Best smart speaker – get a little help from Google, Alexa and more

The best smart speakers will change the way you live and listen to music around the home, and these are the best you can buy right now
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  • Have you ever wanted a personal assistant? Well with a smart speaker, you can! Affordable and packing a huge amount of power, the best smart speakers allow you to listen to music, call you family without lifting a finger, or simply set a timer for the risotto you’ve got bubbling away. It’s an all-in-one system designed to make your life easier.

    The main voice assistants are Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, and which one you choose will depend on personal taste. Each speaker comes with one integrated and, once it arrives, it’s a doddle to set up with an app and your Wi-Fi password.

    Once you’re acquainted with your new smart speaker, though, don’t be surprised when you’re tempted to set up a whole network of smart devices. There’s no obvious end to what you can do, and the competition between Google, Apple, Amazon and other market leaders such as Sonos means, whichever you choose, they’re constantly being updated with new features.

    While you can hook up everything from smart fridges to robot hoovers to your smart speaker, they don’t require additional gadgets to work. As seamless as the best wireless speakers, you can listen to music by requesting a song, programming your favourite playlist to start with your morning alarm or – if you’ve got your hands full with dinner – pause or stop music from playing completely hands-free.

    We’ve looked at some of the best smart speakers on the market right now, rating them on sound quality, style and more. Scroll down to see what we thought.

    The best smart speakers 2021

    1. Amazon Echo Studio

    Best smart speaker for music

    best smart speaker: Amazon Echo Studio

    Image credit: Amazon

    Speakers: 1″ tweeter, three 2″ mid-range speakers, and 5.25″ woofer
    Audio line in/out: 3.5 mm or mini-optical Toslink line in
    Reasons to buy: Supreme sound quality, innovative design
    Reasons to avoid: No LED clock display

    The Echo Studio is the most sophisticated of all Amazon’s connected smart sound systems.

    It’s designed for living room listening, and is the only smart speaker available that’s compatible with Dolby Atmos music and high-res audio, as well as common or garden stereo.

    A version of the sound system used for movies, Dolby Atmos Music sounds larger and more immersive than regular stereo, and is a lot of fun to listen too. Given that most smart speakers are actually quite monophonic, it’s performance is dramatic. Dolby Atmos music can be found on Amazon Music HD and Tidal Hi-Fi music streaming services.

    The Studio speaker is bigger than previous Echoes. Hardly surprising given that it accommodates a trio of mid-range drivers, a big downward-firing bass woofer and a high-frequency tweeter. That’s a lot of Hi-Fi crammed into a relatively compact box.

    It’s also got more punch than Katie Taylor. Onboard amplification is rated at 300W, and it exercises its bass woofer with enthusiasm.

    While it’s too large to put on a desktop, a shelf in your living room will do fine.

    Ideal Home rating: 5 out of 5 stars

    2. Libratone Zipp 2

    Best portable smart speaker

    best smart speaker: Libratone Zipp 2

    Credit: Libratone

    Dimensions: 12 x 12 x 26cm
    Weight: 1.5kg
    Reasons to buy: speaker is portable, can be paired with up to 10 other speakers
    Reasons to avoid: Expensive for what you get

    The Libratone Zipp 2 is a smart speaker with a difference, combining the convenience of the best portable Bluetooth speakers with the smarts of Alexa. Unlike most smart speakers on this list, the Zipp is designed to be taken on the go, whether that’s to the beach or just out to the back garden for an afternoon.

    To make this easier there is a 12-hour rechargeable battery and convenient carry handle on the side that can also be used to hang the device up. The speaker runs on Alexa, and you can stream using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth depending on your preference. It’s also compatible with AirPlay and Spotify Connect.

    The zip at the base isn’t hiding something, but is what allows you to change up the colour whenever you like. The speaker comes in red, grey, green (pictured) and black, so there a few different options to stop you getting bored. It’s probably not a deal breaker, but a nice extra for those who like to change up their tech from time to time.

    3. Sonos One

    Best multiroom smart speaker

    best multiroom smart speaker: Sonos One

    Image credit: Sonos

    Dimensions: H16.15 x W11.97 x D11.97cm
    Weight: 1.85 kg 
    Reasons to buy:
    Intuitive, powerful apps, Alexa compatible
    Reasons to avoid: Inferior mic quality compared to newer speakers

    When it comes to whole home audio, Sonos sets the pace. Its multiroom speakers always look classy, are supremely easy to use and now come with smart functionality. This Sonos One incorporates both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, and has Apple AirPlay 2 support too.

    Using Alexa integrated into a Sonos One is no different from chatting to an Amazon Echo. The benefit is that you no longer have to tell a connected Alexa device to ‘play Abba on Sonos’, you can just cut to the chase. It makes smart speaker use much more intuitive.

