaker is surprisingly similar to the Play:1 ($149) and Sonos One ($199) and sits right in between both at $179. The internals are largely leveraged from those devices, according to Sonos, which makes sense given its industrial design is also basically a somewhat squat cylinder. Regardless of how, the result is terrific — it’s a lamp that’s actually a fantastic speaker, and you can definitely pull a trick at parties of asking guests to try to figure out the source of your high-quality, room-filling sound if you pick up one or more of these. As rears, they blend away seamlessly with the decor, solving the age-old problem of having to choose between quality surroundsound and having a living room that doesn’t look like a Hi-Fi audio shop.

The Symfonisk lamp is big, however — it’s about two inches taller than a Sonos One without the shade, and wider both in terms of the base and the saucer-like bottom. The look, while appealing to me, also isn’t necessarily for everyone (though there are black and white versions depending on your preference), so that might be another reason to opt for other offerings in the Sonos line versus this one. But this particular light/Sonos speaker combo is unique in the market, and definitely a strong value proposition.

Bottom line

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 3With the Symfonisk line, Ikea and Sonos have really pulled off something fairly amazing — creating practical, smart decor that’s also great audio equipment. It’s a blending of two worlds that results in very few compromises, and stands as a true example of what’s possible when two companies with a focus on human-centric design get together and really focus on establishing a partnership that’s much deeper than two names on a label.

Sonos and Ikea’s team-up isn’t just a limited collection, either — it’s a long-term partnership, so you can expect more from both down the road. For now, however, the Symfonisk bookshelf and Symfonisk table lamp speakers go on sale starting August 1 at Ikea.com and Ikea stores, and are very good options if you’re in the market for a smart speaker.

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Petcube’s Bites 2 and Play 2 amuse pets and humans alike with Alexa built-in

Posted by | albums, cameras, Gadgets, hardware, laser, pet, petcube, products, Reviews, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, TC | No Comments

Petcube’s original Bites smart treat dispenser and Play pet camera with a built-in laser pointer were great for pet parents who couldn’t always be around to hang out with their furry charges, but the new Bites 2 and Play 2 come with one big new upgrade that make them far more versatile than the original: They both double as Alexa-powered smart speaker devices.

Both the Bites 2 and Play 2 can hear and respond to Alexa requests, with a four-microphone array that in my limited testing actually outperforms the Alexa mics built into my Sonos One and Sonos Beam speakers, which is pretty impressive for devices whose main features are serving up treats and keeping an eye on your pets. That’s on top of the Bites 2 being able to remotely dispense treats for your pet, and the Play 2 providing playtime away from home with a built-in laser pointer you can direct from your phone.

The Bites 2 and Play 2 also feature other improvements, including new wider angle lenses that offer full 180-degree views of your home for more likelihood you’ll spot your pets wandering around, and better Wi-Fi connectivity support with additional 5GHz networking, plus night vision and full HD video. Currently, the field of view is limited to 160-degrees, with an update to follow that will unlock the full 180; for most users, the 160 FOV is going to show you an entire room and then some.

With the Bites 2, you can also initiate video calls and chat with your pet, though my dog Chelsea basically is just confused by this. It is handy if I need to ask my partner if there’s anything else I’m forgetting to pick up from the store, however. And the treat-flinging feature definitely does appeal to Chelsea, especially now that it’s Alexa-integrated so that I can easily issue a voice command to give her a well-earned reward.

This has actually proven more than just fun — Chelsea suffers from a little bit of separation anxiety, so when we leave our condo she usually spends a few quick minutes complaining audibly with some rather loud barks. But since getting the Petcube Bites 2 to test, I’ve been reinforcing good behavior by reminding her to keep quiet, waiting outside the door and then flinging her a treat or two for her troubles. It’s pretty much done away with the bye-bye barking in just a short time.

The Play 2 doesn’t fling treats, but it does have a built-in laser pointer (which the company says is totally safe for your pet’s eyes). Chelsea straight up does not understand the laser or even really acknowledge it, so that’s a bit of a miss, but with a friend’s cat this proved an absolute show-stopping feature. I’ve also known dogs previously who loved this, so your mileage may vary, but if you’re unsure, it’s probably worth picking up a dollar-store laser pointer keychain first to ensure it’s their jam.

