Executive Editor, TechHiveSep 18, 2023 6:00 am PDT
Image: Rob Schultz / IDG
You don’t need to live in a smart home to benefit from smart speakers and smart displays. 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.
Here are our top picks in several categories. Looking for more guidance beyond our top recommendations? Scroll down the page to our in-depth buyers’ guide.
Amazon is the strongest player in the smart home market today, and the Echo Dot with Clock (5th Gen) is a key reason for that position. Amazon could easily have left well enough alone with its third-generation entry-level smart speaker, but it just keeps innovating. While it’s true that you’ll spend $10 less if you buy the 5th-generation Echo Dot sans clock, that display adds much more than $10 in value. The one area that Amazon continues to trail with its entry-level smart speakers is audio performance. But if you’re buying a smart speaker mostly to control your smart home devices, this is the smart speaker to buy.
Google takes the runner-up spot 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. If you want better audio performance, the Google Nest Audio delivers a lot of bang for the buck, but it costs twice as much as the Mini. The Nest Mini’s price also makes it the runner-up in the best budget-priced smart speaker category.
A series of post-launch updates has turned the smaller HomePod into a much more capable smart speaker. Even with its lofty price tag, the HomePod mini is a worth investment, particularly for Apple users. The larger HomePod (2nd generation) is still too expensive.
Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen) — Best budget-priced smart speaker
A very inexpensive voice-powered smart home controller
Best sounding audio in its class
Pretty industrial design
Still not recommended for critical music listening
Google Nest Mini offers tighter integration with Android smartphones
Price When Reviewed:
We don’t know how much longer the third-gen Dot will be around, but if you’re looking for an inexpensive Alexa-powered smart speaker, this is the model to buy. If you’re looking for a budget-priced smart speaker based on Google Assistant, you can’t go wrong with the the Nest Mini, mentioned above as our overall runner-up.
If you’ve got the bread, Bowers & Wilkins has the best-sounding smart speaker on the market. It only supports Alexa, though, so Google Assistant fans might want to look elsewhere. The Nest Audio sounds good for a $99 speaker, but as you would expect, it is just not in the same league as this puppy.
Amazon’s Echo Studio is a great 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. You can pair two for stereo, and Amazon even offers an optional subwoofer.
The Sonos Move is a better-sounding portable smart speaker, but the Sonos Roam is a lot more practical when you want to take your music on the go. It’s not a big deal to take the Move out on the patio, but stuffing it in a backpack and taking your tunes on a hike? You’re going to want to Roam for that. The Roam also costs a lot less than the Move. Don’t get us wrong, we absolutely love the Move, but when you want to roam, grab the Roam.
Sonos didn’t need to go back to the drawing board to design a better portable speaker, but I’m glad they did. The Move 2 sounds better than the original, produces a wider sound stage than the original, and offers twice as much battery life as the original. And those are just the top-line improvements.
The Amazon Echo Show (3rd Gen) features a 10.1-inch display that tracks your movement and rotates so that it always faces you. Amazon’s AZ1 Neural Edge processor tracks your movement right on the device, enhancing your privacy by not uploading your image to the cloud. It has a high-quality display and a very good audio system. As with most of its more-expensive Echo devices, there’s an integrated Zigbee smart home hub, plus a radio that taps into Amazon’s new Sidewalk neighborhood network technology. If you want an even bigger display, consider the Echo Show 15, but read our Echo Show 15 review to understand why we didn’t pick that model in this category.
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.
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 is nearly just as dead). 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):
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)
Stream videos (models with displays)
Retrieve news and information
Date and time
Manage your schedule
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)
* 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 higher-priced Echo models are exceptions to that rule, because they have an integrated smart home controller (although it’s limited to Zigbee)
How to choose the right smart speaker
In a perfect world, smart speakers and smart displays 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, Qobuz, SiriusXM radio, and lots of 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.
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 an 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.
Michael is TechHive's lead editor, with 30+ years of experience covering the tech industry, focusing on the smart home, home audio, and home theater. He built his own smart home in 2007 and used it as a real-world test lab for product reviews. Following a relocation to the Pacific Northwest, he is now converting his new home, an 1890 Victorian bungalow, into a modern smart home.