    It also means you can direct your voice assistant to play Dancing Queen in specific Sonos zones, or throughout the whole house.

    Audio quality is excellent, with beautiful mid-range delivery and a sweet, well-balanced nature.

    Ideal Home rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

    4. Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen)

    Best desktop smart speaker

    best smart speaker: Amazon Echo Dot

    Credit: Amazon

    Speakers: 0.6″ speaker
    Audio line in/out: 3.5 mm audio line out
    Dimensions:
    89 x 100 x 100 mm
    Reasons to buy: Compact, cute design and colours
    Reasons to avoid: Upgrade to another speaker for better audio capability

    Bigger isn’t always better. The Amazon Echo Dot, now in its fourth generation, is an incredibly useful smart speaker that won’t break the bank. It’s also as cute as a button.

    With a lovely redesign to bring the mini more in line with Amazon’s flagship speaker, it still won’t take up too much room on your desktop. It can function as a diddy voice assistant, playing tunes in the background while you work, offer news updates or assist with currency conversions on the fly.

    Alternatively, you can hardwire a Dot into an existing Hi-Fi system, using a single stereo 3.5mm lead, and effectively make your old school Hi-Fi system voice assistant capable.

    Audio quality won’t blow you away but is relatively fine. In addition to Wi-Fi, it supports Bluetooth streaming, which is helpful if you’re watching some catch-up telly on your smartphone, but want to boost the volume.

    Ideal Home rating: 4 out of 5 stars

    5. Apple HomePod Mini

    Best smart speaker for iPhone

    best smart speaker: Apple HomePod Mini

    Credit: Apple

    Dimensions: H84.3 x W97.9mm
    Reasons to buy: Stupendous sound, perfect for iPhone owners
    Reasons to avoid: No Bluetooth enabled

    For dedicated Apple users, Apple’s HomePod is the best smart speaker you can buy. Android fans are advised to move on, because this isn’t the droid they’re looking for. It can’t even be set up without an iOS device.

    As you’d expect from Apple, the HomePod Mini is beautifully designed. The spherical shape and mesh fabric cover are definitely interiors friendly.

    Inside there’s Apple’s S5 chip, a full range driver and dual passive radiators, all designed to create a crisp 360 degree soundstage. This means it sounds great regardless of where you listen in a room. Its sonic performance is big and bold.

    Unlike rival smart speakers, there’s no Bluetooth onboard, but iOS users won’t notice. Pairing an iPhone to the speaker is a doddle.

    Siri makes for a surprisingly helpful musical assistant, as she not only plays your requests, but calls upon Apple’s excellent curation and recommendation engine to help you discover new music. This is quite a trick, as music discovery when you only use voice to navigate can be rather difficult – you tend to end up asking for the same old tunes.

    Ask Siri to play something you’ll like, and you’ll more likely than not get a surprising (in a good way) new offering. Neither Google or Amazon Alexa are quite as switched on when it comes to fresh tunes.

    Note: It was recently announced that Apple would be discontinuing the Apple HomePod proper, focusing instead on the HomePod Mini.

    Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

    6. Google Nest Hub Max

    Best smart speaker with display

    Best smart speaker: Google Nest Hub Max

    Image credit: Google

    Dimensions: H18.25 x W25 x D10.12cm
    Weight: 1.32kg
    Reasons to buy: Crisp display with vivid colours, great audio
    Reasons to avoid: Not great in tight spaces

    If you’re looking for a winning connected speaker with a fully integrated screen, then the smart money must go on the Google Nest Hub Max.

    The Nest Hub Max comes with a large 10-inch display, and a sound system able to make itself heard over the hubbub of a busy dining area. This versatile unit is ideal for pulling recipes off the internet, or making emergency video calls to mum when your banana bread appears to be heading for disaster.

    It also doubles as an entertainment centre for the kids, playing music videos from YouTube or game streams on Twitch. Alternatively, use it as a dashboard for controlling your Nest thermostat, home security system, and smart lighting.

    The Google Nest Hub Max is a fully compatible Chromecast speaker, so you can cast from any compatible app on your mobile.

    Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

    7. Amazon Echo Spot

    Best smart speaker for bedroom

    best smart speaker: Amazon Echo Spot

    Image credit: Amazon

    Dimensions: 104 mm x 97 mm x 91 mm
    Weight: 420g
    Speakers: Built-in speaker
    Audio line in/out: 3.5 mm stereo audio output for use with external speakers (audio cable not included).
    Reasons to buy: Great front-facing camera, can link your calendar, Prime account
    Reasons to avoid: Small speaker doesn’t pack much punch

    The Amazon Echo Spot is a bedside clock with delusions of grandeur. Small enough to sit on even the most crowded of cabinets, it’s a dinky egg of a smart speaker with a flat base and circular 64mm 480 x 480 screen – and yes, remarkably, it can show videos, although as it’s super tiny, it’s not particularly practical as a mini TV.

