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

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

best smart speaker Rob Schultz / IDG

You don’t need to live in a smart home to benefit from a Wi-Fi-connected smart speaker. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, 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 already know you want a smart speaker, scroll down 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.

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 control smart home products that would be otherwise incompatible with that system with voice commands—provided they’re compatible with your digital assistant of choice.

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 Dot devices, for instance, and it looks as though Apple’s HomePod will stream music only from Apple Music. 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 Echo line is the most widely adopted by consumers, and it’s the one most widely supported by third-party products and services. While you could save $30 and buy the displayless Echo (2nd generation), the Echo Dot’s touchscreen is well worth the extra cash. And once you become accustomed to an Echo with a display, you’ll want them in all the places you’d otherwise put an Echo Dot (or you would if the Spot didn’t cost $80 more than the Dot).

Runner-up 

After getting off to a slow start, Google is now giving Amazon a run for its money. The original Google Home sounds better than any of the Echos, and it’s been far better when it comes to asking for general information. Google Home and Google Assistant aren’t as broadly compatible with third-party products and services as the Amazon Echo and Alexa, but Google is aggressively closing that gap and should achieve parity soon. Google Home is also a good choice for people who are deep into the Chromecast ecosystem and who subscribe to Google’s streaming services: YouTube Red and Google Play Music.

Best smart speaker for music

It’s no contest on this score, Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker we’ve heard. Our opinion could change when we lay ears on Apple’s HomePod, but the Google Home Max crushes every other smart speaker on the market. 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, give the Sonos One a listen. It’s currently compatible only with Amazon’s Alexa, but the company promises to add Google Assistant capabilities this spring. It’s about the same size as the older Sonos Play:1, but it sounds even better. Despite the similarity in appearance, Sonos designed its smart speaker from scratch. Sonos is the king of multi-room audio, and no other brand supports more music services. What’s more, once you have a Sonos One on your network, you can control all your other Sonos speakers with voice commands, too—and from any Alexa-compatible speaker (the Sonos One, however, is the only smart speaker in the Sonos lineup).

Best smart speaker if you use another speaker for music

No matter which smart speaker you buy, none of them will sound as good as many of the dumb powered speakers on the market today. Guess what? You don’t have to compromise! If you only want a smart speaker for its brains and not its audio performance, Amazon’s Echo Dot has both a Bluetooth radio and a 3.5mm analog line-level output so you can pair or plug in your favorite outboard speakers and really rock the house.

Runner-up 

The Google Home Mini is prettier than Amazon’s Echo Dot, but it takes the runner-up spot here not only for the same reasons the Google Home does in its category, but because it doesn’t have a line-level output. What’s more, you can’t pair an external Bluetooth speaker to it, either. What you can do is pair an external Chromecast speaker, but that limits your options to Chromecast speakers or buying a Chromecast Audio dongle.

Best smart speaker with a large display

Google currently doesn’t have a horse in this race. Several third-party manufacturers announced Google Assistant-powered smart displays at CES, but none are available right now. That leaves the Amazon Echo Show as the default winner. The Echo Show’s best feature is its ability to make video calls to people on your contact list (it can also function as a video intercom within your home). But having a digital assistant that can also show you things has plenty of other useful applications, too: displaying album art (and lyrics, with Amazon’s service) when you play music; shopping and to-do lists that you edit on the screen; illustrations that accompany your weather forecast; slideshows from your personal photo library; still photos from Wikipedia entries; and a whole lot more. It’s very much like using a computer, except you don’t need a keyboard.

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 Ecobee4 smart thermostat to the Logitech ZeroTouch phone dock.

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 (with a compatible universal remote)
  • 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 (Echo models for now)

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 or Wink Hub. Amazon’s Echo Plus is an exception to that rule, because it has an integrated smart home controller (although it’s limited to ZigBee)

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