Smart speakers are the surprise success story of the last year, and voice activated speakers with on-board digital assistants have been embraced by nearly every demographic. Young and old alike are finding that playing music, getting information, setting timers and taking control of the smart home really compelling.
But there's a new war emerging in tech – and it's the battle of the smart assistant. Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple's Siri and even Microsoft Cortana are all squaring up to take control of your digital needs – and that means you need to choose a smart home system.
Essentially, the speaker you choose could dictate the future path of your smart home – so it's worth doing a bit of research first.
Alexa vs Google Assistant vs the rest
The voice assistant powering those voice controlled speakers, Alexa, is still our go-to choice over rivals such as Google Assistant and Cortana. If you're looking to control your smart home, Alexa has the biggest selection of manufacturers signed up right now. But things are changing, and Google is spending time and money getting partners on board with Google Assistant – so it could be worth backing that horse early.
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 both available for less than $50. It's a really quick and easy way to jump into smart speakers if you're not sure, you're on a budget or you're a smart home beginner.
These tiny speakers offer pretty crummy sound, so if you want to listen to your music, you'll need to go for something bigger. The standard Amazon Echo and Google Home offer perfectly adequate sound – but those who really enjoy their music will want to give audio quality some serious thought.
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, for playing music, is drastically improving.
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.
Read on for our reviews of the latest smart speakers from Amazon, Google, Sonos and more, starting with our top five picks then leading on to some others to consider.
This is the Echo that's selling like no-one's business and in many ways it's our favourite - so long as you already have a speaker you'd like to hook it up to via the 3.5mm audio jack or Bluetooth. The big selling point here is the price, of course - the second gen Amazon Echo Dot is $49.99 for one, cheaper in bundles and you can probably find deals on a solo Dot.
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. You see the appeal.
The small, puck-shaped device is unobtrusive, the shiny black finish looks a little tech-y compared to some classier speakers but will nestle in amongst vases, utensils or nicknacks on shelves just fine. Plus you can buy fabric finishes separately to improve the look.
The sound that comes out of the Echo Dot is only really good enough for the voice interactions with Alexa so chances are you'll have one hooked up to a speaker for music 24/7 and the rest for smart home controls and chats.
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 (like apps) you find useful - is able to do what we're asking. Amazon has fancier devices, like the Echo Plus, but if you want to turn smart lights on and off, and you only have a few different connected gadgets, this is really all you need.
- Simple and cheap
- Alexa's a star
- Connect to other speakers
- A bit ugly
- Sound isn't great standalone
- Unreliable app
Amazon Echo is selling so hard that you might not even think about which smart speaker you want but instead which Echo. The Echo 2 is Amazon's latest 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. This, though, could still be just right for a lot of people.
The Echo 2's main selling point is, of course, Amazon's voice assistant Alexa which is still our chosen assistant - for now until Google inevitably catches up. 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 Echo 2? 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, this means you can wire an Echo 2 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 Echo 2 sounds A-OK but side-by-side with I don't know, almost every other full-sized smart speaker we've tested (Sonos One, Harman Kardon Invoke) recently 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 beginner and family friendly and it's super easy to build a system by adding Echo Dots to one 'main' Echo 2.
Check out our full Amazon Echo second generation review.
- Alexa is brilliant
- Affordable all-rounder
- Improved design
- Rivals sound better
- Still doesn't look chic
- Competition from other Echo devices
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 and it'll get an upgrade to support Google Assistant and Airplay 2 this year. You get the quality and you don't have to choose between smart home ecosystems. 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 how things have been set up. True, it's one of the better third party Alexa experiences compared to Bluetooth speakers which require you to tap to speak and all that annoyance. 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 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.
- That sound
- Looks sleek
- Ecosystem agnostic
- Some Alexa niggles
- Voice control limited
- Google/Airplay not ready yet
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 and its price. 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 bested both the Amazon Echo and Sonos One in demos - we'll be testing these side by side more over the coming months - and even reportedly sounds better than more expensive hi-fi speakers too. 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.
Also missing - voice support for big streaming services, particularly vexing is the lack of voice controlled Spotify as right now you'll have to make do with regular app-based AirPlay streaming instead. Plus features like multi-room audio via AirPlay 2 aren't ready yet either.
- Superb sound
- Looks gorgeous
- Perfect for Apple Music users
- Siri isn't smart enough
- No stereo/multi-room yet
- No voice for Spotify
Second only to Alexa, and a cut above Cortana (below) is Google Assistant which lives inside Google Home speakers including the just-in Google Home Max. The Google Home, though is the original of the three speakers, made by Google, and there are now more and more third party options from the likes of Sony and JBL.
