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 are officially a hit – and voice activated speakers with on-board digital assistants have become popular with young and old alike. Whether it's playing music, checking the weather, setting timers or taking control of the smart home, smart speakers quickly get under the skin.

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 voice controlled Echo speakers, Alexa, is still our go-to choice over rivals such as Google Assistant, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana. If you're looking to control your smart home, Alexa has the biggest selection of manufacturers signed up right now and it's very beginner friendly. But things are changing, and Google is spending time and money getting partners on board with Google Assistant, not to mention the fact that it's the more capable 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 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.

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.

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 a Echo speaker, but the Echo Show we've had trouble with. Same goes for Google Assistant.

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Amazon Echo (second generation)

£89.99, Amazon

Amazon Echo is selling so hard that you might not even think about which smart speaker you want, but which Echo. The Echo 2 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 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 almost every other full-sized smart speaker we've tested recently (Sonos One, Harman Kardon Invoke) 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 2
The Echo 2 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.
  • Alexa is brilliant
  • Affordable all-rounder
  • Improved design
  • Rivals sound better
  • Still doesn't look chic
  • Competition from other Echo devices

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Google Home


Second only to Alexa, and a cut above Siri and Cortana (below) 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. Keeping the mic hot helps Assistant feel more human on Google Home speakers.

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 - 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.

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.
  • 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

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.
  • Simple and cheap
  • Alexa's a star
  • Connect to other speakers
  • Sound isn't great standalone
  • Unreliable app
  • Large new power brick

The best smart speakers

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, say. It's a small, good-looking tech pebble that comes in four calming colourways: coral, grey, black and a new "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, 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 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.
  • 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

The best smart speakers

Apple HomePod


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 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.

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. Since the rollout of AirPlay 2, the HomePod has become a much more capable home speaker, allowing you to connect it with other AirPlay 2-supporting speakers (that includes Sonos) for home-filling sound.

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, and you're happy to wait for extra features like multi-room, 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.
  • Superb sound
  • Looks gorgeous
  • Perfect for Apple Music users
  • Siri isn't smart enough
  • No stereo/multi-room yet
  • No voice for Spotify

Smart speakers with a difference...

The best smart speakers

Sonos One

£199, | Amazon

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, and Google Assistant support will come by the end of 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 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. Also worth knowing that Google Assistant is coming to the Sonos One in 2019.

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.
  • That sound
  • Looks sleek
  • Ecosystem agnostic
  • Some Alexa niggles
  • Voice control limited
  • Google/Airplay not ready yet

The best smart speakers

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 chalk or charcoal (white or black) – with fabric wrapped around the face and rounded edges, making it very soft and helping it 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 translates into 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. And it costs: the HomePod comes in at £319 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 it will know to play from Spotify.

And like Sonos, there’s some smart tech built-in to eek the best sound from your smart speaker. Google calls it Smart Sound, and it calculates acoustics of the room and balances the audio, much like the way Sonos will use your smartphone to. 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.

the ambient verdict
Google Home Max
The Google Home Max is big, brash, extravagant and great. As smart speakers go right now, it delivers a crowd pleasing sonic punch that can compete with the best. Google Assistant is developing nicely, and with plenty of support for audio sources, including YouTube Music, it's an adept entertainer as well as top smart home speaker.
  • 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

The best smart speakers

Triby Smart Speaker

£159, | Amazon

Our left field pick, the Triby Smart Speaker gets a nod because of how nicely it plays with different ecosystems. The Triby features built-in Alexa 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.

the ambient verdict
Triby Smart Speaker
The Triby Smart Speaker is a brilliantly versatile, and its ability to simultaneously leverage Alexa, Apple HomeKit and AirPlay makes it something of a smart home chameleon. It's not best in class in any respect, but as a secondary smart speaker the Triby is well worth your time.
  • Alexa built-in
  • HomeKit friendly
  • AirPlay and Spotify Connect
  • Audio isn't brilliant
  • Can be a little temperamental
  • Fiddly smart buttons

Smart 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

£219.99, 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 2018.

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.

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 missed in the first generation, however, and the original Echo Show is also little ugly, and feels hard to find a home for in your chosen decor.
  • Visuals
  • It's still Alexa
  • Video chatting
  • Speaker disappointing
  • Sparse skills
  • First-gen is a bit ugly

Google Home Hub

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod


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.

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.
  • The best looking Smart Display
  • Decent sound
  • Excellent price
  • Display will be too small for some
  • Platform still young
  • No Zigbee/Z-Wave hub

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Lenovo Smart Display

From £179.99,

Lenovo's Smart Display does everything that the Google Home Hub does, but with a larger display (it's available in 8-inch and 10-inch flavours) and a front-facing camera. YouTube is the big video platform here, and there's also Google Photos for photos, Google Duo for video chatting and - obviously - Google search.

However, you can sense the youth of the Android Things platform (the Home Hub is built on a slightly different platform, but they're functionally identical). The YouTube app, for instance, is pretty rudimentary. There are a couple other services you can use on the Smart Display, including HBO. Plus, like the Home Hub, the Smart Display doubles as a Chromecast receiver, so you can cast over some Netflix if you choose.

