by Eric Ravenscraft on
If you rent your home, you could feel left out of the current smart home renaissance. Fear not, though. There are still quite a few gadgets you can get to smarten up your rental.
If you’re looking for a whole house audio solution that offers a higher degree of flexibility than you’ll find by sticking strictly to the Amazon Echo platform (and cheaper than going with an ultra premium solution) the KitSound Voice One offers a compelling package.
The Voice One is a new (to U.S. consumers) offering from the U.K.-based speaker company KitSound. Available since the Fall of 2017 in the UK, it’s now available stateside for U.S. shoppers interested in Alexa-enabled whole house audio solution. The speakers retail for $179, which quite a bit more than the $99 second generation Echo and around $40 more than the comparably-sized Echo Plus (Amazon’s newer offering that mates the old speaker design of the original Echo with a smart hub).
With a price point set above Amazon’s first party offerings, the Voice One has three key hurdles to overcome: it has to sound as good or better than the native Echo hardware, any shortcomings that arise from the third-party nature of its integration with Alexa need to be overshadowed by good design and additional features, and it has to do so in ways (and at a price) that makes it stand out from any potential competition. Let’s take a peek at the speaker, feature by feature to see if it clears those hurdles.
On the hardware side of things, the KitSound Voice One is a sharp looking speaker with solid sound for its size and class.
It’s roughly the size of a shoebox stood on end, with a gray fabric covering the front and sides of the speaker (only the base, top, and rear panel are plain black plastic). The guts of the speaker include 20 watts of power spread between dual drivers and a bass reflex tube, seen in the x-ray cutaway below.
The face of the speaker offers a single control knob that also functions as an indicator ring (analogous to the light-ring found around the lip of Echo units), with an array of buttons arranged vertically above and below the center ring that allow you to mute the microphones, switch the input source, and play/pause the music. The layout of the buttons is replicated on the included remote control (which has a significantly heavier heft and pleasant hand feel than we were expecting).
Speaking of microphones, unlike the Echo proper (which has an array of 7 microphones) the Voice One only has 2 microphones. We were braced for this to matter, but in our tests it had zero impact on our user experience (with a small caveat, highlighted in the last section of the review). Even with the music blaring the Voice One had no problem picking up our requests.
On the back of the speaker you’ll find two things you don’t find on the Echo, a USB port and a line-in port.
Not only can you use the speaker as a modest charging station but you can use the auxiliary audio port to pipe in any sound from any sort that will output via 3.5mm audio cable. “Well that’s a nice feature!” you might be thinking, but hold on—you don’t know the half of it yet—we’re going to return to that little gem of a feature in the whole house audio section.
An eye catching design is all well and good, naturally, but looks and configuration side the heart of a speaker is the sound. So how does the KitSound Voice One stand up?
We were quite pleased with the sound of the speaker. Is it the absolute best speaker you can fit into the shoe-box-like space it occupies? No, most certainly not. Is it the best speaker you can fit into the shoe-box-like space it occupies with integrated whole house audio for the price point of $179? We think so. Not only that, but the only thing you’ll even find that comes close is the Amazon Echo itself—but there are so many great features we have left to highlight you may find yourself buying a Voice One instead of an Echo by the time we’re done.
When it comes to smarthome products there is one thing that you can almost always be certain of: aside from the big names like Amazon and Philips, the companion applications for smarthome equipment is a special kind of hell littered with bad design and frustrating user interfaces. We were genuinely surprised to see the KitSound app worked really well with no headaches in store.
The KS Player app was pleasant to use all around. It’s trivial to setup the speakers. It’s trivial to use multiple speakers (as paired left/right channel speakers or linked together for whole house audio). It does the few things that it does well and that’s all we could ask for.
It was no sweat at all to enable the Alexa functionality and to link the player and the speakers to our preferred music services. Once you’ve set one or more Voice One speakers up, it’s a breeze to use the app or Alexa voice commands to control them all.
Out of the box, the Voice One will play Spotify, Amazon Music, Pandora, TuneIn, iHeart Radio, Tidal, Napster, and any music that is on any iOS or Android device on your local network (via the KS Player app).
In addition to streaming music via internet sources or across the network via Wi-Fi from your mobile device, you can also hook any audio source up with a 3.5mm male-to-male headphone cable or pair any Bluetooth-enabled device with the speaker. Switching between inputs is as easy as pushing the physical buttons (located on the speaker body and remote) or toggling the input with the KS Player app.
KitSound doesn’t hide the fact that the Voice One supports whole house audio at all—in fact the whole house audio feature is front and center in all their ad copy. But, in our opinion, they really, really, undersell how great their whole house audio integration is—especially for the price point of the speakers.
You can link up 8 Voice One speakers into a network of whole house audio speakers. So far, that’s neat but not super exciting. After all the Echo supports multi-room audio (as long as you’re using Echo-compatible streaming inputs). Where the Voice One absolutely shines, however, is the versatility of the whole house system.
You’re not just limited to streaming Amazon Prime Music or the like. You can stream all the supported services on the Voice One to all the speakers and you can distribute the audio from the Bluetooth connection or line-in on a single speaker to all of the other speakers by simply grouping them together with a trivial drag-and-drop motion in the KS Player interface (and they’ll stay grouped until you change the grouping again).
Not only is that kind of smooth and flexible whole house integration more or less unheard of at this price point, but there’s even more to be impressed with.
Because the Voice One is designed to replicate audio from one speaker to the next it can do something that other cheaper Alexa-enabled speakers fail at: it can use its own hardware to send your Alexa-controlled music to all the other speakers (a feat that, currently, Amazon restricts to its own Echo models).
If you’re looking for an all-in-one whole house audio solution that isn’t DIY (e.g. Google Chromecast Audio dongles and bookshelf speakers) or very expensive (spending thousands of dollars on a Sonos system), you’re not going to find this kind of polished and flexible whole house experience in an all-in-one speaker as reasonably priced anywhere else.
In the case of the Voice One our complaints are few and far between, but in our commitment to properly testing and vetting all devices we put on the review bench, we’re going to highlight them for your consideration.
Let’s start with the issues that are essentially beyond the control of KitSound but with which you may have a problem. The microphones and response time om the Voice One are great, but the microphones on the Echo are more sensitive and the processing time is a fraction of a second faster. What that means, in a real world situation where you have an actual Echo and a Voice One on the same floor of your house, is that the Echo will often times snipe the request and overrule the Voice One.
Why does that matter? Amazon doesn’t allow third party speakers to control the other Echo units nor do they allow multi-room Alexa support on third-party speakers. If the Echo snipes the request it hands control of the audio streams to the Echo units, snubbing the Voice One in the process.
Even if you have only KitSound speakers in your house there’s one other Amazon-related issue to wrestle with. Remember the clever work around where the Voice One shares your Alexa-driven music streams with its own hardware? That’s clever but the downside is if you give the Alexa command to the downstairs speaker you can’t use Alexa to control the playback from the upstairs speaker the same way you could with a totally Amazon Echo household.
Other than those two issues (which are fundamentally outside the control of KitSound because Amazon doesn’t appear to be budging on the issues in the foreseeable future) the only real complaint we have that is within the realm of their control is we’d love a software based equalizer on the speakers. Even though we didn’t have any major complaints about the audio quality, it would be really great if you could tweak the sound profile of the speaker to fit the kind of music you regularly listen to.
All told, however, our experience was positive and we’d recommend the Voice One to anyone searching for an Alexa-enabled system but who wasn’t really excited about either committing completely to the Amazon Echo system or shelling out serious cash for a Sonos system.
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