The smart speaker space is more competitive than ever. Devices with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are leading the way. Apple sold its Siri-based HomePod primarily for sound quality, and our review found it significantly better than early generation entry-level smart speakers like the Amazon Echo. Amazon has stepped up its game since then, and the Echo Studio is remarkable value for money.
So if you want a smart speaker with premium sound, let's take a look at the best smart speakers you can buy today.
Smart speakers at a glance
Smart loudspeakers are practical, modern music systems and smart everyday aids. You want to let Alexa, the Google Assistant or Siri into your four walls? Here are the most important purchase criteria for the right smart speaker:
- Your voice assistant : Only with voice assistance does a WLAN speaker become really "smart". The most popular assistants are Apple's Siri , the Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa . The three differ in their range of functions as well as in the range of products and compatibility with other devices or services.
- Smart Home : With a smart speaker, your smart home is even easier to control! With voice commands you can switch lights on and off, lower blinds and much more. It is important to know that a suitable bridge is usually required in order to be able to control smart devices via the speaker.
- Data protection & power consumption : Opaque data protection declarations and constantly listening microphones unfortunately give the practical speakers an unpleasant aftertaste. Continuous listening also means always being switched on: Smart speakers usually cannot be switched off and therefore consume electricity continuously.
- Sound quality: Even if other things seem to be in focus, a smart speaker should also sound good. The ability to play music on demand makes the speaker an excellent alternative to a stereo system. A good microphone is of course also important.
What actually is a smart speaker?
A smart speaker (also known as a streaming speaker or smart speaker) is a WLAN speaker with an integrated personal assistant that is controlled using simple voice commands. The good sound of a loudspeaker is supplemented by a practical assistance function, some of which you already know from your smartphone. Also Multiroom is a handy feature of smart speaker. Multiroom makes it possible to play music on several speakers at the same time - either the same title everywhere or completely different ones. Music becomes your constant companion.
The operation of the speaker by voice command is particularly intuitive and quickly accessible even for those with no technical experience , senior citizens or children . Using voice input you can, for example, ask your assistant to play music, switch off the light or write a shopping list, but also ask questions about knowledge and play small games. Technology has never been so easy! Even after a short familiarization period , the speaker can be a real added value, especially if you have already installed a smart home system in your home.
The best premium smart speakers
- Amazon Echo Studio
- Google Home Max
- Sonos One
- Apple HomePod
- Sonos Move
Amazon Echo Studio
Amazon's Echo speakers have been getting better and better in sound quality over the past few years, but with the brand new Echo Studio it's a real step up. This is proper high fidelity sound performance where 3D audio is more than just a nickname for an overrated feature. When you pair the studio with lossless music, you'll hear how well this speaker is tuned.
It has a certain price, but it still clearly undercuts the HomePod and openly throws it out of the park. In addition, there is the relative competence of Alexa compared to the often under pressure Siri. With five speakers in the device, you get a balanced sound from all angles, a bass with a bit of oomph and an all-round great experience. The Echo Studio will take a few blows.
Google Home Max
The Google Home Max isn't exactly a budget option considering its price, and with such a large footprint, it's a very different perspective than the easy-to-place Home and Home Mini. It's a speaker for those married to Google and its ecosystem - who want the Google Assistant rather than Amazon Alexa - and who need premium sound. This latter point provides a clear reason to go for this rather than an Echo device.
But can Google really charge Sonos-level prices on its first big outing? It sure sounds good, but we think Google will have to undercut to be a true rush-out-and-buy-it-now speaker. The good news is that Google often offer sizeable speaker discounts.
Sonos entered the Alexa-enabled speaker market with the excellent Sonos One. As you'd expect, it sounds amazing and looks just as good. And there's another one on this list with a price tag well below the Apple HomePod.
It has the same design as the Play: 1, except that there is a new control panel at the top instead of the volume button on the Play: 1. If you are looking for one of the best sounding speakers with multiroom function and integrated Alexa, you've come to the right place. For music fans looking for a smart speaker that offers excellent sound quality for its size, the One is in a class of its own.
If we were to rate the HomePod just for its sound performance, it would be a slam dunk. Apple has developed a small speaker that produces sound far beyond its stature and is comfortable to listen to the music you're listening to. It's a natural sound that's well balanced and not too thin or too bassy. The more we hear it, the more we realize how good it sounds given its size. But the Siri integration isn't that powerful, and the lack of support for services like Spotify really undermine the speaker. In short this is a speaker not for the wider public but for those so far into the Apple ecosystem that they weren't going to consider any other speakers.
Sonos has stepped up its game over the past few months, launching new left, right, and center products. Perhaps the new jewel in the crown is the superb Move, a speaker that combines the best of home smart speaker setups with full portability and booming sound.
The Move has a charging station that you can sit on indoors for daily use. However, when you need it, you can simply pick it up and take it with you for up to 10 hours of Bluetooth playback. It is supported by Alexa and Google Assistant and sounds great as the sound profiles are automatically adjusted to the environment.
