The Harman Kardon Invoke Smart Speaker

The Harman Kardon Invoke Smart Speaker

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Premium home audio manufacturer and Blackfire Research partner, Harman Kardon, has teamed up with Microsoft to take on Amazon, Google, and Apple in the smart speaker realm. The Harman Kardon Invoke is the newest smart speaker on the market. While Amazon’s Echo line of smart speakers have Alexa as it’s voice assistant, the Invoke’s voice AI is powered by Microsoft’s Cortana, which makes this an excellent smart speaker for Windows lovers. This is the first smart speaker to feature the Cortana voice assistant, which in the past has lived in Microsoft’s Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs.

 

The beautifully designed Invoke smart speaker is cylindrical in shape, with a narrow top and wide base (107 x 242mm), and comes in either pearl silver or graphite. The Invoke features 360-degree audio with three 45mm woofers, three 13mm dome tweeters, dual-band (2.4GHz/5Ghz) wireless connectivity, Bluetooth, and seven far-field microphones (which can be muted). Through voice commands, you can ask the Cortana powered smart speaker to stream music, set reminders, control paired smart devices, manage your Office 365 and/or Outlook calendar, ask questions, get the news, and make/receive hands-free calls via Skype to mobile phones, landlines and Skype-enabled devices. At the moment, the Invoke only works with three streaming services: Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, but Microsoft has promised that Cortana will support Pandora sometime in the future.

 

And because the Invoke smart speaker is by Harman Kardon, you know the audio will sound great. In fact, according to Digital Trends, the Invoke’s audio performance beat out the Amazon Echo and The Google Home.

For more information on The Invoke, check out the Harman Kardon website, and the Microsoft website. The Harman Kardon Invoke retails for $199.00.

Meet Google Home Mini and Google Home Max

Meet Google Home Mini and Google Home Max

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At their recent hardware event, Google announced two new additions to their smart speaker agenda, both of which are ready to take on the ever-increasing number of competitors in the field. Say hello to the Google Home Mini and the Google Home Max.

 

The Google Home Mini has the same functionality as the original Google Home, but at a fraction of the size (and cost). With voice command, you can ask Google Assistant to stream music, control your smart home, check your calendar, and search the internet. The Mini is nearly 4 inches in diameter (roughly the size of a hockey puck), with the top portion covered in fabric, which is available in three colors: chalk, charcoal, and coral. The fabric hides the speaker (1.5-inches) and a far-field voice-recognition microphone. The design is pretty simple and sleek (although as a cat-parent, I wonder how much hair that fabric covering will collect over time). The Mini is a direct response (and a direct competitor) to the Amazon Echo Dot, the cheaper, more popular version of Amazon’s flagship Echo smart speaker. Will The Mini overtake Echo Dot as the most popular pint-sized smart speaker? According to some reviews, The Google Home Mini certainly sounds better than the Echo Dot (it boast 360 degree sound with a 40mm driver), but in overall functionality, there isn’t much of a difference between the two. At $49, the Mini is the cheapest smart speaker option currently on the market.

 

The biggest announcement of the day, however, belonged to the introduction of Google Home Max, a premium version of the Google Home smart speaker designed to compete against Apple’s HomePod and Sonos. The Home Max is a stereo speaker that runs Google Assitant and looks quite similar to the Sonos Play:5 speaker. The speaker is designed to intelligently adjust audio depending on a user’s surroundings using AI (or what Google calls “Smart Sound”), similar to what Apple’s HomePod speaker does. The Max has two tweeters and two 4.5-inch woofers and the company has emphasized the speaker’s powerful bass. The Max supports multi-room audio via Chromecast Audio only, but supports many streaming services including Pandora, Spotify, and iHeartRadio. In terms of connectivity, the Home Max supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Chromecast. At roughly 12 pounds, this is by far the largest smart speaker on the market, and the priciest as well. The Google Home Max will set you back almost $400, but Google is giving away 12 months free of YouTube Music with every Home Max purchase. The speaker will be available in two colors: chalk and charcoal, and can be displayed both vertically or horizontally via an adjustable silicon base.

