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Before we dive into the list, for those of you that aren’t familiar with the smart speaker category. It was basically created by Amazon and now has plenty of brands that make plenty of quality products…and more are coming in the future, including Apple’s HomePod. But what do we define as a smart speaker? We’re pretty broad with our interpretation, but we expect a smart speaker—at the very least—to have other features beyond the ability to play music. For the most part, that means incorporating a voice assistant like Alexa. Here are a few core features that you can expect from smart speakers:
– Of course…play music via Wi-Fi
– Control various smart home products
– Tell you about the weather, traffic, news, sports, and more
– Manage timers, reminders, and calendars
With all of that in mind, it’s really hard to beat the Amazon Echo 2, which is affordable [check price on Amazon], simple to use, and packed with features. It also has an updated design, which looks fairly nice, and pretty decent audio quality for the size. It’s not the best sounding speaker out there, but I keep it on my desk and listen to music using it everyday…I have no major complaints. Certainly will be good enough for most users.
In addition to the list above, you can shop on Amazon and make voice calls via the Echo 2nd Gen. It also has an AUX Out port and Bluetooth so you have two options for pairing it with other speakers. Amazon even supports multi-room listening with its Echo devices, which is really nice. And lets say you don’t want Alexa to stream music for you, the Echo 2 is also a Bluetooth speaker, but it is wired and is not portable.
If audio quality is your first concern, the Sonos One is the best speaker to get right now hands down. The audio is clear, crisp, loud, and balanced with very little distortions. Sonos even has you scan your room in the setup process to best adjust the music to your physical surroundings.
And while the Sonos One looks basically the same as the Sonos Play:1 [see on Amazon], it also incorporates Amazon Alexa for voice-enabled services. That means you get virtually all of the features of an Echo speaker, but with the audio quality of Sonos. One feature that is missing, however, is voice calling, but if you’re willing to overlook that the Sonos One is a killer smart speaker.
If you’d like to learn more about the speaker, make sure to check out our full Sonos One Review. In terms of pro’s and con’s, the first biggest pro is clearly the audio quality. Second is Amazon Alexa. Third, it has an Ethernet port and Sonos Boost, which allow you to create a separate network for just Sonos speakers so they don’t need to compete for an internet signal with your other Wi-Fi devices.
As for the con’s, well, it doesn’t have voice calling. It’s also relatively expensive with an MSRP of $200 [check current price on Amazon]. And it only has front-facing speakers (like the Echo 2). I’d love if it featured 360° of audio like the Bose SoundLink Revolve, for example.
The Google Home Mini is probably the best smart speaker from Google. Sure, there’s the Google Home, but the Google Home Mini has and MSRP of $50 and we’ve seen it as low as $29 on Walmart.com. The Google Home proper, on the other hand, has an MSRP of $130 (we’ve seen it as low as $79 at Walmart).
And when comparing the Google Home vs Amazon Echo Dot, the Google Home Mini wins hands down on audio quality. It’s also a Bluetooth speaker, while the Echo Dot is not. Beyond that, the Goole Home Mini is about the same size as a donut and looks far more attractive than the Echo Dot. It has a fabric weave exterior with hidden LEDs to let you know when Google Assistant is listening. This is a super simple device to setup and use, especially if you’re invested in the Google ecosystem. At the office, we have a number of Chromecast streaming sticks and it’s really easy and fun to prompt Google to display Netflix or YouTube on the TV for us. There’s a lot you can do with the Google Home Mini.
Amazon Echo Dot (left) // Google Home Mini (right).
Bottom line with the Google Home Mini is that it’s a more affordable version of the standard Google Home. Doesn’t really make any compromise on audio quality or loudness. And it’s a heck of a smart speaker, especially for $50.
UPDATE: As of late March 2018, Google Home now pairs with Bluetooth speakers.
If you’re really into smart home products or think you might be in the future, the Echo Plus is a good option to go with. While it looks identical to the original Echo device, it has updated audio hardware and a built-in Zigbee bridge to allow it to communicate directly with various smart home products.
