Amazon and Apple beware: smart speakers star at IFA 2017 to rival Echo and HomePod

New smart speakers including from Sony, Panasonic, Harman Kardon and Onkyo were revealed at Europe’s biggest consumer tech fair, with several using Google Assistant to help play music, control external devices and much more

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 4:32pm

The runaway success of Amazon’s Echo smart speakers appears to have triggered a rash of similar products. An estimated 10.7 million Echo units had been sold since its launch in late 2014 to May this year, according to US-based Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, a figure no doubt behind the number of rival products from many top brands at Europe’s biggest consumer tech fair, IFA, currently running in Berlin.

Using Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice assistant, users can ask the Echo to play a particular song, make basic web searches, compile to-do lists, and even get traffic updates or weather forecasts. Google’s similar Home speaker uses Google Assistant, while Apple will sell its Siri-powered HomePod for about HK$3,500 (US$450) from December.

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Apple should be worried. In Berlin, the likes of Panasonic, Sony, Harman Kardon, Onkyo, Libratone and Anker all revealed similar products that will be on the shelves before the HomePod.

Sony presented a splash-proof, 360-degree smart speaker complete with a clock display and the ability to communicate with other devices around the home. Called the LF-S50G, this Bluetooth speaker with NFC has the Google Assistant built in and can answer questions, as well as externally control Google’s Nest thermostat and Philips’ Hue connected light bulbs. However, perhaps the killer feature is that you can change music tracks by gesturing a hand left or right. Expect it to sell in November for around HK$2,000.

Panasonic’s rectangular SC-GA10 speaker also has Google Assistant and is capable of streaming from Spotify, Google Play, Deezer and TuneIn Radio. Although it offers only 180-degree sound, two can be daisy-chained via Bluetooth to form a stereo sound stage, or even a multiroom music system.

The Harman Kardon Allure is arguably the most audiophile-attracting attempt so far, with a subwoofer inside an intriguingly transparent 360-degree smart speaker. It is due to sell in December for about HK$1,955.

Also at IFA, Onkyo announced its Smart Speaker P3 for October, which uses DTS Play-Fi tech to stream high resolution music from Amazon Music, Tidal, Deezer and TuneIn.

Smart speakers are clearly the hottest new trend in consumer electronics, according to analysts.

“We think demand for assistants – especially in the home, and as they become more sophisticated – will make smart speakers significant, particularly within an audio-market context,” said Simon Bryant, associate director at analyst firm Futuresource Consulting.

He added that while the audio market is much smaller those for than those for televisions, appliances and smartphones, “smart speakers arguably have the most compatible feature set – speakers and microphones – so we expect it to remain significant, especially in terms of consumer usage and engagement.”

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Bryant expects all major audio companies to produce smart speakers by the end of 2018, but that in the near future, voice assistants will become “hardware-agnostic” and available on a wide range of appliances.

IFA also saw a clutch of new smartphones unveiled.

Though LG’s new V30 flagship phone dominated, the event also saw the launch of the 5.2-inch Sony XZ1 and 4.6-inch Sony XZ1 Compact. TCL also showed off a special black edition of its 4.5-inch BlackBerry KeyOne handset.

If IFA is anything to go by, smartwatches appear to be a dwindling category. Fitbit’s Ionic was the biggest announcement; the brand’s first smartwatch will have a four-day battery life, act as a swim tracker and even be capable of making payments.

Samsung’s Gear Sport smartwatch can also make payments, but will be bought mostly for its extraordinarily lightweight design, weighing a mere 50g. It is also completely waterproof. However, with only a 1.2-inch display, it is also super small.

Far, far larger displays in the form of the latest televisions tend to dominate IFA’s vast exhibition halls every year, and though Berlin saw more brands embracing new OLED panels, there was something of an impasse.

The biggest TV brand in the world, Samsung, refuses to build OLED televisions, and though Sony announced the 77-inch A1 television, Bang & Olufsen the 65-inch BeoVision Eclipse, and Panasonic its 77-inch EZ1002 – all 4K models – all are expensive niche products.

“Within the premium segment, the momentum behind OLED is gathering pace as high-end brands put their weight behind the technology,” Bryant said.

However, TCL, Hisense and Samsung are all pushing the rival QLED technology, which is essentially an effort to squeeze more performance out of ageing LCD display technology.

“While OLED was a focus for many, with vendors keen to inform on the benefits of the technology, LCD sets were still on display,” said Bryant, adding that even LG – which manufactures all the OLED panels used in televisions – was also promoting its conventional LCD TVs at IFA.

Perhaps a more important trend in Berlin was to do away with TVs altogether. LG’s short-throw projector, the Pro Beam HF85JA, can put a 100-inch image on a wall from just 12cm away, while Epson’s EH-LS100 achieves 130 inches from just 6cm away.

Analysts have been predicting for years that projectors will one day bring a future of “screenless TVs”, and at IFA we may have had a glance at the truly bezel-less big picture of the future.

IFA Berlin ends on September 6.