We're all concerned about spreading germs via pretty much anything right now -- including our A/V gear. But don't worry, you can do pretty much everything you want without having to touch a remote or press any buttons on your gear, and all without breaking your bank account. Whether you're already set up with voice control or want to find out how to do it, we're going to cover some of the ways it can make enjoying your entertainment easier, and less hands-on.
Home automation used to be reserved for the likes of the wealthy enthusiasts and Kayne West's of the world -- people who had no problem dropping tens of thousands of dollars on gear from independent companies like Crestron. And it was hardly a plug-and-play affair, as you had to buy everything from a specialized dealer and have it all installed by a pro. In other words, just a few years ago, home automation was too expensive and complicated for most people to consider.
That was then, this is now. Nowadays, advanced home control is well within the reach of most people, cost-wise. It's also far easier to set up and manage, plus it offers so much functionality, in that it has something everyone in the family can make use of. And one of the biggest draws of having a smart home is voice control. Forget hunting under the couch for that sticky remote your kids spilled a milkshake on, or your dog decided to make his new chew toy. Instead, you can do just about anything that remote would have let you do, and a lot more, just by asking.
Two brands, too many options
There are two major players in the mass-market voice control: Google and Amazon. Google's smart home ecosystem is powered by its Google Assistant AI, while Amazon's is powered by its own version named Alexa. Amazon calls all its Alexa-enabled devices Echo something. Echo Dot, Echo Show, Echo Studio, just plain Echo. (Note: Last year Google merged their ecosystem with the previously-acquired Nest, and are rebranding Google Home devices as Google Nest Home devices. They're right in the middle of it, though, so it can be a little confusing trying to figure out if products like Google Home and Nest Mini are part of the same family. They are, but for this article, I'll be focusing on the standard Google Home and get to the other options in the end.)
In terms of cost, functionality, and ease of use, they cover a wide range and apples-to-apples are pretty much on par with each other in terms of smart home functionality. You ask your digital voice assistant to do something, it does it. The main difference is the brains. Very generally, Google's AI is best for searching overall while Alexa is best for shopping on Amazon. No surprise there. And of course, each has associated phone apps that you'll be using a lot to set up and manage things. Google's is a bit more all-inclusive and easier to manage, while Alexa relies a lot on independent "skills" that other companies can program into it to work with their hardware or services. There are currently more than 100,000 of them, but fear not, Amazon has a Skill Finder to help you find and enable the ones you want. Some of them are very specific and there's no Google substitute for them. If you want to ask Capital One your balance before you leave the house to go shopping, they've got you covered with a skill for that. But many of the skills, such as "What beer?", are pretty niche, and the kind of thing you could simply ask Google about and get the info you need without having to find and enable a specific skill for it.
A Google Home or Amazon Echo smart speaker will get you started, then you'll need to have a source device to bridge the gap between them and your A/V gear. Amazon makes it even easier by selling a Firestick with an included Alexa voice control remote, but that isn't a substitute for an independent smart speaker like an Echo, so you'll want one of those if you want an experience on par with Google Home and Chromecast combo. And Chromecast gives you the added benefit of being able to "cast" what's on your phone or tablet to your TV. It's a simple screen mirroring function that can work great for some stuff that we'll get to later in the article.
Of course, those are the first-party solutions, but plenty of third-party hardware manufacturers offer Google Home and Alexa integration, like Roku, many smart TVs, and even some DVRs like Dish Network's Hopper.
Now there's a whole lot of stuff you can do with these devices, but we're mainly focusing on voice controlling entertainment, since we're all about A/V at HomeTheaterReview, and we're all trying to keep our hands to ourselves at the moment.
(And if you don't have any of this stuff and don't want to run out to the store anytime soon, don't worry. You can order any of these devices shipped to you in a matter of days and set up everything in under an hour. We'll give recommendations on which ones to buy in the wrapup, and I'll mostly be referring to them as Google or Amazon devices rather than their specific product names since there are so many options.
Say it to play it
The biggest, best, and most touchless thing you can do with either Google or Amazon's smart speakers is to simply ask it to play what you want to watch. Just like that. "Alexa, play The Godfather." Bam. Three seconds later the opening credits come up on the screen. It's that simple, and it's wonderful.
Nice as it is right now to operate your AV system without touching a thing, voice control really shines when you don't know what you want to watch. It replaces the endless scrolling through menus with the much more effective, "What's another movie like ________?" Because each ecosystem gets to know you over time, outside of the recommendations you get from all those streaming services, you get an added layer of soothing, AI guidance. I can't stress how much more enjoyable it is to just say "Alexa, what are some good westerns?" then get a list onscreen of what's available within my given apps.
