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Artificial Intelligence hasn't killed us yet. We're still at the stage where it's being super helpful. Add an artificial intelligence program to a speaker, and it becomes a smart speaker - a device that talks back to you, activated by your voice, or with an app on your phone. These assistants can read you your appointments, turn down the heat in your house, tell really bad jokes, and take full control of your music. They come packed inside some great speakers, and to help you pick the right one, we've put together a list of the best of this year. For more background information on smart speakers, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
 

How We Choose

You'd have to be living in outer space not to have noticed the explosion of smart speakers this year. Dozens of companies are getting in on the game, which means a staggering number of smart speakers to choose from. In order to pick the best ones, we did exhaustive testing, getting a giant stack of them into our offices and giving them a full workout – not just in terms of sound quality, but in terms of functionality and ease-of-use. While we do take the smart assistants into account, we won't necessarily penalize a speaker because of a failing with the smart assistant. Amazon Alexa, for example, is available on multiple systems. It has its own issues, and it would be wrong to project those failings onto the speakers. We look at the whole package, not just how well a speaker deals with our request to find a playlist on Spotify.

What we've come up with is a list that gives you winners in multiple categories – Best overall, best budget, and so on. We've also showcased the speakers that didn't make the cut, and explain why. Either way, we think any speaker on this list will be well worth your time. We are continually updating our picks, and if you don't agree with them, you're more than welcome to fight us (nicely) in the comments below.
 

Best Overall Smart Speaker

1. Apple HomePod ($349)

Apple HomePodAssistant: Siri
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Outstanding sound quality, superb design, can now make phone calls.
What We Don't: Android users need not apply - you'll need an iPhone to make this work.

Apple's first entry into smart speakers is fantastic. The HomePod leads with sound quality, and in this area, it towers over just about every other smart speaker. No other model can compete with the surprisingly deep bass and crisp detail that this speaker puts out. It uses Apple's Siri assistant, and seamlessly connects to other Apple devices. You can use it to do a staggering amount of stuff, from playing music streaming services, to running your calendar, to controlling your home via HomeKit. It also looks pretty cool, and in a recent update, Apple added the ability to make and receive calls.

It does come with a notable downside: if you don't have an iOS device, you quite simply won't be able to use this. It requires iOS to set up. Apple is widespread enough that this won't be a problem for most people, but it's definitely worth bearing in mind. The HomePod is also very much not portable, and requires a powered connection to use. But these are minor issues, and in our opinion, this is easily the best smart speaker you can buy right now. There are, however, plenty of options below if you don't use Apple - read on if that's the case...Read our in-depth review
See the Apple HomePod
 

Best Budget Smart Speaker

2. Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen) ($50)

Echo Dot (3rd Gen)Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Surprisingly good sound, easy to use.
What We Don't: Very little at this price.

While the old Echo Dot looked like a hockey puck, the new, third generation Dot has had a makeover both inside and out, and actually looks like something we'd be proud to display. It's taken design cues from both the Apple HomePod and the Google Home Mini, with rounded sides that look terrific. Alexa definitely isn't the smartest assistant – that honor goes to Google Assistant – but it's gotten more capable over time. And the ability to add additional skills - and play nicely with other equipment, like Samsung SmartThings - is a big plus.

We were also genuinely impressed with the sound. One of the biggest criticisms we had of the old Echo Dot was that it sounded terrible – tinny and annoying. That's not the case here. This is never going to compete with the HomePod, or even the similarly-priced UE BLAST, below, but it definitely holds its own. They are affordable too, and with the low price, you could conceivably buy two to use them as a stereo pair. Whether you're already an Alexa user, or completely new to the Amazon ecosystem, it's worth picking up one of these. The new Dot is a fantastic smart speaker, and an easy budget pick.
See the Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen)
 

Best Portable Smart Speaker

3. Ultimate Ears MEGABLAST ($175)

Ultimate Ears MEGABLASTAssistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: Yes - 15 Hours of Battery Life
What We Like: Fully waterproof, excellent sound quality.
What We Don't: Spotify issues, can't chain speakers.

Ultimate Ears weren't satisfied with just tacking an assistant onto their existing BLAST speaker line. The MEGABLAST comes with a bunch of new tricks, including full Wi-Fi connectivity. That means it works seamlessly at home and on the road. With a 15 hour battery life, and a rugged, waterproof design (it's rated IP67, meaning it can be submerged in three feet of water for 30 minutes), this is a speaker you can use just about anywhere. The sound is excellent, comparable to pricier speakers like the $250 JBL Link 300, below, and Amazon Alexa is integrated seamlessly.

While it excels as a portable speaker, there are a couple of issues worth mentioning. You can't chain together speakers - so there's no point buying more than one to use as a stereo pair. And for a portable speaker, it's reasonably weighty, at 2.65lbs - although that weight gives it good durability, and it shouldn't deter you from taking it outside. This isn't the best smart speaker on the market – that would be the Apple HomePod, above. But despite a few issues, it's an excellent smart speaker, and is perfect for portability.
See the Ultimate Ears MEGABLAST
 

Best Smart Soundbar

4. SONOS BEAM ($399)

SONOS BEAM Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: No
Portable: No
What We Like: SONOS multi-room capability matched with Alexa's assistance.
What We Don't: Sound quality feels a little iffy.

