Wireless earbuds. So apparently they’re back in fashion. Apple announces the Airpods and everyone follows suit? Well not quite. Although for those making wireless audio units, the bump in interest can’t be a bad thing!
Bluetooth headsets never really went away. They may not be as popular as they were 5-10 years ago, when every travelling businessman had a blue flash at the side of his head; however they remain useful for many.
Stalwarts of the sector such as Jabra and Plantronics continue to improve design and integrate with modern smart features.
Fitness and fashion have also kept the market afloat. I personally wore a set of LG’s Tone Infinim ‘neckbuds’ (I refuse to utter the term hearables…) for quite some time.
Removing wires between earbud and device can be a design or practical choice. Getting them out of the way in the gym is very useful!
In the modern smart landscape there is a new reason go wireless: simplifying interactions and using integrated assistants.
Design and set up
The Xperia Ear is a surprisingly comfortable fit. It doesn’t look like it should sit well, with an overall size disproportionate to the bud.
After finding the right combination of bud and hook, I found it sat comfortably. It also didn’t fall out even with a fairly vigorous head shake.
Ear is fairly small and discreet. Still it’s fairly obvious you have a gadget attached to your head. I got called a Cyberman at least twice. The closest item I can think to compare it to would be the Moto Hint from a couple of years ago.
Thankfully the constant obnoxious blue flash of Bluetooth devices isn’t present. You only get this during pairing. Instead there’s a muted white flash when Ear is operating. Otherwise it doesn’t announce its presence to the wider world.
One thing that draws attention to the Xperia Ear is touching it regularly. Most of the fascia is in fact a button. In order for Ear to listen to any voice command, you need to push the button to wake it from standby.
No doubt this does wonders for battery life but I never got over the mild anxiety of pushing it out of my ear with a badly aimed or overzealous tap.
Setting up the Xperia Ear was easy too. The companion app is available on Google Play and recognised a freshly charged Ear immediately. Once paired, I was prompted to download a language pack. A system update followed. Following that, options appeared to configure and personalise the system.
Also included is the carry-case slash charger. This diminutive holder easily slips into a pocket or small bag. Charge the case over USB and it will top up the Ear whenever you leave it in the top. A satisfying spring-loaded lid completes the case.
Let your assistant deal with it
Sony’s Xperia Ear can be used as a basic call handler. Just push the button when calls come in and tap again to terminate them. What Sony really want to get you doing though is using the unit as a more modern assistant.
Apple have been trying to get people talking to Siri like a real person for a number of years. Microsoft then developed Cortana. Google have iterated on Now until the current Pixel-only Assistant version and if CES is anything to go by, Amazon’s Alexa looks set to be installed on basically everything in 2017.
However you feel about it, it’s clear that the tech elite are highly invested in getting us to speak to our computers. For better or worse they’re also starting to deliver some logical responses to those interactions!
So where does the Xperia Ear fit in all this?
Talk to me
Sony have built an assistant, but it’s very bare bones. Talking at you in a female, vaguely Northern accent (with the UK language pack), she understands a few choice phrases. The companion app has a list of examples, which you can also find online.
As expected of a first attempt, Assistant’s results can be a little hit and miss. Also having seen the growth of systems Sony are looking to compete against, the integration with the phone is somewhat lacking.
For instance Ear can read incoming messages. Cool right? Well it would be if they got marked on the phone as ‘read’. So if Mum sends a text asking if I’m still coming round for dinner it gets read to me. Perfect. But if she then sends another, I get both read out, as the original remains ‘unread’ on the phone. Not great.
If Assistant can read the message to me, I shouldn’t have to reread it on the phone to clear the notification and avoid hearing it all again later. The same thing happens for Facebook Messenger.
This becomes a real mess during group conversations, where Assistant has to read out the convo name, followed by the message sender. Now imagine the rapid fire nature of Messenger, where people often send several short messages in quick succession. I have one group chat of friends that gets posted in several dozens of times a day. Assistant got confused quickly bless her.
Sadly the options weren’t granular enough to silence just this particular conversation from Ear. I ended up turning off the Messenger integration completely.
Following on from above, deep integration with other apps is lacking.
Take navigation for instance. A request for directions will load up Google Maps on your phone with the correct start and end points. OK that’s a good start.
