When it comes to making your home smarter, renters can have a hard time installing everything they want. Intelligent thermostats and smart locks are mostly off limits, but thankfully this isn't the case when it comes to music, TV and home entertainment.
There are a range of smart speakers on the market from Google, Amazon, Sonos and Apple, and further devices like the Chromecast with Google TV, Roku and Apple TV 4K which make streaming content easy. Add in virtual assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, and even renters can enjoy a slice of the smart home action – and all without making any permanent changes to your property.
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It all starts with the smart speaker. This is the device you will use first for listening to music, podcasts and the radio, but which will soon become the hub for your entire smart home. You can buy several examples of the same speaker — be it from Apple, Google, Amazon, Sonos or someone else — to create a connected network and play music throughout the house.
Broadly speaking, these devices can be slotted into three price brackets. At the entry-level you have the Nest Mini by Google, and Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen), which cost around $50 each but are often discounted. Then there is the regular, fourth-generation Amazon Echo for $100, the regular Nest Audio by Google for $100, and the Apple HomePod mini, also for $100. However, the HomePod mini is a smaller and less powerful speaker than the Nest Audio and $100 Echo – and remember, as of early 2021 Apple is no longer selling the original $349 HomePod smart speaker. We expect a replacement to arrive at some point, but don't know when.
Up your budget to $200 and you have the excellent Sonos One, which features both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, can be used to create a whole-home Sonos speaker system, and sounds great. An alternative for $200 is the Amazon Echo Studio, which has Alexa and also boasts good sound quality, including support for Dolby Atmos when a pair of Studios are connected to an Amazon Fire TV – more on that later.
Google no longer sells its flagship Home Max and Amazon no longer sells the Echo Plus.
Networking your speakers – and why cheaper could mean better
Generally speaking, the more you pay for one of these speakers, the better sound quality you will get and the louder that sound will be. The Echo Dot's small internal speaker doesn't produce the greatest sound (but is much better than earlier models of Dot), while the Sonos One, Nest Audio and Echo (4th Gen) are all genuinely room-filling.
While it is tempting to spend as much as possible on the greatest and most powerful music system, options like the $2,300 Naim Mu-so might not go down too well with your neighbors, despite the superb sound. So maybe consider a cheaper, smaller option if you live within close proximity of other people.
But what if noise isn't a concern and you already own a good speaker? This is where the Echo Dot and Nest Mini shine, because they offer the same Alexa and Google Assistant intelligence as their more expensive stablemates, and can be hooked up to almost any other speaker. The Echo Dot can be connected via Bluetooth or its 3.5mm auxiliary socket, while the Nest Mini is limited to Bluetooth only.
Because the Dot and Mini are just $50 each, it makes sense to buy more than one. For example, you could hook one up to a larger speaker in the lounge or kitchen, then place a second on its own in the bedroom (where speaker loudness is less of a concern) to play the radio each morning, or just read out the news headlines and weather forecast while you get ready.
Multiple smart speakers connect over your Wi-Fi network and are controlled either by voice commands or smartphone apps, so there's no need to run any extra cabling around your house. As long as you have access to the router (in our experience landlords let tenants use their own anyway), you're good to go.
Networking in a larger home
If you rent a larger property and want to play music in several rooms at once, just buy more Echos or Home Minis and hook them up with their respective smartphone apps. GearBrain has previously written about the benefits of owning two or more Echo Dots.
Larger smart speakers can also be networked together, and the Sonos One has a trick where two can be turned into a stereo pair. Place them at opposites ends of where you tend to listen to music, and enjoy the way the music transitions from left to right. Speakers from Google/Nest, Amazon and Apple can also be made into stereo pairs, and can even be connected to their respective TV-streaming devices to create a wireless TV sound system.
But networking is what made Sonos a success years before Amazon, Google and Apple got involved. If your budget will allow, buying several Sonos speakers means you can play different tracks in each room, or the same music throughout the home.
Each Sonos speaker has access to over 80 streaming services, including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime, Google Play and Deezer, plus radio stations, audiobooks and podcast services. The whole system, which can be given its own Wi-Fi network to prevent interference from your router and other devices, is all controlled by the Sonos smartphone app.