Google's big brain makes it easier to search for random things by simply trying out different questions, and following up those questions with more questions, up to three in a row. So after you watch Young Guns you can ask it, "Who played Billy the Kid?" and it'll tell you "Emilio Estevez," then you can follow right up with, "What's another popular movie he's in?" and it will list some off. In short, it feels more like having a conversation with someone and less like directing an AI to entertain you.
Both Google and Amazon respond well to general questions, though. Stuff like "what are some nature documentaries" or "what are good cartoons for kids" will give you comparable responses. If you're not using a first-party media streamer, you might have to add a few words to your commands, like "find documentaries on the bedroom Roku," but that's not all that difficult.
But the setup process for all this must be a total pain, right? Nope. It's actually surprisingly easy. I set my mom up with some Firesticks for her TVs a couple of years ago and was prepped for a headache. But then I plugged them into the HDMI port, followed the onscreen instructions, and went from zero to The Godfather in maybe ten minutes. A Google Home/Chromecast combo is a bit more complicated since there's no included remote. So you'll have to use your phone to set it up via the app, but it's also pretty painless.
And that setup time will be the last time you ever need to touch anything. It's voice-control from there on out. For everything. Stop, start, pause, fast-forward, rewind -- if you can do it with a remote, you can do it with an Alexa or Google Home connected to the right source component. In fact, Google used to use the tagline "Your voice is the remote" for the Chromecast for a while. While Chromecast started life as a screen-mirroring (I mean, casting) device, Google Home integration has made it much more useful.
Like many of you, I'm a silver disc guy, but it's no secret that many people rely solely on streaming for their entertainment. And since I'm not about to run out to Best Buy or have a box sent from Amazon right now, I'll be relying on streaming for the time being, too. (But if the internet goes down I've got those silver discs of 2001, Aliens, Die Hard and all my faves, alive and well, to keep me busy.)
The most affordable voice-controlled multi-room audio system around
Multi-room music distribution is one of the coolest things about both ecosystems, provided you own more than one smart speaker, and isn't really advertised by either company. Google enabled the functionality for all their Home devices last fall when Nest Mini launched, while Amazon had it a couple of years earlier, but only for the initial line of Echo devices. But now they've enabled it for all Echo models, so you're good either way.
As with some of Alexa's skills, Amazon requires a separate step for this, and you'll have to set up speaker groupings in the Alexa app in advance. With Google, you just say "Hey Google, play Beethoven's Fifth on all speakers" into the closest one and you'll hear "dun dun dun duuuunnnnn" all through the house, on however many Google Home devices you have. The downside is that it's an all or nothing affair, while Alexa allows you to create numerous different groupings of devices. So if you've got two Echos upstairs and two downstairs, you can make each its own speaker group. With Google you'll have to ask it to play on each one, i.e. "Play Beethoven on the kitchen and living room speaker." (If you have multiple devices but don't specify a speaker, it will simply play on the one closest to your voice in either ecosystem.)
Even better, both have stereo support for multiple devices as well. Though again, it's not really advertised, and while Echo devices have had it for a while it only became possible with Google devices last fall when the Nest Mini speaker debuted. You'll have to dive into either app to enable it, but it's well worth it if you have two of them in the same room.
Are you going to be blown away by the audio quality of any of the Google or Amazon devices? Not likely, aside from perhaps the Echo Studio or Google Home Max. Though I've generally found that it was better than I expected with the standard Google Home and Amazon Echo, even the highest-end Google offering, Google Home Max, won't satisfy the average audiophile. The similar-sized and a bit higher-priced Sonos: Play 5 would be the best choice for sound quality in a singular smart speaker, and works with both ecosystems. But you could get five Amazon Echo's or Google Home's for the price of one Sonos: Play 5 and have a voice-controlled smart speaker in every room of the house.
Just like with the video streaming services, both Google and Amazon devices likely work with one of your favorite audio streaming services. Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, etc. are all covered. As mentioned above, most of the speakers on their own aren't audiophile-grade, but ideally, they will be connected to your own main system and you won't be reliant on them entirely. And it's just as easy to search around for music using your voice as it is with video.
Less A/V, more family
We'll all likely be in close quarters with family for a bit, and in that regard it's worth mentioning that there are lots of ways to make the most of these devices at the moment. There's lots of ways they can entertain and help your family out during the day.
Now is a great time to dive into the family photo album and look back on less-pandemic times. But even though actual physical photos aren't the norm anymore, you still need to get hands-on with mouse-clicking or phone-swiping to look through your digital photos. One of the big pluses of Google's smart home ecosystem is that you get to benefit from the integration of so many of their popular apps and services. If you use Google Photos, you can cast them to the TV anytime you want, and Google's scarily accurate AI can make it easy to find any pic you want without scrolling around. Just give it a date, timeframe, or location to work with and see what happens. Say, "show me my photos from last week," and it will start a slideshow for you in chronological order. If you say something like, "Show me my photos from Hawaii," it will search through the geotags on your photos and load up a slideshow accordingly. And, getting into either creepy or curious territory depending on how you look at it, there's something called "familiar faces" that lets you keep track of who you take photos of, and assign names to each. So you can say "show me photos of me and Bob," and it will pull up photos of you and Bob, with no need to navigate menus.
