My house is littered with enough smart speakers for my home to become just shy of sentient. The whole place is connected and bugged.
Because Google was first to market in Canada, I jumped into that pond first. I have one Google Max (kitchen counter), one Google Home (in my home studio), and two Google Minis (one in the home office and the other in my workout room).
If that’s not enough, I just set up two Alexa devices: an Echo in the kitchen (the Google Max seems to like the company) and an Echo Dot in the bedroom. (Apple? If you want me to test a HomePod, I suggest you hurry because I’m running out of rooms.)
All these devices are known as “headless,” which is a somewhat odd way of referring to hardware without screens or any touch devices. The only way they function (after you set them up with an app on your smartphone, of course) is through voice. And both sets of units are pretty good when it comes to understanding natural language commands.
Along with pedestrian requests like weather forecasts, last night’s sports scores, setting a timer for the barbeque, and the most recent Lotto 6-49, both Google Assistant and Alexa are pretty good at responding to requests for music. There are, however, some differentiating quirks.
For example, I can say “Alexa, play me rock songs from 1973” and it she (sorry, but you can’t help personifying these things) and will assemble a playlist on the fly and will start playing songs from that year. On the other hand, Google Assistant seems confused by such a request. “I’m sorry, but I looked for Rock Songs from 1973 but it either isn’t available for can’t be played right now.” Hmm.
Next test: “Play me some dinner music.” Both devices played a nice selection of softer music.
Another test: “Play me some jazz starting with Miles Davis.” Both passed.
A test from The Wife: “Play Rhapsody in Blue.” Alexa returned a with an acceptable version while Google Home insisted that we listen to a Henry Mancini recording. The Wife declared that an epic fail.
From messing around with Alexa, it seems that Amazon has done a better job cleaning up the metadata associated with each individual song file. The metadata from the labels doesn’t include attributes like “This song is sad” or “This song would be good for yoga.” All this information goes into serving up better music for the occasion.
I had Alexa play me some alt-rock from the 1990s. I liked what I heard so when I had to duck out, I asked Alexa to save that particular playlist for me under a specific name so I could come back later and listen again. Interesting.
If you don’t know the name of an artist or the title of a song, you can just throw up some words. The Wife, who admits to having no head for this sort of information, can ask Alexa or Google Assitant to play “that ‘hey now’ song from Crowded House” and the right track will come up. You should have seen her face the first time she did that.
The Google devices have access to my Google Music subscription, meaning that it can sort through somewhere north of 35 million songs. Alexa can only access about 2 million songs with my current level of Amazon Prime Music membership. If she (sorry, there I go again) can’t find what I’m looking for among those 2 million songs, she prompts me to upgrade to the next level ($3.99 per month for Amazon Music Unlimited a single device) which then opens everything up to the same 35 million+ songs that all the other services have. All you have to do is say “yes” to get a free 30-day trial. That’s pretty cool.
If you have more than one Alexa device, you might run into a roadblock. Let’s say your kid is listening to another Echo somewhere else in the house when you make a request. Alexa gently tells you that your single subscription is being used, but if you upgrade to the family plan for $14.99 a month, will be able to listen to separate streams on up to six different Alexa devices.
I should also point out that Alexa doesn’t tie me to Amazon Music; I can also use it to connect to my Spotify account. Same thing with Google Home. (The aforementioned “Hey Now” request returned a hit from Spotify.”)
Streaming radio stations seem to work equally well. If I ask either to play 102.1 the Edge, both correctly start streaming my Toronto radio station.
All this is very cool, but I have this nagging feeling that this convenience is creating more disembodiment when it comes to a relationship with music. With, say, a Spotify playlist displayed on a phone or a computer screen, you can see the name of the artist, the song title, and the album. That might encourage additional exploration of that artist’s work. But when you just make a general request for music (“Alexa, play me the top songs”), there’s zero context for it. It’s like turning on a sink faucet. The music spills out and you think nothing of its origin or creation.
I find that a bit disturbing. It’s not the fault of Amazon or Google or Apple or any other smart speaker manufacturer. But it does say something about the increasing distance between listener and creator.
It’s also not necessarily great for music discovery. Sure, you might hear something new you really, really like, but with no screen or any other physical thing to refer to, that song might slip by without you ever knowing what it was or who did it.
Then again, we’re not constrained by any visual interface when it comes to accessing music. There’s no manipulation, subtle or otherwise, when we use our voices to request music. We seem to be learning of new ways to interact with music. New behaviours are emerging, which I find fascinating.
Smart speakers are seeing the greatest adoption of any consumer tech device since the introduction of the smartphone. Market penetration is exploding and the technology is getting better all the time.
I’m really enjoying having my house answer my questions and follow my orders. It’s a little Hal 9000-ish, but I’m not expecting to be blown out of an airlock anytime soon. Meanwhile, I’ll keep my stereo and my music apps handy, just so I don’t lose touch with eveything my smart speakers think I want to hear.
This weekend’s project?to see if I can get Alexa to play with my Sonos system.