“What’s the best smart speaker?” Seems like a pretty straight-forward question, though the reality is a bit more complicated.
While high-end smart home setups are still far from common, smart home technology continues to break into the mainstream. The smart speaker is easily the gateway drug into the world of smart homes. A smart speaker holds all the same capabilities you’d find from a Bluetooth speaker but significantly extends its this functionality thanks to the virtual assistant that lets you use voice commands to play music, set reminders, play games, and much more.
There are literally dozens are smart speakers on the market today. Most speakers use the Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant virtual assistant, though there are a few outliers including the Cortana-powered Harmon Kardon Invoke, the Siri-powered Apple HomePod, and the upcoming Bixby-based Samsung Galaxy Home.
Finding the right one comes down to two main choices: Alexa or Assistant.
Do you want Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant?
Before you can buy a smart speaker, you need to figure out if you prefer Alexa or Assistant. Both can set appointments, reminders, tell you news and weather, control smart home, and more. They just have a few different strengths and weaknesses.
It’s also possible to have multiple speakers with different platforms in the same house, but this can make things a bit more complicated and so in most cases we recommend picking one platform for all your smart speakers.
Reasons to get an Alexa-powered speaker:
- You’re a regular Amazon shopper. Alexa devices making shopping on Amazon easier than ever.
- You prefer to go with the crowd. Alexa is still the dominant platform, though Google Assistant is catching up fast.
- You want the best smart device support. Those planning on adding more smart home devices are going to find Alexa has better support, though again – Google is working to close the gap.
- Alexa has way more skills. Skills let you add functionality (games, smart home features, and more). Home has it’s alternative to this – actions – but it’s not as good.
Reasons to get an Assistant-powered speaker:
- You’re more tied to the Google ecosystem than Amazon. Google Assistant works pretty seamlessly with some of Google’s other apps and services.
- Assistant is better at context. Amazon tends to have more trouble understanding you, meaning your commands have to be pretty specific. Google does a much better job of understanding us humans.
- Assistant has the power of Google Search behind it. Not only is it better at context, it honestly tends to do a better job at answering questions period. This is in no small part due to the power of Google Search.
- It still works great for smart home purposes. There might be less device support than Alexa but this gap is closing and pretty much anything recent or notable is going to work with Google Assistant.
What about Apple’s HomePod? Honestly, unless you’re a hardcore Apple user we recommend sticking to the former two options. HomePod isn’t nearly as good at the “smart” part as its competition, even if the speaker itself is pretty solid.
As for the “other guys”? Cortana is also pretty much a “no”, and Galaxy Home isn’t out yet.
Best choice for Alexa: Amazon Echo
If you’re going to get an Alexa device, we highly recommend going with Amazon’s in-house Echo brand. There’s currently five Echo devices on offer, and the options will likely only grow over time. In most cases we recommend just getting the standard Echo, though a Dot is a great way to test the waters without spending a lot. Dots are also great for adding Alexa into multiple rooms.
Here’s a quick look at your options:
Echo Dot 3rd Gen ($49.99): It has a single 0.6-inch speaker. It’s cheap and also small. The new version is better than the first generation Dot for audio quality. Buy only as a complement to other Echo devices or for a cheap way to dip your toe in.
Echo Spot ($129.99): It has a single 1.4-speaker. It’s the best designed Echo, with a screen and camera for video features.
Echo Plus 2nd Gen ($149.99): It has a 3-inch woofer, and a 0.8-inch tweeter. This is Amazon’s best sound offering. It also offers smart home hub services.
Echo Show ($229.99): It has dual 2.0-inch stereo speakers anda large 10.1-inch video screen. It combines excellent sound combined with video calling and messaging.
Best 3rd party Alexa option: Sonos One
The Sonos One is one heck of a smart speaker. If you want to go the third-party route, you won’t find much better.
Here are just a few reasons to consider it:
- It offers excellent audio quality, thanks to its dual Class-D amplifiers, along with a single tweeter and a mid-woofer
- The speaker is also easy to connect to and setup
- The six onboard microphones can pick up your voice commands quickly
- Finally, while it currently supports Amazon’s Alexa, Sonos has promised that support for Google Assistant is also on the way in the near future.
Best choice for Assistant: Google Home
If you’re on Android and shopping on Amazon isn’t a big thing for you, the Google Assistant is the most capable AI, especially if you’re already using it a lot. There are currently four devices on offer, though most users will probably just want to go with the default Google Home or the Google Home Mini if you want to try out the smart speaker thing without spending a lot.
Google Home Mini ($49.99): A Single 40mm driver speaker offers compact sound without much bass. Aggressively priced and often found bundled with other Google products, it’s the best device to try before investing further.
Google Home ($99.99): A single high-excursion speaker with 2-inch driver and dual 2-inch passive radiators for good sound. The original Google Home remains a quality device, although the design isn’t for everyone.
Google Home Max ($399.99): Two 4.5-inch high-excursion dual woofers and two 0.7-in custom tweeters. The big new Google Home device, designed as a rival for the HomePod has great sound and a big price. Two can also pair for stereo, and it has aux audio input for flexibility.
Google Home Hub ($149.99): The latest in the Google Home family is a smart video speaker, with a 7-inch touchscreen. It’s cool to use just your voice to bring up instructional YouTube videos. The audio quality is about the same as on the Google Home Mini, and it lacks a video camera.
Best 3rd party Assistant choice: JBL Link 300
The JBL Link 300 is the best third-party Google Assistant speaker you can currently buy.
Some of the reasons for this include:
- It offers excellent sound quality, close to the much more expensive Google Home Max.
- The dual far-field microphones do a great job at picking up voice commands.
- It’s also a Google Cast device, which means you can cast music, radio and podcasts from your phone to your speaker.