Yes, soundbars can be smart speakers, and the SONOS BEAM is the best one available - beating out the cheaper Polk Command Bar ($299). It's the best because of how good SONOS are at making things easy-to-use. Setting this up is a breeze, as is getting connected to other SONOS speakers you may have. It juggles both home entertainment and music duties, capable of playing your TV audio and pushing out the Spotify playlists you like. There's no Google Assistant, or Siri, but the Alexa functionality works well.

Compared to the other speakers on this list, including the Apple HomePod, the sound quality is solid. The problem is, this model's predecessor – the SONOS PLAYBAR – sounded far better. This feels a little middling, with sound that can be quite harsh at times. We still think it's one of the best sound bars available, and in terms of smart functionality, we definitely prefer it over the Polk model, below. It's worth picking up if you want to use smart functionality with your home theater system
See the SONOS BEAM
 

Best Smart Speaker With A Screen

5. Amazon Echo Spot ($130)

Echo SpotAssistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Superb screen, simple operating system, drop-in functionality.
What We Don't: Sound quality could be a lot better.

Here's the thing about the Echo Spot. It's a little old now - Amazon recently released the second-generation Echo Show, which has a much larger, rectangular screen. But this smart speaker feels so well-designed and friendly that we just keep coming back to it. In our opinion, it's one of the best smart speakers available, and definitely the best one with the screen. It works so well, and so seamlessly, that you'll wonder how you managed without it. We have one permanently installed in the office, and we use it daily.

The operating system is a dream to use, and we love the drop-in functionality, where you can use the speaker as a videocam. The circular display is bright and crisp, and although the sound quality isn't fantastic – for one thing, it's beaten out by the cheaper Echo Dot – it's ideal for controlling a bigger Bluetooth speaker. As good as the new Echo Show and the Lenovo Smart Display are, we're going to stick with this one. It offers a huge amount of value for under $150...Read our in-depth review
See the Amazon Echo Spot
 

Best of the Rest

6. SONOS ONE ($198)

Sonos One SAssistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: No
Portable: No
What We Like: Affordable, easy to setup and use.
What We Don't: Feels like a repackaged PLAY:1 speaker.

The SONOS ONE offers the same functionality as the more expensive SONOS BEAM, which is a big plus for the speaker. Amazon Alexa can help you with everything from playing music on Spotify and Tidal to setting timers, and the compact size makes it an ideal kitchen speaker. The build quality and design are terrific, and in the time we've spent using it, we've found it to be super-helpful to have around. It's relatively affordable, too, at $149 less than the Apple HomePod - and without forcing you to own an iPhone.

However, the speaker does have a couple downsides. As good as the ONE is, its sound quality isn't amazing - a solid eight out of ten, but no more. It also feels like SONOS simply recycled their previous model, the PLAY:1, and added Alexa. For reference, the PLAY:1 costs $50 less, at $149, so all you're really doing is paying $50 for an added smart assistant. It's still made by SONOS, which means excellent build quality and phenomenal ease-of-use, but it has a few problems that keep it out of the top five. All the same, it's a worthwhile alternative.
See the SONOS ONE
 

7. Google Home Max ($499)

Google Home MaxAssistant: Google Assistant
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Loud as hell, great sound quality.
What We Don't: Finicky touch controls, lacks value.

The Max is Google's largest speaker in the Home line, and it makes the most of it. This speaker gets crazy loud, with more volume than any other speaker on this list, including the mighty Apple HomePod. It also delivers on sound quality, with thumping bass and great mids, making it feel like an excellent speaker that just happens to offer Google Assistant. If you have a big room to fill, this should be your primary port of call. It's a definite improvement on the original Google Home, below, which has middling audio capabilities.

The main problem is, it's still beaten out by the HomePod in most areas. The HomePod may not have the volume, but it still sounds better, and it happens to be cheaper by about $150. Obviously, it's not an option for anyone without an iPhone, but that exclusivity isn't enough to knock it off the top spot. Consider this a good alternative if you don't have iPhone, or if Google Assistant is your assistant of choice.
See the Google Home Max
 

8. Ultimate Ears BLAST ($96)

Ultimate Ears BLAST Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: Yes - 11 Hours of Battery Life
What We Like: Stripped-down version of the MEGABLAST that still offers a ton of features.
What We Don't: Voice recognition isn't as immediate or as clear as other speakers.

If you're looking for a portable smart speaker under $100, there's no question in our minds which one you should buy. The Ultimate Ears BLAST is a slick little speaker that offers great features for the price. Its bigger brother, the MEGABLAST ($175) is listed above as our pick for best portable smart speaker, and this is a close second. Ultimate Ears really dominate this particular category, handily beating out competitors like the $160 Harmon Kardon Allure Portable, below.

