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Buyers Guide: Because It’s Not Echo Or Nothing, You Know
Smart speakers have become popular with young and old alike, helping people check the weather, set kitchen timers, control smart home gadgets or just playing some cool tunes.
In fact, smart speakers have grown so popular that there are all sorts of shapes and types. You can get a traditional speaker, or one with a display, or one that doubles as something else – like a light switch or thermostat.
These smart speakers are powered by voice assistants, and there’s a big war between going on between them. Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri are all vying to become the lynchpin of your smart home. Plus, there are smaller players like Samsung’s Bixby.
All of this means that you have some choices to make when you choose your smart home system. The smart speaker you choose could dictate the future path of your smart home, so it’s worth doing a bit of research. Luckily, we’ve got your back.
Alexa Vs Google Assistant Vs The Rest
The first and most important decision you’re going to need to make is which voice assistant you’re going to ally yourself with. There are a number of choices, and many of them have certain advantages or disadvantages. They can also affect which smart home devices you could use.
Alexa, the voice assistant powering Echo and other speakers, is still our go-to choice over rivals like Google Assistant, Siri and Bixby. If you’re looking to control your smart home, Alexa has the biggest selection of manufacturers signed up right now. It’s also very beginner friendly, with easy setup and use.
Things are changing though, as Google is spending time and money getting partners on board with Assistant – like GE. Assistant, on the other hand, is a more capable assistant when it comes to information and general knowledge. If Google can achieve smart home parity, it could surpass Alexa. If you’ve got an Android phone or rely on Google services a lot – Assistant is even in the Google Maps app now – then this could be your choice.
Of course, if you’re living in Apple’s walled garden, Siri is the assistant you need to seriously consider. Similarly, if you’ve got a number of Samsung devices – from Galaxy phones to QLED TVs – then Bixby is worth a look. It’s not as capable as the rest, but it’s getting better.
How Much Should You Spend?
The next issue is price. You can either jump in at the very low end with an Amazon Echo Dot or a Google Home Mini, which are very affordable. It’s a really quick and easy way to jump into smart speakers if you’re not sure, on a budget, or are a smart home beginner.
These tiny speakers don’t offer the best sound, though both Amazon and Google have made strides in sound quality. Still, if you want to listen to your music, you’ll need to go for something bigger.
There are also the flagship Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers. These are a little more pricey. The basic functionality here is the same as the mini speakers, but they come with better microphones that are better at hearing you. They also have perfectly adequate sound, but if you want high-end sound you’ll need to spring for something even more expensive.
Sound Vs Smarts
How important the “speaker” part of the equation is will differ from person to person. More and more audio experts are getting involved now, collaborating with the tech giants, and so the sound quality is drastically improving – which is important when it comes to music.
The Apple HomePod, Google Home Max and Sonos One are all big on audio quality – so there’s something out there for everyone.
For supplementary smart speakers around the house, this might be less important but you want to get that main kitchen/living room choice right.
What About Smart Displays?
The newest wrench in the gear of smart speakers is a display. But why would you need a smart display? Well, it makes a lot of sense in certain locations around the house – just maybe not under the TV. For instance, a kitchen is a great place for these because you can take a look at recipes and follow along.
It also gives you quick access to information with visuals so you can see a week’s worth of weather forecasts, YouTube videos, feeds from security cameras and video doorbells, touchscreen controls for smart home devices etc.
Smart speakers with displays also add interactivity. You can use your fingers to swipe and tap through results from your assistant rather than having to listen to a bunch of options. For the right person, it can be much quicker to use.
These smart speakers with displays have some big caveats though. The audio quality isn’t as good as other smart speakers, largely because all the speakers are facing in one direction. Similarly, the mics can be not so effective for a similar reason. We haven’t had much trouble getting Alexa to listen to us on an Echo speaker, but the Echo Show we’ve had trouble with. Same goes for Google Assistant.
The Best Smart Speakers
Amazon Echo is selling so well that you might not even think about which smart speaker you want, but which Echo. The third-gen Echo is Amazon’s one-size-fits-all Echo. For a cheap speaker you can plug in, there’s the Dot; for proper smart home hubbing, there’s the Echo Plus. However the Echo “regular” will be plenty for most people.
The third-gen Echo’s main selling point is, of course, Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa which is still our chosen assistant – for now. As with the last-gen Echo, Alexa can control music, control home gadgets, answer questions and do a ton of other stuff with Alexa Skills.
