Which $100 Smart Speaker Should You Buy?

Our testers evaluate basic models from Amazon, Apple, and Google

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Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod Mini, and Google Nest Audio smart speakers.
From left, the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod Mini, and Google Nest Audio smart speakers.
Photos: Amazon, Apple, and Google

In most of the tech world, a $100 bill doesn’t buy you much. You can purchase a laptop charger, a high-end smartphone case, or maybe a really stylish band for your smartwatch, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a little change back from your Benjamin.

But when it comes to smart speakers, the economics are different—and better for consumers.

Amazon and Google totally revamped their meat-of-the-market models, the Echo and the Nest Audio, in late 2020. And Apple introduced the HomePod Mini as a less expensive alternative to the discontinued HomePod. All three smart speakers officially list for $99 and are frequently discounted.

More on Smart Speakers

Want to go even cheaper? Amazon offers an entry-level model—the fourth generation Echo Dot—that has a list price of around $50 even when it’s not on sale. Cheaper still is Amazon’s 3rd generation Echo Dot, which can be had for around $30, and the Google Nest Mini, which sells for around the same price.

Why can you find such value in the land of the smart speaker? One reason is that smart speakers themselves don’t have to be all that smart. Most of the processing is done by servers in the company’s cloud rather than on the device. So cheaper models and more expensive ones perform their smart functions almost identically.

And that means much of what you’re paying for when you choose a smart speaker is sound quality. Surveys suggest that most consumers use their smart speakers to listen to their favorite tunes, and for many folks, having a speaker that satisfies them with its sound is a recipe for long-term happiness.

The $100 smart speakers listed here have just decent audio, according to our testers. Getting truly excellent audio performance usually requires you to pay more. But these less expensive models are fine for listening to podcasts or recipes, cranking up tunes if you’re not feeling too picky, or adding smart features to another great-sounding wireless speaker.

We evaluated these models as part of our smart speaker testing program. We currently have over 40 smart speakers in our ratings. As always, we purchased our test samples through typical retail channels—no freebies or other special treatment for us.

Amazon Echo (4th Generation)

The cylindrical styling of older Amazon Echo models has been replaced by a new spherical design for this iteration of the classic smart speaker. Under the radically different exterior, the updated Echo features improved speaker drivers and a Zigbee smart home hub that allows the speaker to talk directly to many Zigbee-compatible devices, such as Philips Hue smart bulbs and some Yale smart locks and Honeywell thermostats.

What’s to like: The latest Amazon Echo tops its predecessor in a number of important ways. The sonics are significantly improved, with a strong but slightly boomy bass and enough volume to fill a midsized room. Our testers also found that two Echo speakers sound good when paired in stereo, delivering you-are-there appeal. And that the Zigbee hub is a major plus if you’re a fan of smart home devices.

What’s not to like: Despite the sonic improvement, the fourth-gen Echo still can’t compete with the best-sounding smart speakers, such as the Sonos One or, for that matter, Amazon’s own Echo Studio.

Who should buy it: Anyone with $100 who wants an Alexa-powered smart speaker. The fourth-gen Amazon Echo’s sound is fine for casual music listening, and its better smart home integration is a substantial improvement that boosts its versatility scores in our testing.

Google Nest Audio

The Google Nest Audio’s predecessor resembled an old-school air freshener, but this latest model is a rounded rectangle that looks a little like a pillow standing on end. Beneath that new skin resides an all-new speaker design, with a separate tweeter and woofer replacing the single driver of the outgoing Google Home.

What’s to like: Some people like Google Assistant better than Alexa, but it comes down to personal preference. Alexa smart speakers have a wider variety of skills, but some users find Google’s interface, which has a search engine powered by Google instead of Alexa’s Bing-driven brain, to be more natural and easier to use.

What’s not to like: While the company has touted the Nest Audio’s improved sonic performance, our testers found that the gains are more modest. The speaker generates enough volume for a midsized room, but the midrange is a little hazy and there’s some sizzle on the high frequencies. While it’s better than that old Google Home, the Nest Audio still can’t compete with the best-sounding smart speakers, like the Google-compatible Sonos One. It also doesn’t sound quite as good as the similarly priced fourth-gen Amazon Echo.

Who should buy it: A Google fan who’s looking for a step up sonically. The Nest Audio is a solid choice for stand-alone listening or as part of a multiroom music system with other Google speakers.

Apple HomePod Mini

The Apple HomePod Mini was launched in the fall of 2020 as the company’s first new smart speaker since the HomePod’s introduction two years before. Its spherical shape is markedly different than the cylindrical styling of the now-discontinued original HomePod.

What’s to like: The HomePod Mini provides a relatively low-priced entry into the Apple ecosystem. The Mini is a solid option for controlling Apple HomeKit smart home products and services such as Apple Music. The Mini allows voice control of other music services, including Pandora and iHeart Radio, and can even integrate with Apple CarPlay in your vehicle. For instance, you can ask for driving directions while making coffee in the morning, then send your chosen route to your car before leaving home.

What’s not to like: In terms of sound quality, our testers found that the Apple HomePod Mini rates significantly lower than the Echo or Nest Audio. Indeed, its somewhat congested sound is closer to that of the much cheaper Echo Dot and the discontinued Google Home Mini, albeit with a fuller bass. Like those speakers, the HomePod Mini is okay for podcasts or background music in a small room but not great for playing your favorite tunes. Unlike those devices, the HomePod Mini can’t be paired via Bluetooth with a better-sounding wireless speaker.

Who should buy it: Someone who’s deeply immersed in the Apple world and doesn’t mind paying a bit of an Apple tax for a $100 speaker that’s sonically closer to $50 models.

Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.