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Best smart speakers: Which deliver the best combination of digital assistant and audio performance?

With models based on Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and others to come, we’ll help you find just the right model for you. best smart speaker Rob Schultz / IDG

Executive Editor, TechHive | Jul 1, 2019 3:00 AM PT

Table of Contents

You don’t need to live in a smart home to benefit from a Wi-Fi-connected smart speaker. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, 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. If you already know you want a smart speaker, scroll down for our top recommendations. 

But consider your decision carefully. In a perfect world, these devices 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.

Updated July 1, 2019 to add our opinion of the new Bose Home Speaker 300, the smaller and lower-priced stablemate to the Bose Home Speaker 500. Bose fans will find this smart speaker to be appealing, and others might even prefer its audio performance of the lower-priced Sonos One. But we didn't find it to be strong enough for the price to knock Sonos out of its runner-up status. 

[ Further reading: The best smart speakers and digital assistants ]

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, SiriusXM radio, and several other services. And even if you have a smart home system from one company, you can control smart home products that would be otherwise incompatible with that system with voice commands—provided they’re compatible with your digital assistant of choice.

sonos beam with samsung q7f smart tv Michael Brown / IDG

An increasing number of soundbars double as smart speakers. The Sonos Beam is powered by Amazon’s Alexa now, but the company promises to add Google Assistant support before the end of 2018.

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 the second-generation Echo Show), and Apple’s HomePod will stream music only from Apple Music. If you plan to mix and match third-party products with your smart speaker, do the research to make sure they’ll work together.

If you want to know more about what smart speakers can do in general before you pick one, skip down to the “What can smart speakers do?” section.

Best all-around smart speaker  Amazon Echo Spot

The Echo Spot just might be the perfect smart speaker, with a versatility and fashion-sense that give it a sense of purpose and style.

The Echo line is the most widely adopted by consumers, and it’s the one most widely supported by third-party products and services. While you could save $30 and buy the displayless Echo (2nd generation), the Echo Spot’s touchscreen is well worth the extra cash. And once you become accustomed to an Echo with a display, you’ll want them in all the places you’d otherwise put an Echo Dot (or you would if the Spot didn’t cost $80 more than the Dot).

Runner-up   Google Home

In a two-device race to rule table-top A.I., Google Home bests Amazon Echo in terms of audio quality, microphone range, design aesthetics, and basic intelligence.

After getting off to a slow start, Google is now giving Amazon a run for its money. The original Google Home sounds great, and it’s far better when it comes to asking for general information. Google is aggressively adding support for third-party products and services should achieve parity soon. Google Home is also a good choice for people who are deep into the Chromecast ecosystem and who subscribe to Google’s streaming services: YouTube and YouTube Music.

Best entry-level smart speaker  Amazon Echo Dot (3rd gen)

The third-generation Amazon Echo Dot looks prettier and sounds a whole lot better than earlier iterations of Amazon’s entry-level smart speaker.

If you use a smart speaker mostly to control your smart home devices, and you don’t care as much about audio performance, pick up a second-generation Echo Dot while you can. Amazon is selling them for just $39 (that’s $10 less than the third-gen model). If you want a better-sounding smart speaker on a budget, on the other hand, you can’t go wrong with the third-generation Echo Dot. Amazon significantly improved this speaker’s audio performance, so it’s now the best-sound smart speaker for the money. You can pair two of them for stereo, and you can add an Echo Sub to enhance low-end frequency response.

Runner-up   Google Home Mini

The Google Home Mini is a no-brainer for anyone who’s already enjoying a Google Home, but it’s not the right smart home controller for everyone.

The Google Home Mini takes the runner-up spot here not only for the same reasons the Google Home does in its category, but because the Mini doesn’t have a line-level aux output. Google did change course and allow you to connect a Bluetooth speaker to the Mini, or you can pair it with an external Chromecast speaker or a Chromecast Audio dongle connected to some other type of speaker.

Best smart speaker for music  Google Home Max

The Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker on the market, but there are plenty of “dumb” powered speakers that sound better.