Because this all happens wirelessly, you don't need to lay any networking or audio cables – something that can be tricky in rented accommodation. This also means that when you move house, it's simple to take everything with you — and if you name your speakers 'kitchen', 'master bedroom', 'lounge' etc, setting up at your next house is just a case of putting them in the right rooms.
For more on tips and tricks when it comes to moving your smart home devices from one property to another, read the GearBrain guide here.
Television, streaming and Chromecast
Obviously, as long as you aren't wall-mounting anything, installing a TV in your rented home is fair game. Fitting a new aerial or satellite dish to the building will require landlord permission, but in our experience this isn't usually a problem, so long as neither causes any major aesthetic issues. Having said that, in the age of cord-cutting the focus is increasingly on streaming from services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Many new TVs have apps for these services built in, or you can hook up a streaming stick from Roku or Amazon, an Apple TV, or a games console like an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 — and the consoles can double as a UHD Blu-ray player, too.
Taking things a step further — and making your home cinema smarter — you can pick up a Google Chromecast from as little as $35. This plugs into an empty HDMI socket on your TV and gets its power from the TV's USB port or a nearby wall outlet. It has the same streaming services as mentioned above but, when connected to the same Wi-Fi network as a Google Home smart speaker, can respond to voice commands issued to the remote or a nearby smart speaker.
Say "Okay Google, play the latest episode of Silicon Valley" or "Hey Google, play Breaking Bad" and the program will begin on your TV without you pressing anything. What's more, Google Assistant is smart enough to know who asked, so it will play your most recent unwatched episode, not your partner's. The Chromecast will even switch your TV on automatically, then switch it off again when you say "Okay Google, turn the TV off".
Pick up your smartphone, tablet or laptop and the Chromecast icon will appear when watching almost any video. Tap this, tap on the name of your TV, and the video will play on the big screen, via the Chromecast dongle. No more hooking up your laptop to the TV with the spare HDMI cable you can never find.
As with all of the solutions in this article, no extra wires are required as the Chromecast only needs power and Wi-Fi to function.
If you would prefer to live in Amazon's ecosystem, then a Fire TV streaming stick is what you want. These include Alexa and let you control streaming content, as well as your smart home, with voice commands issued to the remote or a nearby Echo speaker. Lastly, Apple fans can connect the Apple TV 4K to their TV and use that and the Siri remote for playing content with voice commands.
Home cinema systems and surround sound
Finally, renters can even enjoy home cinema systems and multi-speaker surround sound without performing any DIY. Wireless surround sound systems are becoming increasingly common, where the speakers and subwoofer connect without cables to the control unit and amplifier, which are often incorporated into a soundbar.
Just plug the subwoofer and each rear speaker into wall outlets (extension cables may be required), and connect the soundbar to your TV, games console and any other devices you have. In most cases the speakers automatically connect to each other, giving you cinema-grade surround sound with no speaker wires.
As someone who has rented for a decade and attempted to hide speaker wires behind skirting boards and under sofa cushions more times than I care to remember, wireless speakers like these are a huge time-saver and make the room look much neater.
Dolby Atmos, the latest and greatest in home surround sound, is also possible in rented properties, as wireless systems use extra speakers to fire sound upwards and bounce it off the ceiling to add height to the soundtrack. This means there's no need to install actual speakers in the ceiling to get the same effect — something your landlord wouldn't be too impressed with. Just remember to turn down the bass if you have neighbors downstairs.
Today, in 2021, it is increasingly common for sound bars to contain so many individual speakers that separate rear speakers aren't needed. Instead the sound bar bounces sound off the ceiling and walls of the room to create a sphere of sound around the viewers. For more on this, read our 2021 sound bar buying guide.
For shoppers on a more modest budget, or who are renting a place with a simple TV already provided, we highly recommend the Roku Streambar. This circa-$130 device is both a streamer for movies and TV from Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and many other services, but also acts as a sound bar, bringing improved sound to any TV with an HDMI port. Its compact size and affordability make it the perfect addition to a medium-sized TV missing out on quality sound and streaming apps of its own.