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What's the best smart speaker you can buy?
Amazon kicked off the smart speaker race with the first Echo in 2014, initially launching it as an invitation-only product. Since then the industry has exploded, joined not just by Apple and Google but a range of competing companies. And no wonder — done correctly, a smart speaker setup is not only useful but futuristic. While privacy concerns remain, prices have reached the point that a few products are almost impulse purchases.
Here then is a look at the best smart speakers — specifically, however, ones within reach of the average person. While something like the Beosound Balance might sound fantastic, most people aren’t prepared to spend thousands of dollars on a single unit.
Do you want Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri?
Before buying a smart speaker, you need to decide if you’d prefer Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple Siri (and by extension HomeKit) as your platform. All three digital assistants can do things like play music and podcasts, control your smart home, manage calendars and reminders, and tell you the news and weather. They each have different strengths and weaknesses though, including compatibility.
You can use multiple platforms in the same home, but this tends to make things complicated. You have to configure multiple apps, link services and accessories to each of them, then remember which speaker controls what on a daily basis. We recommend picking one platform for all your smart speakers if you can.
Some reasons to get an Alexa-powered speaker:
- You’re a regular Amazon shopper. Alexa devices make shopping on Amazon easy as can be, including shipping and delivery notifications. They also nudge you to re-order frequent purchases, which can be either helpful or annoying depending on your habits.
- You want the most speaker options. There are more Alexa speakers than any other kind, which improves your initial choices and the possibilities for expansion.
- You want the best smart home support. Alexa has the broadest range of compatible accessories and the best first-party app for managing them. Some Alexa speakers double as Zigbee hubs.
- Alexa has way more skills. Skills let you add functionality to Alexa, including self-contained apps. Google has a rough equivalent to this — Actions — but arguably, Alexa offers a better selection.
- You have security devices from Ring or Blink. Amazon owns both of those brands, so naturally they have expanded options with Alexa, such as voice-based arm/disarm controls and connections with smart lights.
Reasons to get an Assistant-powered speaker:
- You’re closely tied to the Google ecosystem. Assistant works seamlessly with Google’s other apps and services, and you’re probably using it already if you own an Android phone or tablet. You won’t get native YouTube Music support with Alexa or Siri.
- Assistant is better at context. Alexa and Siri tend to require specific wording for voice commands. Google does a better job of understanding intentions, and lets you combine two commands in the same sentence (e.g. “Turn off the bedroom lights and play some music.”)
- Assistant has the power of Google Search behind it. Not only is it better at context, it also tends to do better at answering questions. That’s thanks to Google Search. Whereas Alexa and Siri tend to stick to major sources like IMDb or Wikipedia, Google can turn to the further reaches of the web when those sites aren’t enough.
- It still works great for smart home purposes. Assistant might have less device support than Alexa, but the gap isn’t terrible, and Assistant can feel more powerful in some ways.
Reasons to get a Siri-powered speaker (a HomePod, at this point):
- You’re already invested in Apple devices. If you own an iPhone or an iPad, HomePods integrate closely with their features, including not just Siri but AirPlay, Handoff, and HomeKit. In fact you need an iPhone or iPad just to configure a HomePod.
- You’re already invested in Apple services. Although HomePods natively support a few third-party services like Pandora, you’re really meant to use Apple Music and Apple Podcasts for anything audio-related. If you’re a Spotify subscriber, you’ll have to AirPlay content from another Apple device.
- You like or already own HomeKit accessories. HomeKit is Apple’s smart home platform. While there aren’t nearly as many HomeKit accessories as there are for Alexa or Google Assistant, the platform is ultra-secure, and the Apple Home app is close to par with Alexa, if not superior. You can control HomeKit accessories from any Apple device.
- You have an Apple TV 4K. It’s very easy to pair one or two HomePods (of the same exact model) with an Apple TV for wireless TV audio. You can do something similar with Amazon Echo speakers and a Fire TV, but the Apple TV 4K is vastly superior as a video streamer.