So what’s new with the third-gen Echo? Essentially it’s smaller and sleeker in design than its more gadgety looking predecessor and it’s a damn sight cheaper too. There’s six colours of fabric finishes to choose from (charcoal, sandstone, heather grey, oak, walnut, silver) and it’s a squatter version of the original, definitely more pleasing but still not matching Google’s home-friendly aesthetic and with a certain something missing in terms of style.
In day to day use, it’s actually very similar – because why fix something that’s not broken? Alexa is reliable, if not perfect 100% of the time, and we have noticed a slight improvement in voice recognition which is thanks to some new noise cancelling and wake word processing on board. What Alexa can do is also increasing all the time – not limited to this speaker but the voice assistant can now make calls, let you “drop in” on other Echo users – a bit weird – and set up Routines, i.e scenes, around the house.
Another difference is the 3.5mm line out which means that, like the Echo Dot, you can wire an second-gen Echo up to your existing (probably much better sounding) speaker or connect them via Bluetooth.
And you might well want to because you won’t buy this for the sound quality. For Alexa conversations and in smaller rooms like say a bedroom or bathroom, the second-gen Echo sounds A-Ok, but side-by-side with almost every other full-sized smart speaker we’ve tested recently (Sonos One, for example) it comes up short, particularly for music. And that’s despite the fact that Amazon has upgraded the innards. Here, we come back to price – it is still quite a bit cheaper than rivals, Alexa is easy to use, and, if music is important to you, you can add an Echo Sub to compensate for the lack of bass.
Second only to Alexa, and a cut above Siri and Bixby is Google Assistant, which lives inside Google Home speakers, including the Google Home Max and third party options from the likes of Sony and JBL. The Google Home, though, is the original of the Assistant lineup.
If you decide to plug into Google’s ecosystem, the Google Home is still worth considering. When playing music, audio quality isn’t offensive, but the Home won’t fill a living room and pales in side-by-side listening to speakers like Home Max, Sonos One and Apple HomePod. That said, if you’re happy to pick up a Chromecast Audio dongle, you can hook it up to better speakers.
In terms of design, we’re rather taken with its air freshener styling, with fascias in a range of mute colours. It blends into kitchens and living rooms nicely, even more so than some larger, traditional speakers and the only sign that it’s connected is the coloured dots that light up on top when you’re interacting with Assistant.
For certain things, we prefer talking to Google Assistant over Amazon’s Alexa (it’s better at internet searches, as you might expect) but it’s still behind in third-party integrations, which it calls Actions. Alexa now has the edge on smart home automation and there are small everyday differences too – like the fact it’s just easier to say “Alexa” than “Hey, Google” or “OK, Google'”.
Google is counteracting this by letting you ask follow-up questions to certain requests without repeating the wake word. This advantage has subsided a bit as Alexa can now do the same thing. Still, it helps Google Assistant feel more human.
The Amazon Echo is cheaper in most places, making this more of a hard sell. Still, on most points, it matches Alexa – both the Alexa and Google Home apps have received overhauls that make it easier to control your smart home gadgets, for instance. Don’t forget there’s also multi-room audio and the ability to broadcast messages.
Amazon Echo Dot
This is the Echo that’s selling like nobody’s business and it’s not hard to see why. The big selling point here is the price, of course – the third-gen Amazon Echo Dot is super affordable, while older generations are also still available in bundles.
So for the price of one swanky smart speaker, you can have three/four/five Echo Dots around your flat or house, in every room. And if you have children, you can also pick up the Echo Dot Kids Edition, which includes new safety features and requires kids to say “please” when making requests. The fabric, puck-shaped Echo Dot is also unobtrusive, and much more attractive than the plastic shell of the first generation.
Aside from the new design, the main reason to upgrade or go for the new Echo Dot is the much improved sound. The new Dot now does 360-degree sound that’s cleaner and crisper, and you can connect two for stereo, though it’s still at the low end of audio quality in the home. So you might still want to hook it up to existing speakers via aux-in or Bluetooth.
Alexa isn’t perfect – no voice assistant is – but on the Echo Dot it picks up the wake word and our commands from across the room and, more often than not – once you’ve learned what Alexa is capable of and which third-party skills you find useful – is able to do what we ask of it. Amazon has fancier devices, like the Echo Plus, but if you want to turn your smart lights on and off, and you only have a few different connected gadgets, this is really all you need.
Google Home Mini
Google has been slashing prices on its Echo Dot-alike and bundling it with other products, like the Nest Thermostat, helping to sneak it into more homes. The Google Home Mini is a neat, little smart speaker for anyone who doesn’t want to spend too much money.
