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Smart Tips for Buying a Smart Speaker

Before choosing a speaker from Amazon, Apple, Google, Sonos, or others, use the shopping tips gleaned from our testing

A year ago the world of smart speakers looked very different. 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 other wireless speakers atop our ratings.

But all that changed a few months back 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.

More Sound Advice

“There are far more great options,” says CR’s chief speaker tester, Elias Arias. “Some of the newer tested models not only are versatile and easy to use but also have better sound quality.”

In most ways, this shift in priorities is a bonus. It gives you more choices at a variety of prices. But it also makes selecting the right smart speaker more complex. Which factors should you consider before making your purchase? Here are five things we learned in our first round of smart-speaker testing.

1. Choose Your 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, 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 think about which digital tribe you belong to: Amazon, Apple, or Google?

Amazon’s 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—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.

However, 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. 

Apple’s newly introduced 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.

2. Don't Sweat the Smart

While the artificial intelligence of a smart speaker may still dazzle your less tech-savvy friends, the reality is that the “smart” in smart speakers generally doesn’t require too 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. They 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.

3. Listen Up

If you want a smart speaker with high-quality sound, you need to choose carefully. Until very recently, the sonics were almost an afterthought in this 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.

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.

4. Look Toward the Future

In many ways the smart-speaker concept is still a work in progress. Manufacturers can—and do—routinely add new features on the fly with software or firmware updates.

Our testers rate models only on the features available at the time of testing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look ahead.

Sonos, for example, has promised that it will update its Sonos One smart speaker to support Apple AirPlay and Google Assistant later this year. Apple has added stereo pairing and multiroom capability to the HomePod through a recent software update. And the people behind Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are pushing smaller updates on a regular basis.

5. Think Outside the Box

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 the money.

If you’re not really going to use them 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.

For a list of smart speakers reviewed by our testers, CR members can check out the roundup below.  

Here are five standout smart speakers from our ratings. 

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Smart Speakers in Our Ratings.
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