Featured Product: Sonos Roam | $169 | Sonos
I can’t help but be nostalgic for my favorite old tech of yesteryear, whether it’s the slide-out keyboard of the Motorola Droid or the Game Boy Advance SP’s handy clamshell design. Still, I don’t miss the days before I could easily control my speaker from my smartphone.
Tethering an iPod to a stereo was fine, sure, but you couldn’t maintain control unless you stayed close to the speaker... potentially a problem when an embarrassing guilty pleasure comes blasting through unexpectedly for the whole house to hear. Thankfully, times have changed, and it’s easy to control all of your favorite bops now, wire-free.
Smart speakers are the latest evolution of that concept, oftentimes even cutting out the need for your phone: just use your voice to cue up tunes, ask questions, control smart home devices, and more. If you want a smart speaker to be the brainy hub for your home, here are today’s best options.
Best Overall Smart Speaker: Sonos One
Why choose between Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant? The second-gen Sonos One packs both of them in so you don’t have to pick a favorite before even trying the thing. And it sounds great, too. In a 2018 showdown, Gizmodo ranked it among the best-sounding smart speakers on the market, thanks in part to its well-balanced, room-filling sound. Add in double the voice assistants and it’s an unbeatable combo. Speaking of combos, you can pair two of ‘em to boost the stereo sensation.
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)
The smaller Echo Dot follows suit with its own sphere-shaped redesign, and the end result isn’t far off from its puck-like predecessor. This affordable smart speaker puts Alexa in your home with a trade-off in audio quality for the smaller size and lower price. That makes sense given the $50 list price, so no, this isn’t the Echo to snag if you’re an audiophile. It’s the one that’s cheap, effective, and unobtrusive enough to stick just about anywhere in your home.
Best Smart Speaker for Kids: Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
The Echo Dot Kids Edition has more canvas to work with than the older disc, like model, and that means this Echo Dot has a face. Actually, there’s two of ‘em: a tiger or a panda, both utterly adorable and perfect for kids’ rooms. This is a simple way to get music and other kid-friendly content into their space, plus you get a year of Amazon Kid+ service with age-appropriate music, podcasts, and other audio content included. You can also add an Echo Glow smart light, controllable with Echo Dot voice commands, for another $15.
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.
Best Portable Smart Speaker: Sonos Roam
They’ve finally done it: with the Sonos Roam, the high-end audio giant has released a properly compact, portable speaker that you can take anywhere. And if you want one speaker that can pull double duty around the home and on the go, the Roam is it.
It works over Wi-Fi when at home and lets you use Alexa and the Google Assistant for voice commands, and then uses Bluetooth to pull tunes from your smartphone when elsewhere. Gizmodo reviewer Victoria Song says the feature isn’t always as seamlessly executed as advertised, but that the Roam sounds great—and as the cheapest Sonos speaker on the market, it’s an ideal way to dip a toe into that ecosystem and see what you think.
“If you’re intrigued but unsure you want to commit to this pricey speaker ecosystem, I’d say the Roam is the best option to see if the whole Sonos thing is your vibe. Not only is it relatively affordable, but even if the smart features aren’t your jam, at least you still have a great portable Bluetooth speaker.”
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 for Apple Users: Apple HomePod Mini
The original HomePod has been discontinued, but that’s OK: here’s an even better option for Apple fans who aren’t as fussy about sound quality and don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a smart speaker: the newer HomePod Mini. It scales down the design to a compact ball and keeps the easy compatibility with Apple devices and support for HomeKit smart home gadgets, but it’s only $100. That’s much more appealing.
Here’s what Gizmodo reviewer Alex Cranz had to say about it:
“The HomePod Mini does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and does so at a price that is actually pretty affordable. If you’ve shied away from smart speakers in the past, this isn’t a bad one to try out, and if you’re like me and have found yourself already embracing the Apple smart home ecosystem, it’s the perfect complementary device. Previous smart home overlords have left me wanting. The HomePod Mini gave me exactly what I need.”
Best Shower Speaker: Kohler Moxie
Sure, you’ve seen waterproof speakers before—but how about a Bluetooth speaker that’s actually part of your showerhead? Plumbing giant Kohler is the brand behind this curious concoction, and the Moxie is truly a unique offering.
Essentially, it’s a showerhead that has a large recess at the center, which is where the speaker pops in and out. It’s easy to install, the sound quality is pretty good, and having the Alexa voice assistant in the shower helps with controlling tunes, getting random queries answered, and perhaps even controlling smart home devices. It’s not cheap at $200 and you don’t get multiple spray modes, but it’s a smart premise if you’re willing to spend for it.
Gizmodo’s Victoria Song writes in her review:
“It’s very easy to both upgrade your showerhead and get a decent shower speaker for under $100. But if you’re willing to splurge just a little bit, or can split the cost with roommates/a significant other? The Kohler Moxie is actually a convenient way to get a nicer showerhead and a good quality shower speaker in one easily installed package.”
This deal was originally published by Jordan McMahon in October 2020 and updated with new information by Andrew Hayward on 04/06/2021.