It’s not my fault that I’m very, very particular about how my music sounds. My dad was an audiophile who originally owned a record store and moved on to own radio stations. He’d build speakers for our home from scratch, going to Acoustic Research in Cambridge, MA for the very best parts. And then fishing through walls and floors to wire for whole home audio. These were large, stage/concert quality speakers and wow, it was magnificent even though I wasn’t allowed to play rock and roll or folk music. When I started equipping my own home for music, many, many years later, I started with some Bose bookshelf speakers in one room and then a 5.1 system of speakers from Cambridge Soundworks through a home receiver/home theater setup. But still only in one room/one floor And then, along came Sonos with whole home audio. I listened to Sonos Play 5’s in a showroom and was hooked. And of course everything was going digital and online streaming services were just starting up and I signed up for Pandora. I ripped my existing CD collection to digital and starting working on doing the same with my dad’s vast collection of vinyl. With Sonos Play 5’s paired up on 2 floors, I had whole home audio (the master bedroom shares air space with my loft home office and a cathedral ceiling covers both).
I’d been thinking about getting a pair of Play 1’s for the bedroom for a while and didn’t pull the trigger as I started hearing the rumors of an Alexa powered Sonos speaker. I’d been using an Echo Dot in the master bedroom, sometimes connect to a Bose Soundlink Mini II (which I mostly use outside on my deck in the summer). So, I when launch day arrived, I grabbed two white Sonos Ones.
I’d already enabled the Sonos skill in the Alexa app and linked my Sonos account, so setting up the new speakers was pretty fast and easy. Got them tuned with True Play. And they sound amazing. Alexa somehow sounded happier on Sonos One than on the Echo Dot
And then the first test, “Alexa, play Adele in the Bedroom”. Oh yeah, shuffling Alexa from Prime Music (where I have some playlists) and oh yeah, what great sound. A stereo pair really fills the room and while some complain about not having thumping base, for me, the balance is perfect. My music taste is pretty eclectic and ranges from Opera to Rock, to Blues, to Folk, to Jazz and to Classical.
There is one negative about Sonos that I feel important to call out. Since Sonos still (obstructively) relies on the dangerous SMB1 protocol for streaming from local Windows computers to Sonos speakers, I’ve moved to a DLNA based Twonky Server on NAS for streaming my huge collection of ripped music. Sonos really should be ashamed of themselves for not addressing this.
Alexa, What Can You do on Sonos One?
There are only a few Alexa skills that I’ve found that don’t work on Sonos One. You can’t make and receive calls (but for my usage, being able to make and receive calls on Sonos is not something I need, and I do have an Echo Show in the kitchen). On the other hand, I do like to call up my Flash Briefing when I get up and currently when I ask Alexa for my flash briefing on Sonos One, there is silence. I’ve been told this is a known limitation and being looked into. An Internet search turned up this Sonos thread on non working skills where after reading through all the posts, it seems that only Sleep Sounds is called out by name as not working along with the Flash Briefing. I’m not concerned about the sleep sounds skill since as an Amazon Prime subscriber there are plenty of Sleep Sound playlists that work just fine if I ask Alexa to “play a sleep sounds playlist in the bedroom”. But all the other Alexa skills that I currently use are working and I’m a very happy camper. Compared to using an Echo Dot and a connected speaker, well, for me there is no comparison. Sonos One rocks.
Harman Kardon launched its Invoke Cortana powered speaker on October 22, 2017 into an arena dominated by Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. As many reviewers have noted, the Cortana powered speaker is very late to the game. The hardware is terrific both in aesthetics and sound quality (I’d expect no less of HK) and I think the product is (currently) great for very small apartments and particularly good for folks tied into Microsoft’s ecosystem of Cortana and Skype and Office/Outlook.
My Invoke speaker sits on a kitchen counter along with an Alexa enabled Echo Show and I have a Google Home device a few feet away. In a sense, I have the best of all worlds, but I certainly don’t expect the average person to have all three flavors of digital assistant devices. I’ve got an iPhone and an Apple Watch, so I also have Siri available and of course Cortana is available on my Windows 10 PC’s.
For Skype users, there’s a nice promo for free calls to landlines and cellular (read the fine print for areas covered). Using the Invoke speaker, I find that the calls I make sound great and the party I’m calling does not detect any difference good or bad in quality or know that I’m calling from a “smart speaker”. Since it sits on the kitchen counter, it’s a handy device for conversation there while my hands are covered in whatever (and certainly the calls are better quality than yelling at a cordless handset in speaker mode in the same location).
One of my favorite features involves Cortana’s location based reminders. Simply put, if I say “Hey Cortana, remind me to buy Chapstick”, Cortana asks “when would you like to be reminded” and I respond “when I go to CVS”. Cortana then advises me of the address of the closest CVS and asks if I want to be reminded there. I acknowledge, etc. and Cortana sets up the reminder.This reminder is configured across all Cortana devices and when I’m driving by that CVS, Cortana pops up the reminder on my Apple Watch. I find this very handy when I’m in the kitchen and need to set this kind of reminder. Neither Alexa or Google can do this (although Alexa can set named reminders while Cortana and Google cannot).
