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Sony Xperia Ear unboxing & hands-on review

Sony Xperia Ear unboxing & hands-on review: We originally encountered the Sony Xperia Ear back in April, following its unveiling at Mobile World Congress 2016, but now it’s ready to hit store shelves so we unboxed a retail-ready model to see what it’s about.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Xperia Ear is Sony’s answer to the increasing number of digital assistants, however, the big difference is that it’s custom software tied to a dedicated hardware experience too.

Unlike Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Alexa and S Voice, to name the most notable offerings, the Xperia Ear assistant resides within what amounts to an intelligent Bluetooth headset.

Naturally, such a small object comes in a suitably small box that echoes the aesthetic of the Xperia X smartphones it was announced alongside. On the front is a foiled product name with an ‘X’ placed behind it. Flip the box over and you’ll see a picture of the Ear itself and the charging case that comes with it, along with the tagline, “more than meets the ear.” Interestingly, the rest of the product description is found on an elongated multilingual booklet adhered to the outside of the packaging, but we’re not sure why.

Slit the two plastic tabs along the sides and lifting the lid you’ll find dark foam, purpose cut to house both the Ear and its charging case. The latter is finished in a lightly textured soft-touch dark grey plastic that features an LED in the lid and another beside the microUSB charging port at its base.

To open it up, you simply push the lid forward and it releases the spring-loaded catch revealing a cavity for the Ear with two contacts that marry up with the headset to supply it with power. The Xperia Ear alone lasts for up to four hours at a time, but the case can add up to a further 12, so you’ll almost struggle to exhaust both by the end of the day.

The Xperia Ear itself is a surprisingly small Bluetooth headset no more than an inch in length. The outer face is flat and finished with the same plastic as the case, whilst the surround is shinier with a gunmetal finish. Despite looking rather thick, once in the Ear actually sits flush to the face quite happily. There’s a removable earpiece and ear loop, two charging contacts and a proximity sensor, so it knows when it’s being worn. The aforementioned outer face also serves as the only physical button in the whole kit, with a microphone and indicator LED inlaid into it.

Back in the box and underneath the cutout foam tray lives a card container, the contents of which are signposted on its top face. This is where you’ll find the heath and safety manual, the quick-start guide and three different sized silicone earbuds and ear brackets to help accommodate different users’ ear shapes and sizes (complete with instructions on how to fit both). After that you’re left with an empty box, so it’s on to setup.

The Xperia Ear doesn’t rely on Sony’s Smart Connect app but rather its own, dedicated application of the same name, through which (provided you have Bluetooth switched on) pairing is pretty effortless. Just remember to ensure the headset isn’t docked in the charging case (which essentially switches it off). You can also pair the headset to your phone via NFC if it’s supported.

Once paired the app asks for a brief ‘hello’ to make sure everything’s working and then you’re given full control. You can ask the Ear a myriad of questions by tapping the button and waiting for a tone, which indicates that it’s listening for a command.

Sony’s Xperia Ear assistant doesn’t offer as natural-sounding speech as Siri or Google Now, made most evident when having to form the sounds of unusual words like company names or technical terms. Interestingly, the British English voice (which you’re required to download during setup) also adopts a slight regional twang, in place of the Received Pronunciation used by practically every other digital assistant out there.

The app lets you not only add a name and tailor which app notifications the Xperia Ear will automatically read out, but will also let you customise single and double-press actions from the headset’s physical button, with the option to choose an alternative digital assistant if your phone possesses one. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge paired to our Xperia Ear sample, we were able to swap out the Ear’s native assistant for Google’s and even had the option of Samsung’s own S Voice. A surprising and useful discovery off the bat, but one that does limit functionality versus some of the Ear’s assistant’s own tricks, such as the ability to dictate Wikipedia articles on request.

The Sony Xperia Ear looks to behave like a voice-based alternative to a smartwatch, based on the way it handles queries and notifications. It’s available for pre-order right now (a little later than the originally intended July 2016 launch date) for £179 in the UK direct from Sony. We’ll be back soon with a full review.

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