It's beaten out by the MEGABLAST thanks to its reduced battery life - 11 hours versus 15. There's also slightly less volume, and the speaker does distort a little at high volumes, even if the overall sound quality is good. One issue we did have was that the speaker sometimes struggled to pick up our voice, especially if there was background noise of any kind. All the same, this is an excellent budget, portable smart speaker.
See the Ultimate Ears BLAST
 

9. Amazon Echo Plus (2nd Gen) ($150)

Echo Plus (2nd Gen)Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Improved sound quality.
What We Don't: Design feels like a step backwards.

The newest version of the Amazon Echo Plus makes some significant changes. Amazon have reskinned the Echo Plus, making it resemble Apple's HomePod. They've also ditched the volume dial, replacing it with buttons that don't feel nearly as fun or intuitive to use. We do, however, like the improved internals, which result in sound quality that far outstrips the old Echo Plus.

The speaker definitely has its merits, and it's an excellent upgrade from the $50 Echo Dot (3rd Gen). But compared to the only slightly-more-expensive UE MEGABLAST, it doesn't feel like there's quite enough meat on the bones here. While we don't think these changes are enough to catapult it into the upper reaches of this list, they still result in a decent smart speaker that gets the job done. For only $25 more, that speaker offers portability, waterproofing, and improved sound quality. However, this is an excellent speaker if you're already in the Amazon ecosystem, and aren't looking for anything too complicated.
See the Amazon Echo Plus (2nd Gen)
 

10. Polk Command Bar ($299)

Polk Audio Command Sound Bar Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Great sound and functionality.
What We Don't: Wonky integration with other products, like Fire TV 4K.

As a smart soundbar, the Polk Command Bar is good, if not fantastic. We dug the sound quality, which manages to handle both music and movies with aplomb. The design is slick, and in terms of functionality, the Command Bar manages to impress. We still think the SONOS BEAM is the best smart bar currently available, but this is a close second.

However, we have to take points off for a couple of issues. Chief among these is that the Command Bar doesn't play nice with products like Fire TV 4K; when you plug in your Fire Stick, it juts out the back, making it impossible to put the Command Bar flush against the wall. That's a pretty serious design oversight, especially given how much Polk use it as a selling point. We also aren't wild about how closely the controls resemble an Amazon Echo Dot. The original design of the Dot was pretty ugly, something that Amazon has improved in the most recent release – which also happens to be our top budget pick, above. Unfortunately, Polk are stuck with the old one, lodged in the middle of their bar. Yuck.
See the Polk Command Bar
 

11. JBL Link 300 ($200)

JBL Link 300 Assistant: Google Assistant
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Built-in Chromecast, decent functionality.
What We Don't: Sound can be a little harsh.

JBL make some very decent smart speakers. The Link 300 is the middle speaker in the Link line, bracketed by the $300 Link 500 and the $150 Link 20. In common with those speakers, the sound quality is good, but not spectacular – there's a definite sharpness to the treble that we found exhausting. That being said, the build quality is superb - the speaker feels weighty and substantial. It's also easy-to-use, with a quick setup and simple controls. JBL will never have the cool factor that Apple or Google have, and they certainly don't have the design know-how, but this speaker works well.

The Link 300 is also one of the few speakers on this list to offer Chomecast, Google's system for broadcasting audio and video between products. Although this is different to the Google Assistant, the integration is seamless, and that gives the Link 300 a unique place on this list. It definitely isn't as good a smart speaker as the HomePod or MEGABLAST, both of which beat in terms of sound quality, but it certainly gets the job done.
See the JBL Link 300
 

12. Google Home ($179)

Google HomeAssistant: Google Assistant
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Great connectivity and design.
What We Don't: Volume issues.

Smart speakers aren't just about sound quality - and the Google Home is a fine example of that. The Google Assistant functionality inside the speaker, and its ability to work with Chromecast-enabled speakers, TVs, and soundbars, mean it has huge appeal. It's also ideal for controlling bigger speakers that have a little bit more power. We loved how easy it was to set up and connect, and we really appreciated the subtle design - even if it did remind us of a Glade air freshener.

The Google Home is definitely not the first choice for sound quality, which is middling - and if you do play music, you'll find it has a few issues getting to a decent volume. We also had serious issues syncing the volume between the Home and different apps, such as Spotify. However, you'll find the Google Home Max in this list, above, which will more than handle the sound quality issue. It does cost $499, however, so be aware of that. This is a solid alternative to both the Max and the Echo Dot – just make sure you aren't going to use it to appreciate music...Read our in-depth review
See the Google Home
 

13. Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen) ($230)

Echo Show (2nd Gen)Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Good display, voice recognition is excellent.
What We Don't: Video and voice calling have problems.

