When Google officially announced Google Home last month to compete head to head with Amazon’s Echo, it felt like the idea of having an artificially intelligent assistant in the home might have just started to become a reality. But how close are we really, and do we even want that?

The beginnings of an infrastructure to have the advanced sci-fi home we all dream of have been falling into place for a while now. Multi-room audio has become far more commonplace than it used to be with lower entry-level price points and universal ‘fits-all’ solutions from companies like Sonos and Denon that negate the former need for custom UI panels and destructive wiring into people’s homes required by yesteryear’s multiroom audio setups.

When Amazon released the Echo a year ago, few thought that its capabilities would be enough to cause mass-market adoption. Thanks in part to open APIs for developers to tap into, Alexa (The Echo’s ‘name’) has continually improved over time to now support over 3000 ‘skills’ (input speech that it can 
create an output action from).

Now that Google has thrown its weight behind integrating intelligent assistants into home audio set-up alongside Amazon, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before the other tech giants 
follow suit.

But are people actually ready to upgrade to the home of the future?

When I look around the homes of my circle of friends and family, I still see hi-fi stacks from the 70s and 80s: typically a set of speakers, a CD player, a cassette player, an LP player, an amplifier, and occasionally some equalisers for the fancy ones amongst us. And these hi-fi systems are sitting largely unused in the corner as people listen to music out of tiny poor quality portable speakers or straight out of the devices themselves. Apple may have finally put stereo speakers into the new iPhone, but they will never come close to replicating what comes out of a proper speaker due to the size of the device itself - and that doesn’t seem to bother a lot of people. Far too many of my friends will happily play audio straight out of their phone as background music at parties or to show me a new song, much to my annoyance.

It’s strange and surprising to me that the average person doesn’t seem to care about audio quality, yet they do care about visual quality.

It’s strange and surprising to me that the average person doesn’t seem to care about audio quality, yet they do care about visual quality. Everyone wants higher resolution TVs/Tablets/Phones (just look at the push of 4K as a ‘viable’ online video format). More depths in blacks through OLED screens and higher colour gamuts are often specs that are touted about to help sell a TV or laptop/phone screens, yet nothing is ever mentioned about the sound quality. 128kbs streamed mp3s are the norm from all the main streaming players unless you specifically select otherwise.

It’s true, a small minority of listeners want lossless audio such as .wav and FLAC files (FLAC is Free Lossless Audio Codec, an audio format similar to MP3, but lossless, meaning that audio is compressed in FLAC without any loss in quality). However, getting these formats means locking in with niche providers (Neil Young’s Pono music player for example), and is mostly a huge drain on mobile data caps; most users have no desire to compromise when they have all those more important instagram photos of food to upload.

I have to be honest: I love high quality audio. As a part-time musician, it’s pretty much impossible not to care about audio quality, since I spend so much of my spare time thinking about and creating music with my band and arguing about the finer points of a detailed mix, balancing each musical element to create the final composition. To this end, we have to use top of the range headphones or high quality speakers to even be able to hear the more subtle parts of a mix, which come at great financial cost.

And yet still I find myself on a day-to-day basis using the standard Apple headphones that come in the box, and at home usually my TV’s built-in speakers, or a set of £50 computer speakers from a no-name brand on Amazon when I want something a bit louder. There is a time and a place for high quality audio, and it seems that even I value convenience and lower replacement cost over quality. The bulk of my audio decisions come down to cost - I’d love a higher quality set of speakers but can’t justify the price right now: anything that has acceptable quality is still way out of my price range.

It is really difficult to envisage the future. Who would have said that in 2016 over-ear headphones would have made a comeback and be commonplace, and that iTunes would be a thing of the past 5 years after it destroyed CD sales?

Would the inclusion of a personal assistant get me over that initial price line? I must admit, the starting price of $129 for Google Home does have me very interested, but while the reviews for the units seem optimistic about the intelligent assistant’s future, all say that the speaker itself leaves much to be desired. This got me thinking - what if one of the current artificial intelligence assistant industry heavyweights (Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft) took their assistant (Google, Alexa, Siri, Cortana) and paired up with a high-end speaker brand?

Could that persuade me to jump into the high-fidelity audio market? It’s a possibility, although I can’t see any of those companies be willing to give up the hardware to another company - especially now that Google has decided to make hardware as well as all the others. It is still possible to send music to any set of speakers with the Chromecast, but that requires two 
parts and not the all-in-one lazy solution I’m looking for.

It is really difficult to envisage the future. Who would have said that in 2016 over-ear headphones would have made a comeback and be commonplace, and that iTunes would be a thing of the past 5 years after it destroyed CD sales?

The world of home audio and sound is highly unpredictable.

If the industry is going to head in this direction, we all need to think about the impact AI is going to have on the way we live today. Are we ready to have always listening robots in our households, ready to cater to our every whim?

There needs to be a very strong element of trust in the companies providing the services, as any data leak would be damaging beyond repair. At the moment, all the assistants claim that they are constantly discarding data until they hear the activation keyphrase (‘Hey Siri’, ‘Ok Google’ etc.) As we know, Google shares our email information with third parties, what’s to stop them sharing our conversation data?

If we are going to put AI assistants into our homes, it could mean that audio quality is relegated in importance beneath the assistant’s value once again, or it could mean that audio quality becomes vitally important.

Hopefully it will be the driver to make people care about sound again.