Smart speaker tips and advice

Best smart speakers: Which deliver the best combination of digital assistant and audio performance?

With models based on Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and others to come, we’ll help you find just the right model.

best smart speaker Rob Schultz / IDG

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Smart speaker tips and advice

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You don’t need to live in a smart home to benefit from smart speakers. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and other digital assistants can help you in dozens of ways, and you don’t have to lift a finger to summon them—just speak their names. If you’ve already decided you want a smart speaker, click here for our top recommendations

But consider your decision carefully. In a perfect world, these devices would be interoperable, so you could buy one brand because it’s better for music, another brand because it’s the best for smart home control, and a third because it’s superior for retrieving general information from the internet. That’s not how it works in the real world. Once you commit to one platform, you’ll want to stick with it.

Updated October 21, 2020 to add our Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) review. The spherical industrial design for this new smart speaker is a radical departure, but it’s not accompanied by a significant improvement in acoustic performance. As such, we’re sticking with our recommendation of the third-gen Dot as the best entry-level smart speaker. And at its current price of $29, Google’s Nest Mini is a fantastic bargain as well. 

On the upside, choosing one brand of smart speaker over another generally won’t tie you into that brand’s entire ecosystem. Buying an Amazon Echo, for instance, won’t limit you to subscribing to Amazon’s music services—you can also use it with Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM radio, and several other services. And even if you have a smart home system from one company, you can use voice commands to control smart home products that would be otherwise incompatible with that system—provided those devices are compatible with your digital assistant of choice.

sonos beam with samsung q7f smart tv Michael Brown / IDG

An increasing number of soundbars double as smart speakers. The Sonos Beam can be configured with either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

That said, if you’re wedded to Google Play Music, streaming music from your account to an Amazon Echo is not perfectly seamless (the same goes for streaming music from Amazon’s services to a Google Home). And there are some major coexistence exceptions: Google is currently blocking its YouTube videos from appearing on the Echo Show and Echo Spot devices, for instance (although you can get there using a web browser on the second-generation Echo Show), and Apple’s HomePod will stream music only from Apple Music (or other services from a mobile device using AirPlay, but that ties up your mobile device). If you plan to mix and match third-party products with your smart speaker, do the research to make sure they’ll work together.

If you want to know more about what smart speakers can do in general before you pick one, skip down to the “What can smart speakers do?” section.

Best all-around smart speaker

The best smart speakers have displays to convey visual information: Everything from song lyrics, to weather forecasts, shopping lists, videos, security camera feeds, and more. Amazon’s latest smart speaker, the Echo Show 5, strikes the perfect balance between screen size and price, with a 5.5-inch display and a price tag of just $90. If that’s still too high for your budget, the displayless Echo Dot (3rd Gen) costs just $50, but it frequently goes on sale for much less.

Runner-up 

Google got off to an uncharacteristically slow start in this space—and it recently muddied the waters by rejiggering the Nest brand’s role in its smart home strategy—but the Google Nest Hub is definitely giving Amazon a run for its money. The Google Assistant is far better when it comes to asking for general information, and Google has aggressively added support for third-party smart home products and services. This is also the best choice for folks who dig Chromecast, Google Photos, YouTube, and YouTube Music.

Best entry-level smart speaker

If you use a smart speaker mostly to control your smart home devices, and you don’t care as much about audio performance, pick up the third-generation Echo Dot. Amazon significantly improved this speaker’s audio performance, so it’s now the best-sounding smart speaker for the money. You can pair two of them for stereo, and you can add an Echo Sub to enhance low-end frequency response. The Echo Dot with Clock variation features a simple and extremely handy LED display, but it costs more.

Runner-up 

Google once again takes the runner-up spot here, despite the improvements the company has made to its rebranded smart speaker. Yes, audio quality has improved, and Google Assistant is still smarter than Alexa, but Amazon is ahead of the game when it comes to hooks into the smart home, and if you care about audio, you can supplement the Echo Dot with a bona fide subwoofer. If you’re deep into the Google and Nest ecosystems, on the other hand, the Nest Mini will serve you well.

Best smart speaker for music

It’s no contest on this score, Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker we’ve heard, although Apple’s HomePod comes close. Four Class D amplifiers drive two 4.5-inch aluminum cone, high-excursion woofers with dual voice coils. Two more amps are dedicated to a pair of 0.7-inch polyester dome tweeters. The amps have integrated DACs capable of supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz bit streams, although Google says it’s only tested sampling rates up to 48kHz. This speaker will fill even larger rooms with sound, but if you find that one just isn’t enough, you can pair two for stereo.