Amazon has clearly made improvements to the original Echo Show. They've reworked the microphone array, meaning that it's easier for the Alexa assistant to hear what you're saying. The sound is better, with Dolby processing for movies; you're not going to beat a home theater system, or even a soundbar like the $399 SONOS BEAM, but the audio quality is clearly improved. The 10.1" screen is also superb, and the fact that Alexa lets you access services like Hulu makes it great for watching series and movies. Even better: set it up in the kitchen while cooking, and use YouTube videos to help you along with the recipe.

We still think the Echo Spot is better - the screen feels like it complements the smart assistant, rather than dominating the experience, and using it feels more natural and seamless. We also found that the Show had issues with voice and video calling. The audio quality on both felt dodgy, and video would occasionally glitch out. At this point, consider this a good second option to the smaller Spot, which is less expensive, at $130. You might want to wait a little while before buying, though. Let them iron out the bugs.
See the Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen)
 

14. Lenovo Smart Display ($244)

Lenovo Smart DisplayAssistant: Google Assistant
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Superb display, logical operating system, camera cover.
What We Don't: You can't use the screen vertically.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the myriad of smart speakers on the market all come from Amazon or Google or Apple. That's not the case. Lenovo is the latest company to give it a try, and they've done it in an interesting way. The Smart Display has a huge screen - the big, clear, sensibly-laid-out touch display is fantastic, and an absolute joy to use. We still prefer the charms of the much cheaper Amazon Echo Spot, our pick for best smart speaker with a screen, but this is a very close second. It also performs surprisingly well in terms of sound quality. Don't expect it to beat the $349 HomePod, but its twin 10 watt drivers push out reasonable bass - even if they do get distorted at high volumes.

Unfortunately, a couple of things let this smart speaker down. You have to use it in a horizontal orientation – the screen won't flip vertically. In addition, it's impossible to use streaming services like Netflix right now, although YouTube works just fine. If Lenovo can fix these issues, they'll have a winner, but right now this is still playing second fiddle to the Echo Show and the amazing Echo Spot.
See the Lenovo Smart Display
 

15. Bose Home Speaker 500 ($399)

Bose Home Speaker 500Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Excellent sound quality.
What We Don't: Clunky design, pointless screen, way too pricey.

The Bose Home Speaker 500 is the company's attempt to compete with Apple for the smart speaker crown. Bose can produce great sound quality when they put their minds to it, and the twin drivers in this speaker offer excellent stereo sound, with a wider soundstage than the other speakers on this list. The Home Speaker 500 will also get additional features down the line, including Google Assistant, and Apple AirPlay 2, which does help future-proof it somewhat.

In our opinion, however, the speaker has some problems that need to be fixed first. While there might be a screen on the front of the speaker, all it does is display album art. That's fine, but hardly a necessity, or worth paying money for; both the Amazon Echo Show ($230) and Echo Spot ($130) are cheaper, and more functional. The control scheme is strange, too: it's handled via the buttons on top, and Bose have made it far too complicated. Do we really need six preset buttons? It's also one of the most expensive speakers on this list - excluding the ridiculous B&O Beosound 1, below. Right now, this isn't going to compete – but that might change in the future.
See the Bose Home Speaker 500
 

16. Harmon Kardon Allure Portable ($160)

Harman Kardon Allure PortableAssistant: Amazon Alexa
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: Yes - 9 Hours of Battery Life
What We Like: Like an Echo speaker on steroids.
What We Don't: Unresponsive controls, bass can distort.

If the Amazon Echo Plus (2nd Gen) had a battery, it would look something like the Harmon Kardon Allure Portable. This is a fully featured Alexa speaker with nine hours of battery life, that is quite happy being taken out of doors. It certainly isn't waterproof – you don't want to treat it like a UE MEGABLAST, and take it to the beach - but it will work very well in the park or in the garden. Its nifty design and mostly decent sound quality will win you over.

We say mostly decent because the sound does have some issues, namely the low-end, which can be overpowering at times. We also had issues with the touch controls, which felt unresponsive and fluffy. We do prefer the Amazon Echo Plus to this speaker, overall, but having said that, it definitely has its uses. Also worth noting: there is a non-portable, home-based version of the speaker, simply called the Harmon Kardon Allure, available for $200. Harmon also makes several other smart speakers, including one that features the Microsoft Cortana virtual assistant. That speaker is called the Invoke. It costs $94, and it isn't very good. Then again, neither is Microsoft Cortana…
See the Harmon Kardon Allure Portable
 

17. Polk Assist ($199)

Polk AssistAssistant: Google Assistant
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: No
What We Like: Surprisingly decent at high volumes, Chromecast included.
What We Don't: Doesn't do anything particularly special.

There's quite a lot to recommend the Polk Assist. Like the identically-priced JBL Link 300, it comes with Google Chromecast, which is great for streaming audio. It also has a solid amount of power, and sounds terrific at top volume. We also love the fact that it has Chromecast, which isn't as common among smart speakers as you'd think. However, while it's a good speaker in its own right, and deserves to be on this list, it doesn't do quite enough to make it a first option.

