Hands-on Sony Xperia Ear review: We test out Sony’s Xperia Ear, a voice assistant that sits in your ear for hands-free smartphone control.
The Sony Xperia Ear (launched at MWC 2016 along with the Sony Xperia X and Xperia XA smartphones) is a dinky little device like a Bluetooth headset, which Sony is hoping will transform the way you use your mobile when it hits UK stores in summer 2016. We all hate those prats who saunter down the street with their faces buried in their smartphone, right? Well, here’s hoping the Ear is the first big step to ending that mobile sin and keeping our eyes on whatever’s ahead.
Packing dual mics, to clearly pick up your voice while cancelling out background noise, the Ear listens to your commands and dispenses info directly into your lughole. It’s designed so no one nearby can snoop on what you’re hearing, to keep any sensitive info (such as those flirty text messages) private. And in our hands-on session with the Ear, it certainly worked that way.
There’s no power button, which gives the Ear a smooth, simple finish. In fact, you won’t find any visible buttons at all, as the single activation button is hidden beneath the soft-touch surface. The Ear automatically switches on when you take it out of the bundled plastic travel case, while sensors inside can detect when it’s actually positioned in your ear. Those sensors certainly seem to work as intended. Stick it in your earhole and you get a cheery ‘good afternoon’ or ‘hello’, at which point the Ear is ready to use. That fit is comfortable and secure too; the Ear refused to pop out, even with heavy metal levels of head thrashing (my neck vertebrae weren’t too happy, however).
The Xperia Ear comes with its own app, which can be used to set up the device exactly how you like. There’s a built-in tutorial to get you started and you can customise everything including the start-up message that plays when you stick the Ear in. There’s also a Recent Searches section, which gives you a text transcription of everything you’ve asked the Ear recently, along with the given responses.
To issue a command, simply poke the surface of the Ear, at which point you’ll hear a ‘yes?’. Occasionally there’s a pause of a couple of seconds after you issue your command, just long enough for you to start to wonder if it actually picked up what you said. Thankfully the Ear plays a little two-tone noise over and over when it’s waiting on information from the internet, so you know that it’s hard at work and you don’t need to repeat your command.
It’s a mini gripe but we’d like an always-on feature that listens for a specific command (such as ‘oi, Ear’) to activate, similar to Siri’s hands-free mode. Perhaps this will come in the finished version, or an update soon after launch. Still, as long as your hands aren’t full, it’s not too much effort to simply reach up and give the Ear a tap, and it shouldn’t prove fiddly when driving.
The prototype version we played with could only understand specific commands, and seemed to struggle occasionally with my Northern accent – something that will hopefully be fixed in the final version. That said, the demo room was bustling with international journalists yammering commands into their Xperia Ear samples, and the dual mics did an admirable job of cancelling them out while concentrating on my own dulcet tones.
Sony’s hope is that the Ear will be more flexible and able to understand commands expressed in your own personal way, like Google Now and Siri. Just as well, as you might sound like a bit of a plank saying ‘tell me my next schedule’ on the tube.
At least there’s a wide range of commands that the Ear will accept, such as asking for directions, checking for missed calls and notifications, playing music, searching the web for info and checking your calendar. You can also set which app notifications that the Ear should read out, with the likes of Twitter supported as well as your standard Sony and Google apps.