It’s hard to know what to look for when picking out a smart speaker. After all, there are many options for each interface, be it Google, Amazon, or Apple. Today, we’re breaking down the best smart speakers for your needs and have listed something for everyone.
Editor’s note: this list of the best smart speakers was updated on January 9, 2021, to make information more timely and include more information about the Sonos One.
The best Google Assistant smart speaker is the Google Home Max
The Google Home speaker has been discontinued, but the Google Home Max is still in business. The Google Home Max is an attractive smart speaker that will please nearly anyone. It has excellent sound quality due to its large size, and it self-adjusts its EQ depending on where you place it using six internal microphones. It is a bit pricey and it’s certainly not portable, but it has a rich bass response due to its dual 4.5″ woofers. While some people may find its bass response to be too heavy, but it does a good job of not overpowering the other frequencies.
Google Home Max
Setting up Google Home devices is wonderfully simple. Just download the Google Home app from the app store and you’re walked through the entire process. Once you’re all set up, you can ask it questions, have it stream from your favorite music and radio services, and set reminders. If you have other Google Assistant devices connected to your account, you can also tell Google Assistant to control them. For instance, saying, “Hey Google play The Good Place on Netflix,” will initiate streaming without you picking up the TV remote.
Just like Amazon Alexa smart speakers, you can control your smart home with the Google Home Max. Compatible smart brands include Honeywell, Nest, Insignia, Hue and more. According to Google, its speaker works with an excess of 5,000 smart products from over 150 brands.
What you should know before getting a smart speaker?
Before we get too deep, let’s take a look at what you need to know when picking out your gear.
Which is better, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Google Assistant?
That’s like asking whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is better. Both options have their place, and each person has their preference. One thing’s for sure, though, it’s easier to stick with one persuasion of smart speaker. While you can get a Google and Alexa-enabled device, it’s more work than it’s worth. As you may expect, your two main options are Alexa and Google Assistant. You can set reminders, make appointments, inquire about the weather, and control smart home devices from both, but each has its pros and cons.
If you’re a frequent Amazon shopper, then the Amazon Alexa will make shopping easy, breezy. It’s also currently the dominant smart home assistant and has a wide array of smart device support with more products and skills added regularly. While Google is working to increase its command and skill support, Alexa had a significant jump-start and it shows.
If you want the most skills and greatest smart home control, get an Alexa smart speaker.
Google Assistant smart speakers are the smarter option for anyone who’s already invested in the Google ecosystem. If you’re a Pixel owner, it makes more sense for you to double-down on a Google smart speaker than an Alexa one. Although Alexa can execute more skills, Google’s sentence recognition is more advanced: it’s better at understanding context than Amazon Alexa products. You also benefit from Google Search technology, which is much more mature than Amazon’s functionality.
Now, Apple users may be wondering about the HomePod. Unless you’re a die-hard Apple fanboy we suggest going with either Google Assistant or Alexa. The Apple HomePod isn’t very smart for being a smart speaker and certainly isn’t worthy of being among the best smart speakers. Cortana users, feel free to jump to the end of the list.
What about privacy concerns?
My tinfoil hat has gotten plenty of use this year thanks to smart speakers: consumers are legitimately concerned about smart speaker privacy invasion. Many of us feel that just because we’re letting a device into our home doesn’t mean we’re explicitly welcoming its constant recording of our lives.
Fortunately, each of the best smart speakers includes a mute toggle for deactivating the microphone. Even still, that may not be enough to assuage your worries. If you’re at a crossroads of wanting a smart speaker but not wanting it to record anything when inactive, you can always unplug it after each use. It’s a hassle but a minor inconvenience for getting the best of both worlds, so to speak.
Streaming audio over Wi-Fi
By nature of being a smart speaker, each pick must connect to Wi-Fi for full functionality. This affords a host of benefits including high-quality wireless streaming. While Wi-Fi bandwidth is still limited, it widens the data pipes relative to Bluetooth streaming. You can enjoy hi-res 24-bit/96kHz audio, which is more than enough data for our brains to process.
