Wednesday 26 June 2019

Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problem


Fantastic heritage: Bose Soundlink Revolve Plus
Fantastic heritage: Bose Soundlink Revolve Plus
Amazon Echo Dot, 3rd Gen
Motorola Moto One
Amazon Echo Show (2nd generation)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Question: I want to get a speaker for the house, but I'm baffled by the choice. Do I need to get a wireless one? It needs to work with my phone because that's where I now play music from.

Answer: There are literally dozens to choose from, starting at around €50 for one that will work adequately for music and radio in a normal kitchen. As with most things, you can spend a fortune on it - I recently tried out a pair in Arnotts that cost €2,500: the quality was amazing, but overkill for what most people need.

There's also the added factor now of 'smart' speakers, meaning speakers that use either Google or Amazon Alexa to not only let you play music and listen to the radio, but which act as internet devices that can tell you the weather, the bus timetable or remind you of your calendar (as well as turning things on and off around the house remotely for you, like lights and alarms).

If you're pretty sure that it's only music you want via your phone, your choice depends a little on how big a space you want to fill. To put it in old-fashioned hi-fi terms, if you want a main speaker for the living room that can play something like opera richly, you'll pay over €250. If you want something that sounds decent and can still fill a small room but doesn't quite have the depth and bass of a big speaker, you're looking at something in the region of €100 to €200. And if you mainly want something that is better quality than any radio but stops well short of what you might play at a party (although it might suffice as a background music machine at a dinner party), you're looking at €50 to €100. There are plenty of cheaper devices than that, too, but once you dip below €50, you're getting closer to the speaker quality of your phone.

As I said, there are literally dozens of options and brands to pick from. To keep things simple, I'm going to pick just two: a small budget model and one to invest in for good quality audio in various environments.

At the budget end, the best overall speaker that I have tested is Amazon's new Echo Dot (€60 in Currys but €35 on sale from Amazon). The audio quality is quite amazing for the size of this small gadget. It's enough for casual music or high-quality radio in a kitchen or bedroom and can absolutely hold its own in a study or home office, too. While nice and small, it need to be plugged in: it doesn't have residual battery if you want to bring it somewhere else for a few hours. It plays music in one of three ways. You can physically plug your phone (or CD player or other music player) into it, using a 3.5mm cable. Or you can 'pair' it with your phone (or laptop or tablet) over Bluetooth and just play music directly that way.

But most people who get one of these will probably use its 'smart' functions. If you have home Wi-Fi, this will connect to it (via an app on your phone). Then it recognises voice commands and plays music from whatever compatible apps you have on your phone, be it Spotify, RTÉ Radio or whatever. So to play a Queen song, you just say "Alexa, play 'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Queen" and it will reply: "playing 'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Queen from Spotify" and play the song. (The same goes for radio stations - you just say which one you want to listen to.)

To be clear, I'm not recommending this just because it's a smart speaker (although that is a considerable bonus). I'm recommending it because it has the best audio quality at that price point of any phone-oriented speaker I've yet tried. But one important qualifier is that it's just the newest, third edition Echo Dot speaker I'm talking about - the previous Echo Dot speakers, while okay, are nowhere near as good in terms of audio quality.

As I said, you can spend thousands on a speaker - €950 gets you Naim's wonderful Mu-so Wireless Music System.

But presuming that's not the level you're thinking of, I'm capping the upper end at what I think you might be willing to spend at €250. And for that money, Bose's Soundlink Revolve Plus speaker (currently on sale at €249 from Harvey Norman) is probably the best I've tested. Bose, generally, has fantastic heritage in portable audio quality and this speaker is just superb.

It can be used over Bluetooth from your phone or by simply plugging your handset in, using a 3.5mm cable (you'll get one for under a fiver from any electronics shop).

This one also has a battery reserve on it, so if you want to bring it somewhere for some reason, you'll get a few hours use from it. It's even water-resistant, so it'll put up with a bit of rain or a few splashes around a pool.

There's one brand I'd be careful about. You'll hear people recommend Sonos wireless speakers (the Play series, in particular) for their quality. From my experience, the audio is superb. Unfortunately, they're not beginner-friendly to set up. If you're technically handy, go for one. But if you're looking for something that's idiot-proof, I'd skip Sonos.

Recommendation: Budget: Amazon Echo Dot, 3rd Gen (€35 from Amazon). Regular: Bose Soundlink Revolve Plus (€249 from Harvey Norman)

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Tech Two

Motorola Moto One

Motorola Moto One


Motorola is the king of budget smartphones, so it's no surprise that its Moto One model is a decent performer. Their 5.9-inch handset uses 'pure' Android, so you won't get many of the annoying bloatware apps that populate other budget phones. It has a pretty good battery life and two rear cameras (but no zoom).

Amazon Echo Show (2nd generation)

Amazon Echo Show

€279 from Currys

What else could Amazon add to its kitchen smart speaker? A 10-inch high-definition screen! As well as impressive music audio, you can now order up newsflashes or watch full-length TV show episodes (via Prime Video) by using the voice-activated Alexa system. You can even make video calls on it.

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