When it comes to building a smart home, the smart speaker is most people's starting point. Prices start at just $50 - or sometimes less when sales are on - and they can be used to control a huge range of smart devices with voice commands.
Smart speakers combine music playback, a voice assistant with artificial intelligence, and a smartphone app to create a product which answers questions, cues up playlists, plays games and tells jokes, but also adjust your lights, locks the doors, turns up the heating, waters the garden and much more besides.
- Smart speaker ownership to overtake wearables in 2019
- 5 questions to ask before purchasing a smart home system
The most important question to answer first of all is, do you want to use Alexa, the Google Assistant, or Siri to control you home? This dictates which of the three main ranges of speaker - from Amazon, Google and Apple, respectively - you should buy.
You should also ask yourself what your budget is, how important music quality is to you, whether you already have a good-quality speaker which could just do with some added smartness, and what you intend your smart home build to go. Will you want speakers in every room, or will you be satisfied with just the one?
Finally, do you want your smart speaker to have a screen? A growing range of smart displays are now available from Amazon, Google and others to fulfil this need.
Here's a brief rundown of all the major options currently available:
Smart speakers with Amazon Alexa
Amazon's Alexa is available on a wide range of devices, but its skills can varyAmazon
Alexa can already do a lot of things out of the box, but there is a catalogue of thousands of 'skills', which are like apps and enable the assistant to do much more.
For example, Alexa can read out the day's news headlines and weather forecast when asked, help you with recipes in the kitchen, run several timers at once, check on your commute, read out calendar events for the day, play music from services like Amazon Prime Music and Spotify (subscription required), send text messages and make phone calls.
When you introduce Alexa to other apps, she can order you an Uber or a Domino's, and being an Amazon product she can also buy items when you ask.
Through the iOS and Android smartphone app, Alexa can be configured to control a huge range of smart home devices. These can then be grouped into rooms and made a part of 'routines'. This means you can, for example, say: "Alexa, goodnight" and she will switch the lights off, turn down the heating and lock the door. You could also set Alexa to switch your lights on gradually, turn up the heating, open the blinds, read the news headlines, and switch on your connected coffee machine at 7am every weekday morning.
The Echo Input gives Alexa smarts to any regular speaker
The Echo Input isn't actually a speaker at all, but when connected to one you already own, it gives it Alexa. The Input connects to your speaker using Bluetooth or an 3.5mm auxiliary cable, and has a microphone array so Alexa can hear your questions and commands from across the room.
A great - and low-price - option if you want to add Alexa to an existing speaker.
Amazon Echo Dot (3rd generation) - $49.99
The Echo Dot costs just under $50Amazon
Next in the Echo hierarchy comes the Echo Dot. Now in its third generation, the Dot has the same Alexa intelligence as every other Echo device, but costs under $50. Sound quality and loudness is greatly improved over the second-generation Dot, and there's also still the option to plug it into a larger speaker, if you so wish.
Amazon Echo (2nd generation) - $99.99
The second-generation Echo smart speaker with AlexaAmazon
The second-generation Amazon Echo is available in five different finishes, including charcoal fabric, heather gray fabric, sandstone fabric, oak, and walnut. A blue glowing light sits on top of the Echo to let you know when Alexa is listening and speaking. This turns red when the microphone is muted (by pressing a button on top of the speaker) and green when the Echo's listen-in feature is activated, where multiple Echos can be used as a household intercom system.
The Echo has a 1.5-inch woofer speaker and a 0.8-inch tweeter, with Dolby sound technology that Amazon says is "room-filling". Naturally, this depends on the size of your room, and while the Echo is fine for daily use, you might want to hook it up to something bigger for a party - which you can do via Bluetooth or the Echo's 3.5mm auxiliary port.
This speaker is powered by a wall outlet (no battery here) and measures 4.1 x 3.8 x 3.6 inches. The Echo weighs 14.8oz.
