Hearables are getting smarter every day, and Sony has picked up where Motorola left off with this single AI assistant earbud. We've been waiting a while for the Xperia Ear, and with Sony's audio expertise plus the choice of two AIs to chat with – either its own Xperia Agent or the reliable Google Voice – all bound up in a smart hearable that won't embarrass the rest of your face, it makes an interesting package.
As Apple works on building its AirPods for iPhone owners, Sony is making a bid for busy people with Android phones.
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The £179 Xperia Ear could slot into the life of a certain type of person but for one single-but-smart earbud, it's not cheap either. Will it be a hearable hit?
Sony Xperia Ear: Design and Fit
Sony has done a nice job on the Xperia Ear's design. It's not small enough that it could be classed as an in-ear device, since it does stick outwards, but it doesn't protrude from your ear down your cheek like a retro Bluetooth headset either. Nor does it go down the AirPod design route.
The lozenge-shaped device has a sleek, matte finish and it measures 15.2 x 29.3 x 24.3 mm. With my hair worn down I've had conversations with my flatmate and co-workers without them noticing I'm wearing anything in my ear. That won't happen if you have short hair, sure, but it's pretty cool for me. You can also choose from different tips and wings that come in the box (three sizes each) to get the comfort just right which is a nice touch too.
The Sony hearable is light, weighing just 6.8g. Back when I tested the Moto Hint, I would swap it from ear to ear after 30 to 60 minutes as I'd get earache, but I can definitely last longer with this in one ear. It seems Sony is only selling it in Graphite Black to start. It's the same as when it was first announced, when it was also shown off in white, pale yellow and pale pink – Xperia colours.
Water resistance is only IPX2, so you can't go swimming with it (that only protects it from dripping water) but it's a sturdy little gadget and one you don't have to be too precious with when it's out of the case. Another thing I like is that the main surface acts as a button with both short and longpress actions – this way you know your press has worked and you aren't kept guessing with unreliable, capacitive presses. This does press the Xperia Ear into your actual ear a little though – I don't mind this as you get the feedback but some people might. Best to try it out if you can.
Sony Xperia Ear: Bluetooth headset
If you're interested in the Sony hearable, you might just be in the market for a slightly cooler (albeit more expensive) Bluetooth headset. (It can also pair via NFC). And you can use the Xperia Ear to make and answer calls, call people back, listen to podcasts and – technically – listen to music, though we really wouldn't recommend the latter since this is a single, mono earbud.
For these purposes, the audio quality is really great, better than the likes of the Moto Hint, and the noise cancelling mics do a good job of picking up my voice too. Hearables can be notoriously quiet and the one thing I really had to crank the volume up for here was trying out listening to a podcast on the overground train.
Sony Xperia Ear: Voice assistant(s)
Where things get more futuristic is the voice assistant feature. The Xperia Ear relies on your phone so if, like me, you live in a small flat and work in a small-ish office, then you're laughing. Otherwise, you might run into range problems if you stray too far from your smartphone – this is a Bluetooth device after all. Generally connectivity was good, again much better than the flakey Hint which so far is the closest comparison.
First up, what's nice is that you can actually choose to use Sony's Xperia Agent, Google Voice or even Samsung S Voice if you're using a Samsung phone, as I was for part of my testing. You can even set up short press of the button to activate one, longpress for another service, if you can remember the quirks of each.
Generally, I find Google Voice to be my favourite. It's quickest overall, it pronounces words the best (in English, that is) and some of the language is more natural when it comes to things like directions or reading out tomorrow's calendar. That said, it can revert to showing you results on the phone quite a lot. The Xperia Agent is pretty good on the voice recognition front but the whole back and forth tends to be slower and the gap before the first tone when it's processing can make you think it hasn't worked.
Either way, the Xperia Ear automatically turns on in your ear. When it's in, you're safe in the knowledge that it will alert you with any calls, texts, calendar items, WhatsApps or emails, depending on how you have your settings set up in the companion app. There's quite a lot of control available here, though I would like to be able to, for instance, turn off the reading out of the name of a WhatsApp group before the message, especially when it's a long, comedy name.
Here you can choose read only or read and reply – choose the first if you don't want to be asked whether you want to reply after every message. Otherwise you can say yes or no or turn on head gestures – nod or shake your head. These do work but I prefer saying yes or no as it just seems a bit odd to shake my head at a voice in my ear.
There's a few more handy things you can do with Xperia Agent itself; namely get directions in your ear, get a news bulletin, ask about the weather, create calendar events, search Wikipedia and set alarms or timers. When you first put the Xperia Ear in your ear each day, it gives you a start-up routine which you can tweak to suit you – this is one of the times it feels most like an efficient AI assistant in fact.
The Android app is basically a glorified settings menu. Less useful are things like 'play music' which you shouldn't be doing anyway and you'll need Google Voice's intelligence to whittle down which music app you're using – Sony just goes to default. Sony has told us it wants to open up Xperia Agent to third party apps, though whether that happens may depend on sales.
There are always limitations with voice assistants at this stage in their existence – less so with Google than Sony's own Xperia Agent technology. So for instance, Sony's assistant can address me by name, take down messages or launch phone apps with 'Magic Words', but it struggles when I try to ask about the Golden Globes nominations news today. It ends up reading me out the whole news bulletin – which does include the GGs list – but doesn't fetch me what I'm after. Right now hearables like this will get on better with people who don't mind tinkering and slightly modifying their behaviour than someone who expects to have a successful, human conversation every time.
Sony Xperia Ear: Battery life
In my time wearing the Xperia Ear I've not really felt I was charging it so often it would get annoying. The official battery life is four hours of continuous use and another sixteen hours on top of that with the charging case. This has its own 300mAh battery and is neat and compact; you can just sling it in your handbag or pocket.
I charged the Xperia Ear case every four days or so with my use which was mainly during the day, commuting etc. Otherwise, I just popped it back in the case to recharge. You can quickly check the battery in the app or your notifications pulldown. One note: the Ear drops from the "low battery" voice alert to "no battery, shutting down" pretty quickly.
Sony Xperia Ear: Hearable competition
A quick word on some rivals that are about to launch – both the Apple AirPods and Doppler Labs' £249 Here Ones are about to land. The Here earbuds, in particular, might be worth a look. These are a set of two wireless earbuds that can play music, offer augmented noise cancelling and enhancing features and access to Siri, Google Voice and Microsoft's Cortana, depending on which phone you use.
We haven't tested these yet but if you're put off the Xperia Ear because you listen to music a lot and want one device that will interrupt your Spotify session with messages and updates, then don't worry. This is coming.
- Light, discreet
- Good audio quality
- Decent battery life
- Xperia Agent can be slow, clunky
- Single, mono earbud