We’d also recommend the Home Mini as a second, complementary device to a Google Home. It’s a small, good-looking tech pebble that comes in four calming colourways: coral, grey, black and a “minty” blue, and it still just about has the design edge on the Echo Dot. You can tap the top to turn the volume up or down but Google has nixed the original feature that also lets you tap to wake due to a launch bug.
During day-to-day voice interactions, the Home Mini is fab at picking up voices from across the room and it’s neat that you can assign multiple voices for personal calendar info and recommendations. As with the Google Home, Assistant is very good at retrieving information from the web and Google’s own services – though Alexa has the edge when it comes to skills. The Home Mini is easy to set up itself and simple to add into a Home system plus it charges via microUSB, not USB-C.
Google’s Chromecast controls are nice, though not all services are supported yet. One flaw is that although you can pipe music in via Bluetooth, once you’ve set it in the Home app on your phone, there’s no audio jack or ability to pair to existing speakers through Bluetooth unless you buy a Chromecast Audio add-on, which, by the way, has been discontinued. When value is top of your concerns, this means the Echo Dot scores another point.
The Apple HomePod is here and slides into our list of best smart speakers on account of its superb sound and Siri’s impressive music smarts. With soft mesh fabric, it’s the slickest looking speaker we’ve seen – no surprise given the famous Cupertino polish. Not to mention the fact that if you have an Apple Music sub, or you aren’t adverse to getting one, this is a device built around one service.
On that sound quality, the HomePod bests both the Amazon Echo and Sonos One in our testing. The six-mic array and A8 chip inside work to listen to reflections from furniture and ornaments in the room to customise the sound output too – impressive stuff in action.
The HomePod is far from perfect, though, and this is mainly around Siri’s performance as a reliable, useful, fully featured voice assistant to rival Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. In short, it doesn’t – at least not yet. It’s not bad at controlling the smart home or giving you basic information, but it doesn’t match either of the other two in the amount of stuff it can do, like broadcasts, games and using other services.
Speaking of services, as mentioned the HomePod is a device built around one service – Apple Music – which has some terrible side effects. The main one being no voice support for big streaming services like Spotify. You’ll have to make due with using the app on your phone paired with AirPlay 2. On AirPlay 2, it’s helped the HomePod become a much more capable speaker, allowing you to connect it to other AirPlay 2-supporting speakers (that includes Sonos) for home-filling sound. Plus, multi-room audio.
The Sonos One is, in theory, the dream smart speaker for anyone who cares about sound and music in the home. Right now it’s an Alexa powered speaker based on the Sonos Play:1 with AirPlay 2. Google Assistant support will come at some point soon-ish, as Sonos and Google are in the bug-crushing phase of development. You’ll get quality sound and you won’t have to choose between smart home ecosystems (eventually). So does it live up to this promise?
Almost. As a Sonos speaker, it’s fantastic. For such a compact device, it really can fill a room and you’ll find it has a lovely, balanced and clear sound and punchy bass. Nothing to disappoint here. The Sonos One looks the part too with a classy design that’ll sit well if you already have Sonos speakers dotted about your home, coming in two finishes – black or white.
Now, it’s as an Alexa controller that we have more issues with the Sonos One. True, it’s one of the better third-party Alexa experiences out there, but it has come with plenty of teething troubles too.
The Sonos One has a six-microphone array inside but we found Alexa’s voice and wake word recognition to be slightly below par compared to a regular Echo. We also had problems dealing with commands relating to groups and rooms plus voice control only works for Spotify and Amazon Music, not the huge range of streaming services Sonos supports. In general, you need to be more careful with your wording, which is a step back, not forward.
This can all be improved over time but right now, it requires a little extra effort and experimentation on your part. For people who want a speaker first and Alexa controls second, though, this is makes an excellent choice.
Amazon Echo Plus
Amazon’s attempt to build the only smart speaker and hub you need is ambitious, and we like where the Echo Plus heading, particularly in its second generation, which we’ve tested.
First, what we like: this is an Alexa speaker with added smarts, and it keeps the simple set up and user friendliness we’ve come to expect. If you say ‘Alexa – find my devices’, it will find a Philips Hue, say, without the need for a hub/bridge thanks to the built-in Zigbee hub, and that’s how the smart home should be. It’s also one of the better sounding Echo speakers of the bunch, thanks to a slightly bigger tweeter, so this alone might be worth the money.
