There have been more sightings of voice assistant-featuring smart speakers than bratwursts at Berlin this IFA – and we've the gallery to prove it. Every show has a trend, and this one has been clearer than the 8K screen on Sharp’s show stand.
JBL, Onkyo, Harman Kardon and Libratone have all announced wireless speakers that feature one of the two most prevalent voice assistants around: Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. The Sony LF-S50G is the brand’s first smart speaker, and features the latter.
Thinking it looks fairly familiar? That’s probably because you’ve clapped eyes on the Apple HomePod or indeed the Google Home. That said, we like the LF-S50G's chrome base and sleek, cylindrical shape. The clock display that shines through the cover is a nice touch, and the Sony’s IPX3 rating makes it splash-proof enough to feature in the kitchen. (We all know the splatters involved in making spag bog, so we also like that the removable cover can be washed.)
If first impressions are that the Sony LF-S50G is a cross between the Home and HomePod, that's not necessarily a bad thing - especially if it can sound better.
For the uninitiated, the Google Assistant platform is a voice-controlled personal assistant that can respond to voice commands, whether that be getting directions, playing your favourite playlist or controlling elements of your smart home. All you have to do is say the magic words – “OK Google” or “Hey Google” – and start commanding.
Our demonstration on Sony’s IFA stand included music playback from Google Play Music (it also works with Spotify, YouTube and TuneIn services); playing a YouTube video and turning the volume up on a compatible Sony telly; and turning the room’s lights to 100% brightness.
Even in a rather noisy environment, the Sony proved obedient, not needing to be asked twice – although it didn’t appear to take too kindly to dodgy English accents.
The alternative to passable enunciation? Gesture controls (if, you know, you can’t bring yourself to say “OK Google” for the 628th time that day). You can wave over its top panel to skip tracks, or swirl your finger in a clockwise or anti-clockwise motion to change volume. Smart? Sure. But it seems your hand has to hover within a couple of centimetres of the speaker for it to work, and we aren’t convinced it’d be all that, err, handy a function for users.
Of course, much of the assessment revolves around Google’s platform, which has its highs - Google Chromecast audio and video compatibility and Google search - and lows - no support for Hive heating systems, Uber or National Rail Enquiries - compared to Amazon’s Alexa. But naturally, these skills can be improved with time.
More after the break
Amazon has recently added multi-room support to its Echo and Echo dot speakers, but Google’s multi-room functionality remains a stronger option, thanks to compatibility with any Google Cast speaker or Chromecast device.
The assistant can be used to control a whole range of other products, too. We tested a system that included five lights, three speakers and a TV - Sony suggests the limit will be your wi-fi before its the number of your devices.
As for more conventional wireless speaker functionality, the alternative to streaming from wi-fi is Bluetooth (with NFC). There isn’t a 3.5mm input, though, and we reckon the option of a rechargeable battery would be a welcome future consideration.
On trend with rival omnidirectional speakers such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, Bose SoundLink Revolve, Panasonic SC-GA10 and the upcoming Apple HomePod, the Sony LF-S50G also delivers “smart sound all around” with its 360-degree presentation.
That’s thanks to a full-range driver and a bass driver, positioned to fire at each other (with the bass driver on top firing down on to the single driver) and a diffuser plate in between them that spreads the sound around.
Naturally, the demonstration of sound quality was at war with the thrum of a trade show, but we can say that we were impressed with the volume levels, and the clarity and dynamics demonstrated.
For a speaker the size of an aubergine, it goes room-fillingly loud. Considering we're yet to be bowled over by the sonic quality of smart speakers such as these compared to more traditional wireless speakers, like the Sonos Play:1 and UE Boom 2, the Sony voice-controlled speaker shows promise. Sony also has a good track record with its similarly-sized SRS wireless speakers.
We're looking forward to fully testing this slew of smart speakers when they start hitting shelves towards the end of the year.
Until then, we can remain hopeful that the Sony LF-S50G has the sonic performance to enhance its sleek, practical design and Google Assistant skills.