Another not so good Sony Xperia Ear review

Sony_Xperia_Ear_1_CES2017Prior to its release, IBT had a chance to spend some time with the Sony Xperia Ear, the assistant-driven headset, and when released, didn’t have many positive things to say about it other than some apps like Maps tend to work well with it.

 Directions also work quite well. Ask for directions to Manchester and the Ear will ask if you want to travel by car, public transport or walking. Give your answer and within a couple of seconds the directions appear on your phone. 

Ultimately they concluded with

 Xperia Ear is simply frustrating. It lacks any form of wow factor and doesn’t offer any real benefits over talking to Siri or Google Now through the headphones you are already using. The Ear would probably look good on the set of a sci-fi film, but in the real world it just doesn’t make sense. 

Now Cherlynn Low from Engadget has released her take on the wearable and it’s not looking good for Sony. For those who like their dessert first, Cherlynn writes:

 Sony’s Xperia Ear is an intriguing device — in theory. It’s a single Bluetooth earpiece with a built-in assistant that’s always ready for your voice commands, and will recite your smartphone notifications as they arrive. However, because you have to press a button to talk to the Ear, there’s no real difference between this device and, say, using Siri or the Google Assistant over wired earbuds. The Xperia Ear also gets uncomfortable with extended use, and is expensive for what it does. What’s more, Sony’s assistant is less smart than rival helpers. With some software tweaks, the Xperia Ear could become useful for multitaskers, but as it stands there’s no real reason for it to exist. 

First the good.

 On your Android device, your first step is to download the Xperia Ear app and then pair the Ear with your phone over Bluetooth. You can also smush your phone together with the earbud if you have an NFC-enabled handset, which makes connecting them a cinch. I paired the Ear with the Huawei Mate 9, and the NFC handshake between both devices was indeed quick.

Once I was all set up, I put the earpiece on and went about my business. The Ear felt surprisingly secure and didn’t fall out even when I shook my head vigorously to test just how well it would stay put. Wearing the Ear was comfortable until an hour later, when I started feeling a dull ache on the side of my head. It wasn’t super painful, but I didn’t always feel like putting up with it, either. Taking off the earbud made the discomfort go away, and I ended up having to periodically remove the device during my review. 

This is a step that sometimes manufacturers get wrong so it’s nice to see Sony make the connection part easy. It might not be AirPods easy but if the initial setup of a hardware is painful, it tends to be a sign of things to come. Sony has always been known as a hardware company so it’s a bit surprising to hear that the Xperia Ear isn’t comfortable. I won’t get into it in this piece but both IBT and Cherlynn pointed how uncomfortable the Ear was which, no matter how magical the rest of it is, points to a botched product as far as I’m concerned. All the functionality in the world won’t overcome a product that hurts to wear. Still, I imagine this is an area that Sony can improve on quickly because of their deep ties with hardware and how comfortable their headphone line is.


But software and services is likely Sony’s biggest weakness, and Xperia Ear is no exception, which leads us to the bad.

 Talking to Sony’s assistant feels like I’m interacting with a “futuristic” machine from Demolition Man. Its voice sounds artificial, robotic and disjointed, especially compared to Siri, the Google Assistant and Alexa, which have human voices with more natural inflections. Ear pronounced my name the same way Engadget’s Southern-bred Editor-in-Chief Michael Gorman does — as in, “Churl-lynn,” with a hard “ch.” Thanks a lot, Sony.

That’s an understandable mistake, considering my name is quite uncommon, but the Ear made the same error when reading a news piece about actress Charlize Theron. It took me a few seconds to realize who the assistant was describing. It also mispronounced the word “cleanses,” saying “clean-suhs” instead of “clen-suhs.” For the most part, though, the Ear is easy enough to understand if you’re paying attention.

The reason I was talking about Charlize Theron, by the way, is because whenever you stick the device in your ear, it greets you and starts rattling off the time, your agenda for the day and news headlines since you last put it on. The actress was the subject in one of several headlines that Sony pulled together. You don’t get to pick the news sources you prefer; instead, you can decide in the app settings only whether or not you want to hear headlines at all. 

At least Sony is having better luck with their gesture controls though I typically find these to be gimmicky at best.

 Now, talking out loud is a rather conspicuous way to interact with any device, especially if you’re in an open office or walking outside. For those who want to be more stealthy, Sony built in an effective way to communicate nonverbally with the Ear: You can nod or shake your head in response to yes or no questions. This is a limited application, yes, but useful nonetheless for quick, discreet reactions. The device correctly interpreted my gestures (acknowledging them with a satisfying chime) when I answered its questions about whether the message it transcribed was correct and if I wanted to send my text. 

And here is where things get bizarre.

 Another gripe I have with the Ear is its inability to reconnect seamlessly with the synced phone after I leave and re-enter Bluetooth range. That means, when I go to the bathroom or leave the phone in a different room, the Ear stops working, only saying, “Device not connected.” When I get back to the phone, I have to press the button on the earbud to re-sync the devices. This should happen without any action on my part. 

This to me sounds more like a software bug that will be ironed out via a firmware update than an actual shortcoming of the Ear, but an odd one nonetheless. Cherlynn concludes with

 I was excited about the Xperia Ear and what it promised until I realized that, as it stands, the device does nothing different from Siri or Google over wired earbuds. In particular, the fact that it requires you to use your hand and press a button to use it makes me question the device’s existence in the first place. What’s the point of getting a whole new gadget for an assistant in your ear if not for the convenience when your arms are full? It’s not like this is a cheap purchase, either.

Still, this is a first-generation device that has the potential to become truly useful if Sony tweaks its software. That’s an easy enough fix. The trouble is, makers of other wireless earbuds could almost as easily offer the same features, by tapping into Siri or the Google Assistant. If, or when, they do, the Xperia Ear risks becoming a completely forgettable device. 

But I’m not sure I agree with part of her assessment. I’m not entirely sure how else you would activate Xperia Ear. As an AirPods owner for a few weeks now, I’m more than happy to double tap on either side to invoke Siri. The only other way that I could possibly interact with her via AirPods would be if they had an ‘always on’ listening more which could kill the unit’s battery life. The same is true for Xperia Ear, so while having the ability to say “Hey Siri” to my AirPods or “Hey Ear” or whatever Sony would like sounds nice, this to me is one of those pie in the sky requests that reviewers often lob at products without having given much thought to it because the alternative could be that both devices have similar functionality but with 1/4 less battery life which would be a huge ding in the review.

As the products mature and efficiency grows, just as our phones/tablets have the ability to be beckoned via voice, I’m sure these products will gain it as well but to hold that against them right now is pure silliness. As for the Xperia Ear, perhaps owning one is also pure silliness as well unless you have an affinity for Bluetooth headsets.