Alexa Tag

Darryl Wilkinson’s Best of ’17

Best of 2017--Amazon Alexa

Voice control is no longer a spectacular, high-dollar, glitch-prone technology only geeky early-adopters would spend the money on and then tolerate the hiccups. It’s still not glitch-proof, but voice control has become mainstream thanks to a number of big-name companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon.


It’s Amazon, though—in large part thanks to its enormous financial and marketing resources—and its Alexa Voice Service that’s brought voice control out of the maker spaces and into people’s homes. So, I have to say that Alexa integration into so many extremely affordable devices is at the top of my Best of ’17 list.


That’s not to say that having Alexa as part of wireless speakers, streaming TV boxes, puck-shaped squawk boxes, clock radios, and whatever else it’s being thrown into is a world-changing development. In my house, getting the latest weather forecast is the No. 1 thing I use Alexa for.


While I’ll admit to playing a lot of Jeopardy with my daughter (but only enough to rank it in the Top 20% of uses), the No. 2 activity I use Alexa for is a two-parter—and both parts involve my theater room. Part A is to turn on/off or dim the lights in the theater. Part B is to fire up the system for the particular TV-watching activity we’re going to enjoy. This might be, for example, watching a recording on the Dish Hopper 3 DVR or watching a 4K movie streamed from Netflix using the Roku Streaming Stick+ I just installed.

Best of 2017--Echo Dot

Early in 2017, Control4 made it possible to integrate an Alexa-enabled device (I use an Echo Dot in the theater room) into its automation systems. So instead of pushing a single button on a remote control to initiate a sequence of commands, now I say a single phrase: “Alexa, turn on Watch Dish!” or “Alexa, turn on Watch Netflix!”


Before you begin to think that’s a trivial, lazy-ass use-case for Alexa, I should explain the scenario. Most evenings, our family eats dinner in the theater room. It’s not easy fumbling for a light switch or a remote control when your hands are otherwise occupied carrying a plate, silverware, a drink, and (if we remember) a napkin. It’s a convenient timesaver that also makes the theater spill-resistant. (Though not, as we’ve experienced several times, spill-proof.)


Voice integration isn’t a control panacea. There are more activities that don’t lend themselves to voice control than ones that do. Alexa integration, as far as I know, doesn’t have any earth-shattering consequences, either. No one, for instance, is doing brain surgery using an Echo Dot. Although nothing in the home-entertainment world is all that earthshaking when you get right down to it, Alexa and the overall integration of voice control is about as close to a rumble as it gets in AV—which is why Alexa integration is my pick for the Best of 2017.

—Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

Merry Techfest!

tech gadgets--walkie talkies

If your Christmas Day was at all like mine, you spent about one hour opening gifts, one hour eating items with the word “candied” somewhere in the description, and eight hours performing some manner of tech support.


Yes, it was another tech-centric year in the Maxwell household, complete with Apple Watches, Echo Dots, and even some old-school walkie-talkies—which, judging by the amount of neighborhood chatter we eavesdropped, are making a huge comeback with the kiddos.


Somewhere around Hour Five of staring at LCD screens, rebooting routers, resetting passwords, and explaining to the eight-year-old how Stranger Danger applies to the world of short-range radio, I had a bit of a Charlie Brown meltdown. Is this really what Christmas is all about?!

tech gadgets--Echo Dot & Apple Watch

OK, I might be exaggerating. In truth, the Apple Watch and Echo Dot are some the easiest devices I’ve set up lately. (I’m looking at you, Xbox One X.) I think my frustration really stemmed from the question that nagged at me all day long: Do we really need any of this stuff, or have we reached the point where we’re just buying tech for tech’s sake?


The Apple Watch is cool, but it’s just a pricey conduit for the iPhone located 10 feet away. Have I really gotten so busy (lazy?) that I can’t just walk over and pick up my phone to access the exact same information? Yes, but waiting for that fingerprint recognition to unlock the screen takes soooo long . . .


As for the Echo Dot, Day One left me feeling like it was a nifty parlor trick. Perhaps as I more fully integrate the device into my life over the next few weeks and months, its worth will become more evident. I have several friends who absolutely love their Echo products. Voice control has become an indispensable part of their whole-house control systems.