And while we didn’t like the design of the original, which was essentially a first-gen Amazon Echo, it’s also been given a friendlier new look, just like the Dot and Show. It now looks just like the second-gen Echo, and on the inside it has Dolby speakers, a temperature sensor (useful for triggering thermostats etc) and security sensors.
More importantly, on the smart home front, the addition of the Zigbee controller is great, and this smart home protocol can connect to a whole bunch of popular home gadgets without their hubs (Philips, Hive etc). But it’s still not all-encompassing or all-unifying right now, even though it could be in the future. Plus, power users who might be keen on the extra features might find everything too simplified and be itching for granular in-app controls again.
Bose Home Speaker 500
Bose was much later to the game than Sonos, but the result is a speaker that feels carefully considered and nicely polished. This is Bose sound through and through, but the company is leaning on Alexa for the smarts – and AirPlay 2 is coming soon.
It’s a heavy speaker with a curved design that projects sound from speakers on the side, rather than just on the front, for a better stereo effect. On the top lie the touch controls including six pre-set channels, which can be set through the Bose Music app to, say, start your favorite Spotify playlists. Speaking of, the sound quality is excellent – we’d compare it to the HomePod, although the lack of dynamic room analysis means you have to think a little more carefully about where you place it; the 500 relies on two custom drivers pointing left and right to bounce sound off its surroundings.
The biggest disappointment is the small screen, which simply displays the music artwork and artist information when you’re streaming through Spotify or Amazon Music. If you’re connected to the speaker via Bluetooth, the screen is largely useless.
Alexa has a good ear thanks to the eight-mic array on top of the speaker – and if anything has proven overly sensitive. Thankfully the microphone mute is just a tap away. There’s a little lag in Alexa’s responses too, but otherwise it’s largely the Alexa experience so many of you already know.
The Best Smart Speakers With Displays
There’s a brand new type of smart speaker. They’re less speakers and more displays with added smarts. These displays give you a visual way to digest information, and it also opens up the world of video. Here’s the best smart displays we’ve tested so far – expect a lot more to come.
Amazon Echo Show
Amazon’s Echo Show was the first smart speaker with a display, forging ahead on a growing new product category. And now, the device been given a much-needed design makeover.
For the most part, Alexa does a pretty good job here of showing you the information you need to know. You’ll get your weather reports and sports scores, and the Echo Show will cycle through quotes and other things when its idle.
As for video, you’ve got a number of services you can tap into to watch on your Echo Show. There are things like recipes and other short video that you can watch while you’re cooking in the kitchen. However, there’s also long-form video from the likes of Amazon Prime Video and other services.
The device now also comes with Amazon’s Silk Browser, which means that you’ll be able to watch both YouTube and YouTube TV via the browser – something which wasn’t an option through the first generation, after the app was cut.
Another major addition that comes with the new Echo Show is its ability to act as a ZigBee hub. Previously, only the Echo Plus offered this, and it’s means you can control your ZigBee-enabled gadgets without the need for individual hubs.
Finally, the Echo Show will also allow you to video chat with other Echo Show, Alexa app or Echo Spot users. There’s also a feature called drop-in, which will let you just start speaking to someone else should they be a very trusted contact.
While it has a touchscreen display, the Echo Show isn’t as touch friendly as it should be. Compare it to Home Hub’s Home View, which lets you control your smart home from the display, and the Echo Show feels a bit lacking.
If you’re well-entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem and you want to add some visuals to your assistant’s abilities, there literally is no other choice than the Echo Show.
Google Nest Hub
Of Google’s lineup of Smart Displays, the Nest Hub is (so far) the only one it’s made itself. For that reason we consider it the flagship device, but it’s certainly not the most feature-packed of the lot. Instead, Google strikes a wonderful balance of design, functionality and price.
The Nest Hub is like having a screen for your Google Home speaker – actually, that’s exactly what it is. The Google Assistant behaves just the same, but you now have a visual layer, which can be more useful with things like viewing the weather forecast, cinema showtimes etc. It also means you can watch YouTube and other media on it, while also controlling your smart home using the Home View dashboard.
One of its better features, which has since been added to third-party Google Smart Displays, is Home View. A quick swipe down from the top will give you a top-down look at your entire smart home. You can check the status of your lights and even control them. Simple and easy.
Sound quality is so-so – a little more bassy than the Home and Home Mini, but still not great for music. It’s also very small, and note the lack of camera here, too, something you’ll find on third-party Google Smart Displays. Google made the decision to keep this off so people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable putting the Nest Hub in more private areas of the home, but it does mean you can’t use two-way video chat. If that’s a dealbreaker, take a look at the other Smart Displays available.