The $249 Bites 2 and $199 Play 2 offer a ton of value in just the image and build quality upgrades over their original incarnations, and their basic features are probably plenty enough for doting pet parents. But the addition of Alexa makes these both much more appealing in my opinion, since it essentially bundles an Echo in each device at no extra cost.

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Amazon said to be launching new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

Posted by | Amazon, apple inc, Companies, computing, Gadgets, hardware, HomePod, ikea, industries, Invoke, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, TC, tweeter | No Comments

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of devices or Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the sound quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, as it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up with Ikea to launch speakers powered by its technology, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

If high-quality sound isn’t all that important to you, Amazon is also apparently working on a home robot equipped with Alexa on board.

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Review: The $199 Echo Link turns the fidelity up to 11

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, amazon music unlimited, computing, echo, Echo Link, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, microsoft windows, operating systems, Pandora, smart speakers, Sonos, Spotify, streaming services | No Comments

The Echo Link takes streaming music and makes it sound better. Just wirelessly connect it to an Echo device and plug it into a set of nice speakers. It’s the missing link.

The Link bridges the gap between streaming music and a nice audio system. Instead of settling for the analog connection of an Echo Dot, the Echo Link serves audio over a digital connection and it makes just enough of a difference to justify the $200 price.

I plugged the Eco Link into the audio system in my office and was pleased with the results. This is the Echo device I’ve been waiting for.

In my case, the Echo Link took Spotfiy’s 320 kbps stream and opened it up. The Link creates a wider soundstage and makes the music a bit more full and expansive. The bass hits a touch harder and the highs now have a newfound crispness. Lyrics are clearer and easier to pick apart. The differences are subtle. Everything is just slightly improved over the sound quality found when using an Echo Dot’s 3.5mm output.

Don’t have a set of nice speakers? That’s okay; Amazon also just released the Echo Link Amp, which features a built-in amplifier capable of powering a set of small speakers.

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised Amazon is making the Echo Link. The device caters to what must be a small demographic of Echo owners looking to improve the quality of Pandora or Spotify when using an audio system. And yet, without support for local or streaming high-resolution audio, it’s not good enough for audiophiles. This is for wannabe audiophiles. Hey, that’s me.

Review

There are Echo’s scattered throughout my house. The devices provide a fantastic way to access music and NPR. The tiny Echo Link is perfect for the system in my office where I have a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers powered by an Onkyo receiver and amp. I have a turntable and SACD player connected to the receiver, but those are a hassle when I’m at my desk. The majority of the time I listen to Spotify through the Amazon Echo Input.

I added the Onkyo amplifier to the system last year and it made a huge difference to the quality. The music suddenly had more power. The two-channel amp pushes harder than the receiver, and resulted in audio that was more expansive and clear. And at any volume, too. I didn’t know what I was missing. That’s the trick with audio. Most of the time the audio sounds great until it suddenly sounds better. The Echo Link provided me with the same feeling of discovery.

To be clear, the $200 Echo Link does not provide a night and day difference in my audio quality. It’s a slight upgrade over the audio outputted by a $20 Echo Input — and don’t forget, an Echo device (like the $20 Echo Input) is required to make the Echo Link work.

The Echo Link provides the extra juice lacking from the Echo Input or Dot. Those less-expensive options output audio to an audio system, but only through an analog connection. The Echo Link offers a digital connection through Toslink or Digital Coax. It has analog outputs that’s powered by a DAC with a superior dynamic range and total harmonic distortion found in the Input or Dot. It’s an easy way to improve the quality of music from streaming services.

The Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp, also feature a headphone amp. It’s an interesting detail. With this jack, someone could have the Echo Link on their desk and use it to power a set of headphones without any loss of quality.

I set up a simple A/B test to spot the differences between a Link and a Dot. First, I connected the Echo Link with a Toslink connection to my receiver and an Echo Input. I also connected an Echo Dot through its 3.5mm analog connection to the receiver. I created a group in the Alexa app of the devices. This allowed each of the devices to play the same source simultaneously. Then, as needed, I was able to switch between the Dot and Link with just a touch of a button, providing an easy and quick way to test the differences.

