Smart Speaker Buying Guide

Since they were first introduced, smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home have been adept at providing weather reports and 2-minute cooking timers when summoned by voice command. But when it comes to playing music, they haven’t always been a match for the best-sounding nonsmart wireless speakers atop our ratings.

That has changed over time. It began with the introduction of the Amazon Echo StudioSonos One, and now-discontinued Google Home Max, speakers that not only are smart but also make sound quality a high priority. And that improvement has trickled down to less expensive models such as the latest Amazon Echo and Google Nest Audio, which now display a marked improvement in sound quality over their predecessors. 

At the same time, the feature selection has grown more robust, with models adding rechargeable batteries, weatherproofed designs, and touch screens that allow you to view anything from a new empanada recipe to your favorite Taylor Swift music video.

In most ways, this shift in priorities is a bonus for consumers. You get more choices at a variety of prices. But it also makes selecting the right smart speaker more complex. So smart shopping is a must if you want to find the smart speaker that’s best for you.

Choose Your Smart Speaker Ecosystem

Think of a smart speaker as the hub in a larger digital environment throughout your household. With most models, you’re going to need a mobile app on a smartphone or tablet to perform basic setup. All the options work in concert with cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI), which controls everything from streaming music to the speaker’s ability to interface with other smart devices, ranging from smart lightbulbs to internet-enabled refrigerators. But smart speakers work best with other products from the same manufacturer. 

So before you decide on a smart speaker, you need to decide which digital pack you belong to: Amazon, Apple, or Google?

An Amazon Echo smart speaker.

Amazon Echo

Alexa still enjoys something of a first-mover advantage. That means you’ll find a robust selection of third-party tasks—or “skills,” in Alexa parlance—that the speaker can perform and a wide array of devices that work with Alexa-powered smart speakers. Alexa-powered devices are also well-integrated in the Amazon Prime universe, with features such as the Amazon Music service and the online retailer’s extensive shopping tools. 

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A Google Nest smart speaker.

Google Nest Audio

Google trails Amazon in terms of the size of its library of “actions” and number of compatible smart home devices. But some consumers prefer Google’s digital assistant, finding it more intuitive to use. It also piggybacks on the tech giant’s formidable search capabilities. The Google Home’s ability to integrate easily with Google devices, such as Chromecast streaming players, is another plus.

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An Apple HomePod Mini smart speaker.

Apple HomePod Mini

Apple’s HomePod lacks the full Siri experience available on other iOS products, according to our testers. And you’ll find far fewer smart home devices that are compatible with the speaker. On the other hand, if you’re deeply embedded in the Apple universe, with a subscription to Apple Music and a domicile filled with iPhones, MacBooks, and HomeKit devices, you might not mind those issues.

 

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What Your Smart Speaker Can Do

While the AI of a smart speaker may still dazzle your less tech-savvy friends, the reality is the “smart” in smart speakers doesn’t require that much deliberation when you’re shopping.

In an attempt to gain market share (and, it should be noted, collect consumer data), Amazon and Google have been actively encouraging other manufacturers, like Bose and Sonos, to build smart speakers that use their digital assistants.

For the most part, the smart speaker functions on third-party devices perform roughly the same as the ones on smart speakers made by Amazon and Google, according to our testers. Our labs find little or no difference, for example, in the devices’ ability to hear and respond to wake words and other commands, even in very noisy environments.

In short, most smart speakers on the market are quite smart. Here are just a few of the cool things you can ask your smart speaker to do:

• Act as the world’s smartest intercom—summoning friends and family not only in your house but also anywhere a compatible device is connected. 

• Interact with smart bulbs or a smart thermostat to make your room brighter or warmer. 

• Make a phone call.

• Read you an audiobook.

• Set timers, alarms, and reminders.

• Tell you a joke.

• Tell you today’s weather.

The Three Categories of Smart Speakers

In the past few years, smart speakers have evolved into three distinct categories, and which one you choose largely depends on how you use the device. 

Home smart speakers: Like the very first smart speakers, today’s home models are designed to be used indoors. They need to be plugged into an electrical outlet, and they use WiFi connectivity.

The least expensive home speakers, such as the Amazon Echo Dot and Apple HomePod Mini, are something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they offer a lot of smart speaker functionality for the money. On the other, our testers find that their sound quality leaves a lot to be desired—they’re okay for podcasts or maybe background music but not for serious music listening.

Moving up a bit in price, the newest Amazon Echo and Google Nest Audio sound substantially better than their predecessors. But if you’re going to listen to music—and you probably will—consider step-up models like the Amazon Echo Studio, Bose Home Speaker 300, and Sonos One, which offer better clarity, stronger bass, and more volume, along with that elusive sense that the musicians are in the room with you.

Portable smart speakers: A number of companies, including JBL, Sonos, and Ultimate Ears, have added portable smart speakers to their lines. They feature rechargeable batteries, water-resistant or waterproof enclosures, and Bluetooth connectivity for easy pairing to a smart phone or another portable device. These speakers need WiFi for their smart functions, so these functions won’t work away from home. But there’s much to be said for taking your smart speaker into the yard, where it can still receive a WiFi signal, and telling it to “turn the volume up” when your favorite song pops up on a playlist while you’re busy working the grill. 

Smart speakers with screens: Amazon and Google are among the companies that have introduced smart speakers with screens. The screens can be a benefit if you want to, say, read a recipe or follow a chef whipping up the dish that you’re cooking. On the other hand, they take up valuable counter space on a kitchen counter (voice-only speakers can be stashed on a shelf), and their functions can be duplicated by a portable device such as a tablet, laptop, or smartphone. 

Get creative: If you decide in the end that you want better sound quality, you can pair an inexpensive smart speaker with nonsmart wireless speakers—maybe, say, great-sounding models such as the Edifier S1000DB.

For more info on CR’s best smart speakers of 2021, click here.

Smart Speaker Brands

The smart speaker market is dominated by two tech companies—Amazon and Google—that haven’t been in the business of making consumer electronics for long. But, increasingly, companies that are established in the wireless speaker market, such as Bose and Sonos, are making inroads.

Amazon leads the smart speaker category in market share, with myriad speakers using its Alexa digital assistant. Unlike Apple and Google, which have introduced hi-fi speakers with great sound and relatively bigger price tags, Amazon has focused on more modestly priced models, some with added features, such as the touch screen on the various Echo Show models.
The tech giant entered the top end of the smart speaker market in early 2018 with its sleek, stylish and now-discontinued HomePod. The company's lone smart speaker is the modestly priced HomePod Mini.
Google has streamlined its audio-only smart speaker line, discontinuing the great-sounding Home Max and the inexpensive Home Mini in favor of the middle-of-the-road Google Nest Audio. Google also has several smart screens, including one with sleep tracking.
Our testers find that Bose's smart speakers offer solid performance and standout sound, as well as the versatility of being able to use either Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant.
Sonos' smart speakers are nothing if not flexible. They all work with the company's multiroom speakers, and the portable models can add Bluetooth capability to a whole-house Sonos system. They're also platform-agnostic, so they work with either Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant, as well as accessing Apple content through AirPlay.
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