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.
- 5 questions to ask before purchasing a smart home system
- Upgrade your garden this summer with some outdoor speakers
- Over a third of US adults now own a smart speaker
The most important question to answer first of all is, do you want to use Alexa, the Google Assistant, or Siri to control you new smart 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 fulfill this need.
Here's a brief rundown of all the major options currently available:
GearBrain Best Smart Speakers and Displays for Smart Homes www.youtube.com
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.
Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen.) - $49.99
2022 Echo Dot smart speaker
First in the Echo hierarchy (as the $35 Echo Input is no longer available) is the Echo Dot. Now in its fourth generation, the Dot has the same Alexa intelligence as every other Echo device, but costs just under $50. Sound quality and loudness has greatly improved over older generations of Dot, and the latest model has a new spherical form factor, matching the equally new Echo.
The new Ech Dot, Dot with Clock and Echo all come with Amazon's new AZ1 processor, which speeds up Alexa's responses by doing more neural processing on the device instead of relying on Amazon's cloud servers.
Amazon Echo (4th Gen.) - $99.99
Fourth-generation Echo smart speaker
The fourth-generation Amazon Echo is available in three different colors, including charcoal, white and blue fabric. A blue glowing light sits at the bottom 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 3.0-inch woofer speaker and dual 0.8-inch front-firing tweeters, with Dolby sound technology. 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. The new Echo has integrated support for the Zigbee smart home standard, which was previously only offered on the (now-discontinued) Echo Plus.
This speaker is powered by a wall outlet (no battery here) and measures 5.7" wide and 5.2" tall. The Echo weighs 34.2oz.
Echo Dot Kids Edition
Echo Dot Kids Edition is available as a panda or tiger
The fourth-generation Echo Dot also comes in a $60 'Kids Edition' of the Alexa smart speaker. Available as a tiger or panda, the speaker is technically the same as the regular 4th Gen Echo Dot, but includes a 12-month subscription to Amazon Kids+ (previously known as FreeTime Unlimited), which gives access to thousands of hours of kid-friendly Audible books, interactive games and educational skills. After the first year, Kids+ costs $2.99 a month, should you want to keep using it.
Amazon Echo Show - $85 to $250, depending on screen sizeAmazon's newest smart speaker display, Echo Show 15 Amazon
The Echo Show range includes five smart displays of varying sizes. The entry-level Show 5 (2nd Gen) and Echo Show 5 (2nd Gen) Kid's Edition with Alexa both have a five-inch screen. Next up is the Show 8 (2nd Gen) which has – you guessed it – an eight-inch screen. Amazon Echo Show also comes in a 10 inch version: Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen) that measure 10.1 inches and the new Echo Show 15, a full HD 15.6" smart display with Alexa built-in for the entire family to enjoy.
All models have the same Alexa intelligence as other Echo products, but the added display 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 discontinued Echo Spot) owners.
Like the Echo 4th Gen, the Echo Show 10 also features Zigbee so you can control smart home devices without needing a hub or bridge acting as a middleman. The other Echo Show smart displays do not have Zigbee built-in.
The Echo Show range can also be used to watch TV and movies from Amazon Prime Video, 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.
The Echo Show 15 can be mounted on the wall and work in either portrait or landscape mode. And as in the past few years, the Echo Show 10 automatically rotates on its base, keeping you in frame as you move around during a video call, and turning the display to make sure it's always visible.
For 2022, Google and Amazon have agreed to allow new Google security cameras and video doorbells to work with Alexa. What does this mean? If you have an Amazon Echo smart displays, you can download the Google Nest Alexa skill and start streaming live video from your new Google Nest security cameras and video doorbells on an Echo Show smart displays. The companies are working together to have older Google Nest cameras work with the skill. More to come on that in 2022.
All Echo Show smart displays are available on Amazon and most major consumer electronics retailers like Best Buy. But don't go to Walmart. They don't sell Amazon products.
Sonos One (2nd generation) - $219
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.
Sonos Beam (2nd Gen) - $449Sonos Beam Review: Perfect sound for a small apartment GearBrain
The Beam (2nd Gen) offers the same Alexa integration as the One, but takes the form of a sound bar. 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. The Beam comes with Dolby Atmos to help enrich all your entertainment as long as you have a TV that supports Dolby Atmos and Atmos-encoded content. Control is easy too with the Sonos app, your voice, and Apple AirPlay 2.
Meta Portal - A line of Smart Speaker Displays with Alexa Built-in
Portal Go and Portal+ Smart Displays by Meta with Amazon Alexa built-in
Meta Portal (formerly known as Portal by Facebook) offers a line of smart speaker displays with Amazon Alexa built-in. The Portal line includes Portal, Portal Plus, Portal Go and Portal TV. The Portal and Go are both 10" smart displays with Alexa, available in white and black and have touchscreens. The Portal Go however is portable and slightly more expensive ($199 versus $179 for Mini). You can take it on the road with you if you want.
The new Portal+ is a 14 inch smart speaker display with a 12MP Smart Camera, an ultra-wide FOV and stereo speakers which deliver high-fidelity sound for crystal-clear audio. It's perfect for video work calls, freeing up your computer to take notes, view a presentation, or multitask. Plus you can see up to 25 people on a Zoom call at one time.