The problem is, I don’t own a whole-house control system. I’ve got a couple of smart Lutron Caseta lighting switches and a smart Honeywell thermostat—both of which support Alexa, so integration was a snap. Admittedly, it was fun to be able to say, “Alexa, turn off the living room lamp” at bedtime. Of course, my very next thought was, “I really need to add more smart home products to make the most of this thing.”


I guess I know what to put on next year’s Christmas list.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

John Sciacca’s Wishlist for 2018

2018 Wishlist
Better Voice Integration

Voice controlwhether Siri, Alexa, or “Hey, Google”seems to be everywhere. And without question, people want to use it more and more for controlling devices in their home. But the reality is, it just isn’t quite there yet. Often in my home, the command, “Alexa, turn on family room lights” will be met with a spinning blue circle and silence, or a reply of, “I’m sorrythe device family room lights isn’t responding,” or “OK,” but nothing happens. When it works, it’s great, but when it doesn’t, it’s maddeningly frustrating.


Also, we’re still basically limited to asking for one thing at a time. For example, unless I want to create a specific lighting scene in my Control4 programming, having Alexa turn on lighting in four rooms takes four separate requests. It would be great if we could get to more natural speech like, “Alexa, turn on lights in the kitchen, family and dining room, and start my dinner playlist in the dining room at 25% volume.”


UHD Disc Rental

Once you’ve seen the glory that is a full 4K HDR movie with an immersive audio soundtrack, it’s hard to go back to slumming it with just Blu-ray quality. But there aren’t many movies I love enough to shell out $29 or more to own. However, I would be willing to pay Netflix or Redbox a premium upcharge to rent a UHD movie, watch it in the best quality, and then give it back. I already pay Netflix an extra $5 a month to upgrade to Blu-ray viewing, and I’d happily chip in an extra finsky for the privilege of renting UHD discs. There’s a new service called Rent 4K that looks intriguing and might just fight the bill . . .

2018 Wishlist
Solo Movie

While I was on line for The Last Jedi, a theater employee came out and hung a new Coming Soon poster that simply said, “SOLO, A Star Wars Story. May 25.” I was really hoping we’d get a trailer for this movie before Jedi, but no dice. I’m hoping Disney can keep the Star Wars good times rolling, and that the Ron Howard-directed Solo can launch a terrific new story franchise from the galaxy far, far away.

2018 Wishlist
Cheaper 4K Laser

The best way to experience 4K HDR movies on a big screen is via a projector using a laser light source. A laser has inherent advantages over a traditional bulb-powered projector, namely a wider color gamut able to reach farther towards the edges of the Rec.2020 triangle, far longer lifespan, no warm-up and cool-down time, less loss of light over its lifespan, and the ability to completely turn off for truly infinite black levels.


But laser comes with a fairly steep price. Previous models from Sony and JVC cost $50,000 and $35,000 respectively. Sony unveiled its VPL-VW885ES at this past CEDIA, and it looked stunning, with vibrant colors and inky blacks at a closer-to-real-world price of $25,000. I’d love to see one of these bad boys available for less than $10,000. I think that would be a huge shot in the arm for front projection . . . and the new projector for my own media room!


Not Getting Sick After CES

Nearly every year, I come home from CES and promptly get sick. The level of sickness varies, but inevitably it’s 3 to 4 days of miserable, post-show recovery. Coming home flu-free from Vegas is high-up on my personal wishlist for starting the new year!

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at

Heather Sidorowicz’s Best of ’17

Sure, I could dazzle you with talk of new and exciting tech for the home, but just because something is fresh and fun for the first week or two doesn’t mean it will continue to make a difference in your world. So here instead are five technologies I could no longer live without. OK, I could live without them, but I don’t want to.


Keyless Entry

There are countless options out there for keyless entry to your home. Mine is pretty simple—punch in a code to enter your house. Never again do I have to search my purse for the keys—and when you live in Buffalo, NY, where the temps dip into the teens, getting into your house that much quicker does make a difference!


Smart Assistant (or as I like to call it, my Personal Robot)

We have Amazon’s Alexa, but you could choose Google Home, and next year Apple will release the HomePod. Whichever flavor you wish, there are some basic, yet amazing, advantages to having an assistant. My favorites are adding items to my shopping list while my head is in the fridge, setting a timer for more than one time while I’m cooking, creating reminders for my kids to remember their instruments—and then, of course, there is music. Which brings me to my next item . . .

