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

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

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 your 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.

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The best smart speakers in 2021

1. Amazon Echo Studio

Best smart speaker overall

Amazon Echo Studio best smart speaker

Credit: Amazon

Platform: Alexa
Release: 2020
Dimensions: 20.6 x 17.5cm
Weight: 3.5kg

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 to. Given that most smart speakers are actually quite monophonic, its 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 the 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.

Ideal Home rating: 5 out of 5 stars

2. Ultimate Ears Megablast

Best smart speaker for outdoors

Ultimate Ears Megablast smart speaker

Credit: Ultimate Ears

Platform: Alexa
Release: 2017
Dimensions: 23.6 x 8.8 x 8.8cm
Weight: 1.9kg

Reasons to buy

  • Lightweight and portable
  • Rugged design means it can be used outside

Reasons to avoid

  • May look out of place in some spaces

A smart speaker that’s designed to be used outside as much as in the home, the Ultimate Ears Megablast gets our vote for the best option for those who want to take their Alexa smarts to the garden, on camping trips, and beyond. The IP67 waterproof rating makes this possible, so the Megablast can withstand even the worst of the British weather.

The 16-hour battery life also helps here, as you’ll be able to get a whole lot of use out of your speaker before it needs recharging. Outside of this, the Megablast operates much like any Alexa-enabled speaker, but the Ultimate Ears brand has a good reputation for audio quality. Recommended for those who want to enjoy some tunes at their next barbeque.

3. Amazon Echo Show 5 (2nd Gen)

Best smart speaker with display

Amazon Echo Show 5 (2nd Gen) smart speaker

Credit: Amazon

Platform: Alexa
Release: 2021 (2nd Gen)
Dimensions: 14.8 x 8.6 x 7.3cm
Weight: 4.1kg

Reasons to buy

  • Brilliant camera perfect for video chats
  • Easily linked to other Alexa speakers
  • More affordable than older smart displays (with larger screens)

Reasons to avoid

  • Image quality not quite as good as competitors
  • A little bulky

The Amazon Echo Show 5 has had an upgrade for 2021, adding even more to love about the brand’s smaller smart display. The 8-inch screen is ideal for video chats (which we’re all very used to now!) or even following a recipe in the kitchen and, while you’re chatting to friends and family, the camera will pan to follow where you go.

Unfortunately, the design of the Show 5 remains slightly bulky, with the screen attached to a speaker that also serves as the stand. On the one hand, the size makes for better audio, but you’ll need to dedicate a space on a side table or counter. Once you have, you’ll get to enjoy all of the features of Alexa with the benefits of a tablet.

Ideal Home rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

4. Sonos One (Gen 2)

Best smart speaker for multiroom listening

Sonos One (2nd Gen) smart speaker

Credit: Sonos

Platform: Alexa, Google Assistant
Release: 2017 (2nd Gen)
Dimensions: H16.15 x W11.97 x D11.97cm
Weight: 1.85 kg

Reasons to buy

  • Intuitive
  • Powerful apps
  • Link speakers together

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 sweet, well-balanced nature.

Ideal Home rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

5. Google Nest Mini

Best smart speaker from Google

Google Nest Mini (2nd Gen) smart speaker

Credit: Google

Platform: Google Assistant
2019 (2nd Gen)
4.2 x 9.8 x 9.8cm

Reasons to buy

  • Small enough to fit into any style
  • Different colour options
  • Easy set-up

Reasons to avoid

  • Still not the best sound quality

Replacing Google’s Home Mini speaker, the Nest Mini looks almost identical but sports some improvements to audio quality. For the initiated, Google’s smallest speaker is a little life-saver, fitting into any décor style and space with its white bottom and mesh top (in a variety of bright colours) disappearing into its surroundings until it’s needed.

It’s still not for music fanatics, even though the audio quality has been improved, but it’s recommended for smart home beginners who need an easy place to start. It’s incredible value for money and, in our opinion, remains Google’s best smart speaker for the broadest range of people. All of Google’s smarts in a tiny pebble-shaped package!

Ideal Home rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

6. Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen)

Best smart speaker on a budget

Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) smart speaker

Credit: Amazon

Platform: Alexa
2020 (4th Gen)
10 x 10 8.9cm
Weight: 3.2kg

Reasons to buy

  • Alexa response better than previous generation model
  • Improved sound quality
  • Compact, with 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 Dot 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, offering news updates or assisting 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

7. Apple HomePod Mini

Best smart speaker for iPhone

Apple HomePod Mini smart speaker

Credit: Apple

Platform: Siri
Release: 2018
Dimensions: 8.4 x 9.7 x 9.7cm
Weight: 3.4kg

Reasons to buy

  • Stupendous sound
  • Perfect for iPhone owners
  • Good for music streaming, and supports lossless audio

Reasons to avoid

  • No Bluetooth enabled
  • Only good for Apple fans

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. 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 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

8. Amazon Echo Spot

Best smart speaker for the bedroom

Amazon Echo Spot smart speaker

Credit: Amazon

Platform: Alexa
Release: 2017
Dimensions: 10.4 x 9.7 x 9.1cm
Weight: 4.2kg

Reasons to buy

  • Great front-facing camera
  • Can link your calendar

Reasons to avoid

  • Small speaker doesn’t pack much punch
  • All images will be cropped due to circular screen

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-shaped smart speaker with a flat base and circular 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 audiobook until you nod off. There’s a camera on board, but you can disable it if you don’t need the Spot’s video calling feature.

Ideal Home’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

How to choose the best smart speaker

Amazon Echo Studio smart speaker beside couple playing

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 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 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 audiobook, 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 in-house 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.

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.

Additional words by Caroline Preece

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