 

The real question is: will the Google Home Max sound as good as the company claims? The answer is, most likely, no. Smart speakers don’t have a very good track record when it comes to audio quality. That’s why many smart speaker owners look for alternative ways to playback their music, especially for multi-room. To achieve excellent wireless multi-room, or multi-device set ups, entertainment systems need greater reliability over standard Wi-Fi, more precise synchronization, and multichannel capabilities, which smart speakers like Google Home, and the Echo, lack.

 

The good news: Blackfire Research offers the most synchronous, reliable, and cost effective wireless solution on the market. We call it the Blackfire RED framework, and it can be embedded into premium wireless speakers and voice-activated smart speakers, creating a truly connected home smart entertainment system. Voice service solutions require a high performance, multi-room solution like the Blackfire RED framework, allowing for multiple devices to respond to voice commands simultaneously.

 

Combining individual entertainment systems to work together to create a truly connected smart home is non trivial – but with Blackfire RED, it can be done, and with stunning results. Blackfire RED can be integrated into a broad spectrum of high quality voice service applications, so the Blackfire connected smart home ecosystem has no limits.  

 

Harman Kardon, Pioneer, and Onkyo are leveraging Blackfire’s technology in over 100 new products this year alone. Join the Blackfire Revolution today!

Improving the Smart Home Hub

Improving the Smart Home Hub

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It’s a challenge for smart home owners to gather all of their devices together under one simple, straightforward interface, but smart home hubs promise an easy way to bring isolated smart devices together. There are many smart home hubs out there, some of which now serve multiple purposes: the Amazon Echo is both a smart home hub and a voice activated smart speaker, while the Samsung Connect Home doubles as a router. When choosing a smart home hub, users tend to consider variables such as compatibility to their current smart home devices, ease of use, and unique features (such as voice control) to help them decide which hub is right for them. But how can smart home hub manufacturers help meet the demand of their users and ensure the technology’s longevity in the marketplace? And how can consumer electronics manufacturers help bridge the islands that pervade smart home entertainment and create hub-friendly solutions?

 

Before the advent of smart speakers, the best reason to invest in a smart home hub was to unify multiple communication protocols under one platform. Smart home hubs are designed to work across many different wireless standards, including Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Bluetooth. So if you have devices that work on different standards, a hub will most likely allow you to control them all from one centralized location, i.e., the hub’s app (note: not all smart home hubs work with every smart home device). But today, is this still enough of reason to spend upwards of hundreds of dollars on a hub? To most, the answer is ‘no.’ In a CNET article titled: “The only way to save the smart home hub is to kill it,” contributor David Priest contends that “folding the signal translation and automation capabilities of a hub into another essential device that people already buy — be it a router, TV or perhaps even security camera –…moves standalone hubs out of the middleman position in the smart home. As the market continues to develop, customers will be less inclined to spend over $100 on a device that does nothing in and of itself besides helping two other devices communicate…the smart home hub will only survive if it’s reincarnated as something more.”

 

That’s why products like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Samsung Connect Home are so appealing to consumers: they do so much more than just link up your solitary smart devices. Launched in 2014, the Echo was the first mass market voice-controlled smart home hub, and since then, other companies like Google and Apple have jumped on the bandwagon. Besides it being able to connect to a plethora of smart devices (with more and more being added each quarter) which you can control through voice commands, the Echo is also an excellent standalone smart speaker, which makes it that much more appealing to consumers. What traditional smart home hubs do really well (that devices like an Echo or Google Home do not) is offer better scheduling and automation controls, so there are some reasons why a user may opt for something other than an Echo or HomePod. But in order to stay relevant, smart home hub manufacturers must follow the “more bang for your buck” model and combine unique features (such as voice control or even just a first-class app) with the traditional hub.