Amazon Echo Plus (2nd generation) - $149.99
The Echo Plus can talk directly to Philips Hue smart bulbs, no hub or bridge required
This version of the Echo comes with Zigbee connectivity, which means it can communicate directly with a wide range of smart home devices. For example, you can ask Alexa to control a Philips Hue light bulb without needing to first buy the Philips Bridge communication hub.
The Echo Plus is currently discounted to $150 and comes with a free Philips Hue smart bulb. As with the regular Echo, you can pair two of these speakers to create a stereo pair, then add in the wireless Echo Sub for extra bass.Read the GearBrain review here.
Amazon Echo Show (2nd generation) - $229.99
The new Echo Show has a 10-inch display and Zigbee smart home connectivity built in
The Show is Amazon's largest smart display. It has the same Alexa intelligence as other Echo products, but adds a 10.1-inch display into the mix, which can be used to view extra details related to what Alexa says. This includes visual weather forecasts, music album art, and video chatting with other Echo Show (or Echo Spot) owners.
Like the Echo Plus, the Echo Show also features Zigbee so you can control smart home devices without needing a hub or bridge acting as a middleman.
The Echo Show can also be used to watch music videos from Vevo, movie trailers, news briefings, some live TV content, and sports via a Hulu subscription. Finally, it can be used to view a live feed from any compatible security cameras and video doorbells you have in your home.
Amazon Echo Spot - $129.99
The Echo Spot is intended to work as a bedside clock, with AlexaAmazon
The Echo Spot does much of the same things as the Show, but with a much smaller (and circular) 1.4-inch screen. Amazon pitches the Echo Spot as the perfect bedside device, acting as an alarm clock, morning briefing, security camera display, and a way of seeing the time and date.
Video calling is also possible here, and you can use Alexa in exactly the same way as on other Echo devices. Zigbee control is not included.
Sonos One (2nd generation) - $199
The second-generation Sonos One has Alexa, but lacks some features compared to Echo speakersSonos
This speaker takes the networking functions Sonos is already famous for, and throws in Amazon Alexa. This produces a compact speaker which has excellent, room-filling sound quality, the ability to stream music, audiobooks, radio stations and podcasts from over 80 different services, and a system for adjusting its sound based on where it is located.
This all sounds great - literally - but there is a caveat. The Alexa here is not quite the same as the Alexa found on Echo devices. It has the same voice and broadly the same intelligence - it can still control your smart home devices - but it cannot perform certain functions. For example, Amazon's drop-in intercom feature is not available, and nor is the option to call up a friend on their Echo device.
There are also limitations in how the Sonos can be grouped in the Alexa app, and how it functions as part of an Alexa routine. Sonos has said the One will soon get Google Assistant too, but this has yet to become a reality.
Sonos Beam - $399
The Beam is a sound bar with Alexa built in
The Beam offers the same Alexa integration as the One. but takes the form of a soundbar. This means it can sit below your television and dramatically enhance the sound quality of anything you watch on the big screen, be it movies or video games.
Because it works as part of the Sonos home audio system, you can add more speakers in different rooms, or sync up a pair of Sonos bookshelf speakers to create a surround sound system.
Bose Home Speaker 500 - $399
Two speakers facing in opposite directions produce room-filling sound
Another option for high-quality Alexa integration comes from Bose. The Home Speaker 500 produces a loud and quality sound, despite its fairly compact size, and features a basic display for simpler ease-of-use.
The Bose has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, can be used with Apple AirPlay 2, and can play music either through the Alexa app, or an app by Bose itself. There's also integrated support for Spotify, Deezer, Tune In and Amazon Prime Music.
The Home Speaker 500 seems to produce room-filling sound by having two drivers facing in opposite directions, which fire sound at the walls, which then bounces off and gives the illusion of it coming from a larger audio system.
Ultimate Ears Blast Portable - $95.99
This speaker is waterproof to one meter for 30 minutes
This speaker by Ultimate Ears is waterproof and wireless, so you can take Alexa to the beach, if that's your vibe - and we're not just talking showerproof. This speaker still works when submerged in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes.
