Now that we have had a few years to live with smart speakers in our kitchens, the next place for them to go is the living room. That’s not an especially hard thing to do: just buy an Echo Dot or a Google Home Mini (or a more expensive speaker), put it on your end table, and you’re done.
Except... not really. The living room is also the place where you usually find what used to be the two most important gadgets in your home: the television and the sound system. Getting Alexa or Google Assistant hooked up to those systems ends up being a bit more complicated. Just having a speaker in your living room is fine, but you really would prefer better sound quality. And your TV is a massive flat-paneled opportunity for these assistants to become one of your primary computing platforms.
It seems like every few years the entire industry decides that the television is the Holy Grail of Taking Over the Home, and it bends its will toward a crusade to capture it. We are in the early throes of such a crusade right now, and the primary battleground comes down to a single, strange question: where do the microphones go?
We’ve seen products that try different ways to get a smart assistant integrated into your living room setup. The most obvious is just getting a set-top box or streaming stick that supports a digital assistant, like an Apple TV (Siri), Fire TV (Alexa), or Android TV (Google Assistant). These mostly do the job, but they require that your TV is on to listen to music, and they often require you to speak into a remote instead of just calling out into the room.
The most high-profile solutions that solve that “just talk into the room” problem are soundbars. We just reviewed both the Sonos Beam and the Polk Command Bar. There’s another one coming from JBL that integrates Google Assistant and a full Android TV set-top box.
What’s fascinating about these three soundbars is that they each approach the problem with a different tactic. The Sonos Beam is an end point that just wants to get audio from your TV (ideally via HDMI). The Polk Command Bar has both inputs and outputs so it can live in the “HDMI Chain” between your source components and your TV. The JBL is set up to be the source for everything.
The Fire TV Cube represents yet another way to get Alexa into your living room. You can speak out into the room, sure, but if you want to listen on higher-quality speakers, you’ll need to have your TV on. Otherwise, you have to figure out the output on your own.
In testing all of these solutions (excepting the JBL soundbar, which isn’t released yet), I’ve found each has its own particular trade-offs. Sure, you save the hassle of buying, plugging in, and integrating yet another gadget into your living room. But in its place, you have the hassle of making sure your ecosystem of products all speak to each other. That ends up being a mind-twisting mix of dealing with software platforms and where you’re going to snake your HDMI cables around behind your TV. You probably won’t need to draw a flowchart to figure it out. Then again, it probably wouldn’t hurt.
I don’t think that’s enough of a hassle for regular consumers to throw their hands up in frustration and wait for the ecosystem to shake out a little. But I also don’t think waiting for things to settle before investing a lot of money in a new soundbar or smart TV is a bad idea.
I’m not advising you wait because I think that digital assistants are likely to require so much more computing power in the future that your soundbar will quickly become obsolete. That seems unlikely. Instead, my worry is that there are so many different strategies for solving this seemingly simple problem that I am sure some of them are going to fail. Nobody likes spending money on a dead-end product. (Just ask the early adopters who led the way with talking to their TVs: Microsoft Kinect owners.)
Of all the solutions I’ve tried, I think the Sonos Beam is the safest bet. Even if Sonos bet entirely wrong on its digital assistant strategy, you’ll at least have a speaker that integrates with the Sonos system. But Sonos isn't for everybody. It’s a premium product that is often overkill for most people’s needs.
All of which is to say: if you want to get a digital assistant you can talk to in your living room, the safest bet right now is to just buy one of those little smart speakers. Maybe in a few years there will be a clear winner or at least a common understanding about which gadget should house the microphones that control your digital assistant.