This new Portal+ takes the place of the original Portal Plus smart display which had a 15.6" screen. The Portal+ 14 inch smart display cost $349 and is available on Amazon, Meta Store, Best Buy and other consumer electronics stores.
Bose Home Speaker 500 - $299
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 high-quality sound, despite its fairly compact size, and features a basic display for simpler ease-of-use. The smaller and cheaper Home Speaker 300 also has Alexa but does away with the display.
Both models have 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 produces room-filling sound by having two drivers facing in opposite directions, firing sound at the walls, which then bounces back and gives the illusion of it coming from a larger music system.
Ultimate Ears Blast Portable - $160
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, so it's properly water resistant.
There's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, and you can use Alexa much 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 AssistantGoogle Assistant on the Pixel 4A Google
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 Assistant devices are 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 Nest Audio - $99
The Google Nest Audio smart speaker is priced at $99.99
Google's all-new smart speaker launched on September 30 and ships from October 5. It is priced at $99.99 and is a major upgrade over the now-defunct Google Home. The Nest Audio has a new design and is claimed to be 75 percent louder than the Home, with 50 percent stronger bass, thanks to a 75mm mid-woofer and 19mm tweeter.
Its enclosure is made from 70 percent recycled plastic and is is available in five colors: green, pink, blue, gray and black.
As ever, the Nest Audio provides access to the Google Assistant, which can answer questions and control your smart home devices. Several Nest Audio speakers can be used to create a whole-home music system.
Nest Mini - $49
The Nest Mini is Google's answer to the Amazon Echo Dot
The Nest Mini (formerly called the Google 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 (however there is no 3.5mm output). Although you won't want to throw a party with it, the loudness and quality from the Nest Mini driver is about on par with the Dot.
As with Alexa on Echo devices, the intelligence of Google Assistant and the features on offer are identical on every Home and Nest smart speaker (and Nest display).
Sonos Move - $399
The Move is a wireless speaker with Alexa and Google Assistant
The Move is the first wireless speaker by Sonos. When plugged into a wall outlet and connected to Wi-Fi, it works just like the Sonos One, meaning there is access to Google Assistant or Alexa. But take it off the charging dock and head outside, and it turns into a wireless Bluetooth speaker with up to 10 hours of battery life and IP56 water resistance.
Bose Portable Home Speaker
The Bose has access to both Google Assistant and Alexa
Similar to the Sonos Move, the Portable Home Speaker by Bose does exactly as you would expect. When plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi, it functions as a smart speaker and has access to either Alexa or Google Assistant. At this point we should make clear that all smart speakers with both assistants can only use one at a time, and which they use is changed in the companion smartphone app. You can't use both assistants at the same time.
The Bose also provides access to Spotify, Amazon Music and Pandora, plus Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay 2. Battery life is a claimed 12 hours of music playback, and there is IPX4 weatherproofing.
Sonos One - $199
The Sonos One already has Alexa, and nowworks with Google Assistant enabled devices.
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.
Nest Hub Max - $149The Nest Hub Max has a premiere security camera baked inside GearBrain
The Google Nest Hub Max is an upgrade from the formerly called Google Home Hub. This Nest smart display is to the Google Assistant what the Echo Show 10 is to Alexa. But beyond displaying graphics like the weather forecast to compliment your questions, the Nest Hub Max 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 Nest Hub makes for an attractive digital photo frame, scrolling through your own image library, or some which Google regularly updates with its own images.
Lenovo Smart Displays and Alarm Clocks from $49 up to 199Lenovo Smart Clock 2 is a new and improved version of the origiinal Lenovo smart clock. GearBrain
Working in a similar way to the Google Nest Hub, Lenovo's Smart Display also offers full access to the Google Assistant, along with a touchscreen. It's available in seven-, eight- 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. And Lenovo smart displays come with a camera for video calls.
Lenovo also offers smaller smart displays in the format of a alarm clock. Lenovo Smart Clock Gen 2 is the second generation of the Lenovo Smart Clock and comes with a 4-in LCD touch screen. You can also add a wireless charging pad for you to charge your Lenovo Smart alarm clock as well as a smartphone and/or a wearable. It costs only $49.99 for the alarm clock and $69.99 if you add the charging pad.
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 Mini – $99
Apple HomePod Mini and the iPhone 12
The HomePod Mini is the first time Apple has directly aimed for Amazon and Google in the smart home space. Priced at $99, it costs exactly the same as the the latest Amazon Echo and Nest Audio. It is powered by Siri and of course taps into Apple Music, as well as other services (although not Spotify for now).
Standing 3.3 inches tall, the HomePod Mini promises 360-degree sound, can be turned into a stereo pair when placed near another, and is offered in black and white. The HomePod Mini also has a new intercom system for sending audio messages to any or all HomePods in your house. It also acts as a way to control smart home devices compatible with Apple's HomeKit platform.
Apple HomePod - $299
The HomePod's price was recently cut by $50 to $299Apple
The HomePod had 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, its intelligence fell short.
Siri has been improved in the years since, with extra features added and its intelligence improved. A particularly good feature is where you can switch music playback from an iPhone to the HomePod (when you get home, for example) by holding them near each other.
Echo (4th Gen) | With premium sound, smart home hub, and Alexa | Charcoal
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