The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Buyers guide: Because it's not Echo or nothing, you know

The best smart speakers

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 you can find for less than $50. 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 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.

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

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Amazon Echo (second generation)

$99.99, Amazon

Amazon Echo is selling so well that you might not even think about which smart speaker you want, but which Echo. The second-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 second-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 second-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.

Check out our full Amazon Echo second generation review.

the ambient verdict
Amazon Echo (second generation)
The second-gen Echo is an awesome buy for the money - you get the best voice assistant in a nicely designed package. Sound quality is the only mild disappointment but there's ways round that.
PROS
  • Alexa is brilliant
  • Affordable all-rounder
  • Improved design
CONS
  • Rivals sound better
  • Still doesn't look chic
  • Competition from other Echo devices


The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Google Home

$129, google.com

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, despite not getting an update in 2018. 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 at least $30 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.

the ambient verdict
Google Home
Google Home has done well to (almost) catch up with Amazon Alexa and if Google Assistant works for you or you can't stand the sight of tech in the house, this is probably a better bet than a Home Mini.
PROS
  • Assistant can be very useful
  • Good for Chromecast homes
  • Looks stylish
CONS
  • Not as versatile as Alexa
  • Pricier than similar Echo
  • Chromecast Audio costs extra


The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Amazon Echo Dot 2018

$49.99, Amazon

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 for 2018 (shown above) is $49.99, 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 2018 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.

the ambient verdict
Amazon Echo Dot 2018
Depending on your set up, the Amazon Echo Dot is a no-brainer - it runs Alexa and it's cheap enough that you can buy a whole bunch to pop around your home. Plus you can hook it up to existing speakers for music.
PROS
  • Simple and cheap
  • Alexa's a star
  • Connect to other speakers
CONS
  • Sound isn't great standalone
  • Bigger
  • Large new power brick


The best smart speakers

Google Home Mini

$49, google.com

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 $35 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 ambient verdict
Google Home Mini
At first glance, the Google Home Mini is a nice choice. It's affordable, it looks good and Google is relentless at chasing down Alexa's features and integrations. If it could send audio to better speakers, this would be a wholehearted recommendation.
PROS
  • Cheap - you can buy a few
  • Lovely design
  • Google keeps adding features
CONS
  • No 3.5mm jack
  • Sound isn't good enough for music
  • Still a step behind Alexa


The best smart speakers

Apple HomePod

$349, apple.com

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 ambient verdict
Apple HomePod
The Apple HomePod is a brilliant, slick looking AirPlay speaker for the money with some extra Siri smarts, especially when it comes to Apple Music. If that's all you need then don't hesitate. Still, it's not enough to entirely convince us when we've been living with Alexa and Assistant, two voice assistants which now have high end speakers to host them. And no voice control for Spotify may well be a deal breaker.
PROS
  • Superb sound
  • Looks gorgeous
  • Perfect for Apple Music users
CONS
  • Siri isn't smart enough
  • No voice for Spotify
  • Expensive


The best smart speakers

Sonos One

$199, Amazon | sonos.com

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.

the ambient verdict
Sonos One
Almost exactly what we are looking for, the gorgeous, beaut sounding, Alexa powered Sonos One is a curious beast. For music first, voice controls second this is a good bet. If you want more, though, be prepared to learn.
PROS
  • That sound
  • Looks sleek
  • Ecosystem agnostic
CONS
  • Some Alexa niggles
  • Voice control limited
  • Google/Airplay not ready yet


The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Amazon Echo Plus 2018

$149.99, Amazon

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 for 2018, 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.

the ambient verdict
Amazon Echo Plus 2018
More of a smart home hub than other Echo speakers, this isn't quite all-powerful and all-connecting enough to be worth the extra money. Still, it's a very promising sign of where Amazon is heading.
PROS
  • Added ZigBee controller
  • Improved sound
  • Super simple home setup
CONS
  • Local Voice not live
  • Only Zigbee support
  • Perhaps not worth the extra money


The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Marshall Stanmore II Voice

$399, Amazon | marshallheadphones.com

Marshall is a legendary name in music, so you can expect that its Stanmore II Voice smart speaker would lean in on sound quality. It definitely does, sporting a 50-watt amplifier to power a 13cm woofer and two 15-watt amps to power two 19mm tweeters.

