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Connect The Dots

19 October, 2017

So the market for voice-controlled ‘smart speakers’ for your home has picked up in the past year or so, with Amazon’s Echo devices, Google Home, and no doubt some Siri-enabled thing from Apple in the near future. Although I’m usually quick to jump on any technological bandwagon, I’ve been keeping away from this one thus far. This is partly just to give the technology time to mature, but mainly because I already have a Sonos speaker set-up, and I really don’t see the point of playing music on a $99 multi-function speaker when I have a couple of grand’s worth of pretty decent quality Sonos speakers dotted around the house.

But then that changed this week with Sonos releasing a new version of their Play One speaker (confusingly called the Sonos One) which includes voice control – which actually uses Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition / assistant. I’m still not going to replace all of my Sonos Play 1, Play 3 and Play 5 speakers (no, Thierry, still no subwoofer…) with these new ones just for the voice control, but in support of this new speaker Sonos also put out a firmware update that allows any existing Sonos speaker to be controlled by an Alexa-enabled device. And what’s more, to sweeten the deal, Sonos offered a discount of $25 off an Echo Dot (Amazon’s entry-level device), which reduced the cost to just $25. At which price it’s foolish to not even try the thing…

Sonos_AlexaSo today I took delivery of what may turn out to be the first of several Echo Dots. Of course, setting it up wasn’t as straightforward as the advertisements make it sound. I plugged it in, accepted the inevitable firmware update, installed the Alexa app on my phone (which I’ll likely never use again as I’m quite happy with Google Assistant on that), and then set about connecting my Sonos System. In order for Alexa to be able to do something, it has to have the necessary ‘skill’. Which is basically a software plug-in (but that apparently sounds too tech-y so they’re called ‘skills’). To get it the skills necessary to control Sonos, I had to log into my Amazon account from the app (which handily knew this Dot was mine, because I ordered it from Amazon, so that side of the set-up/registration was at lest done for me), then go to the Alexa ‘Skills’ page, download the Sonos skillset, and then log onto my Sonos account – which was probably just for pure tracking of uptakes and not to provide any Sonos-specific functionality…because even then I wasn’t finished. Alexa will only let you play music from a specific set of sources that it recognizes – and it won’t automatically obtain these from your (now) linked Sonos system, even though they are the same exact services. So despite having Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn Radio registered on my Sonos system, I still had to connect all of these to Alexa, one at a time, via the phone app.

And you really do need to connect these streaming services, because a huge downside is that Alexa can’t play anything in my personal music library (on my home server) – even though my now-connected Sonos system has access to it. A minor consolation is that Alexa will – unsurprisingly – let me play anything in my Amazon Music collection. Which, because I buy most things from Amazon and they offer AutoRip on a lot of things, does include a fair chunk of my recent purchases, so I’m not completely at the mercy of the streaming services. Maybe this (ability to play Amazon Music but not ‘local’ music) was part of the cross-licensing deal with Sonos, but I’m hoping that another update (or skill set) sometime in the not too distant future will enable this.

Anyway, at least I got my preferred streaming services up and running, right? Uh, nope. Not quite. Once Alexa told me everything was set up, I sat back and started barking orders at it. “Alexa, play Predominantly Shoegaze on Pandora in the Living Room”. (Yes, I have a Pandora channel called “Predominantly Shoegaze”; clearly I wasn’t thinking about voice control when I named it.) The little blue light ran round the Dot, and Alexa confirmed “Playing your Predominantly Shoegaze channel from Pandora in Living Room”. *pause* “Something went wrong.” And nothing. No music, shoegaze or otherwise. I checked all the settings, and it all looked good. I tried again. Nothing. Maybe it was Pandora. I tried something else. “Alexa, play Bob Dylan in the Living Room.”. Response: “Playing a selection of Bob Dylan in Living Room…Something went wrong”. Dammit! “Alexa, play anything…”. Response: “Here’s a station on Pandora we think you’ll like. Now playing Swimsuit by Cayucas in Living Room…Something went wrong.” Aaagh!

So I went back to troubleshooting basics: How widespread is the problem? I start cycling through all the rooms. “Alexa, play music in the bedroom.” same problem. “Alexa, play music in the kitchen”. And that played! As did the bathroom and the office. But not the ‘media room’ (which I think is actually the ‘formal’ living room (you know, the one you save for when the vicar or the police come round), but it only has my turntable/stereo and (deliberately) one chair in it, so I rechristened it). So I start looking into why half the rooms work and half don’t. After an hour or so of trawling the support forums, rebooting everything, and shouting at Alexa, I finally figure it out. In each of the three rooms where it’s not working I have a cheap Amazon Kindle Fire that I basically use as a remote control/display for the Sonos system (because I’m too lazy to get my phone out of my pocket and use the Sonos app – and yes, I appreciate that I have sunk to further depths of laziness by opting for voice control rather than just touching the screen next to me…), and I named these devices “Living Room”, “Bedroom” and “Media Room”. Because that’s where they are. Just like the Sonos speakers. Which is apparently a conflict in Alexa’s world – even though you can’t actually control the Kindles from the Dot. So I renamed the Kindles, et voila! now Alexa can find and control all of my Sonos speakers. Success! My life is finally complete. To the extent that should I end up paralyzed from the neck down through some freak horseriding accident (and it would indeed be a freak accident as I don’t even ride horses…) I will still be able to control my Sonos system.

So, all told, as a first exercise in voice control stuff it’s actually gone pretty well. Not perfect, but good enough. Of course I now need to get some other devices that I can control, and then build some ITTT commands to link everything together – so when I say “Alexa, it’s business time!” it will dim the lights, play some Barry White, and maybe start up one of the new IoT-enabled ‘adult toys’ you can (apparently) buy these days… Then we’ll be talking!

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