Best smart speakers 2021: Alexa, Google Assistant, HomePod, Sonos and more

The best speakers to buy now with voice assistants on board

Best smart speakers 2021
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A top smart speaker is the beating heart of any smart home setup.

Whether you're looking for the best smart speaker to control your Alexa, HomeKit or Google Assistant compatible devices, you're looking for a center point for an awesome multi-room music system or you just want a voice assistant to doll out information and crack jokes, the options have never been better nor more plentiful.

The early arrival of Alexa and Google Assistant smart speakers tied connected devices together – without one, you'd be turning lights on and setting the temperature via your smartphone. Or even, dare we say, an actual switch.

A top smart speaker enables you to check the weather, set kitchen timers, control smart home devices, play your favorite music and plenty more.

The best 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 home, with your voice commands essentially powering your smart devices.

Smart speakers come in all shapes and sizes, with decent options across a huge range of price-points. You can get a traditional speaker, one with a display or one that doubles as something else - like an alarm clock or even a thermostat.

Below, we've listed the cream of smart speakers on the market, kicking off with our top pick.

The best smart speakers to buy in 2021

the best sonos smart speaker

Overall top smart speaker: Sonos One

Buy now: Amazon, | £199

When the Sonos One first touched down, it was easily the best-sounding Alexa smart speaker. That's not the case now as a number of high-end audio brands have entered the space but, with the addition of Google Assistant and AirPlay 2, it's the most well-rounded of the list.

You'll get quality sound and you won't have to choose between smart home ecosystems.

Plus, with the new and improved version, launched last year, you'll get an improved processor, more memory and support for Bluetooth LE.

As a Sonos speaker, it's fantastic. For such a compact device, it really can fill a room, with 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.

While the Sonos One initially had teething troubles with Alexa's responsiveness, those have now been fixed – and passed onto Google. It's not that the Assistant is bad, but it's less responsive on the Sonos One than Alexa, despite the six-microphone array.

This can all be improved over time but right now, it requires a little extra effort and experimentation on your part. But on balance of versatility, sound quality and price, the Sonos One is top dog in our book.

What we love

  • Supports Google Assistant and Alexa
  • Deep bass, great sound
  • Loads of streaming options, including AirPlay 2

What we don't love

  • Mics need improvement, especially for Google Assistant
  • Handful of Google Assistant/Alexa features missing

Read our full Sonos One review.

Also consider... Sonos Move

Sonos' first Bluetooth speaker went live a couple of years ago and, if your budget stretches beyond the cost of a One, then the Sonos Move is a fantastic sounding smart speaker with plenty of features to set it apart from its Sonos stablemates.

It's aa speaker of two parts. Indoors, it connects to your Wi-Fi like a regular Sonos speaker and behaves just like a Sonos One: there's Alexa and Google Assistant built in, AirPlay 2 support, and it will easily slip into your multi-room system.

Tap the Bluetooth button on the back though, and you're free to roam, with up to 10 hours of battery life to play with. The Move also has Automatic Trueplay, which will automatically optimize its sound for the space around it.

the best alexa echo smart speaker

The best Alexa smart speaker: Amazon Echo Studio

Buy now: Amazon | £189

Back in 2019, Amazon finally made an Echo that sounds great, and it's called the Echo studio. Offering spacious sound with impressive detail (certainly for an Echo speaker), the Studio cranks things up a notch with Amazon Music HD and a small (but growing) catalogue of 3D audio tracks.

These use Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio codecs for enveloping sound. It works with some songs better than others, even without 3D audio the Studio is still a fantastic sounding smart speaker with Alexa living inside.

It boasts three 5cm midrange speakers, a 25mm forward-firing tweeter, a 5cm upward-firing midrange speaker (which helps with that 3D audio), and a downward-firing 5.25-inch bass driver.

For the most part, the Echo Studio is just a regular Echo that’s been massively beefed up in the acoustics department. That means you can call on Alexa for all your usual queries and voice commands, and it means integration with all of your smart home devices too.

This being a first-party speaker, it also guarantees to get all the new features before other third-party speakers.

It also packs in a Zigbee smart home hub, which allows you to connect supported Zigbee devices direct to the Studio, as opposed to via a bridge/hub of their own – Philips Hue lights, for example, can be directly controlled by the Studio.

The Echo Studio can also perform as Dolby Atmos speaker for your TV, but only with Fire TV devices (this is Amazon’s world you’re living in, after all). You can also hook up two Echo Studio speakers with an Echo Sub for the fully-loaded home theater setup.

What we love

  • Powerful sound
  • Works as a Dolby Atmos TV speaker
  • Hi-res audio

What we don't love

  • No audio jack
  • Hover feature doesn't work
  • Dangling wire a major design flaw

Read our full Amazon Echo Studio review.

Also consider... Amazon Echo (4th-gen)

The all new, ball-shaped, Amazon Echo has a 3.0-inch woofer, dual-firing tweeters, Dolby stereo sound capabilities and can adapt to its surroundings (like the Echo Studio).