The problem with the Polk Assist is that it doesn't really do anything that other speakers don't do better. It's not portable, like the UE MEGABLAST. It doesn't have the sound quality of the Apple HomePod, or a nifty screen like the Amazon Echo Spot. Confusingly, it doesn't even feel like it comes from the same company who make the Command Bar, above. That soundbar uses Amazon Alexa, whereas the Assist uses Google Assistant exclusively. That's crazy to us. It's not that the Assist is a bad speaker – it's just nothing more than an alternative to other, better ones.
See the Polk Assist
 

And Now For Something Completely Insane

18. B&O Beosound 1 ($1,750)

Beosound1Assistant: Google Assistant
Bluetooth: Yes
Portable: Unbelievably, Yes - 12 Hours of Battery Life
What We Like: Ridonkulous sound quality.
What We Don't: Ridonkulous price tag.

As a general rule, high-end audio manufacturers don't bother with smart speakers. Their target market are far more interested in air-motion transformers and new-old-stock tubes than asking their speakers what time it is in Tokyo. B&O are the exception to that rule. They've grafted Google Assistant onto the Beosound 1, and if you want truly good sound with a virtual assistant thrown in, this is the way to do it. It's one of the most bizarre and beautiful speakers we've ever come across, and we just had to include it here – even if almost nobody looking for a smart speaker is going to buy it.

We've only heard the Beosound 1 once, and it was seriously impressive. It offered breathtaking sound quality with powerful, rich detail. And of course, you have Google Assistant, along with Chromecast, Apple AirPlay 2, and Bluetooth. It also has the advantage of looking weirdly intimidating, like it's about to turn towards you and fire off a plasma beam. Maybe SkyNet is closer than we think…
See the B&O Beosound 1
 

Comparison Table

Smart Speaker Price Assistant Bluetooth Portable Battery
Apple HomePod $349 Siri Yes No N/A
Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen) $50 Amazon Alexa Yes No N/A
Ultimate Ears MEGABLAST $175 Amazon Alexa Yes Yes 15 Hours
SONOS BEAM $399 Amazon Alexa No No N/A
Amazon Echo Spot $130 Amazon Alexa Yes No N/A
SONOS ONE $198 Amazon Alexa No No N/A
Google Home Max $499 Google Assistant Yes No N/A
Ultimate Ears BLAST $96 Amazon Alexa Yes Yes 11 Hours
Amazon Echo Plus (2nd Gen) $150 Amazon Alexa Yes No N/A
Polk Command Bar $299 Amazon Alexa Yes No N/A
JBL Link 300 $200 Google Assistant Yes No N/A
Google Home $179 Google Assistant Yes No N/A
Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen) $230 Amazon Alexa Yes No N/A
Lenovo Smart Display $244 Google Assistant Yes No N/A
Bose Home Speaker 500 $399 Amazon Alexa Yes No N/A
Harmon Kardon Allure Portable $160 Amazon Alexa Yes Yes 9 Hours
Polk Assist $199 Google Assistant Yes No N/A
B&O Beosound 1 $1,750 Google Assistant Yes Yes 12 Hours

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The Apple HomePod is the best smart speaker available | The Master Switch
The Apple HomePod is the best smart speaker available | The Master Switch

Buying Advice

How To Choose the Right Smart Speaker

Picking the right smart speaker is all about asking yourself the question: what do you want it to do? It's easy to like the idea of having an intelligent little assistant on your desk, able to help you be more efficient and productive – or to sing you stupid songs when you're having a bad day. But unless you have some idea of what you want to get out of the experience, you'll quickly find that your virtual assistant becomes a nuisance – something you barely use. In that case, you may as well have bought a wireless speaker, and saved yourself some money.

The first thing you need to do is actually pick a virtual assistant. There are several to choose from, and we go in depth on what each of them offer in the section below. To make this choice, you need to think about the tasks you most commonly need done. Do you need to play music on Spotify? Add things to a shopping list? Set timers for cooking? Different assistants will have different strengths, and some will be able to do things that others cannot. For example, if you buy our top speaker, the Apple HomePod (full review here), you'll be able to listen to music, but you'll only be able to control Apple Music with your voice. Spotify, Tidal and the like will need to be controlled via an app. Our list of speakers, above, clearly states which assistants come bundled with which speaker, and that will help you narrow it down.

It's also worth thinking about what you want out of the speaker itself. How invested are you in sound quality? Most smart speaker manufacturers don't actually put a huge emphasis on this – Apple is one of the few exceptions. If you have existing speakers already, or are more interested in the virtual assistant then you are in the sound quality, and it may be worth going for something smaller. This also has the benefit of costing less money. For managing a calendar, or helping out with cooking, there are few simpler or more affordable options than the Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen). Whichever one you pick, take your time. A virtual assistant should integrate seamlessly into your life, and be a help, not a hindrance.

