Choosing the best smart speaker is a difficult decision. The three biggest tech companies in the world are each vying for our attention – and for good reason. By listening to what you say and enacting your commands, smart speakers offer a gateway into the Internet of Things – a near-future in which we can talk to and control the everyday items around us. For the Amazons, Apples and Googles of this world, the money-making opportunities are vertiginous.
So ubiquitous are smart speakers these days that they have recently been added to the Office of National Statistics' basket of goods used to measure inflation, along with baking trays and electric toothbrushes.
In general, these three big hitters perform the same functions. They listen out for your commands, then play music, read audiobooks, take voice messages, search the internet, do your shopping online, add things to your diary, set reminders and issue notifications. They are, in other words, a bit like an attentive secretary who is always in your home, at your beck and call.
You can also connect your smart speaker to to various pieces of compatible technology around your home and ask the speaker to do anything from turning on the lights to starting the washing machine to viewing your home security camera footage.
However, since I first reviewed smart speakers about 18 months ago, the category has blossomed massively. Where once they were shaped like traditional speakers, there’s now a smorgasbord of options available to you, from giant versions to miniaturised ones to those with screens.
Here’s what I learnt on my hunt for the best smart speaker, starting with my favourite...
Why we like it: The full power of Google’s search engine ensures this assistant is the smartest of them all
Formerly known as Google Home, the rebranded Nest line-up of smart speakers is a snazzy collection designed to blend seamlessly into your home and provide an easy introduction to the smart assistant.
Say: “Hey, Google” or “OK Google” and “what’s the capital of Mozambique?” and it will tell you “the capital of Mozambique is Maputo” in about half the time it’s taken to read this sentence. Which is, I hope, shorter than it would take to unlock your phone and type it into a search bar and scroll the results.
However, it can do much more than that. It can add things to your shopping list, set reminders, or broadcast things to other smart speakers around the house.
And since these devices harness the entire power of Google, they’re capable of using services like Google Maps to tell you how long your commute will take, or Google Translate to help the kids with their French homework, or syncing with your personal and work calendars to tell you what appointments you have coming up. In my book, this seamless relationship with Google’s extended suite of products puts the Nest slightly ahead of Amazon and Apple’s devices (on which, more to follow).
One of my favourite functions was saying: “Hey Google, time for bed”, to which the device would respond: “OK, what time shall I set your alarm?” I tell it, and it turns off the lights and plays relaxing nature sounds to lull me to sleep. It’s all very charming and works like a dream.
The next morning, I am awakened to a soft chiming. “OK Google, that’s enough,” I tell it. No need to groggily reach for my phone. Then I say: “Hey Google, give me my morning briefing.” “Sure,” says the Google Assistant, proceeding to tell me the weather forecast, how long my commute is likely to take, and a few headlines from The Telegraph newsroom (that’s a preference you can set – the Google Assistant isn’t quite smart enough to know where I work. Yet.)
It’s handy little moments like this that make all the difference with Google Nest. It’s seamless, and easy to use, and pretty good at figuring out what you’re asking of it. I found it really easy to integrate with other smart tech too. We’ve done a little guide here on how to connect up your smart home.
One of the other handy things you can do with a Google Nest is set up Voice Match. This means the Google Nest will be able to recognise exactly who is speaking to it. You’re probably thinking, why bother with Voice Match? Well, a single Google Nest can be linked with up to six Google accounts who can all have their own unique settings. When I say “Hey Google, give me my morning briefing”, I get updates on my commute, and headlines from The Telegraph. When my partner says the same, he’ll get completely separate information according to his preferences.
Following Amazon’s lead, Google has also released multiple iterations of the device. The Nest Audio is the basic model pictured above. Then there’s the Nest Mini which, as the name suggests is, well, mini; a palm-sized, fabric-covered blob, which is surprisingly powerful as a speaker, albeit noticeably less so than the bread and butter Nest Audio.
Then there’s the Google Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max. These two are the same product in two different sizes, but their biggest draw is that they both feature a screen and a camera, which makes them even smarter. You could watch YouTube videos, see tutorials laid out step-by-step, make video calls, see maps and weather forecasts. Plus a recent update has added streaming services such as Netflix to the Nest Hubs. And when you’re not using them they connect automatically to your Google Photos cloud storage and act as digital photo frames. Personally, the Nest Hub is the most used smart speaker I have in my home as it balances size, function and sound quality perfectly for me, but at various different price points, it’s worth considering which of Google’s smart arsenal is right for you.
The newest is the Nest Audio (pictured above) and this is the one for audiophiles. Despite looking a bit like an upright pillow, Nest Audio is a seriously powerful speaker. The bass is thumping and the mids and highs sound almost perfect to my ear. You can also easily sync it up with other Nest speakers for stereo sound, so music lovers might want to buy one of these and a couple of Nest Minis for the perfect sound setup. As with a lot of these devices, the Nest Audio uses AI to fire the sound in the right directions according to your home so wherever you put it, it should sound great.