 

But what about from the consumer electronics end – the entertainment devices users want to connect to a central hub, such as wireless speakers? Combining individual entertainment systems to work together to create a truly connected smart home is non trivial – it requires precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync and a general reliability over standard Wi-Fi (the best and most commonly used communication protocol for the home.) Something like this hasn’t been done before – until now.

 

Blackfire Research is making the smart home smarter by helping consumer electronics manufacturers get their products off isolated entertainment islands and create hub-friendly solutions. Our revolutionary new protocol, The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework, allows users to mix and match entertainment devices – from multiple brands that are Blackfire enabled – to create a whole home entertainment system. With the Blackfire RED framework embedded in wireless speakers and the smart home’s voice-activated smart speaker (such as an Echo or a Dot), users can finally enjoy a truly connected home. With Alexa, you can ask any Blackfire enabled device to play music, wirelessly and synchronously throughout the home, in groups and on multiple devices. The Blackfire RED framework also supports low latency and multi-channel, which other wireless solutions do not.

 

The Blackfire RED framework is the most synchronous, reliable, and cost effective wireless solution on the market. Voice service solutions require a high performance, multi-room solution like the Blackfire RED framework, which can allow multiple devices to respond to voice commands, simultaneously, and can be integrated into a broad spectrum of high quality voice service applications.

 

The Blackfire RED framework enhances the smart home hub and does what no other solution has done before. Harman Kardon, Pioneer, and Onkyo have stepped into the future by leveraging Blackfire’s technology in over 100 new products this year alone. Now is your chance. Join the Blackfire Revolution today.

FAQs

FAQs

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General

Q: What is Blackfire Research?
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A: Blackfire Research (Blackfire for short) innovates smart home entertainment solutions, delivering what no one else in the industry can: true multichannel, multipoint and multi-room wireless streaming. Blackfire licenses its Real-time Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework to leading smart home entertainment brands, such as HTC, Onkyo and Harman Kardon; partnering also with several top chipset developers, independent design houses, and contract manufacturers. Blackfire is already licensed by three of the top 10 global audio brands and is built into over four million smartphones. Users have now come to recognize the Blackfire logo as a symbol of quality.

Q: What other technologies can do what Blackfire RED does?

A: There are other technologies that attempt parts of what Blackfire offers, but not one competitor is able to deliver all that Blackfire does. Blackfire built its patented Real-time Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework from the ground up to address issues commonly associated with conventional wireless technologies, delivering high-performance multichannel, multipoint and multi-room 5.1 audio and 4K video wireless streaming across devices over standard Wi-Fi. In addition, the Blackfire RED framework provides extremely high synchronization and very low latency – which allows wireless audio and video to be sent/received from devices reliably and for devices to work together seamlessly. Therefore, users no longer have to choose between a music-only or movie-only audio system, or a Bluetooth speaker for their phone that can’t do multi-room audio.

Q: Which problems does Blackfire technology solve for its partners?

A: Blackfire isn’t just solving problems for its partners. The company is solving industry-wide issues, including the elimination of entertainment “islands” and the mitigation of issues commonly associated with wireless streaming that result in poor streaming performance and quality. A typical household has several independent “islands” of media connectivity in their home: a TV connected to a home theater system or soundbar; a music system; several computers, often containing music files; and several smartphones. Blackfire is the only technology that enables all these islands to interconnect wirelessly and seamlessly, allowing a living room home-theater system to wirelessly play TV audio, Spotify music, or Hi-Res/HD files stored on a PC or NAS drive.

As for partners specifically, Blackfire has overcome the limitations of conventional wireless to deliver true multichannel, multipoint and multi-room wireless streaming of digital content, including 5.1 audio and 4K video. Consumer Electronics brands are again free to innovate and invigorate a stagnant market by imagining and producing new devices that deliver rich content and a dramatically improved experience without barriers. OEM manufacturers can broaden their offerings and increase revenue by designing and producing entertainment content capabilities, services and device designs previously unimaginable.

