Smart speakers are a link between us and many of the clever things our internet-connected home tech can do. Using voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri, they enable us to skip songs on Spotify, look up facts via web search, and perhaps even turn on our smart lighting or control a smart thermostat. The user just has to say the appropriate command when they’re within hearing range of the speaker’s microphone(s).
How to choose a smart speaker
As we’ll see, the range of smart speakers available are diverse. Some are focused on creating the ideal audio experience for music lovers, while others specialise on hearing voice commands with great clarity. Some have screens enabling users to see, as well as hear, the results of their requests. Some are battery-powered, portable and perhaps even waterproof, while others run off mains electricity and require careful handling.
Choosing the right smart speaker for you will be a matter of looking at all the attributes of each option and deciding which features you need, and which you can live without. You should think about the following:
- How much do audio playback quality and power matter?
- Which smart assistant will I use (most of you will be using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant)?
- Do I need the speaker to be portable?
- What’s the right price range for me?
With these factors in mind, we’ve brought together a selection of speakers that will suit lots of different users.
Almost all the speakers we’ve reviewed can hook up to connected devices like phones and laptops to play music, and have a in-built ability for music to be voice controlled. The two exceptions are the Jual Furnishings San Francisco Smart Desk, which needs to be used with an Amazon Dot to enable voice commands, and the MIXX Audio Leen 7, which needs to be connected to a smartphone running a voice assistant app.
Smart speakers are listed in price order.
£23.50 (price correct at time of publishing), Amazon
Best for: Your wallet
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Siri, Google Assistant; Speaker power: 15W; Inputs: Bluetooth, 3.5mm AUX
The Leen 7 sounds extremely good, considering it comes at such a reasonable price. The bass is aggressive but doesn’t travel too far: an ideal combo if you love the musical role of low-end, but don’t want to wake up the neighbours. It’s comfortably loud enough for everyday use, and if you need more volume, you can use two Leen 7s together to create an immersive experience. Two units will come in at under £50.
This speaker’s smart assistant connectivity with Siri or Google Assistant is via your connected phone, tablet or laptop. As such, it’s not quite as user-friendly as the in-built voice assistants of some of the other speakers featured here. Nonetheless, this device is a great introduction to smart speaker tech, and punches well above its weight in terms of sound quality.
Best for: Showing off the full power of Google Assistant
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Google Assistant (with screen); Speaker power: 15W; Inputs: WiFi
Sound is only one side to the potential functionality of a smart assistant. Another side is visual output such as video or media-rich web search results, and the Google Home Hub does an excellent job of catering for this side of the equation. We used it with an in-built Google Assistant to check out recipes, look up facts on Wikipedia and view artworks.
We’ve also used it to listen to podcasts and music, which it managed with great clarity, albeit without the oomph you’ll get with a higher-spec speaker like the Stanmore ii Voice, the MEGABLAST or the ZIPP 2.
This is the perfect smart speaker for information transfer and smart home voice commands, thanks to its extremely receptive microphones, fast processing speed and novel ability to display visual results. It could also serve as a decent music player, for users who aren’t that fussy about audio.
£139.99 (price correct at time of publishing), Amazon
Best for: Getting the best out of Amazon Alexa
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Amazon Alexa; Speaker power: Not given (3.0” neodymium woofer and 0.8” tweeter); Inputs: WiFi, Bluetooth, 3.5mm AUX
The Echo Plus is extraordinarily quick at retrieving answers to questions. Within a few seconds of us asking, “Who invented the game of Monopoly?”, or, “What’s the average yearly rainfall in the UK?”, it responded clearly, in some cases following up by asking if we wanted more detail.
This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the smart capabilities of the Echo Plus, which can operate smart lighting, tweak smart thermostats, and perform a host of other actions that would’ve been the stuff of science fiction a few years ago.
In terms of sound quality, this is a good speaker, not a great one, which is roughly what you’d expect given its mid-market price and smorgasbord of smart functions.
The status LED light around the rim gives useful, colourful indications of connectivity status and interactions, as well as giving the speaker added character.
£162.17 (price correct at time of publishing), Amazon
Best for: Portability
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Amazon Alexa; Speaker power: Wattage not given, volume up to 93dB; Inputs: Bluetooth, WiFi
We’ve dropped this speaker out of a first-floor window. We’ve submerged it in water. Somehow, we once accidentally played a Shawn Mendes song with it, and through it all, it survived.
The MEGABLAST is about as indestructible as a smart speaker can be. It has an outstanding IP67 waterproof rating, and has more than enough battery life to be the star of your picnic/garden party/festival campsite. Ultimate Ears says it can last up to 16 hours on one charge, and this roughly tallies with our experience.
Add to this the MEGABLAST’s distinctive, punchy sound and in-built Amazon Alexa, and you have a recipe for an exemplary smart speaker. The only potential drawback is that its Alexa skills are fairly limited, with a focus on music commands.
This speaker is available in a range of colours at varying prices.
Best for: Responsiveness to voice commands
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Google Assistant, Chromecast; Speaker power: 40W; Inputs: Bluetooth, WiFi
This speaker comes with Google Assistant and Chromecast built-in, and we found the experience of using these functionalities impressively smooth. The Polk Assist gave us the quickest responses to our Google Assistant queries out of all the speakers we tested, whether we were asking for the weather forecast or for the definition of the word “transmogrify”.
It’s also exceptionally good at picking out your voice commands while playing music at high volume. We mumbled “Okay Google, stop” just about as quietly as we could while playing a song, and sure enough, the speaker turned off.