If you aren’t familiar with Zigbee, essentially it’s a mesh network technology that allows smart home products to communicate with each other. Zigbee is a good option if you plan on getting a lot of smart home products or you have a larger house. I say this because the Zigbee products will talk to each other to form a strong connection, whereas Wi-Fi-enabled devices require a strong Wi-Fi connection to work. Also, too many Wi-Fi products on one signal can slow speeds down. Zigbee allows those devices to talk do each other and then to a bridge, which connects to the internet. That way you only have one device accessing the internet rather than dozens.
Z-Wave is another popular mesh network technology, but the Echo Plus only directly supports Zigbee. That said, you can connect your Z-Wave products to the Wink Hub 2 [see on Amazon] or the Samsung SmartThings Hub [see on Amazon] and sync that up with and Echo device. But, if you get the Echo Plus and Zigbee products then you won’t need a separate bridge from Wink, Samsung, or Philips.
Beyond Zigbee, the Echo Plus has pretty good audio, much like the Echo 2, and it has all of the standard Alexa features, including calling. Is the Zigbee bridge worth it to pay $150 [check current price on Amazon] for the Echo Plus? We don’t think so for most people. If you’re invested in a bunch of Zigbee home products, it may be worth looking into. Likewise, if you’re looking to outfit a house, it’s a good place to start, but it’s not necessary since the SmartThings hub and others are becoming increasingly affordable.
If you’re looking for a smart speaker for an office or a fancy home, the Harman Kardon Invoke is the one to get. It has an elegant, taper cylindrical shape that looks fantastic. It also has an LED aurora on top and a rotating volume dial. This speaker just looks a cut above other smart speakers. It also has 360° of audio, which separates it somewhat from a lot of voice-enabled speakers on the market now. The audio quality is also really good with the Invoke. I’d say as of now, the Sonos One and Harman Kardon Invoke are the two best speakers in terms of sound quality.
Instead of using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, Harman Kardon teamed up with Microsoft on this speaker. As such, it uses Cortana (Microsoft’s version of Alexa) to intake your requests. That’s good and bad. It’s good because it’s nice to see another company competing with Amazon and Google. It’s also good because the Cortana companion app is really helpful and, in my opinion, has a better layout than that of Amazon and Google.
It’s bad because Cortana isn’t quite as good or fast as Alexa or Google Assistant. Also, the Invoke only works with a limited number of audio sources, including Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn [check Harman.com for current list]. The same goes for smart home products. It supports the major players across the major categories such as lighting and locks, but it’s not on par with Amazon or Google. More companies and products are coming in the future so you may want to check Harman’s website for updates.
Aside from that, you can expect the standard smart features out of the Invoke. It can tell you about the weather, news, sports, traffic and more. It can start and manage timers and reminders. It can control your calendar. It even has a voice calling feature that allows you to call any number in the US, Canada, Mexico, and various US territories. Bottom line with the Invoke is that for $200, it’s a little pricey and hard to justify, aside from a preference towards its design. With that said, however, at $150 or under, it’s a quality pick. It will continue to get updates in the future. It’s not perfect now, but it’s a good first product from Harman and Microsoft.
Rounding out our list here is the best portable smart speaker. This is a relatively new category since these speakers function like an Amazon Echo, but are also portable Bluetooth speakers. The idea here is that with one speaker you have your at-home smart speaker and your on-the-go speaker. It’s a clever idea and the best speaker out right now is the JBL Link 10 (or the JBL Link 20, depending on whether you want a bigger or smaller speaker).
So what’s the deal with the Link 10 and Link 20? Well, these are essentially a standard Bluetooth speaker from JBL, but with Google Assistant built-in. The speakers have a fabric weave exterior and are pretty durable overall. They carry the vast majority of smart features that you’ll get with the Google Home (aside from voice calling). That means you can request music, control smart home devices, etc.
What we like about the Link speakers, as opposed to other similar devices is that they’re generally more affordable. They have an MSRP of $150 and $200, respectively, but you can check current pricing on JBL’s website. Beyond price, they are just the complete package. Good audio quality, design, durability, portability…all of it.
One downside with the Link speakers is that they don’t have a charging dock, which makes use at home a little more difficult. Since you’ll presumably be keeping the speakers on for extended periods of time, you’ll want to keep them plugged in. And in order to plug them in you need to lift up a flap to expose the MicroUSB slot. It would be much easier to just set them down on a charging cradle like you can do with the UE MEGABLAST, for example.
Overall, however, if you’re looking for the versatility that a portable speaker offers, the Link series are the way to go.