    More importantly, this display dims automatically, becoming almost unreadable in the dead of night.

    Having a smart speaker in your bedroom brings multiple benefits, not least because you can ask Alexa to set wake up calls, or read you an audio book until you nod off.

    There’s a camera onboard, but you can disable it if you don’t need the Spot’s video calling feature.

    The little Spot sounds a bit weedy, but then there’s only a 1.4-inch speaker on board.

    Ideal Home’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

    How to choose the best smart speaker

    best smart speaker: Amazon Echo Dot on kitchen surface

    Credit: Amazon

    How much do smart speakers cost?

    Smart speakers are available from £45, for a Google Nest Mini or Amazon Echo Dot up to around £200. The important point to remember is that price isn’t reflective of smartness. A cheap Amazon Dot is just as clever as its more expensive stablemate, and the same applies to Google.

    What you’re paying more for is the quality of the speaker itself.

    Generally, it’s worth investing in a high performance smart smart speaker when it’s primarily being used for music listening. For bedside table duties or as a kitchen companion, size and practicality become more important.

    Read next: the best soundbars to boost your TV’s sound quality for movie nights and sporty days

    What can smart speakers do?

    A smart speaker has multiple functions. For most of us, it’s the ability to play music on command from streaming services like Spotify or Tidal, or selected radio stations, that is their biggest attraction.

    But they can do far more. If you have a a lot of smart devices on your home network, an ecosystem as it were, perhaps involving a smart thermostat and lighting, then you can also interact with them, again by voice command.

    A digital assistant can also be used to relate news, read an audio book, play games, make size or currency conversions, or – most importantly of all – offer weather reports.

    You can also even your smart speaker to make voice calls, or as an inhouse intercom.

    If you’re feeling blue, they’ll tell you a joke too – just don’t expect it to be a rib tickler. They’re smart, not funny.

    Best-smart-speakers-Sonos-lifestyle

    Image credit: Sonos

    Who makes smart speakers?

    The biggest single maker of smart speakers is Amazon. Its own-brand Echo devices, which use the Alexa platform, come in various sizes and sell in their millions. Google also makes its own smart speakers. Increasingly though, more familiar Hi-Fi brands are releasing smart speakers all their own – names like Sonos, Technics, JBL, LG and Harman Kardon.

    Remember, if you simply want to stream Spotify from your smartphone to a wireless speaker, you don’t need to go smart at all. A regular Bluetooth wireless speaker will do the same job fine.

    Is Alexa smarter than Siri?

    OK, now you’re getting personal. In truth, there’s not a huge difference between any of the digital voice assistants when it comes to smarts. They have a slightly different manner, and can be tripped up by even simple questions, but share basic voice control functionality.

    We think Siri has an edge over Alexa, but only when it comes to music discovery. Ask Alexa to ‘play something you’d like’ typically prompts the speaker to play the same old songs. Music discovery isn’t her strong point.
    That said, all smart speaker platforms improve over time, getting sharper and more intuitive in the cloud. The Alexa we listen to today is a good deal smarter than the one we listened to back when the platform first launched. Between you and us, she was a dope…

    Which is better, Alexa or Google?

    The best smarter speaker platform is the one that works best for you. Both Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant have the ability to front complicated ecosystems of connected products. If your media streamer of choice is an Amazon Fire TV stick, then it makes sense to add an Alexa smart speaker to your network.

    Like many of the best TVs, they are Android based, so a Google smart speaker would seem the natural fit. What we don’t recommend is mixing the two platforms. Having to wrestle with different wake words (“Hey Google…” versus “Alexa…”) gets tiresome pretty quick…

    What about features like multi-room and Bluetooth?

    Both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant smart speakers offer Bluetooth connectivity alongside Wi-Fi as standard. In the home it’s often easy to forget just how devices are communicating, as interactions become quite seamless.

    Streaming from your mobile to a smart speaker is as simple as saying ‘Alexa connect my phone” although you’ll need to remember to have Bluetooth switched on.

    Similarly, both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant smart speakers can be used for whole house audio. Simply need to create a ‘Group’ of connected smart speakers and then ask your smart assistant to play music to said named group.

    Is my smart speaker always listening?

    Yes, your smart speaker is always listening, because it’s waiting to react to its ‘wake word.’ This has led to concerns regarding privacy and security. If you are concerned about Google or Amazon eavesdropping, then the microphone on your smart speaker can be turned off manually.

    It will then becomes oblivious to your conversations, but you’ll need to manually turn the microphone back on for the smart speaker to function.

    If this aspect of smart speakers gives you cause for concern, then a regular ‘non-smart’ Bluetooth wireless speaker may be a better buy.

    What is the best smart speaker?

    It was a tough competition, but we rated the Amazon Echo Studio as the best of the bunch for at-home smarts.

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