Smart Speakers: About More Than Just Music

2015 has been another banner year for the audio market.  While sales of stereo headphones and soundbars have grown 18 percent and 13 percent, respectively, according to The NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service, so too have wireless speakers.  In fact, the wireless speaker market figures to eclipse $1.5 billion in volume by the end of this year as an array of pricepoints, features, and form factors offer consumers plenty of choice in the market.  There are also options for consumers when it comes to how their speaker connects with an audio source. Bluetooth speakers, which access content from a Bluetooth-enabled device like a smartphone, tablet or PC, accounted for 84 percent of sales this year. Network speakers, on the other hand, which have the ability to stream music over a home Wi-Fi connection, accounted for 16 percent of sales.  The advantages of these Wi-Fi connected speakers are most notably better sound quality and the ability to conveniently access content wherever it is saved- whether on a network connected device in the home or directly from a cloud music service.

The direct connection to the cloud points to the potential for network speakers to do more than just stream music and podcasts.   Amazon’s Echo, a network speaker which offers access to several music streaming services, also features Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa, and a microphone.  It’s possible to ask Alexa to cue up a song, but you can also ask her what time The Force Awakens is playing at your local theater, read aloud the ingredients to your favorite recipe, or tell you a joke.  According to Connected Intelligence’s Connected Home Automation Report, 42 percent of smart phone owners have used a personal assistant app like Siri or Cortana on their smartphone, but a speaker (or a couple of speakers) inside the home that can both play music and search for information on the web is a different user experience altogether. The Echo is a good sounding speaker, but music playback is hardly the lone use case for the device. 

The Echo is the first in what proves to be a wider field of “smart” network speakers that can access services and information directly from the web.  I’ve owned an Echo for about a week, and for me the most useful features so far have been setting timers (“Alexa, set a timer for 10 minutes”), getting the weather report, and being able to ask random questions such as “Alexa, how many millimeters tall is the Washington Monument?” (It’s 11.2 billion millimeters, by the way).   Sonos also recently took steps towards smartening their line of speakers, updating the PLAY:5 by adding an accelerometer and a microphone.  Both of these new components are officially aimed at tuning the speaker to match the acoustics of the room it’s in, though I expect the microphone on the PLAY:5 will soon be able to connect to a set of web services via a personal assistant, similar to the Echo.  In a multi-room system, this capability could be powerful, allowing users to access the functionality anywhere there is a speaker in the home. 

An even bigger opportunity exists when network speakers can control other connected products inside the home.  The aforementioned Echo is compatible with several smart home platforms including Philips Hue, WeMo, SmartThings, and others.  As the smart home market matures and users add more devices to their homes, control and monitoring capabilities will likely need to migrate to other places.  According to NPD/Connected Intelligence, control of smart home products is primarily done via smartphones (64 percent of smart home owners report this) and tablets (34 percent), but inevitably there will be times when a mobile device isn’t nearby or convenient to use.  Being able to ask a bedroom speaker to turn on the hallway light in the middle of the night, if done correctly, could lessen our reliance on these handheld devices while inside the home and make the experience of using and controlling smart home products a little more natural.

While one can argue the term smart has become overused in today’s technology lexicon, network speakers have the potential to become pretty darn smart.  But really, this connectivity powered by voice control could be incorporated into other consumer technology products.  In addition to smartphones, we’ve seen a few TV manufacturers dabble in voice control and media streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon’s Fire TV products also support voice-enabled search.  Consumers are getting used to using personal assistant applications like Siri and Google Now and as the applications become more refined and support a greater number of web-based services, expect them to become essential to how we interface with some connected products in our homes.  On the surface, smart speakers seem like yet another technology product we’ve connected to the Internet, but with access to a diverse range of web services and content controllable via voice, they have the potential to be so much more.