As a matter of fact, 24-bit audio is an excess amount of data for us to perceive. Our ears can barely discern the difference between 16- and 24-bit audio, if at all. To anyone shaking their head, it does make a difference when recording audio which requires editing later on. Greater bit-depth allows for more flexibility in editing. What’s more, a 96kHz sample rate is more than we’re able to perceive, too. Our ears aren’t even sensitive enough to identify a difference between 44.1kHz and 48kHz, let alone 96kHz recordings.
What matters most is how a file was compressed: that’s where we’ll notice the biggest difference between files. If you’re listening to an uncompressed WAV file, you’ll likely hear a difference when compared to a basic MP3 file. If you’re a real stickler for audio quality, it may be worth investing in a high-resolution streaming service like Tidal.
Smart home devices are a green market. Even the most ubiquitous platform, Alexa, isn’t without its common problems. That said, don’t get too frustrated. It’s typical for users to experience hiccups, but one of the best things about smart speakers is that the firmware is frequently updated. Sometimes, you even benefit from market updates like when Sonos allows for Google Assistant support on its speakers which originally only supported Alexa.
Smart home fanatics should get the Amazon Echo (4th gen.)
Amazon has a firm hold on the internet of things (IoT) market. If any of your friends are scoping out the smart speaker market, they’ve likely considered getting an Echo or the smaller Echo Dot. The new ball-shaped fourth-generation model is a great choice for anyone in need of great sound quality and smart home functionality.
Amazon Echo (4th Gen)Full Review
The Amazon Echo (4th gen.) has better sound quality than its predecessors, and it also serves as a smart hub and temperature sensor. The former lets you easily connect with and control Zigbee-enabled smart devices, including light bulbs, door locks, and more, without needing an external hub. It eliminates the need to purchase a separate hub or configure a dedicated smart home skill, which can be confusing for first-time smart home users. Instead of creating a custom skill, you can intuitively say, “Alexa turn on device name.” It’s a great option for parents, too, as you can apply kid-friendly controls to filter explicit content and set time limits.
You can also turn the microphone off so as to preserve some sense of privacy. Of course, you can also go the opposite direction and use the Alexa-enabled devices in your home as an intercom system. Other great features include the ability to create a custom EQ or pair with a secondary Echo (4th gen.) for stereo listening. If you’re looking to take full control of your smart home, the Echo (4th gen.) is among the best smart speakers you can get.
The Sonos One (Gen 2) works with Google and Alexa
If you’re going to invest in a third-party pick, Sonos makes the best smart speakers. The second-generation Sonos One is compatible with both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. In addition, if you have multiple Sonos smart speakers and/or Amazon Echo speakers, you can group them all together by the rooms in your house. You get the same discreet, modern design as the original with a few improvements.
Sonos One (Gen 2)
Unlike the original Sonos One, this model can natively support AirPlay 2 streaming. Sonos increased the processing powering, which means it can also process commands and inquiries faster than before. Sonos reduced the number of microphones from six to four, as the company was unable to find any marked performance improvement between the configurations.
Otherwise, there’s not much difference between the old and new versions. That’s ok though because the original design and performance were both impeccable; this holds true still. If you need a smart speaker with great touch controls and timeless design, this is the one to buy.
The JBL Link Bar turns your dumb TV into a smart one
The JBL Link Bar is one smart soundbar. It integrates Google Assistant, Chromecast, and Android TV into one svelte package. With Android TV built-in, any non-smart TV is granted “smart” functionality. You can stream from your favorite services like Netflix or Hulu and even ask Google questions by way of the remote’s integrated microphone.
JBL Link BarFull Review
Listeners benefit from an HDMI ARC output, three 4K HDMI inputs, along with an optical and auxiliary input. Additionally, you’re not beholden to Wi-Fi streaming and can listen via Bluetooth, too. Sound quality is excellent, but the bass response is lacking. This was a strategic move on JBL’s part as it sells a separate subwoofer specifically designed to accompany the Link Bar.