But it's not just about the music and the acoustics. Amazon is saying that the newest Echo is part of its smartest line up yet.

It is powered by Amazon’s first-generation AZ1 Neural Edge processor, which Amazon describes as "an all-new silicon module that’s purpose-built for accelerating machine learning applications."

best google smart speaker

Best Google Assistant smart speaker: Google Nest Mini

Buy now: | £49

If you're looking to get in on the ground floor with the Google Assistant, the Nest Mini (previously known as Google Home Mini) is where you should start. And while we're listing the recommended retail price above, you'll often find it on offer for much less.

The Nest Mini is a neat little smart speaker who wants to build their smart home without breaking the bank, and the new and improved model, which boosts the sound quality and responsiveness, it's an incredible value proposition.

It also now comes with a hook in the back for wall mounting, although it's hard to find a good spot to hang this on your wall with that cable dangling down. Plus, there are some audio tricks: you can pair together for stereo sound, or transfer music from one speaker to another by saying, "Hey Google, move the music to the kitchen speaker" and so on.

They can also be teamed up with other Google Home speakers as part of a multi-room music system.

There's an ultrasound feature that's supposed to sense when your hand is near while music is playing and light up the touch controls, but we found this barely responsive in our testing. Those niggles aside, this is a must-have speaker for any smart home running on Google Assistant.

What we love

  • On-device controls
  • Good (but not great) sound
  • Easy mounting option

What we don't love

  • No audio jack
  • Hover feature doesn't work
  • Dangling wire a major design flaw

Read our full Google Nest Mini review.

Also consider... Google Nest Audio

The latest Google smart speaker and the natural successor to the discontinued Google Home - the Nest Audio - was revealed in September 2020.

It boasts a form factor and design that seemingly sits it in between the Nest Mini and the Google Home Max.

Google says that it boasts 50% more bass and 75% more volume than the original Google Home, thanks to a revamped 19mm tweeter and a 75mm mid-woofer.

homepod mini

Best smart speaker for HomeKit: Apple HomePod Mini

Buy now: | £99

The Apple HomePod Mini may not have quite the audio clout its bigger brother has but, for its size, packs an incredibly impressive punch in terms of music playback and, perhaps more importantly, takes Apple's smart home ecosystem - HomeKit - to the next level, by boosting the connectivity on offer.

As well as being a music-focused smart speaker, the HomePod Mini also has advanced smart home features. It can operate as a HomeKit Hub and, in a major boost for HomeKit users, also packs in a Thread radio.

While the Mini doesn't reach the dizzy heights of the original HomePod for sound quality (and neither should it with a £99 price tag), it's a smart speaker that - unlike the similarly sized variants from Google and Amazon - can be used for much more than digital assistance and smart home controls.

The fairer comparison is with smart speakers in its price - rather than size - bracket; so again I have to mention the Echo 4th-gen or the Nest Audio.

It actually performs very well against its sub-£100 rivals; albeit it is neither as loud, nor as bass-rich as the larger Echo. In fact, it actually holds up pretty well against the Sonos One, which is double the price.

While the HomePod was a device built around Apple Music, it's since opened up to play nice with others, chiefly Spotify which now has voice control using Siri.

There's also AirPlay 2, which has now expanded across loads of speakers, letting you loop the HomePod into a multi-room setup for home-filling sound.

What we love

  • Decent audio quality
  • The best HomeKit Hub thanks to Thread
  • Great price point

What we don't love

  • Siri still lacks some smarts
  • Apple Music centric
  • No love for Android users

Read our full Apple HomePod Mini review.

Also consider... Apple HomePod

The original HomePod has actually been officially discontinued by Apple now - but if you shop around you may find it available online.

That news was a bit of a shock, especially given that, when the HomePod Mini went live at the end of last year, the original HomePod was treated to a meaty software update to add a bunch of killer new features, including the ability to become a Dolby Atmos TV speaker for your Apple TV.

If you can get hold of one - or two - it's a fantastic smart speaker for audio quality.

best smart speaker on a budget

Best budget smart speaker: Amazon Echo Dot with Clock (3rd-gen)

Buy now: Amazon | £39.99

Although it's been succeeded bythe spherical 4th-gen Dot model, this Echo model sells like nobody's business, and it's not hard to see why (aside from Amazon constantly slashing its price).

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 new 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 and, dare we say, less of an eye-sore than the newest Dot.

Aside from the design, the 3rd-gen Echo Dot also features much-improved sound on previous models. This Dot delivers sound that's clean and crisp, and you can connect two for stereo or use them as part of an Echo multi-room setup.

Amazon has fancier speakers, sure, 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.

The price quoted above is the MSRP - but Amazon always has the older Echo Dot discounted and often will bundle it in with smart home devices like Hue bulbs for bargain prices.

What we love

  • Sound quality surprisingly good
  • Alexa better than ever
  • That price

What we don't love

  • Bass still lacking
  • Big power brick

Read our full Amazon Echo Dot 3rd-gen review.