The other big thing here is that Lenovo's Smart Display is gorgeous, especially in the wood finish. It's stylish and fun to look at, and it'll be sure to fit into your kitchen with ease.

Oh, and if you've got Nest products around you'll be in luck as it's easy to watch your Nest Hello doorbell rings and Nest Cam footage right from the display.

the ambient verdict
Lenovo Smart Display
The Lenovo Smart Display has the Echo Show beat. It's better looking, Google Assistant has adapted better to the screen than Alexa has and it's got YouTube. It's still a better speaker even if you're not fully into the Google ecosystem, though that will help entrench you. Android Things still has a way to go, but it's a promising start.
  • Assistant is nicely integrated
  • Well designed; looks at home in a kitchen
  • Chromecast built in
  • Android Things is undercooked
  • Video services lacking
  • Mic sometimes misses commands

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.

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

Amazon Echo Plus 2018

£139.99, 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, 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 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 Echo 2, 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.
  • Added ZigBee controller
  • Improved sound
  • Super simple home setup
  • Local Voice not live
  • Only Zigbee support
  • Perhaps not worth the extra money

The best smart speakers

Harman Kardon Invoke

From$199.95, | Amazon

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.

the ambient verdict
Harman Kardon Invoke
The Harman Kardon Invoke is a solid first step for Cortana in the smart home game. While she doesn’t yet have as much to do as her biggest competitors, she offers far better sound quality than either of those. This makes her the perfect choice for music lovers.
  • Loud, full sound
  • Works with Office suite
  • Looks classy
  • Cortana is still basic
  • Limited music services
  • So-so smart home integration

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

JBL Link 500

£349.99, | Amazon

While the Google Home Max is one of our top picks, it’s only really available in the US – and even that can be patchy. So those looking for a beefy Google Assistant speaker would do well to check out the JBL Link 500.

The JBL Link 500 really delivers in terms of sound, with a loud, powerful stereo sound delivered from two 89mm mid/bass woofers and two 20mm tweeters. It’s not a small package either. The speaker weighs 3.5kg and measures 37 x 20 x 15.7cm – and it needs mains power to work, so it’s not one moving about too much.

In terms of smart stuff, it’s all about Google Assistant and the JBL Link 500 does (almost) everything a Google Home speaker can do. Voice calls don’t make the cut – you’ll need a proper Home speaker for that, but it’s a very complete performance, which goes toe-to-toe with Amazon’s Alexa.

And in some ways, it goes beyond. We love Voice Match for multiple members of the household, which can alter preferences and content by identifying who’s talking. What’s more, Chromecast is built in to handle music playback up to 24-bit/96kHz and if you have other Chromecast powered speakers, it can join the party. What’s more, you can control your TV if that has Chromecast too.

the ambient verdict
JBL Link 500
When it comes to big sound smart speaker, the JBL Link 500 is a top alternative to the Google Home Max - especially when it's not available. You get a top Google Assistant experience (minus voice calls) and the addition of Bluetooth Chromecast built in add an extra dimension.
  • A step up in sound
  • Get the range for multi-room
  • Google Assistant is brilliant
  • No option for aux-in
  • Design is a bit meh
  • Not all GA features live

The best smart speakers: Google Assistant, Alexa and HomePod

LG ThinQ WK7

£199.99, | Amazon

The LG ThinQ WK7 is not only a bit of a mouthful to say, but it also represents the company's first foray into the smart speaker game, and it's called upon Google Assistant to bring the smarts and audio experts Meridian to boost its sound.

Of course, we're not far away from seeing the LG Smart Display, too, but it made sense for LG to first take a dip in the screen-less speaker space. And for the most part, it does a pretty good job of delivering on both smarts and audio - for the price, that is.

You'll have to live with the mundane, pillar design, which only comes in charcoal black and sits at 8.3-inches tall and 5.3-inches wide, but the trade-off for this bulk and ugliness is an impressively bass-y sound that isn't matched in this price bracket. If big bass isn't really your jam, and you want something with a bit more balance, we'd definitely consider something like the Sonos One.

However, what you don't get with that option is the Assistant support we just mentioned - and the WK7 does an excellent job of harbouring the smart assistant. You get Voice Match, multi-room support and all the other usual Assistant bells and whistles, making this LG's debut device a definite one to consider as the focal point of your smart home.

the ambient verdict
LG ThinQ WK7
The LG ThinQ WK7 may not win out in the looks department, and you may struggle to blend it into your home, but it does deliver adequate smart support and sound. Thanks to its partnerships with Google and Meridian, as well as its relatively budget price tag, this provides worthy competition to other speakers on the market.
  • Solid Google Assistant integration
  • All about that bass
  • Multi-room support
  • Unattractive design
  • Sound not for everyone
  • No AUX port

Additional words and testing: Paul Lamkin, Husain Sumra, Luke Edwards

TAGGED   speakers

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