The Amazon Echo kicked off the smart speaker trend a few years ago, but it’s no longer alone. There are dozens of smart speakers already on the market in 2018 and a ton more are coming. Picking the best smart speaker for your needs isn’t always simple, though.
You need to decide which voice assistant you prefer (there are now four—Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, and Cortana) and what features are most important to you. Is music quality highest? Does it need to play Spotify? Is video important? Does it need to connect to your other speakers and smarthome gadgets?
Below, we’ll try to help you answer them by highlighting our favorite smart speakers for a number of special use cases no matter whether you prefer Amazon, Google, or if you want to know how Siri and Cortana stack up to the rest.
($200 on Sonos and Amazon)
There are speakers that can belt out tunes louder, and others that are more portable, but no smart speaker is a better buy than the Sonos One right now (8/10 WIRED Recommends). It sets the bar in a number of areas, including sound quality, multi-room audio, and smart home compatibility.
On the audio front, the Sonos One is virtually unrivaled. Apple’s HomePod is the only speaker we’ve heard that may best it in sound, but even it doesn’t blow the One away. The fact that you can literally buy two Sonos Ones for the price of a single HomePod also shouldn’t be ignored. WIRED’s Mike Calore noted in his review that the Sonos One “plays just about everything under the sun” thanks to its robust Sonos app. It connects to more than 65 different music and audio services. The only one I use and cannot find is Audible.
The Sonos One is also the only Wi-Fi smart speaker that can seamlessly pair with a ton of other speakers and join with your home theater setup. Because it supports Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, it connects to most smart home devices, too. Sonos promises that an update adding Google Home support is on the way in 2018, which may make it the first smart speaker to support both major voice assistants.
If you’re going to buy one speaker, this will bring your home the most joy (and jams). And if you’re going to buy two, Sonos has a nice deal going, too. Read our guide to Sonos speakers to learn more.
Best Portable Speaker
JBL Link 20
($200 on JBL and Walmart)
In my review of the JBL Link series (8/10 WIRED Recommends, I noted how these sound slightly muddy compared to speakers like the Sonos One. What I didn’t realize was how little it mattered. Out of all of the smart speakers I’ve used, the sheer convenience and usability of the JBL Link 20 quickly made up for the lack of aural impressiveness.
First off, the Link 20 is waterproof and will float in the pool—awesome, right? On top of that, it has helpful indicator lights showing you how much battery is left and how strong your Wi-Fi signal is, both very important when you’re moving a speaker around the house (or in the backyard). Pairing via Bluetooth is also incredibly easy. You just press a button and you’re done. I also like that you can charge it while it stands upright, something that requires an adapter on the rival UE Blast and Megablast speakers. The 10-hour battery life also isn’t bad.
The Link 20 features Google Assistant, which works better than Alexa in many ways. The setup is far easier (just download Google Home app and you’re pretty much done) and there are rarely any of the weird syncing issues that I encounter with Alexa devices. It’s compatible with Google apps and Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube Music for streaming. It also answers questions better and plays music more reliably. I like that Google Assistant can now play Netflix on Chromecast devices, too.
Best Party Speaker
Google Home Max
($399 from Google, Walmart, and Jet.com)
If you’re looking for a smart speaker that can crank it out in any sized room, the Google Home Max (8/10 WIRED Recommends) is our pick. It gets loud and brings the bass, thanks to its two 4.5-inch woofers. Touchpad volume controls work well and we also like the magnetic pad on the bottom, which keeps the speaker from sliding around, and prevents the speaker from rattling against whatever table you have it set on—keeping those beats extra tight.
The Max also smartly amplifies and reduces its bass based on the room you’re in, thanks to its array of six microphones, and gets about as loud as a Sonos Play:5 speaker, though it’s not quite as clean and balanced as the Sonos One. But if you like to rock out and kick up the volume, it’s fairly unmatched. If you’re completely nuts, you can pair two of these together.
Like other Google speakers, setup is easy. Just download the Google Home app and it will add the speaker into your speaker setup. Google Assistant is compatible with most Google apps and can play tunes from Spotify, YouTube Music, and Pandora.
Best Smart Speaker with a Screen
Amazon Echo Show
($230 on Amazon)
Is a speaker still a speaker if it has a screen and plays videos? That’s an existential question I’m not prepared to answer, but Amazon’s marriage of screen and sound makes a compelling case. The Echo Show (7/10 WIRED Recommends) sounds better than the other Echo speakers, and it’s more usable than third-party Alexa speakers. The screen is where it shines.
