Featured Product: Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) | $50
Whether it’s the Game Boy Advance SP’s handy clamshell design or Motorola Droid’s slide-out keyboard, I can’t help but be nostalgic for my old tech.
However, I don’t really miss the days before I could control my speaker from my phone. Tethering an old iPod via aux cables was fine, sure, but you couldn’t really move around much... or potentially risk having your guilty pleasures blast out at full volume before you can run back to your device. Thankfully, between Bluetooth speakers and other wireless connectivity protocols like AirPlay and Chromecast, your phone can command all of your favorite bops, wire-free.
Smart speakers are the further evolution of that, in many cases cutting out the need for a phone entirely: you can simply use your voice to cue up tunes, control smart home devices, and ask questions, for example. If you’re looking for a smart speaker to serve as a brainy hub for your home, here are today’s best options across a number of needs and price points.
Best Overall Smart Speaker: Sonos One
If you’re stuck between Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, the second-generation Sonos One comes with both built-in so you don’t have to choose right away. On top of that, it also sounds great. In a 2018 showdown, Gizmodo ranked it among the best sounding smart speakers, praising it for its well-balanced sound capable of filling a room. Marry that to the two best voice assistants on the market, and you’ve got a pretty unbeatable combo. Speaking of combos, you can pair a couple of these speakers together for maximum tuneage.
Best Budget Smart Speaker: Amazon Echo (4th Gen)
Remember the original Pringles can-like tube that was the Amazon Echo? The device that popularized the smart speaker has shifted in design over the years, and the latest now takes the form of a globe instead. Shape aside, the new Echo isn’t a dramatic departure from the previous model, but it brings a number of enhancements, including much better sound, Zigbee smart hub capabilities, and a more responsive Alexa thanks to Amazon’s new AZI Neural Edge processor.
Gizmodo’s Victoria Song reviewed the latest model and came away impressed by the modest enhancements, even if the design is by far the most significant of them. Still, it’s the best version yet:
“If you’re on an OG Amazon Echo or a second-generation Echo, you could probably do with the boost in audio quality. Other than the improved audio quality and the new round design, many of the upgrades just aren’t that noticeable. At the end of the day, I’m left feeling, like, ‘Well, this is the round Echo with surprisingly decent audio that does pretty much what my other Echo speakers do.’
Like I said, it’s round. That’s the story.”
Best Smart Speaker Under $50: Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen)
Amazon’s latest Echo Dot revision scraps the familiar puck-like design in favor of a small globe (like the new standard Echo above), but the end result is pretty much the same. This is an affordable smart speaker that puts Alexa in your home just like any other Echo, albeit with less-impressive audio chops. That makes sense for a compact $50 speaker, so it’s not the one to buy if you want booming bass and crystal-clear streaming. However, if you want something that’s relatively small and unobtrusive for a modest-sized room and don’t want to spend much cash, this is the way to go.
Right now, you can grab two of them for $80 when you use promo code DOT2PACK at checkout.
Best Smart Speaker for Kids: Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
Much like the standard version, the Echo Dot Kids Edition has been given a globe-like makeover… and it has a face now. Whether you opt for a tiger or a panda, you’ll get an adorable animal face to drop into your kid’s playroom or bedroom, giving him or her an easy way to listen to music and more. You get a year of Amazon’s Kids+ service bundled with the device, giving you access to loads of kid-friendly music, podcasts, and more, plus you can add an Echo Glow smart light—which is controllable from the Echo Dot—for $10 extra.
Like the standard Dot above, you can save $20 on a Kids Edition two-pack ($100) with promo code DOT2PACK at checkout.
Best-Sounding Budget Smart Speaker: Google Nest Audio
Looking for a capable smart speaker that won’t break your budget? Google’s newly-released Nest Audio is the best you can get for just under $100, delivering a significant aural upgrade over other smart speakers in this price range. It’s not going to beat dedicated bookshelf speakers, but Gizmodo’s Andrew Liszewski says it’s a marked improvement over the earlier Google Home:
“Knowing what’s going on under the hood, I’m still surprised at how good the old Google Home sounds, but the Google Nest Audio does a much better job at pumping out cleaner, crisper, room-filling sound that’s more natural, particularly on the lower end. The clever tricks used to make the Google Home sound as large as it did came with compromises; the bass felt a little artificial and overly boosted. But with the new Google Nest Audio it’s hard to complain about the device’s larger footprint when the dual speakers sound so much better.”
The Google Assistant feels snappier than in past speakers, too, although it still doesn’t play friendly with Apple Music. You can get around that by playing music via Bluetooth from your phone, however. That’s a small concession, though, and the price is certainly right for a great, affordable smart speaker.
Smartest Smart Speaker: Google Home Max
If you need a speaker that’s as good for controlling your lights and answering trivia as it is for shuffling through your favorite playlists, you should buy a Google Home Max. At $300, it’s not cheap, but for you’re money you’re getting the smartest voice assistant available according to this article last year over at Gizmodo. You can speak to the assistant from any Google device, like an Android phone or a Chromebook. If you want to control your music while you’re strutting about your apartment during your regularly scheduled weekend deep clean, this is the way to do it. And since the Home Max can get pretty loud, it’s good to know you won’t have to shout just to change tracks. Although, Gizmodo notes that this speaker is quite bass-heavy, if that’s a concern.
For those who don’t mind skipping the extra decibels, there’s the Nest Hub, which keeps all the smarts of the Home Max, but trades the high volumes for a big ol’ display you can use for showcasing your best family photos, or showcasing recipes and how-to videos as you work. At $90, it’s a lot cheaper than the Home Max, so it’s just a matter of how loud you like to crank the volume (but please, take care of your ears).
Best Smart Speaker for Smart Homes: Amazon Echo Studio
Like the Echo, the Echo Studio comes with Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant, which means you’ll get more capabilities than Apple’s Siri-powered HomePod, but fewer than Google Assistant. That said, Alexa’s integrated with a ton of smart home products, and if you’re already invested in the Amazon ecosystem, it might be more cost-effective to just upgrade your existing speakers. The Studio might be costly, but it’s cheaper than Google’s comparable Home Max. And with five speakers inside, it gets plenty loud.
Fair warning, though: some early reviews noted issues with this speaker’s music playback, and there are valid privacy concerns you may want to take into consideration before hitting that buy button.
Best-Sounding Smart Speaker: Apple HomePod
If you’re absolutely tied to iOS or macOS, and certain you’re going to stay within the Apple ecosystem, you may want to consider the Apple HomePod. According to Adam Clark Estes over at Gizmodo, the HomePod is fine for Apple die-hards, but just isn’t that useful for most people. The Sonos offers better sound, and you’ll get more smarts out of Google Assistant or Alexa.
Still, the HomePod isn’t a bad sounding speaker if you’re serious about your music. In his review, Estes says the HomePod’s sound is comparable to the Sonos One, though Apple’s speaker has a slight advantage in the bass and treble departments, and its mids leave something to be desired. Aside from that, Estes says there isn’t much utility to be found in the HomePod you can’t find elsewhere, so maybe skip this one unless you’re all-in on Apple.