Amazon's voice assistant Alexa is capable of doing incredible things, even when you just use it with a device like the Echo or Echo Dot. But Alexa's greatest advantage over similar assistants from Apple and Google is in how it integrates with the other technology in your home.
While we have an exhaustive guide to everything that works with Alexa and a roundup of the best Alexa-compatible devices, one area that doesn't get much coverage is how Alexa works with your home theater. Thanks to an Alexa feature update and devices like the Logitech Harmony Hub, Alexa finally plays nicely with home theater setups.
The devices you'll need:
An Amazon device with Alexa...
There are five Echo devices currently: the Echo ($179.99), the Echo Dot ($39.99), the Tap ($79.99), the Echo Look ($199.99) and the Echo Show ($299.99). The Look is a camera designed to help you decide between outfits, the Tap is a battery-powered speaker for on-the-go use, and the Show is probably best placed in the kitchen.
A standalone Echo can control your home theater, but you may want to consider just getting an Echo Dot. It's far cheaper and features Bluetooth and a 3.5mm audio-out port (like a headphone jack). So instead of relying on its own tiny speaker, it can use any high-end speaker setup you may already have as part of your home theater.
An Alexa-compatible home entertainment device...
Right now, there are only three devices that can take advantage of Alexa's new home entertainment controls: the Logitech Harmony Hub, the BroadLink All-in-One Audio/Video Remote Control, and Sony Bravia smart TVs. The Logitech and Broadlink devices use IR blasters to control A/V receivers, set-top boxes, sound systems, Blu-ray players, and more. New Sony Bravia TVs also use an IR blaster, but it's unclear if it works with multiple devices, as its Alexa skill only notes that it works with set-top boxes.
You're best bet is to use a Logitech Harmony Hub. While the BroadLink is cheaper, the Harmony Hub is more sophisticated, allowing you to create "Harmony Activities" that Alexa can activate to group multiple actions together, like turning on your TV, surround sound system, Roku streaming box, and opening Netflix when you ask Alexa to "turn on Netflix." (Unfortunately, that level of app control is only available when you connect a Roku device to the Harmony hub.)
Once you have one of these setups, you'll be ready to take advantage of some (or all) of Alexa's home theater abilities. Here's what it can do:
1. Control playback, volume, channels, and more
With the Logitech Harmony Hub, you'll be able use commands like "Alexa, turn on ESPN," or "Alexa, turn down the volume," or "Alexa, fast-forward the DVD." Logitech offers even more examples on this Harmony support page. Unfortunately, the commands can get a bit confusing. Alexa will remember for a brief period of time which device you're controlling, so when you ask Alexa to turn up the volume, it will do so on the TV instead of the Echo speaker. After awhile, Alexa will forget, but Logitech claims you can fix this by being more specific and saying something like "Alexa, turn up the volume on the TV."
Despite the complexity of the Logitech Harmony skill, you won't easily be able to control apps like Netflix and Hulu unless you have a Roku streaming device or an Amazon Fire TV. Alexa can control apps on Roku devices via the Logitech Harmony Hub (confusing, I know), while Alexa can launch apps and videos on Fire TV devices directly, thanks to a recent software update.
Unfortunately, the Fire TV integration can only control playback on Amazon Prime Video, and some commands are hit or miss. For example, "next episode" works if there is a next episode, but if there's not (or Amazon doesn't think there is), then it just won't do anything. And if you want to actually control other apps like Netflix, the Roku and Harmony integration is really your best option, as the Fire TV can only launch supported third-party apps and start videos on them, not control playback.
2. Searching for movies and shows to watch
If you want to use Alexa's smarts to find things to watch, then you'll need an Amazon Fire TV, Fire TV Stick, or a TV with Alexa built-in. If you already have one of these devices, skip to the instructions below. But if you want to know more about them, read on.
A Fire TV or Fire TV Stick...
Amazon also sells streaming boxes that are meant to be hooked right up to your TV, giving you access to all the popular streaming services like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Prime Video. The latest versions of the Fire TV ($89.99) and the Fire TV Stick ($39.99) both feature Alexa built-in and have remotes that allow you to use your voice to search, control your smart home gadgets, or order items online.
Though these devices have Alexa, they don't offer as many third-party "Alexa Skills" as the Echo devices, instead often relying on Fire TV apps that are launched and controlled via voice. One way around this is to use an Echo device to control your Fire TV instead of the included voice remote, which we recommend. You can link them in the Alexa app, and the Echo can control your Fire TV and still have access to the full range of Alexa Skills that the standalone Fire TV doesn't get, giving you the best of both worlds.
A TV with Alexa built-in...
There are two Alexa-compatible TVs right now, Fire TV Edition sets from Element and Westinghouse, which we've reviewed. Fire Edition TVs are basically just TVs that come with a built-in Fire TV and a voice remote (with a few extras, like a live channel guide for OTA antennas).
How to search:
With a Fire TV device, you can say something like "Alexa, play Finding Dory" into the voice remote (or an Echo speaker if you link the two devices) and it'll play it on Netflix without you having to specify. If you've already logged into Netflix, it'll just start playing automatically.
Right now, Amazon supports finding and getting content from Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Crackle, Encore, Food Network, HGTV, Hulu, Showtime, Showtime Anytime, and Travel Channel. It can also show you live content from Amazon Channels that you've subscribed to, which would include HBO's live channels, but not the full on demand library.
This search feature falls apart a bit when you try to go outside of the supported third-party apps. So if I want to bring up Sesame Street for my daughter, Alexa brings me to a page to rent or buy an episode because it doesn't integrate with HBO Now yet.
3. Playing music on your home theater speakers
If you have a really killer sound system for your home theater that has an AUX jack, all you need is an Echo Dot to add Alexa support to it. Just plug in the Echo to your AUX jack and it'll play through your home theater, giving even older setups voice control and easy access to Spotify, Pandora, etc. without having to rely on your TV or streaming box.
Then all you have to do is ask Alexa to play a song and it'll start playing if it can find it. By default, it'll grab songs, playlists, or radio stations from Amazon's Music service, though you can just say "Play Billy Joel on Pandora" or "...on Spotify" and it'll go to those services as long as you're logged in. If you want to prioritize a service like Spotify over Amazon Music, you can set this behavior in the Alexa app.
While you could also just use the Alexa Voice Remote of your Fire TV, we recommend using a standalone Echo because the Fire TV doesn't play nice with Spotify. There is an app you can download and you can tell Alexa to "Launch Spotify," but you can't tell it to "Play Michael Jackson on Spotify" on the Fire TV, you have to control it with the remote by hand.
4. See search results, weather forecasts, and more on your TV
Alexa is great for a lot of little questions throughout the day, such as finding out the weather forecast, traffic conditions, or just asking it random trivia. With a standalone device, Alexa will tell you the answer to your questions, but with a Fire TV and an Alexa Voice Remote, it can show you.
For basic things, such as "How many feet in a mile?" it just shows you the answer. But for some more complex requests, like movies playing nearby, restaurant recommendations, and products you want to order, it'll show a more rich tile that shows you things like cover art, review scores from Yelp, and things you need a screen to truly understand.
The biggest one for me is the weather. Alexa's forecasts are detailed, but sometimes I miss some info if I'm not paying close attention. On a Fire TV I can see today's highs and lows, as well as the rest of the week.
One thing to note is the more advanced weather skills, such as Big Sky, won't show up on your Fire TV since it is an Alexa Skill and not a Fire TV app.