The Google Home Max is one of the best smart speakers of 2020
Photo: Google

For all its popularity, the smart speaker still seems to be something of a work in progress. As new manufacturers enter this growing market, we're seeing a wider variety of smart speaker models that differ in terms of form, features, and price. 

Most of these changes benefit consumers, but all of this newfound variety can also make it trickier to chose the right model for your needs.  

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To help cut the confusion, here are quick takes on some of the best smart speakers of 2020, based on Consumer Reports’ testing.

These models were purchased at retail by secret shoppers posing as regular consumers–no freebies for us–and were subjected to a variety of tests by trained technicians in CR's laboratories.

(If you know you want an Amazon speaker to get the widely used Alexa digital assistant into your life, read this guide to the entire Echo lineup.)

Best-Sounding Smart Speaker

When it was introduced in late 2017, the Google Home Max ($300, shown at top) was the first really good-sounding smart speaker, and it remains the best-sounding model on the market. 

Our testers gave it solid marks for its impactful bass and clean midrange—that all-important sonic window where most instruments and vocals lie—along with plenty of volume. Things get even better if you’re willing to spend enough to pair two Home Maxes in stereo. Together, the speakers can almost fool you into thinking that instruments from your favorite recording are right there in the room with you.

You can integrate several Home Max speakers throughout your home, either singly or in stereo pairs, and supplement them with smaller and less expensive Google Home speakers or other speakers with Chromecast capability as part of a multiroom system.

The Home Max’s smart functions work seamlessly with Google Assistant. It doesn’t have the same number of skills as Amazon’s Alexa and doesn’t work with as many smart home devices, but some users find Google’s interface to be more user-friendly.

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Google Home Max

Price: $300

Sound quality
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Best Portable Smart Speaker

The Sonos Move is the first Sonos speaker that's both portable and rechargeable, although its size and design make it more suited to a patio than a beach bag. And it's the first Sonos speaker that's Bluetooth-compatible to allow easy streaming from a smartphone.

Like the company's other models, the Move can sit at the heart of a multiroom system that will allow you to listen to the “Reply All” podcast in the kitchen while streaming Al Green on Spotify upstairs.

The Move also integrates with nonsmart Sonos speakers, most of which have done very well in our testing. It’s also an assistant-agnostic speaker: Like the Sonos One, the Move works with both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. You can also stream music to it through Apple Airplay, but there's no built-in support for Siri.

If you don't need the Move's portability or Bluetooth capabilities, the Sonos One offers the same multiplatform smart speaker functionality—and similar sound quality, albeit with a bit less bass and volume—at around half the price.

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Sonos Move

Price: $400

Sound quality
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Best Speaker for Apple Fans

If you’re all about Apple, the HomePod is an enticing option. It has the sleek styling that has always been the company’s signature look, and it works seamlessly with the Apple Music streaming service, with full voice integration.

Our testers gave the HomePod solid grades for sound quality, but they note that it lacks midrange clarity compared with the best smart speakers, like the Google Home Max. After the HomePod's introduction, Apple introduced stereo pairing, which improved the sound quality a bit. The treble is somewhat less subdued, and a pair of HomePods delivers more realistic-sounding placement of instruments in space. 

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Apple HomePod

Price: $300

Sound quality
Versatility
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Best Smart Speaker With a Screen

The newest version of the Amazon Echo Show illustrates how truly useful a touch screen can be on a smart speaker. The previous-generation Show was a promising product, but in practice it was a less than wholly satisfying device. It felt sort of like a tablet that you can talk to. 

The second-generation version is a much more useful product. First, the sound is much improved—the new Show features sound quality that’s impressive if not quite category-leading.

The large, 10-inch touch screen makes it supremely easy to set up and use. The result is a device that’s great for reading a recipe or watching a quick how-to video, tasks that you might otherwise consign to a phone or tablet. But the Show sits on the counter at an easy viewing angle, and the voice commands mean that there's no need to touch it with messy or busy hands.

The Show joins a small but growing group of touch-screen smart speaker competitors. And for now, it's simply the best one you can buy.

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Amazon Echo Show (2nd Generation)

Price: $230

Sound quality
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Best Really Cheap Smart Speaker

One of the advantages of a smart speaker is that the speaker itself doesn’t have to be all that smart. The artificial intelligence magic happens on the company’s servers rather than inside the box sitting on your kitchen counter. Which is why a small and very inexpensive speaker like the Dot can perform many smart functions just as well as a top-of-the-line model.

But a successful smart speaker does have to work decently as a speaker. And the new Dot delivers much better sound than its predecessor. While it may not be an ideal choice for cranking out the soundtrack to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s fine for listening to podcasts and playing some background tunes while you do the dishes. 

The tiny Echo Dot can be an inexpensive way to add IQ points to the audio equipment you already own. It can also add smart speaker functionality to a different and presumably better-sounding Bluetooth speaker.

Quick Take

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation)

Price: $30

Sound quality
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What Makes a Great Speaker?

Do you know the difference between good speakers and excellent speakers? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, a Consumer Reports expert, Elias Arias, explains to host Jack Rico the art of identifying quality devices.