Calendar and Schedules for both Outlook and Office 365 are one area with Cortana and Invoke that I find really useful. Being part of the Microsoft ecosystem, both are available as Connected Services. I can ask for my schedule and set new appointments. While I can do this with Alexa, the Alexa skill requires that I re-authenticate every so often, usually when my hands are covered in meatloaf mix when I’m not at a computer. I am hopeful that the Cortana connections don’t require the same down the road.
Music on the Invoke
If you don’t need whole home audio, the sound quality from the HK Invoke is terrific.But right now, the available music service offering through Cortana is missing some of the big names, but we know that Pandora is coming (but haven’t heard anything about Deezer, and I guess it would be a long shot to expect Amazon Prime music via the Invoke*). You can certainly pair another device via Bluetooth and play other music services over Bluetooth, but the quality can suffer. If you are a Groove—>Spotify customer, it’s pretty awesome. Playing music from Spotify via the Invoke as I work in the kitchen provides rich, full sound. As a speaker, it’s better than the original Echo from Amazon.
If you have a multi-floor home and want to fill the house with sound or are just moving around a lot, there’s no way for a linked speaker experience with linked Invokes. Alexa now has a synchronized multi-room audio function and of course there is Sonos. I’m invested in a whole home Sonos system with Play 5 speakers and with the new Sonos One with Alexa on-board, at the same price point as HK Invoke, I think it is going to be tough for HK Invoke to gain a large following. Perhaps down the road if the initial Invoke offering is successful, there will be enhancements to provide for multi room, whole house coverage. Time will tell.
I’ve got more Connected Home/Smart Home gear than most people. Cortana’s Connected Home Skills aren’t enough for me, but may be good enough for folks with simpler needs. At launch, the Connected Home support is available for Wink, Insteon, Nest, Hue, and SmartThings/Samsung Connect (Harman Kardon is owned by Samsung). SmartThings enables more complex tasks involving multiple devices, etc. and having my Harmony Hubs connected via SmartThings, I can turn on my Home Theater with a single command, “Hey Cortana” (same for Alexa), “turn on my movie theater” which turns on the receiver, TV, and cable box (etc.). I’ve got a lot of Hue colored lighting (bulbs, Lightstrips, Bloom lamps) and there’s no support for changing colors (or scenes) and that is a biggie. There’s no group or room support either. The “chandelier” in my dining room has three Hue Candelabra lights, grouped under the name “Chandelier”. There’s no way I’m going to tell Cortana to turn on three lights individually when all I need to do is tell Alexa to “turn on the chandelier”. Or turn on four individual lights in the living room, etc. Perhaps better connected home support is coming*. We’ll see.
There is a huge gap of missing “A” list skills. Microsoft states that IFTTT is coming, but there is no timetable. Alexa, which admittedly has been out in the market for a long time, has the real edge on skills, including geeky ones like Harmony, Dyson, Roomba, etc. and lots of great list keepers like ToDoIst. Cortana supports Wunderlist, which is a lame duck app now owned by Microsoft that is not being actively developed. There are a few useful skills, certainly Dark Sky, Fitbit,iHeart Radio, TuneIn and Headline News and maybe Food Network for recipes are useful (to me) and there are some that others might find useful. But most of the rest are “entertainment”. Just no comparison to what exists on the Alexa side. IFTTT will certainly help, but native skills are sorely needed.
I’m hoping that over time, there will be big improvements in Connected Home and Skills and that there will be a whole home solution for audio.
*There have been announcements about an upcoming marriage of Alexa and Cortana. This may fill in some of the gaps.
Hue and Lifx bulbs have been supported with Amazon’s Echo/Alexa ecosystem for a long time. One of the missing elements, the ability to specify specific colors or temperatures, was missing, although cool third party integration with Yonomi allowed you to create routines to handle specifying colors.
While Hue has been supported natively for a long time, to turn on the new functionality, go to the Alexa app or web page, search for “Hue” and enable the skill.
If you’re a hard core Windows Insider, you’ll want to be one of the first to know when new Insider Builds are available for download and corresponding blog posts go up. You can always watch @donasarkars Twitter stream (and check the hints that builds are coming in images she posts), but if you have Hue or LIFX connected bulbs, you can use IFTTT to set up an Applet (used to be called a recipe) to get a visual alert.
So I wasn’t invited to the Logitech Harmony Ultimate Alexa beta and I have some concerns about how Sonos activities are going to be handled with respect to Alexa’s voice recognition.
It isn’t exactly transparent how to add/configure the Harmony->Sonos->Smart Things->Alexa routines to start Playlists or Stations from your Sonos favorites after you’ve done an initial setup. You have to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty.
When you edit your Sonos favorites in any official Sonos App (add/remove, etc.) the Harmony App/Remote doesn’t necessarily reread the Sonos lists. To get a revised Sonos Favorites list to refresh for Harmony, you need to START a Sonos favorite, hit the star key on the bottom of the app, then scroll and hit REFRESH. Then you can edit that activity and select a new channel or add Activities and specify a Sonos favorite from the refreshed, up to date list.
Below is a screen shot of the first “page” of (scrollable) activities. The naming convention is something I’m working on, and I’ll explain a little further along in this post. Ideally, I should be able to use the same Activity Name across the board, but this turns out to be problematic and confusing.