If you first decide to plug into Google's ecosystem, the Google Home is worth considering though you'll probably find better sound elsewhere. When playing music, this isn't going to offend anyone but the Home won't fill a living room either and rivals show it up in side by side listening. That said, if you're happy to pick up a Chromecast Audio accessory, you can hook it up to better speakers.
Design wise, we're rather taken with its air freshener styling, with fascias in a range of 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 to Amazon's Alexa but it's still behind in third party integrations, which it calls Actions, Alexa now has the edge on smart home automation and there's small but everyday differences too - like the fact it's just easier to say 'Alexa' than 'Hey, Google' or 'OK, Google'. One way Google is counteracting this - and a sign that it could soon be our preferred voice system - is that you can now ask follow up questions to certain requests without repeating the wake word.
There's also the fact that the Amazon Echo 2 is at least $30 cheaper in most places, making this more of a hard sell. Still, on most points, it matches Alexa - the app needs an overhaul but it's still super easy to set up home gadgets to control and you can set up multi-room audio with multiple Home/Home Mini devices
- Assistant can be very useful
- Good for Chromecast homes
- Looks stylish
- Not as versatile as Alexa
- Pricier than similar Echo 2
- Chromecast Audio costs extra
Google Home Max
Google’s answer to the Apple HomePod, the Home Max is big in every way: design, features and most importantly, sound and bass.
Built on the same design language as the Home and Home Mini, it comes in grey, black and white – with fabric wrapped around the face and rounded edges, making it very soft, which helps it to fit in nicely with your home and furnishing. It kind of disappears, which is no mean feat for something of its size.
The Max weighs 12 pounds, so you’ll want to carefully position it. If this thing falls over it’s more likely to destroy everything in its path and remain largely unscathed. But that weight really comes in useful, when it comes to big sound.
Absolutely the Google Assistant speaker for people who want excellent sound – but perhaps doesn’t quite have the chops to please proper audiophiles. But it costs: the HomePod comes in at $349 and Sonos One at $199, and the Google Max an eye-watering $399.
Inside the Home Max are two 4.5-inch woofers and two 0-.7-inch tweeters, which do the trick at pushing a lot of sound. It’s deep, bassy and clean – and can certainly fill a busy room, which is pretty handy for a party. Max also boasts a 3.5mm jack and Bluetooth support, so it’s not choosy about the source of your block-rocking beats.
Assuming you want Home Max to play using the power of your voice it supports Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube Music and Pandora out of the box, which is a fairly complete gamut of services, and YouTube Music really fills in the library cracks, through which Amazon and Apple will sometimes fall. You can set any source to a default player in the app, so rather than having to say, “Play Father John Misty on Spotify” you can just say “Play Father John Misty” and you’ll get the same experience.
And like Sonos, there’s some smart tech built-in to eek the best sound from your smart speaker. Google calls Smart Sound, calculates acoustics of the room and balances the sound, much like the way Sonos will use your smartphone to do the same. What’s more, you can get a couple of Max speakers and configure a stereo setup or alternatively you can pair it with other Google Homes or speakers that are Cast-enabled.
- Rich, powerful sound
- Google Assistant outsmarts Alexa
- Bluetooth support
- Expensive (double if you want stereo)
- Alexa wins on smart home control
- Design is a bit meh
Triby Smart Speaker
Our left field pick, the Triby Smart Speaker gets a nod because of how nicely it plays with different ecosystems. The Triby features Alexa built-in, and will recognise the wake word to act just like an Amazon Echo smart speaker – albeit with a handful of features missing.
Portable and wireless Alexa speakers are few-and-far between, but the Triby has more than just that up its sleeve. It's a fully fledged AirPlay speaker, which means you can send audio from your Apple devices, opening it up to Apple Music users who pretty much get nothing from Echo in terms of music playback.
If you're using Apple HomeKit, things are even better. The Triby Smart Speaker acts as a temperature and humidity sensor for your Apple Home app, and five buttons on the front are programmable for HomeKit scenes. Just set them up in your Home app, and then they can be assigned within the Triby app. With short, long and double press combos for each button, you can have 15 different assigned scenes.
And you don't just have to use Apple HomeKit stuff. From within the Triby app you can assign things like radio stations, IFTTT recipes to your speaker – or use it as an intercom between Tribys, if you have them in separate rooms.
Finally, the Triby's E ink screen does more than just tell you what's playing. You can send messages to your speaker, as well as draw doodles/notes, which is a nice touch.
- Alexa built-in
- HomeKit friendly
- AirPlay and Spotify Connect
- Audio isn't brilliant
- Can be a little temperamental
- Fiddly smart buttons
Other smart speakers to consider
If none of the above are quite right for you, check out some more of the smart speakers we've tested to cater to different sizes and budgets with a Cortana option for Microsoft-heads and a Bluetooth speaker with added voice smarts.
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 but for most people, the Echo 2 will make more sense.
