Smart Speaker Buying Guide

The world of smart speakers has changed a lot recently, and one of the biggest differences is the sound. Speakers from the previous generation, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, were very adept at providing weather reports and 2-minute cooking timers when summoned by voice command. But when it came to playing music, they simply didn’t measure up to the nonsmart wireless speakers atop our ratings.

But all that changed late last year with the introduction of the Google Home Max, the Sonos One, and other models that not only are smart but also make sound quality a high priority.

In most ways, this shift in priorities is a bonus for consumers, given that playing music is still the primary function for most smart speakers. You get more choices at a variety of prices. But it also makes selecting the right smart speaker more complex. 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 one hub in a larger digital environment. With most models you’re going to need a mobile app on a smartphone or tablet to perform basic setup. And all models 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 lightbulbs to refrigerators.

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

Amazon Alexa

Alexa has enjoyed something of a first-mover advantage. That means a wide array of devices already work with Alexa-powered smart speakers, so you’ll find a robust selection of third-party tasks—or “skills,” in Alexa parlance—that the speaker can perform. 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 robust shopping tools. 

Smart Speakers Ratings

Google Assistant

Google has been coming on strong in recent months, adding device integration with companies such as JBL and more third-party “actions,” while piggybacking 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 an advantage for many consumers.  

Smart Speakers Ratings

Apple Siri

Apple's HomePod lacks the full Siri experience available on other iOS products, according to our testers. On the other hand, if you’re deeply embedded in the Apple universe, with a subscription to Apple Music, and a bag filled with iPhones and MacBooks, that difference might not matter to you. 

Smart Speakers Ratings

What Your Smart Speaker Can Do

While the AI of a smart speaker may still dazzle your less tech-savvy friends, the reality is that 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 to build devices that use their AI platforms.

And while there are exceptions, for the most part the AI on third-party devices performs much like the technology on the smart speakers made by Amazon and Google, according to our testers. Our testers found 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 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.

Smart Speakers Continue to Evolve

While the market is still changing, with companies such as Amazon pushing the boundaries with models that have touch screens, today’s smart-speaker market essentially divides into two categories: hi-fi and basic speakers.

Hi-fi smart speakers: Until very recently, the sonics were almost an afterthought in the smart-speaker category. But the Google Home Max has raised the standard, according to our testers, delivering substantially better audio than most of its rivals.

The Sonos One also sounds great. And more to the point, it provides functionality you don’t always find in a smart speaker, including the multiroom capabilities that have made the company’s nonsmart speakers a force in the wireless market. Apple’s new HomePod also earned a solid rating for sonics.

In general, what these speakers have in common is high performance coupled with a relatively high price. The Google Home Max sells for $400, with Apple's HomePod costing just $50 less. The Sonos One costs $200.

Those in search of value picks will be interested to learn that two modestly priced JBL models have earned a spot on our recommended list, too, but at well over $100 they’re still considerably more costly than a basic model.

Basic smart speakers: The cheapest smart speakers, the Amazon Dot and Google Home Mini, have their limitations, especially in terms of sound quality, and they suffer in our rankings because of that. But they also offer a lot of performance for very little money.

If you're not going to use them frequently to listen to music, these budget devices, $50 each, will let you join the smart-speaker movement with digital assistants every bit as useful as those in much higher-priced models.

And Here’s Another Valuable Tip: If you decide in the end that you want better sound, you can pair these small devices with nonsmart wireless speakers—maybe, say, great-sounding models such as the Edifier S1000DB, or flexible multiroom models from Sonos or Denon’s Heos line.

Smart-Speaker Brands

The smart-speaker market is interesting because it’s dominated by two tech companies—Google and Amazon—that haven’t been in the business of making consumer electronics. Increasingly, companies that are established in the wireless speaker market, such as Sonos and JBL, are making inroads.

The tech giant entered the top-end of the smart speaker market in early 2018 with the sleek and stylish Home Pod.
Amazon leads the smart-speaker category in market share with speakers using its Alexa digital assistant. Unlike Google and Apple, which have introduced hi-fi speakers with great sound and substantial price tags, Amazon has focused on more modestly priced models, some with added features, such as the touch screen on the Amazon Echo Show.
The Google Home Max has raised the sonic standard, according to our testers, delivering substantially better audio than most of its rivals. The company’s less expensive models, like the Google Home Mini, offer a lot of value for the money.
Those in search of value picks will be interested to learn that two modestly priced JBL models have earned a spot on our recommended list, too.
Our testers found that the Sonos One sounds great. And more to the point, it provides functionality you don’t always find in a smart speaker, including the multiroom capabilities that have made the company’s nonsmart speakers a force in the wireless market. While the Sonos One uses Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, the company promises updates that will make it compatible with Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri.
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