Q: Which problems does Blackfire technology solve for the user?

A: Blackfire RED overcomes the limitations of conventional wireless products and eliminates entertainment islands. Users can now enjoy any digital entertainment content headache-free for the first time, regardless of manufacturer, device, application or room location.

Q: What is next for Blackfire?

A: Blackfire’s mission is to ignite an industry shift – a shift toward a true smart home – and take the smart home entertainment experience to an entirely new level. A typical household has several independent “islands” of media connectivity in their home. Blackfire has the only technology that allows all these islands to interconnect wirelessly and seamlessly. As more brands adopt Blackfire technology, users will be able to play all their audio and video content synchronously and seamlessly throughout their home and use multiple devices for different rich entertainment applications simultaneously for the first time.


Technology

Q: What is Blackfire RED?

A: Every device that carries the Blackfire logo is built on Blackfire RED. Blackfire RED is the underlying framework that ensures reliable and high-performance media distribution over standard Wi-Fi. The Blackfire RED framework is comprised of:

  • The Blackfire RED software engine, which is embedded in consumer media products;  
  • The Blackfire RED transport protocol, which overcomes the limitations of traditional Wi-Fi protocols by mitigating the effects of interference and ensures a reliable, high-speed connection;
  • The Blackfire RED programming interface, which enables devices with any operating system to stream media from a wide number of content providers.
Q: What does Blackfire RED do?

A: Blackfire RED enables a reliable multi-room speaker system with wireless audio streaming over 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. Blackfire RED-powered devices also include the following capabilities and features:

  • Reliable multi-room wireless audio and video over 2.4GHz Wi-Fi;
  • Low-latency over 5GHz Wi-Fi;
  • Advanced multi-room media pipeline handling, including Google Chromecast Audio and Spotify Connect integration;
  • Multi-room backward-compatibility with previous Blackfire-powered products;
  • Native integration into Smart TVs, enabling the TV itself to decode and send multi-channel audio to wireless speakers (thus replacing the AV Receiver);
  • Wireless 4K video for transmitting audio and video from a Smart Set Top Box simultaneously to multiple TVs and speakers throughout the home;
  • Voice AI integration into multi-room, enabling a whole-home voice-control system.
Q: What is FireConnect by Blackfire?

A: Fireconnect by Blackfire is the name given to the Blackfire RED framework implemented in Onkyo, Pioneer and Integra products.

Q: Does Blackfire RED support lossless high-resolution audio streaming?
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A: Yes, the Blackfire RED framework is capable of transmitting bit-perfect streams of 24-bit High Resolution audio, and supports a wide variety of codecs including both lossy and lossless formats.


Products

Q: Is the Blackfire protocol an industry standard?

A: Blackfire RED is a patented technology but is built on (and compliant with) several industry standards including Ethernet and the IEE 802.11 (WiFi) standard. Devices using Blackfire RED work on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless bands, as well as over wired Ethernet connections, and will benefit from any future improvements in WiFi speed, reliability and capacity – which non-WiFi, proprietary technologies cannot.

Q: How does the Blackfire protocol work over standard Wi-Fi?

A: Conventional protocols used by other wireless streaming devices, like RTP and TCP/IP, were designed in the 1970s to cope with transmission bottlenecks in early wired networks; this has made them unsuitable for handling transient noise from RF interference. Blackfire built an entirely new protocol from the ground up and is the only transmission protocol specifically designed for ensuring reliable, real-time packet transmission in Wi-Fi networks – coping with both high data traffic, as well as sources of interference. Blackfire RED protocol includes several patented features for overcoming signal loss due to either weak signals or noisy wireless environments –

including Real-Time Packet Management (RPM), Traffic Independent Synchronization (TIS) and Dynamic Stream Balancing (DSB).

Q: How is Blackfire technology able to reduce data packet loss?