And then there’s the sound – punchy like the Megablast, but with some of the added detail you’ll get with the likes of the Marshall Stanmore II. We are mightily impressed.
This speaker supports a wide range of Google Assistant commands, including smart home controls.
Best for: A smart approach to sound-tuning
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant; Speaker power: Not given (driven by two Class D amplifiers); Inputs: WiFi, Apple Airplay, Spotify Connect, TuneIn
The Sonos One (Gen 2) is chic and solid, with a low centre of gravity that’d make it difficult to knock off your bedside table with a stray swipe of a morning arm.
Once connected to your smartphone, it uses a system called Trueplay to tune its sound to the room. This involves waving your phone up and down while the speaker plays test sounds, which turns out to be an oddly enjoyable thing to do. This process enables sound quality that ranks right up there with the best, with snappy dynamics that brought out the space and detail in the songs we played during testing – “Evan Finds The Third Room” by Khruangbin, and “Dark Red” by Steve Lacy.
The One is also highly responsive to voice commands, with six in-built mics that proved highly receptive, wherever we stood in the room. A wide range of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant commands are supported, including smart home controls and info requests.
The only potential drawback to this outstanding speaker is its lack of support for Bluetooth streaming or wired audio connections, which remain favoured input methods for many users.
£229.99, John Lewis & Partners
Best for: Top-notch sound quality in a mid-price smart speaker
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Amazon Alexa; Speaker power: 45W; Inputs: Spotify Connect, Apple Airplay 2, Bluetooth, WiFi, 3.5mm AUX
The first thing to say about the Pure DiscovR is that it sounds excellent – sharp and clear towards the top, and suitably growly when it needs to be. It really shows off the details in complex musical arrangements and nuanced performances, as we found out when listening to the beautiful “Two Thousand and Seventeen” by Four Tet. The sound this speaker creates is remarkably spacious, considering the fact it is about the size and shape of a jar of Douwe Egberts coffee.
Another highlight of the DiscovR is its design, which is a little sleeker and techier than many of its competitors. We love the coloured light strip around edge of the controls.
The DiscovR offers a comprehensive range of Alexa commands, including news, weather and smart home controls.
£279 (price correct at time of publishing), Amazon
Best for: User interface design
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Amazon Alexa; Speaker power: Class D; Inputs: Bluetooth, Spotify Connect, Apple Airplay 2, WiFi, 3.5mm AUX
The ZIPP 2 has by far the best user interface we’ve encountered in any smart speaker, combining a discreet, attractive design with lots of functionality. It’s highly intuitive: swipe around the edge to change the volume, tap to pause or play, or long-press the nightingale symbol in the centre of the button to access features such as playlisting and connectivity.
Another string to the ZIPP 2’s bow is its style. It’s probably the best-looking tower-style speaker we’ve reviewed, especially in the Pine Green colour shown above.
In terms of sound quality, we’d place this speaker right in the middle of the pack. It’s clear and powerful, just not quite as spacious and detailed-sounding as some other higher-end options.
The ZIPP 2 has a range of Alexa skills including smart home controls, but with the notable exception of voice calls.
Best for: Sound quality
Key specs – Smart functionalities: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant; Speaker power: 80W (50W + 15W + 15W); Inputs: Bluetooth, WiFi, RCA, 3.5mm AUX
If you’re into your music and want a real treat, you could do no better than picking up one of these. It is comfortably the best sounding smart speaker we’ve tested – the only potential downside is the price.
The Stanmore ii Voice is rich in audio functionality, from its impressive range of inputs to the EQ controls (bass and treble) you’ll find on top of the speaker. It looks exceptionally good, modelled on Marshall’s iconic guitar amplifier heads. And most importantly, it sounds streets ahead of any other speaker we’ve tested.
With in-built voice assistance thrown into the equation – there are separate models for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant – this is the complete smart speaker for those seeking both classic performance and cutting edge tech.
Interestingly, the Stanmore ii Voice has a stereo phono input, so you can use it as a speaker for devices like tape decks, record players and CD players.
There are separate models of this speaker with Amazon Alexa and with Google Assistant, so take care to buy the correct model for your preferred smart assistant. Unlike some other third-party speakers, the Stanmore ii Voice has a comprehensive range of smart functionalities that includes smart home commands.
£398.99, Robert Dyas
Best for: Transforming your home or office
Key specs – Smart functionalities: USB charging port x 2; wireless charging; Speaker power: 2.1 system (moderate power, wattage not given); Inputs: Bluetooth
Who left this lovely piece of furniture lying around here in our best smart speakers roundup?
There’s far more to the Jual Furnishings San Francisco smart desk than your ordinary desk. It has a 2.1 speaker system – with one subwoofer and a pair of stereo speakers – built into the underside, plus Bluetooth connectivity enabling playback from your smartphone or laptop. The sound is very good, and we immensely enjoyed the experience of listening to radio through the desk while we sat and worked. A robust-looking power switch and digital display give it a great sense of quality.
Jual’s desk doesn’t have a smart assistant built-in, but you can make it “smart” in that sense of the term by connecting it to an Amazon Echo Dot, which will enable you to hear responses from Amazon Alexa via the desk’s superior speakers. It does have some technological features that most competitors lack: namely, a pair of USB charging ports, plus a Qi standard wireless charger for your smartphone built into the desktop.
This is also an outstanding desk in its own right, with a stunning walnut top, trendy, mid-century-inspired curves and a nice, smooth surface to work on.
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