You’d swear Apple had invented combining decent music speakers and a personal assistant into one device. It said as much at its Worldwide Developers Conference last week. HomePod is serious tech: seven tweeters, six microphones and a big woofer bottled into a small speaker, and Siri on board to boot.
But it’s not the first. LG overseas already has speakers with Amazon Echo installed. Several makers of Bluetooth speaker have added Siri, Google Home and Amazon Echo integration by pairing with a smartphone. You typically press a multifunction button on the top of the speaker and talk to your personal assistant via Bluetooth.
Requests to play particular tracks or indeed any Siri, Home or Echo command is relayed wirelessly back to your phone, which activates your request.
Here, hitting a speaker multifunction button isn’t as elegant as commanding it from across the room and the assistant isn’t residing in the speaker. But that will come as Google and Amazon have released software development kits that allow any speaker-maker to integrate a personal assistant within. Google and Amazon will be keen for that to happen. Speakers will need to be WiFi-capable for this to work.
Last year I bought an Amazon Echo Dot, a cut-down version of Echo that you plug in to a speaker with a 3.5mm jack. It functions like a normal Echo but you have big sound as well.
In the meantime, here are four Bluetooth portable speakers on the Australian market that have, as one function, an ability to talk to your personal assistant using the same embedded microphone used for remote calling. They piggyback to a connected phone or tablet.
Ultimate Ears Megaboom Speaker ($350, 8/10)
Bluetooth speakers that deliver 360-degree sound are in vogue and Ultimate Ears is a popular choice. It is cylindrical with colourful fabric covering.
Sound wise, this is one of the best speakers of it size. Sound is loud and very clear. It is IPX7 water resistance-certified, so it’s protected against heavy splashing, rain and short-term immersion. UE claims a pairing range of 30m with Bluetooth Smart.
Link it to another Megaboom and use them as a stereo. Link several more in party mode. When a connecting phone gets a call, Megaboom pauses the music and becomes a speakerphone.
To make the most of the speaker, install the UE Megaboom app. Set up an alarm so Megabit plays your favourite track at wake-up time.
The Megaboom app has an equaliser for customising sound, which I particularly liked. I loved tweaking the EQ to get the sound tone I wanted.
Megaboom allows input into and supports voice from Google Home and Apple’s Siri on a connected device. There are suggestions it will soon support Amazon Echo’s Alexa as well. I had it working with Siri and enjoyed playing music from my phone with voice commands. The effect is nice. Activate voice by pressing the Bluetooth button quickly.
Bose Soundlink Revolve+ ($439, 8/10)The Revolve+ and its sister product the smaller Revolve are beautifully engineered aluminium Bluetooth speakers you might buy for looks alone. The Revolve+ I used is a little shorter and wider than Megaboom. The 360-degree sound is powerful and clear, even with volume raised. It’s hard to separate Megaboom and Revolve+ but Megaboom has one advantage; an equaliser in its app if you want a bassier or more treble sound. A workaround is to connect to the Revolve+ through third-party software. I used the equaliser in Tunes on a Mac.
The phones I used, PCs and MacBook Air had no problem locating Revolve+ for pairing with Bluetooth. Controls are on the top and include a button to activate Siri and Google Now.
Rated IPX4, Revolve+ withstands spills, rain and water splashes and Megaboom (IPX7) can survive dunking. That’s one-all. However, Revolve+ is built to survive bumps and drops and offers a little longer battery life. Both let you link multiple units.
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay A1 speaker ($379, 7/10) B&O’s Beoplay A1 punches above its weight and small size in sound quality and power. It’s housed in an aluminium frame with a grippy rubberised plastic base and a leather strap that begs you to hang it on anything. It could be your backyard clothesline.
It offers a surround-sound experience and, being small and light (just 600g), it’s for taking out and about. That’s the only justification I can find for the big price considering the size.
It has a 2200 milliampere hour battery and B&O says the A1 implements “adaptive power management”, which feeds the exact power to the amplifiers only when needed. Like the other three speakers, it can act as a speakerphone when taking calls.
There’s a 3.5mm mini-jack for wired connectivity and a USB Type-C port for charging. The Beoplay app has a simplified equaliser so you can adjust the tone.
Despite its amazing sound, there’s an issue with the A1 — the buttons around the side. They are tiny and on my black coloured unit, almost impossible to spot. Each time I wanted to, say, adjust the volume, I had to pick it up and go looking for the correct button. I soon gave up and controlled the speaker from the Beoplay app.
This issue does undermine using the speaker as a remote assistant as you activate it by hitting the multifunction button. But the A1 can support Apple Siri and Google Now as an external speaker. You can link the A1 to another A1.
Sony Extra Bass SRS-XB40 ($299, 7/10)
Sony debuted the XB40 at CES in January and I was able to channel the Google Assistant voice through this speaker. Of the four speakers it is the most flamboyant: a party beast. The speaker cones and grill edge flash in multi colour splendour and pulse to the rhythm of your music. The strobing blue, red and green LEDs make this perfect for your disco and karaoke nights. You can configure it from the Sony app, or if you feel sombre, you can turn the disco effect off.
The extra bass feature is a single button that turns up the boom. Sound is strong for its size, but this is a smallish portable Bluetooth speaker. And it doesn’t offer 360-degree sound.
There’s audio-in for connecting a player and DC out so you can play tracks and charge your phone at the same time. And it’s rated IPX5, splash proof.
Sometimes pairing wasn’t so easy. I didn’t have issues pairing it with an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy S8 using NFC, or my old MacBook Air. But it was invisible to two Windows 10 devices. There is a phone button for taking calls if someone rings while you’re playing music.
You can pair two speakers and configure them as left and right, or chain up to 10 speakers to create a conga line of music.
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