Why we like it: Echo devices are the cheapest smart speakers but are still fully formed functional devices
Google may have just a slight edge over the Amazon Echo, but, frankly, it’s only by the tiniest of margins. Amazon’s flagship smart speaker is the cheapest of the major smart speakers (not counting miniature versions) but don’t let that fool you. Alexa is as smart as a whip and more than capable of all the things her pricier brethren can do.
The big news with Amazon recently is the huge redesign of most of the Echo range (Dot, Dot With Clock, Echo) which has given them a very distinctive spherical look which, for my money, makes them the best looking smart speakers out there. But we’ll get onto the differences between the increasingly fragmented Amazon devices in a moment...
First things first. When you get your Amazon Echo out of the box you’ll need to download the official companion app and connect it to your internet so it can start updating. In the meantime, you’ll want to set up or connect your pre-existing Amazon account (if you bought your Echo from Amazon it will already be connected.) And once those two things are done, the world is your oyster.
Simply say “Alexa” and state your request. Easy. “Alexa, play Carly Rae Jepsen songs”, “Alexa, how long is the Great Wall Of China?”, “Alexa, set a timer for five minutes”, “Alexa, tell me a joke”, etc. It’s very easy and very seamless. The basic functions are the same as on Google’s device, though Alexa lacks some of the lifestyle features such as the bedtime one I mentioned before.
Straight out of the box, Alexa is a pretty handy AI to have around but you can also install Alexa Skills, which are essentially apps. There are literally thousands of Skills available, from games to news to lifestyle to travel.
Incidentally, that’s how you set up smart tech. Once I set up my smart bulbs, I just had to go into the Alexa app on my phone and download the appropriate skill then pair it with the bulbs.
Amazon Echo uses far-field voice recognition technology to be able to hear you from right across the room, and it has a process called ‘beam-forming’ which means it should be able to hear you even while it is playing loud music or the kids are screaming. It works very well, about on a par with Google’s own similar technology.
The new spherical design also allows the Echo to blast out some meaty sounds, and the Echo range has never sounded better. If you first got one of the original Echo Dots which launched a few years ago, you’ll be blown away by the quality nowadays.
Amazon has the widest range of different versions of its smart speaker, so it’s worth looking into what you need. Moving upwards, there’s the Echo Dot, which is largely approximate to the Nest Mini: a palm-sized smart speaker designed to be placed around the house. It looks the same as the regular Echo, just a bit smaller. You can even get an Echo Dot that features an LED clock, which I found ideal for having by the bed.
The all-new Echo is the basic model. It features a smart hub, which is important for some smart appliance brands such as Hive. These devices require a hub to connect a lightbulb to your internet, for instance; by having this hub inside your smart speaker it’s one less thing to buy. Then we have the Echo Studio, which is the full-fat speaker, akin to Nest Audio or Apple HomePod though it’s slightly weaker and less bassy.
Like Google, there are screen versions too, Echo Show 5 (with a 5.5in screen), Echo Show 8 (with an 8in screen) and Echo Show (with a 10in screen.) Personally, I found Echo Show 5 a perfect delight, the best desk clock I’ve ever owned. Instead of cycling through pictures, it shows news headlines and meeting reminders, making it an ideal desk buddy at work.
The new Echo Show 10 has been redesigned along with the original Echo and Echo Dots, and while it’s not spherical any longer, it’s a snazzy piece of kit with a camera that follows you around the room; ideal for connecting with relatives in these locked down times, especially as it supports video-calling on both Amazon’s platforms and third-party options too. Like the Nest Hubs, it also can play third-party streaming services, which might help it become a replacement for that old kitchen TV.
Retailing for over three times as much as Google or Amazon’s offerings, the HomePod is a different beast altogether.
Despite the fact that it was Apple’s Siri that popularised the idea of AI assistants, she takes on a smaller role here; the HomePod is a speaker first and foremost, the inverse of the Nest devices.
In terms of design, the HomePod looks most like a speaker of the brand’s products. It’s nice to see Apple clearly differentiating its offering from rivals, and that no-nonsense design will appeal to old school audiophiles.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine carrying a HomePod from bedroom to kitchen in the same way you could with an Echo or a Google Nest. The HomePod’s fancy speaker tech makes it a lot heavier than its competitors (HomePod weighs 2.5kg, compared with the 0.8kg Echo, and 0.5g Google Nest.) If a kid accidentally pulls this off the shelf they’ll get a nasty bump.
The most important thing to remember about HomePods is this: you need a device with iOS 11 and upwards to get going. If you’re an Android user, or you’ve clung to any older iPhone, you cannot use your HomePod. Sorry.