However you won’t get immediate directions via the Ear. You need to go into the app on the phone, OK the route and then keep Maps open. That whole process kind of defeats the object of using Ear in the first place. I may as well just keep looking at the phone once I’ve got it out.
Also Ear can play music from artists stored on the phone. Yet I don’t know that many people that still have stored music files on their phone. With Spotify, Play Music and other streaming services fast becoming the norm, this almost feels like a redundant feature. I couldn’t find any setting to get Ear to recognise a playlist or command for either of these apps.
Still these are teething problems and may well be ironed out by software updates. Hopefully this updates occur regularly if Sony plans to integrate Assistant in new products.
Daily updates and news
Lift Ear from its case to your face and it will automatically turn on. If this is first thing in the morning, or Ear’s been off for several hours, then you’ll get a read out of the news and recent unread messages.
The news seems to be the top 3 headlines from Sony’s News Suite. Often these didn’t really mean much to me.
Also included in the start up speech is weather, missed calls, time and events from calendar. You can switch these on/off as you need them.
Of all these, calendar events were probably best handled. Here is where the Ear comes into its own; when you start to see it as less of a consumer gadget and more of a productivity device.
If you have a lot of scheduled events, and make more throughout the day, Ear is a simple way to keep abreast of reminders. Again though the lack of final polish and integration seeps through. There’s no editing of scheduled events once they’re made. You still have to get the phone out to make adjustments. An update away maybe?
I quite like this feature; however the focus on news and calendar integration lead me to thinking:
Should you just use Google?
As a long time Google user, switching Sony’s Assistant out for the Google App (an option in the Ear’s settings) created a much better experience. Results were inevitably better tailored to my profile. I also noticed a marked improvement in speed – both in retrieving answers and in processing speech. I did miss the Northern accent though.
If I’m honest, I used Google for most of my time with the Xperia Ear. So my train of thought starts to question why I need the Ear? Plenty of other headsets can use the Android Google App.
I think one half of the answer is the hardware. Ear is still a very discreet and comfortable unit. The immediate on/off when brought to and away from your ear is perfect. I also like the tailored approach to reading the day’s first messages, regardless of the app being asked to serve the information.
Plus I’m interested to see how Sony work on the software through 2017. There may well be further integrations with other Sony products. The screen-enabled Xperia Agent robot is already part of a larger plan involving Sony’s Assistant.
The audio quality is actually pretty decent, albeit coming from a mono speaker. It’s that mono speaker that makes listening to music pretty tough as an audiophile.
Speech is fine though and I happily held conversations through the Ear. The noise cancelling seemed to do its job. If asked about the sound of my voice I simply responded I was on a headset and got an affirmative OK in response.
Listening to a podcast or having audio from a simple YouTube video was also alright.
I did find volume to be a little on the low side. Also with your other ear uncovered, Ear’s voice can be easily drowned out. Walking down a busy street didn’t go too well either; too much ambient noise confuses the system when speaking to it.
To be fair though, you could say the same of any headset without large or powerful directional noise cancelling mics. For a fairly small in-ear nub, Ear does as good a job as you could hope for.
Sony Xperia Ear Conclusion
With only a single bud, I can’t listen to music. Plus even though I’m getting more used to talking at Google, I personally don’t have a full enough schedule to make use of deep calendar integration. For this review I had to fill my calendar with a dozen fake engagements to test features!
I think Ear definitely has a place. And harking back to the start of this review, I think that’s with the classic ‘Bluetooth headset user’. A salesperson with calls and messages regularly coming in. A manager who might need reminding when their next meeting is. Anyone who might need to jump in the car and zip up the motorway at a moment’s notice.
Here is where the Ear will find a home. Me? I think I’ll wait for the next couple of generations of AI and assistants to get really deep control of my life.
Until then I hope Sony continue to work on their own Assistant as a competitor to Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple with a closer tie to the wider consumer is something I’m very interested in.
Sony fans can definitely find enjoyment out of Xperia Ear. As a first generation product it isn’t for everyone, yet if you’re an early adopter and have a taste for trying out new toys, then it’s definitely worth taking for a ride. Oh and far more UK localised products need a robotic Northern girl doing the voice.
Xperia Ear is available for £179. First stock is available from the end of January.