Ask and you shall receive. To paraphrase Matthew 7:7, that’s pretty much how the latest generation of smart speakers work.
Whether you want to chill to a summer playlist, argue with your local talk radio station or simply set a timer for ramen noodles, the latest generation of all-in-one connected music systems are here to help, courtesy of a trio of voice assistants with a can-do attitude.
Thankfully, while smart speakers appear unfathomably brainy, you don’t need to be a tech genius to use one. Simple instructions will help you connect your smart speaker to your home Wi-Fi network in minutes.
Find the right tech for your home with our detailed buying guides
Smart speakers don’t require additional gadgets to work either – beyond a Wi-Fi network, naturally. All connectivity is wireless, so pack away your CDs. These beauties stream music from the Internet over Wi-Fi, and connect to your smartphone by Bluetooth.
The smart speaker market is dominated by Google and Amazon, so you’ll need to decide which smart assistant you’d like before you buy. Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are similarly sentient, but have their own inimitable style. More on that later.
Once you commit to one, you’re better off sticking with that platform for additional speakers – and yes, you’ll probably end up owning more than one smart speaker.
After all, what’s suitable for the lounge won’t be a natural addition to your kitchen, and vice versa.
Read on for our guide to the best smart speakers you can buy right now… and the questions to ask before you buy.
Best smart speakers 2020
1. Amazon Echo Studio – best smart speaker for sound quality
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’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Buy now: Echo Studio, £189.99, Amazon
2. Marshall Uxbridge – best smart speaker for Spotify
With its rock ‘n’ roll styling, the Marshall Uxbridge Voice certainly knows how to party. Tested here with Amazon Alexa, it’s also available in a Google Assistant edition.
The Uxbridge is compact enough to park on a shelf, but has volume aplenty.
We concede the trademark guitar amp livery is a bit Marmite, but we think it looks cool. Like any regular Amazon Echo smart speaker, it’ll happily give you a weather forecast, but it’ll also play Bon Jovi loud and look good doing it.
Ease of use is excellent, taking just a few minutes to set up. In addition to Wi-Fi, the Uxbridge has Bluetooth, plus support for Airplay 2 and Spotify Connect.
On the speaker are individual controls for bass, treble and volume, but you’ll probably not need them. Inside lurks a gutsy 30W digital amp. The driver array is forward facing, and monophonic rather than stereo, but the speaker is dynamic and holds a tune.
The Uxbridge doesn’t really have a refined high-end, so isn’t suitable for high-res audio, but if you simply want a fabulous smart speaker for Spotify you can’t go wrong.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
3. Sonos One – best smart speaker for multroom Hi-Fi
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’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
4. Apple HomePod – best smart speaker for iPhone
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 is beautifully designed. The cylindrical shape and mesh fabric cover are definitely interiors friendly.
Inside there’s a woofer surrounded by seven tweeters, angled upwards to create a 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.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
5. Amazon Echo Spot – best smart speaker for bedrooms
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
Buy now: Echo spot, £79.99, Amazon
6. Google Nest Hub Max – best smart speaker with a screen
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 Dot (third edition) – best desktop smart edition
Bigger isn’t always better. The Amazon Echo Dot, now in its third generation, is an incredibly useful smart speaker that won’t break the bank. It’s also as cute as a button.
Boasting the same footprint of a coffee mug, and half the height, it 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.
The latest Dot design has a curved edge and fashionable fabric finish. Audio quality 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’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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.
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.
What brands make 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.
Similarly, if your smart TV is Android based, then 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.