Which $100 Smart Speaker Should You Buy?
Our testers evaluate basic models from 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.
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The cylindrical styling of older Amazon Echo models has been replaced by a new spherical design for this iteration of the classic smart speaker.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.
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.