A: Blackfire has invested in specialized equipment and years of research to characterize and reproduce the types of interference that Wi-Fi devices in the home face. By designing for these real-world environments, Blackfire has developed algorithms and techniques that ensure reliable packet transfer – without disrupting other network traffic – that factors in the available data bandwidth to minimize the unnecessary retransmission that occurs in conventional protocols. The Blackfire RED protocol reduces packet loss by rapidly identifying transmission errors, recovering the packet and retransmitting it to prevent audible or visible drop outs.

Q: How is Blackfire technology able to deliver precise synchronization and solve the video/audio lip synchronization issues that plague others?

A: Conventional streaming technologies make compromises to achieve one task at a time – for example multi-room audio systems have excessive latency and can’t be used wirelessly with TVs (lip sync issues); and Wireless Home Theater systems can only achieve low latency by using proprietary transmitters that cause interference with compliant Wi-Fi devices. Blackfire is the first Wi-Fi protocol that can cover both low latency and high synchronization without causing interference to other network traffic, enabling wireless systems with up to 7.1 discrete channels of audio – not just a single point “soundbar.” The result is audiophile quality synchronization on multiple channels for a true surround sound experience and offers precise synchronization to deliver in-room multichannel application, acoustic stereo spatial imaging and audio + video sync (“lip sync”) accuracy.

Q: Can Blackfire technology be leveraged by applications beyond home entertainment?

A: Yes, because Blackfire RED is based on WiFi standards, it is flexible enough to be leveraged by just about any device in the IoT space that needs to stream digital content or data wirelessly in real-time, at high speed and with high reliability.

Bridging the Islands

Bridging the Islands

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We live in a world driven by the applications on our smartphones and viral videos on the internet. Because of this, we expect to receive all the entertainment content we want, anywhere, at any time. We also expect our entertainment devices to be connected seamlessly for sharing. But in reality, connectivity in the home is far from perfect, especially when it comes to wireless, smart home entertainment systems. Rather than enjoying our entertainment content wherever we want in the home, we find ourselves stranded on “entertainment islands”: the smart TV you have in your living room is an island separate from the stereo system; the stereo system is separate from the blue tooth speakers; the PC is its own thing, and the kids’ rooms…well…let’s just say that’s something completely different as well.

 

Current solutions like video dongles (Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire) and multi room audio, such as Sonos, are great for individual use. However, combining these individual systems to work together to create a truly connected smart home is non trivial – it requires precise synchronization, low latency for lip sync and a general reliability over standard Wi-Fi, something that hasn’t been done – until now.

 

Blackfire Research is making the smart home smarter, achieving whole home connectivity by getting entertainment content and devices off their islands. With our revolutionary new protocol, The Blackfire Realtime Entertainment Distribution (RED) framework, smart home owners are able to mix and match devices – from multiple brands that are Blackfire enabled – to create a whole home entertainment system that sounds great and looks stunning, all over standard Wi-Fi. The Blackfire RED framework is superior to all other solutions and does what no other solution can: wirelessly stream both HD 5.1 audio and 4K video simultaneously across multiple devices and stream both audio and video content from any device to many devices throughout the home.

 

According to IT Pro Portal, analysts are predicting the average smart home in the year 2025 “will include 50 to 100 plus connected ‘things’, including appliances and lighting with a huge mesh of wireless sensors.” That’s a lot of devices that need to be connected, and that number will just continue to grow as more and more smart home products enter the market. With the growing number of smart home products, Wi-Fi is, and will continue to be, the glue that holds it all together. Currently, more than 75% of U.S. broadband households use Wi-Fi for connectivity” (Parks Associates), and Blackfire leverages standard Wi-Fi, a basic utility for many at this point, to achieve stunning, high-end results.

 

You’ve never seen anything like the Blackfire RED framework because it’s never been done before. Harman Kardon, Pioneer, and Onkyo have all began shipping Blackfire powered products in over 100 new products this year alone.

At Blackfire Research, we’re fired up. Join The Blackfire Revolution today.