The best smart speaker with a screen: Google Nest Hub 2nd-gen

nest hub 2 with sleep tracking

Buy now: | £79.99

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 bass-y 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.

The latest, 2nd-gen, Nest Hub features the same camera-less, 7-inch form-factor as the original but sports a few design refinements.

Packing a revamped chip for a faster Google Assistant Assistant, a third mic for better listening, and 50% more bass for music listening, the 2021 Nest Hub also has a temperature sensor, and Google's Soli gesture technology inside its diminutive design.

Soli is a radar-based gesture recognition system that, on the Nest Hub, allows you to tap the air to pause and resume media on the device.

It also enables the device's sleep sensing capabilities, able to monitor chest rise and fall unobtrusively and - crucially for a bedroom.

It's also capable of being a Thread border router in your smart home set up - the same capability as Apple's HomePod Mini... although Google tells us the Thread radio on the device is not yet activated.

Instead it's "Thread//CHiP ready," and will presumably fire up once the CHiP protocol is widely available.

What we love

  • Great display
  • Extra smart home touchscreen controls
  • Clever sleep tracking tech

What we don't love

  • Sound quality not brilliant
  • Thread not fully enabled (yet)

Read our full Nest Hub 2nd-gen review

Also consider... Amazon Echo Show 8

Amazon has finally hit the sweet spot with its Echo Show 8, offering the best of Alexa on screen in an 8-inch display.

If you're team Alexa, this is the smart display you want, unless you want a Zigbee radio – in which case go for the larger 10-inch model, or the new Echo Show 10 with its movable base. Otherwise, we think the middle child of the Show family is the high achiever.

Best smart speaker soundbar: Sonos Arc

sonos arc smart speaker soundbar

Buy now: | £799

The Sonos Arc soundbar, offers Dolby Atmos surround sound and also HDMI connectivity (ARC or eARC) and 270-degree multi-directional sound from that curved grille.

Coming in matte black or white, it's a step-up from the hugely popular Sonos Beam, offering a dedicated TV speaker that isn't just Atmos-equipped, but also stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 friendly too.

Featuring 11 drivers in total; 8 elliptical woofers and 3 angled silk-dome tweeters, the Arc uses Sonos Trueplay software to make sure you get the optimum sound for your room and setup.

If you want to get a decent impression of home cinema sound without the upheaval a more usual surround-sound system can cause, and especially if you’ve some Sonos equipment already, the Arc is a very welcome addition to the Sonos portfolio.

Whether your voice assistant of choice is Google Assistant or Alexa, the Sonos Arc has you covered and it's also an AirPlay 2 speaker as well.

What we love

  • Superb audio performance
  • Dolby Atmos
  • HDMI options

What we don't love

  • Expensive
  • Your TV's HDMI might not be compatible

Read our full Sonos Arc review

Also consider... Roku Streambar

Roku's Streambar is a compact smart soundbar that comes is less than half the length of the company's previous TV speaker, the Smart Soundbar; 14 inches compared to 32.

It's a brilliant 'two-bird, one-stone' device. Not only will it make your dumb TV smart, it also solves the biggest issue that even the best modern TVs have - tinny sound.

The Streambar will hugely enhance your TV's audio and, because there's also an array of music streaming options on board, it also adds a third element to its arsenal; that of being a decent speaker too.

smart speaker guide - what you need to know

Smart speakers: What you need to know

Before coughing up for your first (or next) smart speaker, it's worth spending a bit of time doing your research. Here are the big things to know...

How much should you spend?

Price is possibly the biggest concern. You can easily jump in at the very low end with an Amazon Echo Dot or a Google Nest Mini, which you can find for less than £50. It's a really quick and easy way 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 quality. For those who want to listen to your music, you'll need to go for something bigger.

There are also the flagship Amazon Echo and Nest Audio speakers. These come in around £100.

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.

Smart speaker sound quality

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 Echo Studio, Apple HomePod, Google Home Max, Sonos One and Move, and Bose Home Speaker 500 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.

The best smart speakers: Google Home, Amazon Echo and more

Alexa vs Google Home 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 - Google or Alexa... or Siri.

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 and Siri. 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 for voice control. It's also 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.

Is it multi-room music compatible?

Many of the best smart speakers can now form part of a wireless speaker multi-room audio system.

Obviously, as mentioned above, brand specific speakers such as those from Sonos and Apple also live inside their own native multi-room platform - along with the platform the smart home ecosystem that their voice assistant makes them part of.

But, did you know that you can set up an Alexa Echo multi-room audio system or configure your Google or Nest smart speakers for multi-room music?

They're both super simple to set up and offer an affordable ticket to the multi-room party.

The best smart speaker with a screen or display Echo Show 10

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, video calls and a whole lot more.

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, but they're getting better all the time, and the larger Echo Show speakers are actually decent for playing music on.

TAGGED    smart speakers

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