You still have to talk to Alexa to do almost anything, but the screen adds a new dimension. It lets you see what music you’re playing, pause, or skip tracks, and even see lyrics on some Amazon Music tracks. It can also play Amazon Prime videos and has a video version of Alexa’s daily flash news briefing. Voice and video calls are supported, though to do video, you’ll need to call another Echo Show.
I should note that the Echo Show is winner by default for the time being. At CES this January, Google showed off some smart speakers with displays by LG and others, but they aren’t yet available.
Best Mini Speaker
Google Home Mini
($49 on Google’s Store, Walmart, and Jet.com)
If you aren’t in it for the music, the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home Mini (7/10 WIRED Recommends) will give you most of the perks of owning a smart speaker, and you can use them to smarten up existing speakers on the cheap. We prefer the Google Home Mini because, well, we like Google Assistant a little better at the moment, and its smart home compatibility continues to grow.
The Home Mini can tell you the weather, play white noise for you, answer your random questions, and has more contextual awareness than Alexa.
It’s also an easy way to get a Google speaker in the rest of your home, so you can ask questions where you don’t usually listen to music. Especially if you’re in the Google ecosystem, the Home Mini is a no-brainer.
UE Blast and Megablast For All Around Awesomeness: The UE Blast and larger Megablast (8/10 WIRED Recommends) sound even better than the JBL Link speakers, are also waterproof, and have better battery life. Unfortunately, they’re more expensive and only use Amazon Alexa. They’re fantastic, but unstable Wi-Fi and iffy controls crash the party a little too often. The Blast costs $230 and the Megablast (recommended) costs $300. Buy them with the charging dock.
JBL Link 10, 300, 500 for Value: The other Link speakers are almost as good as the Link 20 (recommended above), depending on your needs. The Link 10 ($150) is a solid alternative with 5 hours of battery life. The Link 300 ($250) and Link 500 ($400) are also solid picks, though the 300 and 500 require a power outlet.
Harman Kardon Allure for Bass: The Harman Kardon Allure (7/10) is not for everyone. It’s bulky, has lights on it, and looks like an egg…but it also spits out wicked bass. Just keep in mind that it’s an Alexa third-party speaker, so it may have some compatibility issues if you already own other Alexa speakers. The Allure costs $250.
If Music Quality isn’t Your Concern: Don’t buy them for their music quality, but the standard Google Home ($129), Amazon Echo 2 ($100), Amazon Echo Spot ($130), and Amazon Echo Plus ($165) do get the job done. They’ll play music well enough that you won’t cringe, but keep in mind that you’re getting what you pay for with their more affordable prices.
What about Siri and Cortana?
Apple has finally released its first Siri speaker, the HomePod, and believe it or not there is a Microsoft Cortana speaker out there too from Harman Kardon. They aren’t our top picks, but are they any good?
Apple HomePod is for Apple Devotees: Apple’s HomePod (6/10) is arguably better sounding, or at least as good as the Sonos One, but it’s strictly for Apple junkies. It only works with Apple Music and Siri’s ability to understand you and correctly answer queries is limited compared to Alexa and Google. The HomePod costs $350 at the Apple Store.
Harman Kardon Invoke is (Kind of) a Steal: The Invoke (7/10) relies on Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant. She’s … not super popular. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t work. Cortana doesn’t have a lot of smart home compatibility, but it does work with Spotify and some other services, and is the best speaker for Skype. It can also tell you the weather and do all the basic tasks other assistants can. Did I mention that it’s a speaker that sounds twice as good as its price? The Harman Kardon Invoke costs only $100 from the Microsoft Store.
Why We Prefer Google Home Speakers (For Now)
There are a lot of reasons to love Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, and honestly it works pretty well. If you want to use your voice assistant to shop or use Amazon services, chances are an Alexa speaker is best for you.
Google Assistant has fewer skills and compatible smart home devices than Alexa, by far, but it has enough that it’s useful, and Google is adding new skills at a rapid pace. Speakers with Google Assistant work seamlessly together and are compatible with a wide variety of Google apps and services. Spotify, Pandora, Google Play Music, and YouTube Music are the main ways to play tunes on them, covering most of your bases. Google is better at answering random questions and telling you where to go out to eat, since it can more easily send information to your phone, as well.
Should You Wait to Buy?
Now is a perfectly fine time to buy any of these speakers. From the looks of it, there will be a ton of new smart speakers coming out later in 2018 and the prices may start to drop for some, but you’ll still shell out more for speakers that sound great.
We’ll start to see more speakers with screens on them like the Echo Show, some for Google Assistant this year, and hopefully more speakers that support multiple voice assistants. Sonos claims it will add this feature at some point to the Sonos One.
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