Runner-up

If the Google Home Max is beyond your budget—or you’re deep into the Alexa ecosystem—give Amazon’s Echo Studio a serious listen. It’s a heckuva value for $200, and it has an integrated Zigbee smart home hub to boot. It’s outfitted with three 2.0-inch mid-range drivers (one firing left, one firing right, and one firing straight up) and a 1.0-inch tweeter that fires straight at the listener. A 5.25-inch down-firing woofer handles the lower frequencies, and is mounted directly above a slotted bass aperture. As with Google’s best smart speaker, you can pair two for stereo. Unlike Google, Amazon also offers an optional subwoofer. 

Second runner up

Yes, the smart speaker market is big enough to have two runners-up in this category. The Sonos One can be configured to work with either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. Sonos is the king of multi-room audio, and no other brand supports more music services. Sonos has since replaced the version we reviewed with a second-generation model, but the company tells us it’s virtually the same. The Sonos Beam offers the same voice-control features in a smallish soundbar form factor.

Best smart speaker with a large display

Amazon regains the top spot in this category with its all-new Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen). The new speaker has a bigger, higher-resolution display, much improved audio performance, and Amazon has significantly improved the touchscreen-based user interface (especially when you’re browsing Amazon’s own entertainment offerings). Amazon also added a Zigbee-based smart home hub that allows you to control things like Philips Hue smart bulbs without need of the Hue Bridge.

The Echo Show retains all the great features we loved in the first generation, including the ability to make video calls to people on your contact list (it can also function as a video intercom within your home). And Amazon has made important improvements to its Alexa digital assistant. You can add multiple items to your shopping list, for example, without having to repeat the Alexa wake word: Say “Alexa, add cheese, vegetables, coffee, and ice cream to my shopping list,” for instance, and each of those grocery items will appear as discrete items on your list that you can remove with a swipe of your finger when you buy them. 

Runner-up

With its messy brand realignment out of the way, Google is making tremendous strides in its battle with arch-rival Amazon on the smart display front. The Google Nest Hub Max delivers great sound, fabulous picture quality, and tight integration with the Google ecosystem. Alexa is still the superior digital assistant when it comes to smart home compatibility, but that advantage won’t last forever.

What can smart speakers do?

With the exception of Amazon’s Echo, smart speakers are powered by the same digital assistants used with smartphones. Siri comes from the iPhone, Google Assistant comes from Android phones, and Cortana from Microsoft’s now-dead Windows Phone platform (Cortana has since found a home in Windows 10). Alexa was created exclusively for the Amazon Echo, but can now be found in a host of other devices, ranging from the Ecobee Smart Thermostat to the Leviton Decora Smart Voice Dimmer.

At its most basic, a digital assistant is cloud-based software that understands natural language voice commands, performing tasks and fetching information for you. In the real world, digital assistants aren’t quite as sophisticated as that. While you don’t need to talk like a robot—e.g., “Alexa, set timer, 20 minutes”—they do get confused easily, and you’ll hear a fair amount of responses such as “Sorry, I don’t know that one” (that’s an Alexa phrase, incidentally) when you trip them up. The cool thing is that the algorithms powering digital assistants can learn over time and become better at predicting what you need.

Here are just a few of the things that most smart speakers can do (you can add “and more!” to the end of each bullet list):

Entertain

  • Stream music over Wi-Fi
  • Stream music over Bluetooth (most models)
  • Work with Chromecast devices (Google Home models)
  • Control your TV 
  • Stream music to multiple speakers (multi-room audio)
  • Play games
  • Stream videos (models with displays)

Retrieve news and information 

  • News headlines
  • Weather forecasts
  • Traffic reports
  • Date and time
  • Wikipedia entries

Manage your schedule

  • Set appointments
  • Provide reminders
  • Serve as an alarm clock
  • Maintain to-do lists

Help in the kitchen

  • Recite recipes (and show them on models with displays)
  • Set multiple timers
  • Get measurement conversions (“How many cups are in one quart?”)
  • Maintain shopping lists
  • Set the temperature for a sous vide cooker
  • Get nutrition information (“How many calories are in an apple?”)

Contact friends and family

  • Make and receive phone calls (video calls on models with displays)
  • Serve as an in-home intercom
  • Send text messages 

Control your smart home *

* There are caveats when it comes to using a smart speaker for home control. Smart home devices that can be controlled via Wi-Fi don’t require any other hardware. Products that use the Zigbee or Z-Wave protocols depend on the presence of a smart-home hub, such as a Samsung SmartThings. Amazon’s Echo Plus and its second-generation Echo Show are exceptions to that rule, because they have an integrated smart home controller (although it’s limited to Zigbee)

Our latest smart speaker reviews

We’ll update this list as new models arrive.

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