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22nd of October 2018

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Best smart speakers: Which deliver the best combination of digital assistant and audio performance?

With models based on Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and others to come, we’ll help you find just the right model for you. best smart speaker Rob Schultz / IDG

Executive Editor, TechHive | Oct 9, 2018 12:59 PM PT

Table of Contents

You don’t need to live in a smart home to benefit from a Wi-Fi-connected smart speaker. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and other digital assistants can help you in dozens of ways, and you don’t have to lift a finger to summon them—just speak their names. If you already know you want a smart speaker, scroll down for our top recommendations. 

But consider your decision carefully. In a perfect world, these devices would be interoperable, so you could buy one brand because it’s better for music, another brand because it’s the best for smart home control, and a third because it’s superior for retrieving general information from the internet. That’s not how it works in the real world. Once you commit to one platform, you’ll want to stick with it.

On the upside, choosing one brand of smart speaker over another generally won’t tie you into that brand’s entire ecosystem. Buying an Amazon Echo, for instance, won’t limit you to subscribing to Amazon’s music services—you can also use it with Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM radio, and several other services. And even if you have a smart home system from one company, you can control smart home products that would be otherwise incompatible with that system with voice commands—provided they’re compatible with your digital assistant of choice.

That said, if you’re wedded to Google Play Music, streaming music from your account to an Amazon Echo is not perfectly seamless (the same goes for streaming music from Amazon’s services to a Google Home). And there are some major coexistence exceptions: Google is currently blocking its YouTube videos from appearing on the Echo Show and Echo Spot devices, for instance (although you can get there using a web browser on the second-generation Echo Show), and it looks as though Apple’s HomePod will stream music only from Apple Music. If you plan to mix and match third-party products with your smart speaker, do the research to make sure they’ll work together.

If you want to know more about what smart speakers can do in general before you pick one, skip down to the “What can smart speakers do?” section.

Updated on October 8 to add our in-depth review of the second-generation Amazon Echo Show. As much as we liked the original Echo Show, which created the smart display market, this new speaker is even better. In fact, it has displaced the 10-inch Lenovo Smart Display as our favorite product in this category.

Smart speaker news

October 9 news update: The rumors proved true: Google jumped into the smart display market with the incredibly low-priced Google Home Hub, which it intends to sell for just $149—severely undercutting not only Amazon’s second-generation Echo Show, but also the Google Assistant-powered Lenovo Smart Displays and the JBL Link View that just recently started shipping. 

The Google Home Hub has a 7-inch display mated to a speaker and promises strong integration with the Nest family of smart home products, including the Nest Secure home-security system and the Nest Hello video doorbell. It’s expected to be available on October 22. It’s not a true smart home hub, however, since it doesn’t have either a ZigBee nor a Z-Wave radio onboard (it does support Bluetooth). 

GE Lighting hopped on the Google announcement coattails to launch its $55 C by GE smart-lighting bundle that puts one of its Bluetooth-controlled C by GE Life dimmable LED smart bulbs in a box with a Google Home Mini. That’s a pretty good deal considering that the Google Home Mini carries an MSRP of $49 and the MSRP for a two-pack of C by GE Life bulbs is $24.99. 

Amazon, for its part, flooded the zone on September 20 with a host of new models in its Amazon Echo lineup, no doubt hoping to steal the thunder from its number-one rival ahead of the Made by Google event on October 9. None of these new products are shipping, but the sheer number of new product announcements is impressive:

The Echo Dot (3rd generation) boasts a new upscale look, and Amazon says it will deliver much improved sound—thanks to larger speakers and a more powerful amplifier—when it ships on October 11 (the company is accepting pre-orders now). The price will remain the same at $49.99.  amazon echo dot 3rd gen AmazonAmazon has also upgraded the Echo Plus with new audio capabilities, but its smart home bona fides remain limited to ZigBee. No disrespect to ZigBee, but that alone isn’t going to cut it for folks who’ve also invested in Z-Wave smart home gear. The Echo Plus (2nd generation) will also ship on October 11, and Amazon is taking preorders on the $149.99 speaker now.  Rumor has it Google will announce its first Google Home speaker with a display at its Made by Google launch event in New York on October 9, following in the footsteps of its partners Lenovo and JBL.  We’ve long been critical of the Echo lineup’s audio prowess. Our guidance has been that Echo speakers are fine for smart home control, but that you’ll want to buy a real speaker—or the very least, a smart speaker from Sonos—if you want quality music reproduction. Amazon is looking to change that opinion with the new Echo Sub. The company says it will not only provide the low-frequency response that its other speakers lack, but that it will also enable some models to operate in stereo (although that of course entails buying two of its other speakers plus the sub. October 11 will be a busy day for Amazon, as that is the first day the Sub will be available, too. You can preorder it now for $129.99. amazon echo sub AmazonAnd finally, there’s the Echo Auto. This isn’t the first time you’ve been able to summon Alexa while in your car, but it could be the most cost-effective way to do it. The Echo Auto is slated to cost $49.99 when it becomes available. It’s one of the few new products to not be available for pre-order, but you sign up and are invited to buy one, you can snag one for half-price.  Best all-around smart speaker  Amazon Echo Spot