First, what we like: this is an Alexa speaker with added smarts but 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 and that's how the smart home should be. It's also the best sounding Echo speaker of the lot, thanks to a slightly bigger tweeter, so this alone might be worth the money.
We're not so keen on the design meanwhile, which is almost identical to the first Amazon Echo. The power of Alexa and the novelty of the voice interactions gave this a bit of a free pass a few years ago but now smart speakers are smaller, sleeker and better at blending in. This is big, lanky and a bit of an eyesore.
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; 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.
- Added ZigBee controller
- Improved sound
- Super simple home setup
- Design is a little meh
- No comprehensive support - yet
- Perhaps not worth the extra money
Google Home Mini
Google has been slashing prices on its Echo Dot-alike and bundling it with other products, like the Nest Thermostat. The Google Home Mini is a neat, little smart speaker for anyone who doesn't want to spend too much money but it's unlikely to make the same impact.
We'd also recommend the Home Mini as a second, complementary device to a Google Home, say. It's a small, good-looking tech pebble that comes in three calming colourways: coral, grey and black and you're more likely to have it on show than an 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 over-recording problems.
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 which is handy.
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. When value is top of your concerns, this means another point to the Echo Dot.
- Cheap - you can buy a few
- Lovely design
- Google keeps adding features
- No 3.5mm jack
- Sound isn't good enough for music
- Still a step behind Alexa
Harman Kardon Invoke
Microsoft’s first attempt at a smart speaker is the Invoke, a Cortana powered speaker built by Harman Kardon. From far away, the Invoke actually looks like a more classier Echo with a curvier bottom. It’s housing also holds 3 woofers and 3 tweeters, which is three more than the Echo. At the very top you’ll find a touch-sensitive area, which Cortana will call out as a “secret button” if you tap it, and seven far-field microphones. There’s also a dial that can be used to adjust the volume, and it’s incredibly satisfying to twist.
Cortana does most of the basics that you expect from the other smart speakers out there. You can ask for the weather, tell her to get a look at your day, and control your smart home equipment. The two things that are unique is that it can connect to your Microsoft life, so if you’ve got a Windows PC or use Office 365 a lot of your appointments and contacts will carry over nicely. It’s also got Skype support for making phone calls, even to local businesses. However, just don’t dial up a business that makes you “press 1 to see store hours” because there’s no way to actually press 1.
Cortana handles all of these tasks pretty well, but it’s also far more limited than either Google Assistant or Alexa. She just can’t do as much as either of those, and it’s a shame because the killer feature of the Invoke is its incredible sound quality.
Compared to the Echo Dot and Google Home Mini in side-by-side tests, the Invoke regularly provided better quality music. It’s loud, it’s full, filled with bass and doesn’t get tinny or distorted at higher volumes. In fact, playing at higher volumes is nigh impossible because this speaker gets so loud and full you’ll never go past halfway. The one problem is that you can only use Spotify, TuneIn or IHeartRadio to listen to music.
- Loud, full sound
- Works with Office suite
- Looks classy
- Cortana is still basic
- Limited music services
- So-so smart home integration
UE Boom 2
Now onto something a bit different - plenty of portable, Bluetooth speakers are getting voice assistant upgrades at the moment.
One of our favourites is the Ultimate Ears Boom 2. Now, this may have been around since 2015 but that hasn’t stopped it actually surpassing some newer Bluetooth speakers. This dinky delight, despite being light and slim, offers really, really loud audio. Unlike its predecessor this doesn’t distort at all when near maximum volume and continues to offer crisp mids and deep bass.
The Boom 2 has a microphone built-in so, thanks to an update, it now supports Alexa for voice controlled smart assistance. It also already has Google Asisstant and Siri via the UE Boom app. That’s great as it works to control music and volume, skip tracks and make calls. But it’s flawed - this isn’t the full Alexa experience.
The UE Boom 2 requires you to press the Bluetooth button on the speaker to activate your voice assistant, already undermining voice controls. Also, when you use Alexa mid-song it pauses the music, meaning you need to press the button and ask it to start playing again. Plus Alexa won’t support Spotify or TuneIn, while Google Assistant and Siri actually do.
All that said this is still a top-notch speaker with IPX-7 water resistance for a half hour dip in up to a metre of water. The app lets you share the speaker with others so they can play music or link up other speakers for a more immersive experience than even the Boom 2’s 360-degree speakers offer.
Despite the form factor, the UE Boom 2 has got staying power. It’s not really the claimed 15 hours you’re promised, because nobody listens to music that quietly all the time. But with constant use at proper volumes you will get a good 11 hours out of this little workhorse.
- Funky design, great sound
- Assistant agnostic
- Battery life less than claimed
- Alexa is limited
- Press for voice
Additional words and testing: Paul Lamkin, Husain Sumra, Luke Edwards