I first dabbled with the Sony Xperia Ear back in September, but it was more of a static demo of the product’s features than a proper hands-on experience. The device is now on sale in the market, so Sony sent us over a unit to experiment with for a couple of weeks. The company touts the Xperia Ear as being your own little personal assistant, and while to some extent this is true, the Xperia Ear still has ways to go before it can truly impress.
The Xperia Ear comes in two parts – one is the device itself that sits in your ear, and the second is a small charging case. The Xperia Ear is ridiculously small and lightweight, weighing in at around 6.8g. The charging case looks like some sort of futuristic cigarette lighter, and weighs in at around 40g. It’s quite compact to carry around in your bag or leave in your car, and any time you slide the Xperia Ear back in, the carrying case will charge up the battery, extending your talk time up to sixteen hours.
You can wear the Xperia Ear in either ear, and a small soft plastic bumper cradles the device in your ear so it doesn’t fall out. The Xperia Ear also houses a variety of sensors such as an accelerometer, gyroscope, and proximity sensor which helps the device to determine when you’re actually wearing it in your ear. There’s an LED indicator that flashes when the device is connected, and a small button that you can press in order to activate voice commands.
The Xperia Ear works best with Xperia phones (obviously), but will pair with any Android smartphone that’s running stock Android apps. Just download the Xperia Ear app to your phone and go through a few setup steps to pair the device via Bluetooth. You can also pair it using NFC which is quicker, but once paired with your phone you can start using the device straight away.
Within the app you can set which notifications you’d like to receive. Items such as email, WhatsApp, SMS, calendar events and more can be turned on or off, and are relayed instantly to the Xperia Ear. As you continue to use the device you’ll figure out which apps you need notifications for and which can be ignored. I almost immediately turned off email notifications, since the Xperia Ear was going off every two minutes reading out new emails.
One of the obvious selling points of the Xperia Ear is the ability to issue commands using your voice, thus reducing the need to pick up your phone to read or respond to a notification. For example when I received a WhatsApp message, the Xperia Ear would read out who the message was from, the message itself, and then give me the option to reply. If I chose to reply, I’d simply say “Yes” out loud, say my message, and the Xperia Ear would read it back to me to ensure it was correct before sending it off. If this seems a bit long-winded, you can turn on ‘Simple’ interaction, which eliminates the confirmation part and just directly sends your message.
There are a ton of other useful voice commands you can deploy, such as launching apps, getting directions, looking up information on Wikipedia, playing music, setting appointments – the list is quite extensive, and for that the Xperia Ear gets some brownie points. You can also acknowledge or dismiss a notification with a slight nod of your head, which is meant for scenarios where you don’t want to loudly bark a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. I personally didn’t use the head gestures very much, but it’s a feature that you can use if you prefer.
You unfortunately can’t train the Xperia Ear to recognize your voice better, nor can you tweak anything about the notifications either than turning them off or on. Case in point – with email notifications turned on, the Xperia Ear would read the sender’s name and subject, and then proceed to read the entire email out, including the person’s signature. So you’re waiting easily 1-2 minutes on average for an email to be read out, which would have taken you much less time to skim over on your smartphone.
Audio Quality & Comfort
Sony’s website for the Xperia Ear states that its lightweight design means that you can wear it all day long without feeling discomfort. In reality however, this is not the case for several reasons. For one, you need to physically press a button on the Xperia Ear in order to wake it up and start listening. I understand that this was implemented in order to avoid battery issues if the device was always listening for a wake word, but the problem with pressing a button every time is that each time I pressed it, I shoved the Xperia Ear deeper into my ear, which was both annoying and uncomfortable. I really wish that Sony had made this touch-sensitive, so that say a single or double tap would wake the device instead. Also, after an hour of using the Xperia Ear, I experienced a slight throbbing pain in my ear – removing the Xperia Ear eliminated the pain after a few seconds, and this happened regardless of which ear I was wearing the Xperia Ear in. So I strongly advise that you wear the Xperia Ear only when needed, and store it in its carrying case when not in use.
Audio quality on the Xperia Ear was a very mixed bag. You can play music through it, but because you’ve only got music playing in only one ear, the quality is terrible. The Xperia Ear wasn’t really designed for playing back music, so you’d have to just plug in normal headphones into your smartphone.
When you’re in a quiet environment, the Xperia Ear works exceptionally well during phone calls. Callers could hear me clearly and there were no dropouts in audio, as long as I stayed in range of my phone (which is down to standard Bluetooth limitations). But when things got a little bit noisier around me, audio performance went straight downhill. Talking to people while I was driving was a bit chaotic if my radio was playing in the background, even if it was at a lower volume, Noise cancellation is practically non-existent, so when walking down a busy road, I had to disconnect the Xperia Ear and just use my phone normally in order for people to hear me.
When the Xperia Ear works, it does a fantastic job. Replying to notifications with my voice or getting in-ear directions made life a lot easier, so the product itself is a good idea. There are things that you could already accomplish just with Google Now, but for everything else you can rely on the Xperia Ear. The downside is that it’s still a first-gen product, so it requires a few more tweaks before people will genuinely take interest in it. The fact that you have to press a button to wake it up at all seems to take away from the whole ‘hands-free’ experience, but again this is more of an observation than a harsh critique. Where the Xperia Ear really does need to improve upon is its comfort and audio quality, two things that are absolutely crucial if Sony wants anyone to take the Xperia Ear seriously.