And, much like multi-room audio, you can use more than one device as a family intercom. Amazon calls it "Drop in" and Google calls it "broadcasting." Tell it which speaker in the house you want to be heard on and what you want to say. But Amazon uses your live voice in real-time and lets you listen in on the other speaker, while Google will only let you broadcast a message (like "Hey kids, dinner is ready") between them. So, I'd be on top of those parental controls in the app if I was using Amazon devices to make sure the kids don't get carried away in either direction. (Don't worry, both Amazon and Google have a wealth of parental control options.)
Both ecosystems allow for different voice profiles, so you can get personalized answers to stuff. But with Google, it will apply it to all of the Google apps and services you use automatically. Each will get a response based on the info in the related app or service, so if your family uses Google Calendar, you can say, "what time is my first meeting today?" and get an answer based on your own schedule, while your significant other can do the same and get theirs. Similarly, children in the home are restricted to what they can get the device to do simply by the sound of their voice, part of the parental controls I mentioned above.
Fun fact about using a Google Home and Amazon Alexa for music: you don't have to remember the name of a song to play it. With Google, you can simply hum the tune. Just say "Hey Google, play that song that goes dun dun dun duuuunnnnn." It works with lots of songs, actually. There's a way to have some fun with the family for a few hours. You can also say stuff like "Alexa, play that song that goes 'I want my MTV'," and "Money for Nothing" will start cranking."
Then and now and how much?
Way back in 2014 Home Theater Review reviewed the Crestron MLX-3 remote, which cost $499 at the time, and required a Crestron control system like their entry-level MC3 option, which ran $1499. So for two grand plus who-knows-how-much for programming and labor, you got a nice Crestron starter kit. But Google and Amazon have gotten that smart home starter kit buy-in price down much, much further, and added a ton of functionality on top of it. (And we should point out that the premium home automation companies--Crestron, Lutron, and Control4--have integrated the Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa into their ecosystem now.)
If you want to build a voice-controlled AV system built entirely around Google, you'll need a Chromecast device to get started. If you decide to go all-in on Amazon you'll need a Fire TV. Other media streaming devices like Roku or Apple TV can support either voice-control ecosystems if you'd like to mix and match.
As for the voice-control ecosystems themselves, I'd recommend starting with one of their mid-range smart speakers and expanding outward from there if you like what it can do. A standard Amazon Echo or Google Home will run you about $99 and offers all the functionality of the ecosystem and decent sound quality for music listening. And that sound quality goes both ways, since each device needs to be able to hear you just as much as you need to hear it. The mid-range models have more onboard mics, making it easier to pick up your voice from farther away, or over the noise of whatever is going on around you, including music that might be coming out of it. But if you're more budget-minded, you're also in luck. At the low-end of the spectrum are the Amazon Echo Dot and the Google Nest Mini at $49. (It's almost like they're pricing these things similarly...) Same brains as their bigger brothers, just smaller speakers. There are also options like the Echo Show and Nest Hub with touchscreens, but the tiny screens don't make them great as home entertainment options, and you have to touch them, which defeats the entire point right now.
Personally, I think the smaller versions are best suited for being used as the satellites in your smart home, not the main hub. By starting with the standard Echo or the Home, you can decide if you like the functionality and want to expand it throughout your home, which is what the Echo Dot or Nest Mini are perfect for. If you start with a Dot or a Mini but don't just don't like what they can do, then all you end up with is a doorstop, whereas the mid-range ones can stand on their own for casual music listening. If the whole smart home thing isn't for you, then you can toss it in the bathroom for accompaniment when singing in the shower, or put it on the kitchen counter for dishwashing along to disco.
But if you get hooked on that initial smart device hit, there's a whole bunch of ways to keep it going and outfit every corner of your home with smart stuff that you can control with just your voice. From thermostats to security cameras to smoke alarms, they're finding ways to raise the IQ of electronics every day. And don't worry -- I'm pretty sure there isn't some kind of sinister Skynet-like AI behind all this, just waiting for a certain amount of mass adoption before initiating the End Humanity subroutine. Probably.
Do you have any kind of voice control devices as part of your A/V system? Which ecosystem did you buy into and how do you like what you got?
And most importantly, is it keeping you busy at the moment?
• AV Bliss Is About More Than Merely Audio and Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• One Thing We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Cord-Cutting at HomeTheaterReview.com.