Smart Speakers: A Buyer’s Guide

Smart Speakers: A Buyer’s Guide

They can do everything from playing your favourite tunes to turning on the lights. But which should you get? We test the four leading models

Powered by article titled “Smart speakers: a buyer’s guide” was written by Samuel Gibbs, for The Observer on Sunday 25th February 2018 09.30 UTC

Amazon Echo

Price: £89.99Amazon’s second-generation Echo is a revamped version of the device that invented the whole category of smart speakers in 2014. The new Echo is smaller, better sounding and better looking, in a choice of fabric or wood finishes.

What makes the Echo great is Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa. A ring of seven microphones in the top listens out for your choice of wake word – the default is simply “Alexa” – before sending what you say to Amazon’s servers for interpretation. Alexa can almost always hear you including over music noise as loud as an extractor fan and from pretty far away.

Alexa has multi-user support, can answer quite a lot of questions, is excellent at interpreting what you say and has a plethora of built-in talents and third-party skills that can be plugged into it, making it the most rounded voice assistant available. It particularly excels at smart home control and music playback, with full voice control over Spotify, Amazon Music and TuneIn.

The new Echo also sounds better than the old one, with more bass and clarity, particularly at higher volumes. While it’s not the best in the bunch, it certainly punches above its weight for the price, able to fill a room with its 360-degree audio from a single 2.5in woofer and a 0.6in tweeter. It even has an audio out port and Bluetooth for connecting to speakers and streaming music to or from the Echo.

Amazon’s Alexa app is very capable, if a little sluggish, making setting it up and changing things easy. Buttons on the top for volume, an action button and a mute button are complemented by a light ring around the top that shows you what Alexa is doing and where the Echo thinks you’re speaking from. Mute the mics and the ring glows red, which is easy to see from across the room.

Verdict: At £90, it’s difficult to beat the Echo, with Alexa making it the best value all-round smart speaker.

an apple homepod tilted at a slight angle against a red background
The Apple HomePod: impressive sound quality. Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Apple HomePod

Price: £319 The newest entry is Apple’s HomePod and, with it, the iPhone-maker is finally joining the party more than three years after the first Echo hit the market. The HomePod is the biggest and most expensive smart speaker in the group, a mesh-covered cylinder with a flat silicone bottom and glossy, touch-sensitive disc on top.

Despite being large, it’s the most unassuming of the bunch and is as at home in the middle of the kitchen table as it is on a mantelpiece or bookshelf. Be warned, though: the silicone foot will leave white ring marks on treated wood. The top has two hidden volume buttons and a centre multicolour display that shows when Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, is listening to you. It’s not the easiest to see from across the room and while you can mute the microphones, there’s no visible indication that the HomePod isn’t listening any more.

The HomePod is arguably the best-sounding speaker in the bunch. It has an array of seven tweeters and one woofer that creates the most expansive soundscape you’re likely to find from a single speaker. It automatically adjusts to its surroundings, creating an immersive experience no matter where it’s placed in the room, with deep but tightly controlled bass and excellent separation, meaning nothing gets lost, even in the crescendo.

While it sounds good, Apple’s Siri just isn’t up to the same standard as Google’s Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa. It can hear you as well as the best of them, but understanding you is a different matter. Siri gets what you’re trying to say around 70% of the time, which can be extremely frustrating, while its ability to answer questions and perform tasks just isn’t as good. There’s no multi-user account support, either, which means it’s less easy to get on with in a family home.

The HomePod also only supports Apple Music or iTunes Match, meaning no native Spotify or even radio beyond Beats 1. Music can be sent to it via AirPlay from an iOS device, Mac or iTunes on a PC, but Android devices are out and there’s no Bluetooth or line-in support. A modern iOS device is also needed to set up the HomePod, meaning it’s for all-Apple users only.

Verdict: It sounds great but Siri, connectivity and music service support are way behind the competition.

a google home smart speaker shot against a red background
Google Home: ‘Assistant will be able to work out what you’re trying to ask, where others fail.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Google Home

Price: £129 Google’s Home smart speaker is a smaller, chubbier device than most of the others. Instead of being a cylinder like the Echo or the HomePod, the Home looks like a vase with a white, soft-touch, white plastic top and fabric base (hiding a single speaker and two passive radiators).

The whole of the top panel is touch-sensitive. Tap the centre to activate Google Assistant and swipe your finger in circular motions to adjust the volume. A button on the back mutes the microphones. Hidden beneath the top surface is a ring of LEDs, which light up to show you what’s going on, making circling patterns when Assistant is responding or lighting up yellow when the mics are muted.

Google Home has two mics in the top that enable Assistant to hear you pretty well, over most noise and music, but not quite as well as the Echo. Assistant has a similar set of skills to Amazon’s Alexa with the best natural language recognition available – if you mess up your question, Assistant will normally be able to work out what you’re trying to ask, where others fail. It also has multi-user support, recognising different voices and making it easy to get music from your library or information from your calendar.

Assistant has the biggest information database, making it better than the rest at general knowledge, falling back to the web for further information, but its third-party apps and smart home control lag slightly behind Alexa.

The sound from the Home is rather more direct than the Echo, fired out the front. It has a relatively large amount of bass and can get pretty loud for a small speaker, but is less clear than the Echo. There’s no Bluetooth out or analogue socket, but it can natively play music from Spotify or Google Play Music or receive music via Bluetooth or Google Cast.

Verdict: Google Assistant’s understanding and information access are unparalleled but Home is more expensive than the Echo.

the sonos one speaker tilted at an angle against a red background
The Sonos One: Alexa on board and almost every music service available. Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Sonos One

Price: £199 The Sonos One promises to be the jack of all trades. Sonos took the great Play:1 bookshelf speaker, added a touch-sensitive top with buttons for volume and playback and perforated it with holes for a six-mic array in the top. As such, the One is more at home on a bookshelf or similar than in the centre of a table, as its single woofer and tweeter face forwards rather than projecting sound in all directions.

Unlike any of the other speakers in this group, the One has the potential to support more than one voice assistant. Right now, it comes with Amazon’s Alexa, but the company is working on Google Assistant integration too.

It can hear you well and has two LEDs in the top. One indicates whether the mics are on and the other flashes when Alexa is working. Unlike the rest, the One also makes a beep when Alexa hears the wake word, making it easier to tell from across the room that it’s listening. The One supports most of Alexa’s functionality, including all the skills, smart home control and assistant features, plus full voice control of Spotify, Amazon Music and TuneIn, but lacks voice calling and ebook playback.

Also unlike the rest, the One is fully capable of operating as a wifi speaker without Alexa. The Sonos app integrates almost every music service under the sun, including Apple Music, into one searchable place, or you can use Spotify Connect to play music. There’s no Bluetooth or analogue audio support, though. You can also tweak the sound to your liking in the app and do what Sonos calls Trueplay tuning using an iOS device to optimise the sound for the room.

The One sounds great as an individual speaker, but sounds even better in a stereo pair, and can be linked with any one of the older Sonos speakers for multi-room audio.

Verdict: This excellent-sounding speaker with Alexa is a tough combo to beat. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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