Sony isn't known for clever product names, opting instead for a seemingly arbitrary mix of letters and numbers most of the time. That's obviously the case here with the LF-S50G. Announced back at IFA, the company's first smart speaker is comparable in size to the original Google Home but noticeably smaller than the Sonos One (and Play:1). It's short and compact, taking up a minimal amount of space on your countertop, desk or nightstand. Like much of its competition, the LF-S50G is a 360-degree speaker that blasts sound in every direction.
Most of the outside is a cloth-mesh speaker cover, save for the polished-chrome base. Sony realizes that you're likely to keep the LF-S50G in the kitchen, so that cover can be removed for cleaning, in case you splash tomato sauce on it while cooking. The speaker itself also has an IPX3 splash-proof rating, so you don't have to worry about the occasional water spray or spill -- just don't submerge it and you should be fine. One design element that's kind of unique to the LF-S50G is a clock on the front. The stacked numerals may not be your first preference for a timepiece, but at least you don't have to ask out loud for the time. It's not a necessity, but it's a nice touch, and for me it meant having the option of using the speaker as a true alarm clock.
The initial setup itself is a breeze, thanks to the Google Home app. I had everything up and running in about five minutes. In terms of onboard controls, primary adjustments on the LF-S50G are done with touch-free gestures on the top panel. You hold your hand over the top and, following specific movements, you can adjust the volume, play/pause, skip songs or summon Google Assistant. It sounds good on paper, but these gesture controls were a source of constant frustration. First, it can be difficult to get them to work on the first attempt. I often found myself doing the same movement three or four times (in some cases, more than that) before the speaker got the hint.
More often than not, I just used my voice and had Google Assistant make the adjustments for me. After a few days, though, I did find that actually placing a finger on the top of the LF-S50G before starting the circular motion that's used to control volume helped. Basically, if you treat the top like a touch ring or dial, Sony's speaker does a better job of picking up on what you're trying to do. When it works, it's great. But the company is advertising "touch-free gestures," and, for me, they just weren't reliable.
The only physical buttons on the LF-S50G are around back. There you'll find options for Bluetooth and turning off the microphone on either side of the power jack, on that shiny silver base. It's nice that Bluetooth is there, but I only ever used it to make sure it works. Since Google Assistant needs a WiFi connection to work, I mostly employed the LF-S50G to control external Chromecast-enabled devices like... well, a Chromecast and other connected speakers. Of course, you can link your music service account as well, so you really don't need to beam audio from a phone or computer except in a handful of cases.
Since voice control is what makes the LF-S50G more than just another connected speaker from Sony, that key selling point has to work well. I'm happy to report it does. After spending a few weeks with the device, my gripes with the voice feature entirely have to do with the limitations of Google Assistant. It can't tell me what channel the Hornets game was on, for example, but it can give me a full list of the day's games. That's a question Assistant can't answer, but Siri can. However, Sony's smart speaker always accepted my commands, even when it was playing music or there was other noise in the room -- I didn't have to repeat myself to get the point across. Even if I didn't always get the answer I wanted.
The likes of Amazon Echo and Google Home have visual indicators to let you know the virtual assistant is listening or responding to your query. Sony's LF-S50G does as well. Four white dots, located just above the clock on the front, light up when you're speaking a command. And when Google Assistant is responding, all four are lit up together. I'd say 80 percent of the time I wasn't looking at the speaker when asking it for help, which is kind of the whole point anyway. There's also a ring of white light around the top that illuminates when you use the gesture controls and the clock numerals switch to volume level when you're turning that imaginary knob.
Sony beats the Echo in terms of sound quality, as well as the original Google Home. The company has a long history in audio gear, so it's no surprise its first smart speaker sounds pretty good. Let me be clear: Good doesn't mean great. This speaker sounds best at medium volume, where it has a good amount of bass and the highs are kept in check. Dial it up to louder levels and the treble starts to take over. There's no distortion, but the audio isn't nearly as balanced. Some genres sound better than others -- mostly due to the lack of low-end tone. That issue isn't unique to this device, though. A lot of these compact smart speakers can't muster enough bass, and as a result, sound quality struggles.