Best Smart Speakers Under $200
These inexpensive models from Amazon, Google, iHome, JBL, Sonos, and UE provide performance that belies their price
Want to know a secret about smart speakers? The speaker itself doesn’t have to be all that smart.
When you ask your speaker to shuffle the latest Taylor Swift album or tell you the capital of Bolivia, that artificial intelligence magic happens on the company’s servers rather than inside the speaker enclosure sitting on your kitchen counter or family room shelf.
Outsourcing these functions to the cloud allows an inexpensive smart speaker to perform most smart functions just as well as a pricier top-of-the-line model.
But research shows that most smart speakers spend most of their time simply playing music, which is why our testers place heavy emphasis on sound quality when testing these devices.
The latest iteration of Amazon's Echo features not only revamped styling (say goodbye to the old cylinder look) but also better sound and new capabilities.
The bass is strong but slightly boomy, and the device has enough volume to fill a medium-sized room. Our testers also find that two Echos sound great when paired in stereo, with a significant you-are-there appeal. As with all Amazon models, the new Echo can be used as part of a multiroom system with other Amazon smart speakers.
The new integrated Zigbee smart home hub used to be exclusive to the Echo Plus. The feature allows the Echo to talk directly to many Zigbee-compatible devices, such as Philips Hue smart bulbs and some Yale smart locks and Honeywell thermostats, without using an app.
The latest Dot also features all-new styling, channeling the spherical look of its larger sibling. More important, it features better sound, and with a frequently discounted $50 price tag, it remains the cheapest way into the Amazon ecosystem.
The sound quality of the newest Dot still isn’t great, but our testers find it to be significantly improved over earlier versions, some of which sounded a lot like a bad telephone connection. The 4th generation model is fine for listening to podcasts or low-level background music in a small room, but if you're going to spend a lot of time listening to music, you might consider the more-expensive but better-sounding Echo. The Dot can also serve as an inexpensive way to place smart speakers throughout your home or add smart speaker functionality to a Bluetooth speaker you already own.
Note that there’s also an Echo Dot Kids Edition, complete with a happy panda or tiger face on the cloth covering. But consumer groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission arguing that the previous generation model violates the federal privacy law governing data collection on children under 13, and those concerns remain an issue with the new version.
The Nest Audio has undergone a visual transformation, with its new rounded rectangle form replacing a predecessor that resembled an air freshener. Under that new skin resides an all-new speaker design, with a separate tweeter and woofer replacing the single driver of the outgoing Google Home.
Some people prefer Google Assistant to Alexa, but it comes down to personal preference. Alexa smart speakers have a wider variety of skills, but some users find Google’s search to be smarter and its voice-recognition features to be more natural and easier to use.
Though the company touted the Nest Audio’s sonic performance, our testers find that the gains in sound quality are modest. The Nest Audio has enough volume for a midsized room, but the midrange is a little hazy and there is some sizzle in the high frequencies. Overall, however, the sound is satisfying, especially for the money.
If you’re looking for a cheap way into the smart speaker world—or an inexpensive gift—the Google Home Mini could be the ticket. For only $25, the Mini gives you access to Google Assistant, which some users find a bit more intuitive than Amazon’s Alexa. Google Assistant features strong search capabilities, although it supports fewer third-party skills than Alexa and its shopping functions are less robust.
One place where the cost trade-offs are quite apparent with the Home Mini is sound quality. Though the tiny speaker is fine for spoken-word content such as podcasts, our testers find that it’s not really good enough for enjoyable music listening. One option: You can impart smart speaker functionality to an existing wireless speaker by pairing it with a Home Mini.
From a privacy point of view, there are legitimate reasons to think twice about having a smart speaker in your bedroom, especially if it's always on and listening for a wake word that sounds remarkably similar to the name of your pet schnauzer.
But if you aren't, um, alarmed by that, the iHome AVS16 is a legitimate alternative to a conventional clock radio. It lets you set the alarm using voice commands and, if you have smart bulbs and outlets, you can begin your day by turning the lights on and jump-starting the coffee maker on command, too.
Like most smart speakers, it also has a dedicated switch to turn off the microphone when you want additional privacy.
Our testers find the iHome's sound to be decent, at least by alarm clock standards. The highs and lows aren't exceptional, but the all-important midrange—which is where most of the music resides—is the AVS16's sonic strong suit.
If you can't quite make up your mind about smart speaker assistants, look no further than the Sonos One. It's platform agnostic, making it compatible with Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple's Air Play, which can be controlled by Siri through your iPhone.
Sonically, the Sonos One features a clean and articulate sound that allows you to hear details in a recording, from the shimmer of a cymbal to a singer taking a breath between verses.
The Sonos One also integrates seamlessly with the company’s highly rated non-smart speakers as part of a flexible multiroom system with voice command capability. If you want to listen to the latest episode of that true-crime podcast in the kitchen while the kids stream Ariana Grande on Spotify upstairs, all you need to do is ask.
The second-generation version of the Sonos One has more processing power than the previous generation, although our testers find that it sounds and performs almost identically to its predecessor. Sonos also makes a non-smart version of the Sonos One, the Sonos One SL, which is a bit less expensive but sounds the same, according to our testers.
Most smart speakers are house pets, so to speak. They're designed to play indoors, plugged into an AC outlet and connected to WiFi. The UE Megablast is a notable exception.
The design and features resemble those of a portable wireless speaker that you take to a patio, park, or pool. The device is waterproof (at least according to UE's claims). It's powered by a rechargeable battery. And it can also stream music via Bluetooth or WiFi.
Our testers find that the Megablast delivers strong bass and enough volume for even a large room. The Alexa-powered smart features work as you'd expect, allowing voice commands for common functions like finding a playlist, skipping a track, or adjusting the volume, but only when the Megablast is hooked up to WiFi.
Though the list price for the versatile Megablast is $250, the speaker can often be found for $200 or less.