It’s no contest on this score, Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker we’ve heard, although Apple’s HomePod comes close. Four Class D amplifiers drive two 4.5-inch aluminum cone, high-excursion woofers with dual voice coils. Two more amps are dedicated to a pair of 0.7-inch polyester dome tweeters. The amps have integrated DACs capable of supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz bit streams, although Google says it’s only tested sampling rates up to 48kHz. This speaker will fill even larger rooms with sound, but if you find that one just isn’t enough, you can pair two for stereo.

Runner-up  Sonos One (Gen 1)

Sonos has even better-sounding speakers in its lineup, but this one sounds great and it lets you control any Sonos speaker with voice commands (and the rest of your smart home, too).

If the Google Home Max is beyond your budget, give the Sonos One a listen. It’s currently compatible only with Amazon’s Alexa, but the company promises to add Google Assistant capabilities this spring. It’s about the same size as the older Sonos Play:1, but it sounds even better. Despite the similarity in appearance, Sonos designed its smart speaker from scratch. Sonos is the king of multi-room audio, and no other brand supports more music services. What’s more, once you have a Sonos One on your network, you can control all your other Sonos speakers with voice commands, too—and from any Alexa-compatible speaker. The newer Sonos Beam offers the same voice-control features in a smallish soundbar form factor.

Best smart speaker with a large display  Amazon Echo Show (2nd Generation)

The second-generation Amazon Echo Show might use the same processor as the first, but virtually everything else is new and improved.

Amazon regains the top spot in this category with its all-new Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen). The new speaker has a bigger, higher-resolution display, much improved audio performance, and Amazon has significantly improved the touchscreen-based user interface (especially when you’re browsing Amazon’s own entertainment offerings). Amazon also added a ZigBee-based smart home hub that allows you to control things like Philips Hue smart bulbs without need of the Hue Bridge.

The Echo Show retains all the great features we loved in the first generation, including the ability to make video calls to people on your contact list (it can also function as a video intercom within your home). And Amazon has made important improvements to its Alexa digital assistant. You can add multiple items to your shopping list, for example, without having to repeat the Alexa wake word: Say “Alexa, add cheese, vegetables, coffee, and ice cream to my shopping list,” for instance, and each of those grocery items will appear as discrete items on your list that you can remove with a swipe of your finger when you buy them. 

Runner-up  Nest Hub

The Google Home Hub brings a visual face to Google Assistant and adds an extra dimension to the information it serves. This gadget is small enough to sit in the corner or edge or any room and intelligent enough to adjust its display to its surroundings.

The Google Home Hub’s $149 price tag makes up for lot of missing features, and we’re sure Google will sell a bazillion of these smart displays over time. Google Assistant is a powerful competitor to Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana, but in spite of its name, the Google Home Hub isn’t a true smart home hub—unless all of your smart devices communicate via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. We’ve criticized the second-generation Echo Show for not including a Z-Wave radio, but Google’s smart display doesn’t even have a ZigBee radio onboard. 

Google is reportedly working to remedy the limitation that prevents you from grouping multiple Chromecast video devices, so that smart displays like this one, as well as the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View, can be used for multi-room audio, but the Google Home Hub will never get a camera so it can’t match the Echo Show’s ability to perform video calls and serve as an in-home video intercom. But we can’t say it enough: that $149 price tag renders almost all of the Google Home Hub’s shortcomings pretty meaningless.

What can smart speakers do?

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 has since found a home in Windows 10). Alexa was created exclusively for the Amazon Echo, but can now be found in a host of other devices, ranging from the Ecobee4 smart thermostat to the Logitech ZeroTouch phone dock.

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):

EntertainStream 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) Play games Stream videos (models with displays) Retrieve news and information News headlines Weather forecasts Traffic reports Date and time Wikipedia entries Manage your scheduleSet appointments Provide reminders Serve as an alarm clock Maintain to-do lists Help in the kitchenRecite 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 familyMake and receive phone calls (video calls on models with displays) Serve as an in-home intercom Send text messages  Control your smart home *

* 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 or Wink Hub. Amazon’s Echo Plus and its second-generation Echo Show are exceptions to that rule, because they have an integrated smart home controller (although it’s limited to ZigBee)

Our latest smart speaker reviews

We’ll update this list as new models arrive.

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