The Echo Spot just might be the perfect smart speaker, with a versatility and fashion-sense that give it a sense of purpose and style.

The Echo line is the most widely adopted by consumers, and it’s the one most widely supported by third-party products and services. While you could save $30 and buy the displayless Echo (2nd generation), the Echo Spot’s touchscreen is well worth the extra cash. And once you become accustomed to an Echo with a display, you’ll want them in all the places you’d otherwise put an Echo Dot (or you would if the Spot didn’t cost $80 more than the Dot).

Runner-up   Google Home

In a two-device race to rule table-top A.I., Google Home bests Amazon Echo in terms of audio quality, microphone range, design aesthetics, and basic intelligence.

After getting off to a slow start, Google is now giving Amazon a run for its money. The original Google Home sounds better than any of the Echos, and it’s been far better when it comes to asking for general information. Google Home and Google Assistant aren’t as broadly compatible with third-party products and services as the Amazon Echo and Alexa, but Google is aggressively closing that gap and should achieve parity soon. Google Home is also a good choice for people who are deep into the Chromecast ecosystem and who subscribe to Google’s streaming services: YouTube and YouTube Music.

Best smart speaker for music  Google Home Max

The Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker on the market, but there are plenty of “dumb” powered speakers that sound better.

It’s no contest on this score, Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker we’ve heard. Our opinion could change when we lay ears on Apple’s HomePod, but the Google Home Max crushes every other smart speaker on the market. Four Class D amplifiers drive two 4.5-inch aluminum cone, high-excursion woofers with dual voice coils. Two more amps are dedicated to a pair of 0.7-inch polyester dome tweeters. The amps have integrated DACs capable of supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz bit streams, although Google says it’s only tested sampling rates up to 48kHz. This speaker will fill even larger rooms with sound, but if you find that one just isn’t enough, you can pair two for stereo.

Runner-up  Sonos One

Sonos has even better-sounding speakers in its lineup, but this one sounds great and it lets you control any Sonos speaker with voice commands (and the rest of your smart home, too).

If the Google Home Max is beyond your budget, give the Sonos One a listen. It’s currently compatible only with Amazon’s Alexa, but the company promises to add Google Assistant capabilities this spring. It’s about the same size as the older Sonos Play:1, but it sounds even better. Despite the similarity in appearance, Sonos designed its smart speaker from scratch. Sonos is the king of multi-room audio, and no other brand supports more music services. What’s more, once you have a Sonos One on your network, you can control all your other Sonos speakers with voice commands, too—and from any Alexa-compatible speaker. The newer Sonos Beam offers the same voice-control features in a smallish soundbar form factor..

Best smart speaker if you use another speaker for music  Amazon Echo Dot (2nd generation)

It's a win-win: The least-expensive digital voice assistant you can put in your smart home is also one of the best. But add a speaker if you want it to play music.

No matter which smart speaker you buy, none of them will sound as good as many of the dumb powered speakers on the market today. Guess what? You don’t have to compromise! If you only want a smart speaker for its brains and not its audio performance, Amazon’s Echo Dot has both a Bluetooth radio and a 3.5mm analog line-level output so you can pair or plug in your favorite outboard speakers and really rock the house.

Runner-up   Google Home Mini

The Google Home Mini is a no-brainer for anyone who’s already enjoying a Google Home, but it’s not the right smart home controller for everyone.

The Google Home Mini is prettier than Amazon’s Echo Dot, but it takes the runner-up spot here not only for the same reasons the Google Home does in its category, but because it doesn’t have a line-level output. Google did change course and allow you to connect a Bluetooth speaker to the Mini, or you can pair it with an external Chromecast speaker a Chromecast Audio dongle connected to some other type of speaker.