The SONOS ONE is a good, but not spectacular smart speaker, armed with Amazon Alexa | The Master Switch
The SONOS ONE is a good, but not spectacular smart speaker, armed with Amazon Alexa | The Master Switch

Virtual Assistants Explained: Amazon Alexa vs. Google Assistant vs. Siri

A virtual assistant is the reason you buy a smart speaker. It allows you to do a staggering number of things, from playing music to setting timers to controlling the lighting in your house. Virtual assistants – sometimes called smart assistants – are tremendously versatile, and they all have their own positives and negatives. There are three main ones we are going to talk about here - Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant. While there are others, like Samsung Bixby and Microsoft Cortana, they are not as widely available, and definitely not as good. For the time being, the following assistants are the ones you need to be looking at.
 

Amazon Alexa

Amazon's virtual assistant is by far the most common, appearing on 10 of the 18 speakers on our list. It's definitely not the smartest one out there. We have several Alexa devices, both at home and in our office, and while the assistant does a good job for the most part, we found ourselves continually running into problems. The biggest issue we had was with smartphone integration, where Amazon Echo devices repeatedly refused to recognize our Smartthings switches and bulbs – even though the Alexa app (iOS/Android) worked just fine. We also found it easy to trip Alexa up, and it had real problems with follow-up questions.

Alexa does have several advantages over something like Siri, however. It has the ability to recognise different voices, and you can use voice commands to play third-party music services like Spotify. Assuming your speaker is compatible, you can also make calls – although you can only receive calls from other Echo speakers and someone using the Echo app on a smartphone. You can also add third-party 'skills' to Alexa via the app, which means that the assistant is continually evolving, and continually getting more useful. Unlike Apple, Amazon is quite happy playing nice with other manufacturers – they not only make several speakers of their own, but also let companies like Polk, Bose, and Harmon Kardon use their assistant. The best Alexa speaker, in our opinion, is the Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen) (full review coming soon). It also happens to be extremely easy on the wallet, costing only $50.

Google's Home range uses its excellent Google Assistant | The Master Switch
Google's Home range uses its excellent Google Assistant | The Master Switch

Google Assistant

Google offer three smart speakers of their own. Two of those, the $499 Google Home Max and the $179 Google Home (full review here), appear on our list. The company has what we consider to be the superior voice assistant, in terms of intelligence. Google Assistant may not have a catchy name, and is simply activated by saying "Hey, Google", but it works. In our tests, it dealt capably with follow-up questions, very rarely tripped up, and almost always gave us accurate information. Six of the smart speakers on our list use Google Assistant

Like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant has voice training, allowing it to separate your voice from others. You can control Spotify, Tidal and the like with voice commands. You can also make calls – although as of yet, you cannot receive them, something which Alexa can do given the right circumstances. Alexa is more versatile, with its growing library of skills, but it hasn't managed to catch up to Google Assistant in terms of smarts. If the AI revolution ever happens, Google Assistant will be leading the charge.
 

Siri

If you're an iPhone user, you'll already be familiar with Siri - we won't call it Apple Siri, as that just sounds odd. Apple's virtual assistant is a little more versatile and intelligent than Amazon Alexa, but doesn't quite measure up to the standards of Google Assistant. It does have a few distinct advantages: integrating with a smart home is easy - thanks to Apple's closed HomeKit ecosystem - and a recent update allows you to make and receive calls, which is fantastic.

Unfortunately, there are some major downsides. Chief among these is that voice commands will only work for Apple Music. You can still listen to things like Spotify and Tidal, but you'll have to control them manually using your smartphone. You won't find Siri on any other smart speaker except for the top-ranked Apple HomePod, which costs $349. It is by far and away the best smart speaker available, with terrific sound quality. However, it does require you be happy using Siri, and those without an iPhone won't be able to use it.

JBL's Link range - this is the Link 300 - offers decent sound with good smart functionality | The Master Switch
JBL's Link range - this is the Link 300 - offers decent sound with good smart functionality | The Master Switch

Smart Speaker Functions Explained

What can smart speakers actually do? It's not a stupid or frivolous question – before you actually buy a smart speaker, it's worth having a good understanding of what it can and can't pull off. In the section above, we went in-depth into what each virtual assistant is good at, but there are some functions that are common to all smart speakers.

Most services smart speakers are commonly used for, like playing music, require linking accounts. A speaker should be able to play music via a streaming service - be that Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, whatever – and it will be able to do so after telling your assistant of choice to play music via that particular speaker. Instructions for this vary, but it's usually done via each service's app. You should, in theory, be able to control any app or smart connected device (like Philips Hue bulb) with your voice, simply by saying "Turn on the lights in the living room", or "Add dog food to my shopping list." most virtual assistants require you to say a trigger word first - "Alexa" for Amazon Alexa, or "Hey Google" for Google Assistant. You'll quickly discover some requests that just stump your smart speaker, but it's usually easy to figure out what questions are likely to get you a useful response.

However, it's totally possible to use your smart speaker straight out of the box, without connecting it to anything but your Wi-Fi. You can ask it to tell you the weather, get it to read your news briefings, even have it tell you a joke. If we were to list all the things that every smart speaker can do, we'd run out of space here, but suffice it to say that you're going to have a lot of fun experimenting. Alexa, for example, has a huge library of 'skills' you can add to it - you can get it to read you stock data, sports scores, play games with you, the works. And this library is growing by the day...