- You want to take full advantage of Thread. Thread is a wireless mesh protocol for accessories that tends to be faster and more reliable than Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, moreover reducing dependence on hubs, since many accessories can act as their own “border routers.” Apple was an early adopter, so if you want a guaranteed Thread ecosystem, a HomePod is a great place to start. Google only recently began supporting Thread, and Amazon has yet to roll out promised software upgrades.
Best smart speakers
1. Amazon Echo Dot (5th gen)
With its low price, the fifth-generation Echo Dot is perhaps the perfect way to get started in smart speakers. You’ll want other models for the best bass and fidelity, but for radio, podcasts, ambient music, and controlling a smart home, the Dot is more than sufficient. It includes motion and temperature sensors for automations, and if you spend a little extra, you can buy a version with an embedded LED clock. Owners of Eero routers can use it to extend their Wi-Fi network.
2. Google Nest Mini
Let’s be blunt — the Nest Mini is about no-frills access to Google Assistant. While it has twice as much bass as the older Home Mini, its music output still can’t compare with more expensive Nest models or even the Echo Dot.
What does make it worthwhile is that it’s cheap, compact, and works well for tasks like smart home control, listening to news and podcasts, and asking the occasional knowledge question. You might try pairing it with a higher-quality Bluetooth speaker when it comes to music.
3. Amazon Echo (4th gen)
The 4th gen flagship Echo should be the foundation of most Alexa-based smart homes. It sounds great, using two 0.8-inch tweeters and a 3-inch woofer to produce more volume and bass than you’re probably expecting. It sports built-in motion and temperature sensors like the Dot, and can additionally operate as a Zigbee hub, pairing compatible accessories in a way that doesn’t burden your Wi-Fi network. Like most Echo speakers, it acts as a Matter controller too, although at the moment you can only pair accessories using an Android phone.
4. Google Nest Audio
The Nest Audio is Google’s best audio-only product. It sounds worlds better than the Mini, thanks not just to better specs but to Media EQ and Ambient EQ. The first tunes output to the type of media you’re listening to (music, podcasts, etc.), while the second adjusts for ambient noise levels. There are more powerful third-party Assistant speakers, but for the price, it’s tough to beat.
5. Bose Home Speaker 500
If you want a single speaker that can offer rich, wall-to-wall sound, you should at least consider the Bose Home Speaker 500. It’s big and often expensive, but offers a display so you can see what’s playing, and supports Alexa, Google Assistant, and AirPlay. There are also plenty of manual buttons, which should please those frustrated with the minimalist controls of other products. Try to find it at a discount if you can, since it’s several years old at this point.
6. Sonos Era 100
A successor to the Sonos One, the Era 100 is likewise aimed at audiophiles and supports Alexa and AirPlay. Beyond sound quality, there are two reasons to go with this speaker over some other options — the first being Trueplay, which automatically tunes the speaker to room acoustics. The other is the Sonos ecosystem, since a family of linked Sonos speakers sounds like a dream. You can also connect via Bluetooth or a line-in adapter.
7. Sonos Beam (Gen 2)
More and more people are getting into home theater audio these days, as quality equipment is now semi-reasonably priced, and choosing something with smart functions can kill two birds with one stone. The Sonos Beam is a soundbar with Alexa, Google Assistant, and AirPlay, plus support for surround-sound technologies like Dolby Atmos. It’s certainly the most expensive speaker on this list, but it might be the only one you need in your living room.
8. Apple HomePod (2nd gen)
Apple’s latest full-size HomePod is your best choice if you want a dedicated Siri speaker. Its sound is loud and clear with plenty of bass, and it has Dolby Atmos, which you can hear in both TV output and select Apple Music tracks. It’s ridiculously easy to pair one or two with an Apple TV 4K for wireless audio.
You’ll need an Apple TV 4K if you want a HomePod for ARC/eARC output on a TV, which is a reminder that it’s inescapably tied to Apple platforms. An iPhone or iPad is required just for setup, and you should probably steer clear if you’re a Spotify fan who wants access to voice controls.
Matter pairing and Thread are enabled right out of the box, which does make it an ideal Home Hub for HomeKit. HomeKit requires either an Apple TV or a HomePod if you want remote access and automations.