I’ll leave it up to you to justify the cost. To me, as someone who has invested money into a quality audio system, the extra cost of the Echo Link is worth it. But to others, an Echo Dot could be enough.

It’s important to note that the Echo Link works a bit differently than other Echo devices connected to an audio system. When, say, a Dot is connected to an audio system, the internal speakers are turned off and all of the audio is sent to the system. The Echo Link doesn’t have to override the companion Echo. When an Echo Link is connected to an Echo device, the Echo still responds through its internal speakers; only music is sent to the Echo Link. For example, when the Echo is asked about the weather, the forecast is played back through the speakers in the Echo and not the audio system connected to the Echo Link. In most cases, this allows the owner to turn off the high-power speakers and still have access to voice commands on the Echo.

The Echo Link takes streaming music and instantly improves the quality. In my case, the improvements were slight but noticeable. It works with all the streaming services supported by Echo devices, but it’s important to note it does not work with Tidal’s high-res Master Audio tracks. The best the Echo Link can do is 320 kbps from Spotify or Tidal. This is a limiting factor and it’s not surprising. If the Echo Link supported Tidal’s Master Tracks, I would likely sign up for that service, and that is not in the best interest of Amazon, which hopes I sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited.

I spoke to Amazon about the Echo Link’s lack of support for Tidal Master Tracks and they indicated they’re interested in hearing how customers will use the device before committing to adding support.

The Link is interesting. Google doesn’t have anything similar in its Google Home Line. The Sonos Amp is similar, but with a built-in amplifier, it’s a closer competitor to the Echo Link Amp. Several high-end audio companies sell components that can stream audio over digital connections, yet none are as easy to use or as inexpensive as the Echo Link. The Echo Link is the easiest way to improve the sound of streaming music services.

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Over a quarter of US adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

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U.S. smart speaker owners grew 40 percent over 2018 to now reach 66.4 million — or 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population — according to a new report from Voicebot.ai and Voicify released this week, which detailed adoption patterns and device market share. The report also reconfirmed Amazon Echo’s lead, noting the Alexa-powered smart speaker grew to a 61 percent market share by the end of last year — well above Google Home’s 24 percent share.

These findings fall roughly in line with other analysts’ reports on smart speaker market share in the U.S. However, because of varying methodology, they don’t all come back with the exact same numbers.

For example, in December 2018, eMarketer reported the Echo had accounted for nearly 67 percent of all U.S. smart speaker sales in 2018. Meanwhile, CIRP last month put Echo further ahead, with a 70 percent share of the installed base in the U.S.

Though the percentages differ, the overall trend is that Amazon Echo remains the smart speaker to beat.

While on the face of things this appears to be great news for Amazon, Voicebot’s report did note that Google Home has been closing the gap with Echo in recent months.

Amazon Echo’s share dropped nearly 11 percent over 2018, while Google Home made up for just over half that decline with a 5.5 percent gain, and “other” devices making up the rest. This latter category, which includes devices like Apple’s HomePod and Sonos One, grew last year to now account for 15 percent of the market.

That said, the Sonos One has Alexa built-in, so it may not be as bad for Amazon as the numbers alone seem to indicate. After all, Amazon is selling its Echo devices at cost or even a loss to snag more market share. The real value over time will be in controlling the ecosystem.

The growth in smart speakers is part of a larger trend toward voice computing and smart voice assistants — like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant — which are often accessed on smartphones.

A related report from Juniper Research last month estimated there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion in use at the end of 2018. This is due to the increased use of smartphone assistants as well as the smart speaker trend, the firm said.

Voicebot’s report also saw how being able to access voice assistance on multiple platforms was helping to boost usage numbers.

It found that smart speaker owners used their smartphone’s voice assistant more than those who didn’t have a smart speaker in their home. It seems consumers get used to being able to access their voice assistants across platforms — now that Siri has made the jump to speakers and Alexa to phones, for instance.

The full report is available on Voicebot.ai’s website here.

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