There's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, and you can use Alexa just as you would on an Echo device. The speaker is available in six different colors and has a battery life of up to 12 hours.
Smart speakers with Google Assistant
The Home is likely to be updates or replaced by Google later in 2019
Arch rival to Amazon Alexa is Google Assistant, which works in a very similar way but can harness the power of Google to answer your general knowledge questions more successfully. Google Assistant can also look up information like flight times and prices, then set up an email alert to nudge you every time the price changes.
Google Assistant can talk to a similarly broad range of smart home devices as Alexa, and devices can be split into groups (or rooms) in a similar fashion. In our experience, we have found Google Home devices are far less susceptible to false positives (where it mistakenly hears itself and starts talking) than Amazon Echo devices.
The assistant can also play music in the same way Alexa can, and when hooked up to a Chromecast device, can play content on your television.
Google Home Mini - $49
The Home Mini is Google's answer to the Amazon Echo Dot
The Home Mini is a direct rival to the Echo Dot. It is roughly the same size and weight, and can be connected to a larger speaker over Bluetooth (although there is no 3.5mm output). Although you won't want to throw a party with it, the loudness and quality from the Home Mini's 1.6-inch driver is about on par with the Dot's.
As with Alexa on Echo devices, the intelligence of Google Assistant and the features on offer are identical on every Home smart speaker.
The Mini is a couple of years old now, so we wouldn't be surprised to see Google update it at its annual hardware event in the fall - and the same goes for the even older Home.
Google Home - $129
The Home speaker is a couple of years old now, so could be due an update soonGoogle
Google Home devices are controlled by saying "Okay Google" or "Hey Google" then asking a question or giving an instruction. Music playback can be controlled by voice, or by tapping the top of the Home to play/pause, and swipe to change volume.
The Home comes in white with a gray fabric cover on its lower half, but this can be swapped for alternatives sold in coral, black or copper. The device produces sound with a two-inch active driver and dual two-inch passive radiators, and there is Bluetooth for connecting a speaker of your own. There is no 3.5mm auxiliary output.
Google Home Max - $399
The Home Max is the largest and most powerful speaker Google makes
Google's flagship smart speaker is a large boombox-like unit with two 4.5-inch woofers and two 0.7-inch tweeters. It can be paired over Wi-Fi with another Max to create a stereo pair, but for most users we suspect one on its own will prove sufficient.Apart from superior loudness and sound quality, the Home Max has exactly the same smartness and feature set as its smaller siblings.
LG ThinQ WK7 - $200
Although LG is working on making its own smart home ecosystem with its new ThinQ brand, the WK7 speaker relies on Google Assistant for its intelligence. Much like the Sony above, Google Assistant gives the LG the ability to answer your questions, play music, and control smart home devices. The speaker measures 5.2 x 8.3 x 5.3 inches and weighs 67oz.
Built-in Chromecast support means you can ask the speaker to play content on other Chromecast devices - like other speakers throughout the house, or on a TV with a Chromecast dongle.
Panasonic GA10 - $300
The GA10 is a smart and stylish speaker wit Google Assistant
An alternatively-designed but attractive option is the GA10 by Panasonic. This smart speaker comes with the Google Assistant, so you just need to say 'Okay Google' or 'hey Google' to ask questions, play music, or control your smart home devices.
The speaker promises room-filling sound and is available in black or white, both with a brushed metal front.
Sony LF-S50G - $150
This Sony speaker looks a lot like the Apple HomePod
One of the first third-party speakers to include Google Assistant, this Sony shares a lot aesthetically with the Apple HomePod. It is a cylindrical smart speaker which measures 4.3 inches across and is 6.4 inches tall, while weighing 26.5oz.
Available in white and black, the Sony features a 1.9-inch satellite speaker and a two-inch woofer. Google Assistant integration means it can be used to control devices around your smart home, like lights, locks, garden sprinklers, robotic vacuumGoogle Assistant on this Sony is limited in its functionality. Making phone calls, for example, is not possible. However, Chromecast support means you can ask the speaker to play content (from Netflix, Youtube, Spotify etc) on a television with its own Chromecast dongle attached.