Deciding between Google, Alexa and Siri
Alexa, Siri or the Google Assistant: three large voice assistants have been competing for customers on the market for a long time. We started with the assistants on smartphones, but now there are also smart speakers from Google, Apple, Amazon and other manufacturers. With the small speakers, you can call up appointments and recipes at home, play music or dim the lights in the whole house - conveniently using voice control. The best smart speakers start at around 100 pounds. The more the boxes can do, the more expensive they usually become.
Smart speakers from Google and Co. in comparison
The intelligent loudspeakers with voice assistants are much more than a useful item - smart speakers embody a lifestyle and, ideally, you will find multiroom use, ie every room in the house is equipped with a box. It is all the more surprising that the subject of design has so far not been fully exploited. Most smart speakers come in plain black, white or silver, as a roll or square box, as small as an ashtray or the size of a radio. Only the Ultimate Ears brand offers more colourful models and Sony's BSP60, for example, has a funny spherical shape with different coloured LEDs. Apart from the design, the best smart speakers can also score points with the following things:
Sound: As with conventional loudspeakers, the sound is the focus of tests. Due to the compact design, most smart speakers cannot keep up with full-size speakers, especially when it comes to bass. However, there are a few smart speakers with integrated subwoofers and models from Sonos, for example, sound sensible when using two speakers in stereo. Tip: Anyone who can try out the smart loudspeakers in advance or "test it" will quickly notice which speakers (according to subjective perception) sound better than others.
Microphones: Smart speakers should not only play music, they should also be able to listen. There are sometimes big differences in the sensitivity of the microphones in the models from Google, JBL, Teufel and other brands. While some smart speakers already perceive a whisper and can be controlled via speech even with loud music, with other speakers you have to stand very close and / or speak very loudly.
Operation and housing: All smart boxes can be controlled via a voice assistant, there are differences in the assistant's activity display. Individual LEDs or light rings are used here. Hardly any model has an on / off switch, the only additional buttons are usually to (de) activate the voice control. Smart speakers with an extra display are (still) rather a rarity.
Power supply: Most of the smart speakers are powered by a classic power supply unit. The alternative is power supply via a USB port. Many boxes from Apple, Sonos and Co. are also equipped with a rechargeable battery so that you can take the smart speakers with you into the garden when listening to music, for example. The best boxes have a battery life of around eight hours.
Connectivity: The smart speakers are mostly WLAN models that are also bluetooth-enabled, but there are also pure bluetooth speakers. In both cases, simply connect the smartphone or tablet directly to the boxes and then access various apps. Some models also support NFC to establish a connection.
Functional scope: In addition to the "classic" functions for smart speakers, many models also have additional functions, for example Internet radio, a calendar and alarm clock, a multi-room party mode and a smart home control. The latter enables lamps to be switched on and off throughout the house using voice commands, for example.
Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri
Amazon's Alexa, the Google Assistant and Apple's Siri are the three big voice assistants on the market. Basically, they differ little in their operation. However, the choice of the voice assistant already dictates the direction when choosing the smart speakers. For example, Google limits the number of microphones to a maximum of two per speaker, which leads to lower ratings for voice control for almost all speakers, regardless of brand. Google speakers just don't hear as well as boxes with Alexa, because Amazon hardly sets any hardware specifications.
However: Every now and then Alexa models tend to react too quickly to supposed commands. If you want to be on the safe side, you can switch off the smart speaker completely or at least mute it. Overall, Amazon and Google are relatively open to using their assistants on other devices - Sonos, Sony, Teufel or JBL offer smart speakers with Alexa and Google Assistant. Apple is more picky. As with many other devices, Siri can only be used via the manufacturer's own smart speakers. Once you have decided on an Apple device, you usually stay in this (operating system) world.
How to find the right smart speaker
Amazon's Echo series, Google Home or would you prefer a model from a third-party manufacturer, such as the Onkyo G3 or JBL Link 20? The range of smart speakers is getting bigger and bigger, making the decision for a model more and more difficult. Answering a few questions can help you find the best smart speaker.
What kind of smartphone and / or tablet do I have?
Owners of Apple devices should also use Apple's HomePod, Android users have a wider choice.
What do I mainly want to use the smart speakers for?
If you want to listen to a lot of music, you should rely on loud speakers, for example on a model with an integrated subwoofer. The option of using the speakers in the multiroom version can also be important. If you primarily want to use the voice assistant for your smart home, you should pay attention to powerful microphones and any other control elements.
How important is design to me?
Depending on where you want to set up the smart speakers, the appearance of the speakers plays a more or less important role. Visually unusual models are still relatively rare.
Where do I want to use the boxes?
If you want to take the smart speakers with you into the garden or the park, make sure that the models support Bluetooth and can be operated via a battery.