The Ultimate Ears MEGABLAST is one of the few portable smart speakers | The Master Switch
The Ultimate Ears MEGABLAST is one of the few portable smart speakers | The Master Switch

Portable vs. Home Smart Speakers

Smart speakers rely on a wireless network to work. They have to be connected to the Internet, because each request is sent to a server somewhere to calculate and deliver a response. However, you might have noticed that a couple of speakers on our list are portable. The best of these is the $175 Ultimate Ears MEGABLAST, which packs in Amazon Alexa. It's waterproof - rated IP67, which means you can dunk it in three feet of water for half an hour. And with 15 hours of battery life, it's quite comfortable being taken on long trips. As you can imagine, there is no Internet or Wi-Fi signal readily available on some of these trips…and yet Alexa will still work. What gives?

The answer is, it won't – unless you enable your smartphone's portable hotspot. In doing so, you'll be able to give your speaker a data connection, which means it will be able to work as normal. It will probably be a little slower to respond, as smartphone data isn't as reliable as a Wi-Fi connection, but there's no reason you shouldn't be able to use your smart speaker in the park, or at the beach. Handily, you also don't need to worry about other people accidentally activating your assistant. Both Alexa and Google Assistant have the ability to recognise different voices, meaning they can prioritise yours. Siri doesn't, but given that the only speaker that currently offers it - the Apple HomePod - isn't portable, it's much less of an issue.
 

Smart Speaker Sound Quality Explained

One of the strangest things about smart speakers is that the companies who make them don't always place a huge emphasis on sound quality. Sure, they may proudly talk about their speaker drivers and thumping bass in their marketing copy, but let's be honest: if you think the $130 Amazon Echo Spot is going to have decent sound quality, you deserve to have your head examined.

This is because the main selling point of smart speakers – that they are smart, and contain virtual assistants – does not require amazing sound quality. It's still out there if you want it – our best overall smart speaker, the $349 Apple HomePod (full review here), sounds fantastic. But in all cases, you should expect your smart speaker to not sound quite as good as, for example, a regular pair of bookshelf speakers. The good news is, most smart speakers are equipped with Bluetooth – we've indicated in our picks above where this isn't the case. That means you can quite happily connect them to a more powerful speaker, and get the benefit of both a virtual assistant, and excellent sound quality.

The easiest way to make your home theater smart is to get a smart receiver, like this Alexa-equipped Denon AVR-S740H | The Master Switch
The easiest way to make your home theater smart is to get a smart receiver, like this Alexa-equipped Denon AVR-S740H | The Master Switch

Using Smart Speakers to Control TV and Home Theater

If a smart speaker can be used to play music, then what about using it to control your TV? Or your surround sound home theater setup? The answer is yes: it's totally possible. It's not always as intuitive or straightforward as it could be, especially if you're trying to link a stand-alone smart speaker with, say, a soundbar. But there are several ways to pull it off, and it can make watching movies and series a total dream.

Several existing TVs and A/V receivers actually come with smart assistants built right in. The Denon AVRS-740H, for example, which is the receiver we currently have in our testing room, is fully compatible with Amazon Alexa. And several TVs now on the market have an assistant built right in, too. That means it's entirely possible to tell your TV to search for Brooklyn 99 on Netflix, or to find a new season of The Good Place. No additional equipment required. In our opinion, that's actually the easiest way to control your movies and TV with a smart assistant, rather than trying to rig up a system with an Amazon Alexa speaker.

The SONOS BEAM is the best smart soundbar currently available | The Master Switch
The SONOS BEAM is the best smart soundbar currently available | The Master Switch

Smart Soundbars Explained

There are also several soundbars that have an assistant built in. We have a couple of them on our list – the best, by far, is the $399 SONOS BEAM (full review coming soon). It boasts Amazon Alexa functionality, allowing you full control of what you see and hear.

A soundbar is an excellent alternative to a full home theater setup. The best ones even come with additional speakers and a subwoofer, meaning you can get a decent surround system for very little outlay. SONOS and Polk currently offer smart soundbars, and Bose has a few in the works, too. As mentioned before, buying one of these is easier than rigging up your existing smart speaker to try and control your TV sound - trust us on that.
 

Smart Speakers and Smart Home Management

Smart speakers fulfilled a dream we've had since we first started paying rent on an apartment: the ability to shut off every single light in the place with a single command. It sounds petty, until you actually do it. Not having to go around and switch off every single light, or experience the sinking feeling when you come home and realise you've left them all on, is a total joy. Smart speakers can also do so much more than that. Assuming you have the requisite smart devices, you can control your home's temperature, adjust the color of the lights, control your security cameras, locks, doorbell, and so much more.