The sound is great, and even at half volume you're getting room-filling sound that'll be crisp. Anything over 7 on the volume dial will be loud enough for the neighbors to hear, but you won't get any distortion. This is sound quality that gives even Apple's HomePod some good competition. So if you're looking for an Alexa or Google Assistant speaker with excellent sound quality, this is it. Word of warning though: There are two versions of the Stanmore II Voice - an Alexa one and a Google Assistant one. You can't buy one Stanmore II and get both assistants, as Sonos is attempting with the One.

There are some big caveats here, largely that the Stanmore II Voice - at a little over 4kgs - is pretty hefty. You'll have to clear some space for this bad boy. Also, the assistants aren't as responsive as they are on their native homes. You may even have to turn down the volume a bit to be heard from its two mics.

There's also no multi-room support, though Marshall says it's coming in the future. There's also no AirPlay 2 support, though it does support Spotify Connect. Lastly, you can customise how your music comes out with EQ controls. You can do so on both the actual device, or in the simplistic Marshall Voice app.

the ambient verdict
Marshall Stanmore II Voice
Despite being gorgeous, the Stanmore II Voice isn't exactly the smart speaker that'll blend in with the rest of your furniture. Like it's sound quality, it's big and loud and wants to make a statement. That sound quality is great, and stands up to some of the best in the genre. There isn't multiroom support yet, and voice recognition could be better, but this is a great option.
PROS
  • Big, bold sound
  • Great looks
  • Excellent build quality
CONS
  • No multiroom yet
  • Voice recognition could be better
  • Simplistic app


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.

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Amazon Echo Show

$229.99, Amazon

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.

the ambient verdict
Amazon Echo Show
The Echo Show is a solid smart speaker with a display, adding some much-needed visuals to select content. Alexa adapts to video well, plugging you into things like recipes and Amazon Prime Video. YouTube is missing, but you can use a web browser to get your streaming on. In general, the Echo Show isn't as touch friendly as Google's comparable Home Hub.
PROS
  • Visuals
  • It's still Alexa
  • Video chatting
CONS
  • Speaker disappointing
  • Sparse skills
  • Not as touch-friendly as Home Hub


Google Home Hub

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

$149, google.com

Of Google's lineup of Smart Displays, the Home 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 Home 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 Home 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.

the ambient verdict
Google Home Hub
The Google Home Hub is small – perhaps too small for some people – but it's the best looking of the Assistant Smart Displays so far. It's also a great showcase for what this category of smart speaker can do, particularly with that ambient EQ sensor – and for a fantastic price. But this is a young platform; the Home Hub needs to do more. In time, it should come.
PROS
  • The best looking Smart Display
  • Decent sound
  • Excellent price
CONS
  • Display will be too small for some
  • Platform still young
  • No Zigbee/Z-Wave hub


This week's best deals

Ring Video Doorbell Pro - $50 off
Ring Video Doorbell Pro - $50 off
Amazon
$199.99
Fire TV Cube - $40 off
Fire TV Cube - $40 off
Amazon
$79.99
August Smart Lock Pro - $53 off
August Smart Lock Pro - $53 off
Amazon
$226
Ring Alarm - $40 off
Ring Alarm - $40 off
Amazon
$159.99

The Ambient may get a commission

TAGGED   speakers

Recent stories

speakers Amazon Echo Dot v Google Home Mini: Which bitesize smart speaker is best?
google Google Assistant Smart Displays: Your need-to-know on the touchscreen speakers
speakers Facebook Portal guide: What you need to know about Facebook's smart devices

What do you think?

Reply to
Your comment