There's a good chance that your first smart home device will be a smart speaker. For one, it works just fine as a way to play music from your smartphone or the cloud. But if you start talking to it, the speaker will respond to your commands. It can do things like look up the weather and sports scores, turn on your coffee maker, read you a book or even change the channel on your TV.
Tom's Guide reviews dozens of smart speakers each year, of all shapes, sizes, and price points. Our favorite smart speaker is the second-generation Amazon Echo ($99). While we initially were disappointed in its sound quality, Amazon released a firmware update which greatly improved the listening experience. This all-new Echo is also smaller, more attractive, and less expensive than the original. Our budget pick is the Echo Dot, which costs just $50. Both of these picks use Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa. Google Home, is worth considering for its price and compatibility with Google's services, and now there's a $50 version—the Google Home Mini.
Latest News and Updates (September 2018)
- Amazon just revealed a full refresh of its smart speaker line, including a new $129 Echo Plus that sports a sleeker design, better bass and the ability to control your smart home gadgets even without an internet connection. The $49 Echo Dot is also getting revamped with a new mesh design and louder speakers, while the $229 Echo Show smart display is getting a slimmer makeover with Skype integration.
- Leaked images suggest that Google may release a 7-inch smart display powered by Google Assistant with a gray fabric-covered speaker in the back.The rumor suggests that Google could announce the speaker on October 9.
- Apple has adding a few long-needed features to its HomePod to bring its functionality closer to that of Alexa and Google Home speakers, including the ability to set multiple timers, make calls (via their iPhone), and pair multiple HomePods for either stereo sound or for multi-room audio.
The second-generation Amazon Echo is smaller and more stylish than the original, and its outer skin can be swapped out for different colors and textures. An improvement to its firmware made this speaker sound as good as the original; if you're looking for a good all-purpose smart speaker, this is it.
At just $50, the Echo Dot is the least expensive way to get Alexa into your home. The Dot has both Bluetooth and a 3.5mm jack, so you can connect it to a better-sounding speaker, which we recommend you do if you're planning to use it to play music. The Dot is ideal for places where you want Alexa, such as a kitchen, but don't want another large device cluttering the space.
The Sonos One is based on the Play:One, but has Alexa built in, as well as six microphones to pick up your voice. It produced the best audio we've yet heard from an Alexa-powered speaker, and, like other Sonos devices, you can pair two of the Ones for true stereo sound, or link them with other Sonos speakers for whole-home audio. Plus, it also works with Spotify. Yes, you'll pay more, but the sound quality is worth it.
The first smart display to feature Google Assistant, the Lenovo Smart Display is an improvement on Amazon's Echo Show in a number of ways. Lenovo's device looks better, has a bigger and sharper screen, and even a privacy shutter for the camera. But, you can do more with Google Assistant on the Smart Display than you can with Alexa on the Echo Show. For instance, looking up and using recipes, timers, and smart home devices is much easier on the Smart Display. Lenovo is selling the Smart Display in both 8-inch ($199) and 10-inch ($249) sizes.
One problem with most smart speakers is that they need to be plugged in for them to work. The battery-powered JBL Link 20 takes care of that limitation: we found that it will last at least 10 hours on a charge. Its audio quality is great, too, for those times you want to extend Google Assistant's reach to your backyard. The Link 20 is also water-resistant: You can dunk it for up to 30 minutes.
The Google Home speaker is more attractive, and sounds better than, the Echo. Take your pick from six colors and two finishes for the base (fabric or metal). At $129, it's also cheaper than the Echo. Plus, you can use Google Home to control Chromecast-enabled devices, such as TVs. Alexa can't do that. However, in a face-off between the two assistants, we found Amazon's to be more well-rounded than Google's.
Other Smart Speakers We Tested
We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of audio from the Read our full review of the Invoke. (6/1), but Cortana's smart home skills are far behind those of Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant.
Speakers with Amazon Alexa
The Read our full review of the Echo Plus.
(7/10) looks and sounds much like the original Echo, but has a built-in Zigbee radio, so it can act as a smart home hub. However, the smart home automation you can enable through Alexa is fairly limited at this point.
The (7/10) is a more compact alternative to the touchscreen Echo Show. But its small, circular display makes watching videos cumbersome, and the Show’s dual speakers provide a better sound. Read our full review of the Amazon Echo Spot.
At about $30, the (7/10) is a good budget alternative to the already inexpensive Echo Dot. With a single 2-watt down-firing speaker, the Genie offers better audio than the Dot, but lacks Bluetooth, so if you want to connect an additional speaker, you'll have to use the included 3.5mm audio cable. Read our full review of the Genie.
The Alexa-enabled speaker comes in a variety of colorful skins, and lasted about 5 hours on a charge. It also has pretty good bass for such a small speaker. However, you have to press a button on the speaker before you can use Alexa; its treble is thin; and it's not waterproof. (7/10)Read our full review of the Fabriq.
If you already own an Echo Dot, the
(8/10) could be for you. You slip the Dot into the Vaux to turn Amazon's device into a better-sounding, portable speaker. That's because the Vaux has a battery that will power the Dot for up to 6 hours, and the speakers are loud, with crisp treble. Read our full review of the Vaux.
The Read our full review of the UE Megablast. (8/10) is waterproof, unlike the Echo and Sonos One, and produces better all-around sound than Amazon’s speakers do. But it can’t access all the unique talents of Alexa (for example, it can’t stream from Spotify or integrate with multi-room audio).
Speakers with Google Assistant
The super-sized Read our full review of the Google Home Max.(7/10) kicks out an impressive amount of sound, and you can also pair two of these together for fuller stereo sound. Still you get just as good performance from two Sonos Ones as you do from one Google Home Max.
Unlike most other smart speakers, the Read our full review of the Sony LF-S50G.(7/10) has a display on the front that shows the time and volume. This speaker is splash-resistant and sounds good, too. It can also be controlled using gestures, but we found they didn't work well. Read our full review of the Sony LF-S50G.
Read our full review of the Link 300. (7/10): This smart speaker also pumps out a ton of sound, and has great bass. However, its treble tones are lacking, and like most third-party speakers, can't make phone calls with Google Assistant.
The even larger—and pricier Read our full review of the Link 500.
(7/10) has an even wider sound field, but we found bass was lacking unless the volume was turned up.
The Read our full review of the Zolo Mojo. (5/10) is compact, responsive, and relatively easy to set up. However, its sound quality is average at best, and it’s not worth the extra cost.
What to Look For When Buying a Smart Speaker
Before you purchase a smart speaker, decide how you plan to use it. If it's going to be the only device in your living room that will play music, then you'll want one that has good audio quality. But while sound is important, it shouldn't necessarily be the deciding factor in which smart speaker you choose. For example, the Amazon Echo Dot has perhaps the worst-sounding speaker among those we've tested, but its small size and low price make it useful for people who already have a good speaker and merely want to add some smarts to it. The Dot is also a cheap way to spread a voice assistant throughout your house.
If you want a speaker that you can take outdoors, though, you'll want to consider a portable option, such as the Amazon Tap (pictured above), or a third-party speaker, such as the Fabriq.
|MORE: Face-Off: Google Home Max vs. Apple HomePod vs. Sonos One|