There are drawbacks to the soundbar, namely its slow processing. When I used the Chromecast functionality to watch TV, I noticed a 3-5 second delay between audio-visual syncing. Sometimes, you can ignore lag on Bluetooth headphones and get through an episode but this was far too distracting. What’s more, I came across issues with Spotify’s streaming but not with Google Play Music streaming. This leads me to believe it an issue with Spotify’s native app, rather than the Link Bar itself.
Latency issues aside, the JBL Link Bar is ideal for anyone not yet ready to ditch their standard TV for a smart one. You can get the JBL Link Bar refurbished from JBL’s website for a discount.
Take intelligence anywhere with the UE Megablast
This IPX67 cylinder is one of the best smart speakers for the adventurer in your life. The aforementioned certification denotes dust- and water-resistance. In fact, this Alexa smart speaker can withstand one-meter submersion for up to 30 minutes without incurring any damage. This makes it a great option for pool parties, too.
Of course, it’s not just a Bluetooth speaker, although you can stream over Bluetooth while out and about. No, the UE Megablast can connect to your Wi-Fi and stream high-quality audio from the home. Like all other speakers listed, the Megablast doesn’t need to connect to your phone in order to access Amazon Alexa. The Megablast may be attached to a dedicated wireless charging dock, which is easier on the eyes than loose cables flopping about. When taking it out for a spin, you’ll appreciate the exceptional 16-hour battery life.
If you’re privy to adventure but don’t want to buy a separate smart speaker, this is the pick for you. For those who want an equally durable speaker without the frills, look into the UE Boom 3 or the portable UE Wonderboom 2.
Cortana users should get the Harman Kardon Invoke
The Harman Kardon Invoke is one of few smart speakers with Cortana built-in. You may know Cortana as the thing that keeps popping up on your PC when you least expect it. In fact, you may have even disabled it altogether. Even so, Harman is a well-respected audio company with plenty of clout. This tapered capsule works like the other best smart speakers listed: you can set reminders, control music playback, ask questions, and control smart home devices. The cylindrical shape produces 360° audio and uses Harman’s beam-forming microphones so Cortana may easily detect your voice.
- Google Nest Audio: This little Google Assistant speaker is shaped like a pillow, making it blend in nicely in any room of the house. It supports multi-room and stereo playback and has integrated software features that help improve its already good sound quality.
Why you should trust SoundGuys with the best smart speakers
We understand audio as both an objective and subjective experience; therefore, we combine objective testing and experiential analysis for all reviews and best lists. We’re happy to inform readers of product features but ultimately want our readers to leave each article more educated about audio than before.
Like all other best lists, this too is a living document that will be continuously updated as new, worthy products are released. We acknowledge that a product may not be for you and, unfortunately, the perfect, one-size-fits-all best smart speaker doesn’t exist. However, we’re confident that most readers will find something to enjoy. Hopefully, you find something that suits your needs. If we missed one of your favorites, be sure to reach out and let us know.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, as of November 30, 2020, you can save $150 on the Google Home Max if you buy it from Best Buy.
Unfortunately there aren't any outdoor speakers with smart assistant integration, but Amazon Echo, Google Home, and other smart speakers usually have a 3.5mm output jack, which you can use to connect to the receiver of your outdoor speaker system, allowing you to control playback with your voice. Additionally, with an outdoor speaker system like the Sonos Outdoor Speakers, you can wirelessly hook them up to your Sonos smart home and control their playback by speaking to the smart speaker in your house.
Alexa-enabled smart speakers can play live radio so long as you enable the radio skill in the Alexa app. Google Assistant-enabled speakers play live radio through an app called TuneIn that can be downloaded to your smart speaker. Both Alexa and Google Assistant can then play any available radio station through voice command.
Smart hubs are used to allow your ecosystem of smart devices to communicate with one another. So, if you only have one smart device, this won't be necessary. Also, if any of your smart speakers have integrated smart hubs, like the Amazon Echo Plus, you won't need to purchase a separate one. But if you are selecting a separate smart hub, you'll want to make sure all of your devices are compatible with it so you're truly able to control all of them from one place. Most smart hubs and smart devices have Zigbee, which is just a technology that enables inter-device communication. And, of course, you'll want to stick with one smart assistant rather than try to juggle more than one in your home.