How I Heard My Echo

As I write this week’s post, I’m listening to Pandora Radio via my new Amazon Echo Dot. It’s that rare modern gadget that has no video display (unless I bring up the Alexa app on my iPhone or iPad), so audio quality is made even that much more essential. It was with this in mind that I decided to hook my Echo Dot up to my powerful home theater sound system… and made more work for myself, in the process.

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Connect the Dot, la la la. (Source: Amazon.com, click the image to order.)

Unlike its big siblings the Echo and the Tap, the Dot doesn’t have a very powerful built-in speaker. When Alexa (the Amazon AI assistant in the Echo) speaks to me, I can hear her just fine; but when I want to listen to music, the overall effect is underwhelming. Luckily, the Dot supports bluetooth, so beaming the audio signal to a powerful speaker system is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, my older Sony receiver doesn’t have bluetooth built in, so I needed to pick up a device to add bluetooth to my sound system.

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The Sony STR-DG820. It’s a great receiver; it just doesn’t do bluetooth. (Source: Engadget.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

Logitech makes such a device, their compact Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It plugs into a wall outlet for power, and includes a cable to connect it either to a 3.5 millimeter stereo jack, or to red and white RCA stereo jacks. I ended up using a separate red/white stereo cable set (sold separately) to go from the Logitech adapter to my Sony receiver. Once I programmed my Logitech Harmony remote to switch on the receiver and change its input to the port with the bluetooth adapter, I was able to vocally command Alexa to do the same job without my having to pick up my remote control. She ably flipped on my Sony receiver and had it switch to the proper input, leaving everything else off. The bluetooth adapter was already on (there really isn’t an “on/off” switch on that device), so playback proceeded to stream through my speakers flawlessly.

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Logitech’s Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It’s actually quite small, measuring only 0.88″ tall by 2.00″ wide by 2.25″ deep. (Source: Logitech.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

The problems only began when I turned my stereo off.

You see, when you tell Alexa to connect via bluetooth, she’s more than happy to do so. Unfortunately, asking her to switch away from bluetooth is a more challenging proposition. Since the Logitech box never turns off, it remains in a “ready to pair” mode even if a device like my Echo Dot leaves it. Alexa then sees there’s a bluetooth device out there looking to pair, and, helpful as always, she re-pairs with it. Except in this scenario, my receiver is now off, so I can’t hear Alexa through the external speakers; and since she’s using bluetooth, her internal speaker is off, too. This makes any further communication with her impossible until I turn the receiver back on. But sometimes I just want a weather forecast or a news brief, and stuff like that just doesn’t need to come out in high fidelity stereo!

The challenge I faced was how to turn the Logitech bluetooth box off so Alexa would revert to her internal speaker for non-musical conversation. Luckily, as with so many problems in my life, there was a solution, in the form of new technology. Enter TP-Link’s Smart Plug.

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TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. Make sure you have room for it on your power strip or wall outlet–it’s a space hog! (Source: TP-Link.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

If I couldn’t tell Alexa to turn off the Logitech bluetooth adapter directly, then I would have to have her cut the power to it, via TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. TP-Link advertises Alexa compatibility:

Amazon Echo Voice Control – Amazon Echo (sold separately) lets you control devices connected to the Smart Plugs just using your voice.

Indeed, once I had configured the Smart Plug to join my home network, I added the “Skill” (Echo’s answer to an app) for TP-Link devices in its “Kasa” service, and Alexa had no difficulty turning the Smart Plug on and off with a well-placed vocal command.

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The TP-Link Kasa app in action, controlling their Smart Plug. (Source: eBuyer.com)

With my Logitech bluetooth adapter now plugged in via this Smart Plug, I hypothesized that when I would tell Alexa to turn that Smart Plug off, that would cut off her bluetooth conduit to the external speakers. I put that hypothesis to the test, asking her to turn off the Smart Plug. She gamely did as I said, and the last thing I heard her say out of the external speakers was the compliant “okay.” After seeing that the Smart Plug was now in the “off” mode and that the Logitech bluetooth adapter was fully off, I asked Alexa if she was still there. “Yes, I’m here. I listen once I hear the wake word,” she emitted cheerfully and clearly… out of her built-in speaker, once again.

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A small selection of the many Skills available for Alexa to learn. (Source: AFTVNews.com, click image for their article on Alexa’s Skills.)

I made sure to establish a “group” command to turn on power to the bluetooth adapter, while simultaneously turning on the Sony receiver (via my Harmony remote, another Echo “Skill”) and setting it to the correct input. I called this group “Audio Only,” so all I needed to do was call out, “Alexa, turn on Audio Only.” It’s fun watching the relevant devices switch on and fall in line, like something out of a futuristic movie. In fact, it’s so “sci-fi,” that I was compelled to take advantage of the Echo’s optional alternate “wake word.” Amazon designed the Echo to respond to other words, in case, for instance, you have somebody named “Alexa” also living in your home. The alternate wake words are “Amazon,” “Echo,” and my personal geeky favorite: “Computer.”

I haven’t risked playing a Star Trek episode in Alexa’s presence yet. She hasn’t learned to distinguish my voice from the TV, yet.

Fun fact: if you call out, “Computer: Earl Grey, hot,” she’ll pick from a series of responses incorporating the concept of the Starship Enterprise‘s replicator. Alas, no tea for now; but there is a gadget…

For now, I’m happy with the result of my experimentation. Followers of this blog know how rarely my tech setups work out as planned the first time. It’s true, I would have preferred Alexa to stay off bluetooth when I ask her—thus not requiring an extra device—but this is a satisfactory compromise.

Besides, what other gadgets do you know of that will sing to you on command?

 

 

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One thought on “How I Heard My Echo

  1. Pingback: My New Sound System’s Got Me Surrounded | The At Home With Technology Blog

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