Best smart speaker with a large display  Amazon Echo Show (2nd Generation)

The second-generation Amazon Echo Show might use the same processor as the first, but virtually everything else is new and improved.

Amazon regains the top spot in this category with its all-new Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen). The new speaker has a bigger, higher-resolution display, much improved audio performance, and Amazon has significantly improved the touchscreen-based user interface (especially when you’re browsing Amazon’s own entertainment offerings). Amazon also added a ZigBee-based smart home hub that allows you to control things like Philips Hue smart bulbs without need of the Hue Bridge.

The Echo Show retains all the great features we loved in the first generation, including the ability to make video calls to people on your contact list (it can also function as a video intercom within your home). And Amazon has made important improvements to its Alexa digital assistant. You can add multiple items to your shopping list, for example, without having to repeat the Alexa wake word: Say “Alexa, add cheese, vegetables, coffee, and ice cream to my shopping list,” for instance, and each of those grocery items will appear as discrete items on your list that you can remove with a swipe of your finger when you buy them. 

Runner-up 

Google didn’t have a horse in this race, until Lenovo shipped its Smart Display, but that could change after Google’s October 9 hardware event. Lenovo’s Smart Display, meanwhile, is available in both 8- and 10-inch iterations, and the whole thing can be stood vertically to provide video calls in a portrait orientation—but only to Google Duo users; otherwise, you’re limited to voice calls. 

Since Google treats video Chromecast devices like the Smart Display differently than it does audio Chromecasts devices, you can’t make the Smart Display part of a multi-room audio system. And unlike the second-generation Amazon Echo Show, Lenovo’s Smart Display doesn’t have an onboard smart-home hub. But Google Assistant-powered smart speakers are still superior when it comes to retrieving general information from the internet, and it’s much easier to use Google Assistant on your phone than Amazon’s Alexa. 

What can smart speakers do?

With the exception of Amazon’s Echo, smart speakers are powered by the same digital assistants used with smartphones. Siri comes from the iPhone, Google Assistant comes from Android phones, and Cortana from Microsoft’s now-dead Windows Phone platform (Cortana has since found a home in Windows 10). Alexa was created exclusively for the Amazon Echo, but can now be found in a host of other devices, ranging from the Ecobee4 smart thermostat to the Logitech ZeroTouch phone dock.

At its most basic, a digital assistant is cloud-based software that understands natural language voice commands, performing tasks and fetching information for you. In the real world, digital assistants aren’t quite as sophisticated as that. While you don’t need to talk like a robot—e.g., “Alexa, set timer, 20 minutes”—they do get confused easily, and you’ll hear a fair amount of responses such as “Sorry, I don’t know that one” (that’s an Alexa phrase, incidentally) when you trip them up. The cool thing is that the algorithms powering digital assistants can learn over time and become better at predicting what you need.

Here are just a few of the things that most smart speakers can do (you can add “and more!” to the end of each bullet list):

EntertainStream music over Wi-Fi Stream music over Bluetooth (most models) Work with Chromecast devices (Google Home models) Control your TV (with a compatible universal remote) Stream music to multiple speakers (multi-room audio) Play games Stream videos (models with displays) Retrieve news and informationNews headlines Weather forecasts Traffic reports Date and time Wikipedia entries Manage your scheduleSet appointments Provide reminders Serve as an alarm clock Maintain to-do lists Help in the kitchenRecite recipes (and show them on models with displays) Set multiple timers Get measurement conversions (“How many cups are in one quart?”) Maintain shopping lists Set the temperature for a sous vide cooker Get nutrition information (“How many calories are in an apple?”) Contact friends and familyMake and receive phone calls (video calls on models with displays) Serve as an in-home intercom Send text messages (Echo models for now) Control your smart home *

* There are caveats when it comes to using a smart speaker for home control. Smart home devices that can be controlled via Wi-Fi don’t require any other hardware. Products that use the ZigBee or Z-Wave protocols depend on the presence of a smart-home hub, such as a Samsung SmartThings or Wink Hub. Amazon’s Echo Plus is an exception to that rule, because it has an integrated smart home controller (although it’s limited to ZigBee)

Our latest smart speaker reviews

We’ll update this list as new models arrive.

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