Sonos One - $199
The Sonos One already has Alexa, and is due to get the Google Assistant before the end of 2019
The Sonos One is the only speaker to appear twice in this article, as it will soon offer both Alexa and the Google Assistant. Sonos promised this way back when the One was launched in late-2017, but delayed the addition of Google Assistant several times, until saying it will eventually arrive sometime in 2019.
Buying the One in the hope of getting Google Assistant access might feel like a bit of a punt for now, but we remain confident in Sonos' abilities, and by the end of this year it (along with the company's Beam soundbars) will uniquely offer both voice assistants.
JBL Link - $Various
The Link collection all work with the Google Assistant
A series of speakers, the JBL Link collection is priced from $150 to $400, but currently much of the range is heavily reduced, suggesting new models could soon be on the way. All members of the JBL Link family comes with the Google Assistant, so you can buy one (or several) of these instead of a Google Home, if you like.
The entry-level Link 10 and Link 20 are battery-powered, while the Link 300 and Link 500 are larger and offer a more powerful audio experience.
Harman Kardon Citation - $Various
All Citation speakers are finished in fabric and include the Google Assistant
Another family of Google Assistant-equipped smart speakers, the Citation range from Harman Kardon starts with the One (just like Sonos…) then includes the mid-range Citation 300 and 500. Above these, there is a Citation soundbar and subwoofer, and a pair of tower speakers.
The entire range of available in black or gray and every speaker is finisher in a living room-friendly fabric. Most members of the Citation family also include a nifty touch screen for when you want to control your music without speaking to the Google Assistant.
Google Home Hub - $149
The Google Home HubGearBrain
Google's first own-brand smart display, the Home Hub is to the Google Assistant what the Echo Show is to Alexa. But beyond displaying graphics like the weather forecast to compliment your questions, the Home Hub also acts as a touchscreen command center for your smart home devices. This makes it easy for you to control lighting without speaking to the Assistant (perhaps because you want to be quiet at night).
When not in use, the Home Hub makes for an attractive digital photo frame, scrolling through your own image library, or some which Google regularly updates with its own images.
Sound quality and loudness are better than the Home Mini, but not quite as good as the regular Home. A larger version branded under Google's Nest division ix expected to launch later this year, which should offer improved sound quality and greater loudness.
Lenovo Smart Display - from $199
The Smart Display by Lenovo
Working in a similar way to the Home Hub, Lenovo's Smart Display also offers full access to the Google Assistant, along with a touchscreen.
Available in eight-inch and 10-inch variations, the Lenovo is larger than Google's Home Hub, making it ideal for YouTube videos and cooking recipes in the kitchen. Unlike The Home Hub, there is a camera for video calls.
Smart speakers with Siri
Apple has just one smart speaker, the HomePodiStock
Finally, we have Siri. The original voice assistant has fallen behind in recent years as Amazon and Google have locked horns over control of our smart homes. Siri on the iPhone and iPad can perform a range of smart home tasks through Apple's HomeKit platform. This includes controlling lights, operating motorized window blinds, adjusting the thermostat and more.
However, for now at least, Siri on Apple's smart speaker, the HomePod, is limited.
Apple HomePod - $299
The HomePod's price was recently cut by $50 to $299Apple
The HomePod has a lot of weight on its shoulders when it launched in 2017. It was expected to be a counter strike against the dominant Echo and Google Home speakers. And, while it came out of the blocks with impressive sound quality and an ability to hear you clearly no matter how loud music is playing, it's intelligence fell short.
Siri cannot yet interact with your calendar, ask follow-up questions, or even run multiple timers at once - a key skill Alexa has to help in the kitchen. HomePod cannot make phone calls, and tests have shown just how far behind the competition Apple's smart speaker is.
Apple recently cut the price of the HomePod from $349 to $299.
What You Need To Know About Smart Speaker Assistants www.youtube.com