Best of 2017--Sonos One speaker

Music in the House

Never before has it been so easy to add music to your life. An avid listener, I use Alexa to control the Sonos Connect:Amps wired to my in-ceiling speakers. I implore you to at least try a powered speaker (like the Sonos One or Amazon’s Echo) and enjoy your tunes throughout the holidays and beyond. Definitely something I could no longer live without, for music sets the mood, the flavor, of life.

Best of 2017--Apple TV 4K

Streaming Player

We own the new Apple TV 4K streaming player because Apple’s interface is the most user-friendly. We began streaming TV three years ago come January when our DVR crashed, and we’ve never looked back. Honestly, the only time this year I desired live TV was for the kids during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. For that reason, I would suggest an off-the-air antenna as a complement to a streaming player.


Enhanced TV Audio

It hurts my soul when I hear of a poor human listening to TV only through their TV’s speakers. Of course, there is nothing like the all-encompassing sound of an actual surround sound system. (Full disclosure: I truly could not live without my surround system). However, for those who don’t crave the effect, there is a plethora of soundbar options available. These units range in price, but as long as you stick to a decent audio brand, chances are it will be leaps ahead of the rest.

There you have itfive technologies I choose to not live without!

—Heather Sidorowicz

Heather Sidorowicz is a frenzied mother of two who happens to also own an audio/video
technology company (Southtown Audio Video) in Buffalo, NY. When not designing or
selling or project managing or pretending to do financials, you can find her attempting to
stand on her hands at the yoga studio or writing in the third person.

Can Alexa Cure Technophobia?


I’ve had a few friends hop on the Amazon Alexa bandwagon recently, and invariably they all ask me the same sort of questions: “What are all the skills I need to install ASAP? How do I control my TV with this thing? Will she work my receiver? Can I teach her my favorite TV channels? What lights should I buy? Should I replace my thermostat?” In other words, they want Alexa to do everything, and they want her to do it now.


They ask me because they know I’m a huge proponent of home automation in general and of voice control specifically. My Control4 system forever changed the way I interact with my entertainment, and Alexa has changed the way I interact with my Control4 system.


So perhaps it’s a little surprising when I give all of these Alexa home-control newbies the same advice: Slow down. Take a deep breath. Stick your toe in the water and find what works best for you before you turn every aspect of your home-entertainment control over to this digital voice assistant.


And I say that for two reasons. First, there’s a lot that Alexa—and indeed, Google Home and similar digital voice assistants—can do, but that doesn’t mean you need them to do it all. Fill your Alexa app with too many skills, and soon you’ll find yourself tongue-tied trying to remember the words and phrases that control your lights, your TV, your Dish Hopper DVR, etc.


Second—and perhaps more importantly—voice control is still in its infancy. Rayva Roundtable compatriot John Sciacca and I are both Control4 programmers, and we often share programming tips and tricks. We’ve had tons of conversations that began, “How could I get Alexa to . . ?” only to end with, “So, yeah, probably not worth the trouble.”


We both agree that voice control, amazing as it may be, is pretty limited in many respects. Most things people want to do with voice commands could more easily be done with the press of a button.


Where we disagree is that I’m pretty okay with that. In my own home, Alexa has full control of my lights—I can’t remember the last time my wife or I actually touched a dimmer or light switch—and I have a few voice commands set up to fire up my home theater system and tune to a handful of favorite TV channels. Most of those simply serve as a convenience for those times when I’m on the floor, snuggling with our four-legged little boy, and don’t feel like getting up to grab the remote.


So how can I justify saying that Alexa has changed the way my wife and I interact with our home if our voice-control commands are as simple as all that? In many ways, I think it’s because Alexa has made my wife more comfortable with technology by giving a personality to these impersonal black boxes.


A year ago, she was a veritable technophobe. These days, she’s tinkering with skills integration just out of curiosity—coming up with new ways to manage our grocery list with Alexa, for example. And as a result, she’s thinking more about the ways in which all of our control and entertainment devices connect.


She’s asking more questions. She’s using our Control4 system more, and in ways that have nothing to do with Alexa but can be directly traced to the fact that Alexa has made her more comfortable with control and entertainment technology.


There’s something to be said for that, I think. Even if voice control isn’t the main course when it comes to home-entertainment control, it’s certainly the spice that makes it more palatable for some people. And for now, that’s enough to really excite me.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.