If you do have an modern iPhone though, the first thing you’ll note about the HomePod is that it’s not exactly seamless to set up. The iPhone needs to have certain settings in the right place, such as two-step verification. This stuff is easy to sort, it just adds to the process at the start.
Once you do that, you’ll leap through a few more queries and technological hoops before a short tutorial where Siri tells you to say things like: “Hey Siri, play music” or “Hey Siri, turn on the lights”. These basic commands all work pretty well, and you can control things like the volume either with your voice or with the basic touch screen on top of the HomePod.
Unfortunately, Siri isn’t nearly as smart as Google Assistant or Alexa and it shows. Sure, Siri can perform basic online web searches, but the AI just isn’t strong enough when it comes to identifying what you really need it to do. I found it particularly struggles with lifestyle functions. While the other options are great for talking you through recipes, telling stories or ordering food, Siri often tells me that it doesn’t know what I’m asking for or how to help. Siri also struggles to understand anything expressed too conversationally.
That said, setting up Siri with the Philips Hue bulbs worked easily enough. You just scan the code on the bulbs with the HomeKit app and you’re away. I really like HomeKit, which groups all of your smart tech in one easy place; it’s significantly easier than jumping between Philips’ own app and Google/Amazon’s apps.
Still, while Siri isn’t the best assistant, that’s not the point. This device is all about the speaker. And it is an incredibly good speaker. I was blown away by the bass. Even the most prosaic pop song sounds epic on Apple’s little device. The speaker apparently can analyse the room and figure out how to best send out sound waves so it sounds perfect every time. I don’t really understand the science behind that function, but I certainly had no complaints after trying the HomePod in various different locations around my flat.
Speaking of third party speakers though, that’s where Apple has met its match. Yes, the HomePod is probably the best speaker of the three, but Siri is a long way behind Alexa and Google Assistant and will take a while to catch up. Amazon and Google have effectively capitalised on this deficiency by releasing the Echo Studio and Nest Audio. Both are significantly cheaper and have done a huge amount to close the gap between the original Google Home/Echo devices, and the nearly three-year-old HomePod.
The HomePod is perfect for Apple loyalists and audiophiles who are looking for a better quality speaker than they currently own. If Apple brings down the price significantly, that’d also be a solid reason to invest. Otherwise I’d recommend looking elsewhere, at least until Apple inevitably ups its game with HomePod 2.
Frequently asked questions about smart speakers
Who makes the best smart speaker?
Ultimately, it’s fairly subjective as to which smart speaker is the best. They all offer a different package that will suit different people. Essentially, it breaks down along easy to follow lines:
The HomePod is probably the best for music lovers as its speaker tech is very, very good. Unfortunately though, Siri just can’t possibly keep pace with Google Assistant or Alexa.
Google Nest is the best for those seeking a voice assistant or a smart home controller, as the voice recognition and response is the best of the lot. Google’s product is also probably a better fit for those who want to smarten up their homes, but aren’t necessarily the techiest people, as it is fairly well equipped right out of the box.
The Echo range sits nicely between the other two. The standard Echo has a solid enough speaker and Alexa Skills help broaden the Echo’s utility as a smart assistant. However, for technophobes out there, adding those skills might be too much of a faff.
Personally, I’d go with Google Nest or Amazon Echo, as both offer a huge amount of utility and frankly, if you’re buying a Nest Audio or an Amazon Echo Studio, they’re not too far behind the HomePod in terms of sound quality.
Can I have different manufacturers’ smart assistants in my home?
I wouldn’t, if I were you. It gets annoying when you’re having to remember that your living room is wired up with HomePods, you have Echos in the bedroom, and Nests in the kitchen. The ecosystems aren’t compatible with each other so Google’s Home app won't be able to control your Echo devices and vice versa. In addition, if you pick up any smart home equipment such as lightbulbs or smart plugs, you can only plug them into one manufacturer’s system at a time. Then obviously you have to remember which system is controlling the lights, which one has the plugs, and so on. It’s probably best to pick one and stick with it.
The exception to this is third party speakers, which I haven’t really mentioned here. There are lots of third party manufacturers, such as Sonos or Bose, which make smart speakers. These can be connected to either Google Assistant, Alexa or Siri depending on your preference so most should work with any. However, it’s always worth looking on the box before you buy.
What does a smart speaker do?
At its most basic level, a smart speaker is a speaker. It plays music, audiobooks, or voice messages. It is considered ‘smart’ because it accomplishes all this by connecting to the internet, which opens up a whole new array of options.
Smart speakers come with a voice assistant. You say something to the speaker, and it will answer. You can connect your smart speaker to various pieces of compatible technology around your home and ask the speaker to do anything from turning on the lights to starting the washing machine. These voice assistants can also take notes, answer questions, add things to your diary, set reminders, and give you notifications.
