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.
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. 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 & Rumors (February 2018)
- Both the Apple HomePod and the Sonos One speakers can leave marks on certain wood surfaces. If you purchase either speaker, be sure to place a coaster or something between it and whatever it is you're placing it on.
- Sonos announced that the Sonos One speaker, which has Alexa built-in, will also get Google Assistant integration sometime this year. Sonos is currently selling two Sonos Ones for $349—a $50 discount—and Amazon is offering two Sonos Ones for $399, but including a $50 Amazon gift card.
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.
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
Apple's first smart speaker sounds amazing, thanks to an array of speakers and beam-forming tech that automatically adjusts its audio properties based on the room in which the speaker is placed. However, Siri's smarts lag behind both Alexa and Google Assistant, and we don't like that if you want to use Siri to ask for tunes, you have to use Apple Music.
Google's competitor to the Echo Dot also costs $49, and in head-to-head tests, we found its audio to be far superior to Amazon's mini-sized Alexa speaker. To be sure, though, it's not intended primarily to play music. However, it will connect to other Chromecast devices, so you can play your tunes through something better equipped. The fabric top of the Home Mini is certainly more attractive than the hockey-puck Echo Dot, and comes three colors: Black, Gray, and Coral (pink).
The super-sized Google Home Max kicks out an impressive amount of sound—one is more than enough to fill a large living room—but you can also pair two of these together for fuller stereo sound. We liked that the Google Home Max could do, but you get just as good performance from two Sonos Ones as you do from one Google Home Max.
If you already own an Echo Dot, the Vaux 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.
At about $30, the Eufy Genie 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.
Fabriq's 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.
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.