That's the theory. In practice, it can be a little bit complicated – and we've had plenty of incidents where our smart speakers simply didn't do what we wanted them to. This is because smart devices – sometimes called the Internet of Things - are made by multiple different companies. Getting a Nest thermostat, a Philips Hue bulb, or a TP-Link outlet to talk to Alexa, Google, and Siri can be tricky. The procedures for actually setting all this up vary from company to company – we aren't going to go into them here. Our recommendation, however, is that if this is your primary consideration, you may want to think about getting several smart speakers to dot around your home. That way, you'll always be able to issue commands, no matter what room you're in. Try the ultra-cheap Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen), which cost $50 each.

A recent update allows the Apple HomePod to make calls | The Master Switch
A recent update allows the Apple HomePod to make calls | The Master Switch

Using Smart Speakers for Calls

It would be absolutely fantastic if smart assistants could make phone calls for us on command. The reality is that calling using a smart speaker is surprisingly complicated. No matter which assistant you use, there are several limitations you'll have to take into account. We went into detail about these in the section on the three most popular assistants, above, but let's go over that briefly here. Siri will let you make and receive calls without any restrictions. Amazon Alexa will let you make calls on certain speakers, but you can only receive calls from someone with an Alexa-equipped speaker of their own, or with the Alexa app. Google Assistant allows you to make calls, but not receive them.

Bottom line: Right now, making phone calls with a smart speaker is kind of sketchy. In almost all cases, it's easier and quicker just to use your phone. However, there are some things that smart speakers can do that a phone can't. Amazon's smart speakers with screens, for example, have a Drop In feature, where authorized users can connect to your speaker and chat to you. It sounds a little creepy, but in certain circumstances, it's ideal. If you have a pet you want to say hi to during the day, or an elderly relative to check on, this could be the perfect solution. You'll find this option in smart speakers like the $230 Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen).

The Amazon Echo Spot has a great screen (as you can tell...) | The Master Switch
The Amazon Echo Spot has a great screen (as you can tell...) | The Master Switch

Smart Speakers with Screens

We're going to put forward a controversial opinion. We think that screens on smart speakers are far less important than manufacturers would like you to believe. The reasoning for this is simple. The primary reason to buy a smart speaker is for the smart assistant, and the primary means of interacting with a smart assistant is by voice. If all you want to do is tap at a screen, then you may as well buy a tablet, like an iPad.

Don't get us wrong: a screen is nice to have. But there's a reason why we've picked the cheaper Amazon Echo Spot as our top smart speaker with a screen, despite the fact that other options – like the Lenovo Smart Display - have bigger screens and more functionality. The Echo Spot is the perfect blend of screen and smart assistant, offering you a gorgeous display that gives you exactly the information you need, and which backs up the smart assistant, as opposed to taking center stage. A screen is always good to have, but it should not be your primary reason for buying a smart speaker. Yes, we know this opinion goes against the grain - and we do recognize that screens can be very useful. But we think a smart speaker shouldn't be able to call itself a smart speaker without actually being able to play decent music, should it be required. The problem with many screen-based smart speakers is that the audio quality is often neglected.

These smart speakers know a worrying amount about us | The Master Switch
These smart speakers know a worrying amount about us | The Master Switch

Smart Speakers and Privacy

This is a big one. For a smart assistant to be effective, it has to be listening. That means that, at any given moment, it is connected to the servers at Google or Amazon or Apple – and it is continually exchanging information with these servers. Understandably, that's caused some concerns about data, and just how much these companies know about you. But are these concerns justified, and if you aren't comfortable with the release of this data, what can you do about it?

The good news: despite what conspiracy theorists would have you believe, it's unlikely that your speaker is spying on you. Speakers and their smart assistants do not activate unless you use the wake word - "Alexa", or "Hey, Google" or "Hey, Siri". Those words tell the speaker to start recording, which allows it to talk to a remote server, and deliver an answer. Every speaker on the market also comes with the ability to deactivate the microphone with the touch of a button, meaning you can cut off the assistant entirely if you like. The problem is, every use of a smart assistant gives the company data – data that you consent to give it when you agree to the terms and conditions. If you actually have the stamina to delve into these massive documents, you'll find that they use this data to build a picture of you, and sell it to advertisers. We'll be honest: smart speaker companies have a pretty spotty track record when it comes to what they do with your data.

A far bigger concern is that you will have installed a device in your house with a camera and microphone, connected to the Internet. If you ever have the misfortune to be targeted by a hacker, they could very easily gain access to your smart speaker, turning it on without your knowledge. Very obviously, the companies who make these speakers don't want this to happen, so they spend quite a bit of time on their security protocols. But these aren't infallible, and it means that you need to be quite careful where you actually place your smart speakers.

We won't sugarcoat this. There is definitely a risk in buying a smart speaker. This is both a direct risk, in the sense that someone may be able to see and hear you when you don't want them to, and an indirect one, in that you are giving away personal data. It's up to you to decide whether this is worth the trouble. It's not a problem we expect to see resolved any time soon…

Back To Our Smart Speaker Picks Back To Our Comparison Table

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