It can also connect with other items of smart technology to allow you to control your home with your voice. Depending on what appliances you own you could do everything from boiling your kettle to switching on the lights, activating your washing machine to checking who is at the door.
Why do you need a smart speaker?
The smart revolution started with our phones but over the past few years it has accelerated massively and is beginning to take over everything in our homes from light bulbs to toasters, heating to televisions, doorbells to pet care.
You could control all this tech with your phone or a computer but smart speakers make everything that bit more seamless. With voice commands, you can make your smart home come to life without having to fiddle about with various different apps and appliances.
All of the products have plenty of integration with other brands or websites so you could order a takeaway just by asking, get an answer to that burning question that’s been bugging you all day, or have a story read to you by a kindly voice.
For those whose vision or motor skills are poor, being able to control devices vocally can be a lifesaver, opening up the opportunity to listen to music without a fiddly CD player or MP3, changing the thermostat without having to get up, or dimming the lights after having left the room.
For everyone else, smart speakers seem like a novelty right now, and yes, they sort of are. But smartphones seemed like a novelty before Apple changed the world with its iPhone, and now we wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without one. This whole thing is a bandwagon, and it’ll be better to leap on it sooner than later.
Do you have to pay a monthly fee?
None of the smart speakers available at the moment force you to pay a monthly fee for their services. You simply buy the speaker and you’re good to go. You will need to sign up for a Google, Apple, or Amazon account for the corresponding device. However, these are all free to do so.
That being said, you might get more out of these devices if you do take out subscriptions. Amazon’s Echo devices, for example, can get you music from Prime Music or place orders for next day delivery if you have an Amazon Prime account.
Apple’s HomePod is also best enjoyed with Apple Music, a subscription service which allows you to listen to vast reams of music as much as you like, all optimised for the HomePod’s impressive speakers.
Is Alexa a good speaker?
Yes. While Amazon and Google have both played up the smartness of their speakers, I’m happy to confirm that they’re perfectly functional as normal speakers too. Amazon’s Echo, home to Alexa, is a good speaker as it goes. If you feel it needs beefing up further than consider investing in an Echo Studio.
All that being said, if you’re looking for a really powerful speaker you should consider Apple’s HomePod. This was created as a speaker first and foremost.
Can you use Spotify on the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, and Google Nest?
While all of the major smartspeaker brands also operate their own music streaming services (Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music, and Google Play Music), the most popular music streaming service in the world is still Spotify. So, if you’ve got a Spotify subscription, you’ll probably want to know if you can use it on your shiny new speaker. Well, that depends on your speaker.
Amazon Echo does work with Spotify. You’ll need to use the companion app to change your preferences, but once you’ve set that up Alexa can play music from Spotify.
Apple HomePod doesn’t technically work with Spotify, but there is a get around. You can’t ask Siri to search for music from Spotify directly, but you can play music from Spotify on your iPhone and, through AirPlay, it will play through your speakers.
Google Nest does work with Spotify. You can search for music on Spotify by saying “Play *song name* on Spotify” or you can change your default music player to Spotify so you don’t have to specify. It’s up to you.
Do you have to buy your smart speaker from the big three manufacturers?
Nope. As the hype continues to grow, more and more technology brands are bringing vocal assistants into their own speakers. However, Apple, Google, and Amazon are the companies behind the voice assistants in each device, which is why I've focused on them for the purpose of this article. Sonos makes a range of critically acclaimed smart speakers, but you’ll be using Alexa and Google Assistant in those devices and the functionality for the voice assistants is the same. If Alexa can do it on an Echo, she can do it on a Sonos speaker and vice versa.
A glossary of terms
AI: Short for artificial intelligence. This is the ability of the virtual assistants onboard smartspeakers (like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant) to understand and interpret your meaning when you make requests of them.
Virtual assistant: This is the name given to the user interface of smartspeakers, Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant because they operate as your assistant: changing the music, setting timers, giving you reminders etc. This is especially useful if you’ve got plenty of smart tech around your home as you could conceivably control your whole home with a couple of notifications.
Smart tech: Sometimes called the Internet of Things. This refers to all the devices you’ve got around your home, which are connected to the internet in some way. That could be smart speakers, smart appliances, smart lightbulbs etc. Usually these devices only have a very basic internet connection, which is why they’re considered ‘things’ rather than computers or smartphones.
Wake word: This is the word you use to tell your smart speaker to listen to you. These devices only work by constantly listening but they can’t understand anything you say until you use the wake word. By default, these are set to ‘Alexa’ on Amazon’s devices, ‘Siri’ on Apple’s devices, and ‘OK Google’ on Google’s devices.