When Amazon unveiled its first Echo speaker with Alexa voice-control in 2016, we took one step closer to realising our sci-fi dreams of controlling the tech in our lives with simple voice commands.
Fast-forward to 2018 and smart speakers are close to being a household staple.
Amazon's Alexa ecosystem has now grown to 20,000 Alexa-compatible devices from more than 3,500 brands, and it's only growing bigger. Meanwhile, Google released smart speakers with its own voice assistant built in, and Apple's much-vaunted Siri-controlled HomePod and Sonos's One are leading the way for good-sounding smart speakers.
It seems every audio manufacturer is releasing a smart product with at least one voice assistant built inside it these days. And they're just getting started.
But what exactly is a smart speaker? What can you do with it, and should you buy one? Read on to find out...
What is a smart speaker?
If we're being really pedantic, a speaker capable of anything beyond just emitting sound can be technically labelled as ‘smart’.
So the fact wireless speakers feature Bluetooth, NFC, speakerphone abilities and can be controlled by apps already make them pretty smart.
But in general, and because the tech industry is going with this description, ‘smart speakers’ are wireless speakers with voice-control built into them. Basically, if you can shout commands at your wireless speaker to make it do things, it’s a smart speaker.
Smart speakers tend to be single-unit wireless speakers (although soundbars, amplifiers and even microwaves are now possible), and have artificial intelligence (AI) from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft or Samsung (so far) built into them.
These come in the form of voice-controlled personal assistants, with the most popular being Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Google Assistant. Apple’s Siri is, of course, the brains behind the HomePod speaker, while Microsoft's Cortana and Samsung's Bixby are the lesser known AIs.
What can a smart speaker do?
You can ask your smart speaker to play a song or playlist. You can ask it to set a timer while baking a soufflé. You can control your AV system. You can ask it to turn down the lights in your room, turn up the heating, ask for the weather report, check the traffic, book an Uber, tell it to create a to-do list or get it to tell you a joke.
If you’re thinking this sounds exactly like having your own digital butler à la Iron Man’s JARVIS, well, you’re not far off.
All you have to do is say the magic (or "wake") words - such as ‘OK Google’, ‘Alexa’ or ‘Hey Siri’ - and your smart speaker will prick its ears up and wait to hear your command.
What you can do with a smart speaker depends largely on which AI your speaker has inside it – Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri work in different ways and work with different apps and services – and the extent of your smart home.
Alexa and Google Assistant both work with the big ones: Spotify Connect (you'll need a Premium account to voice-control music playback), TuneIn Radio, Philips Hue, Nest, Samsung SmartThings, IFTTT (If This Then That), Kayak and, naturally, Domino’s Pizza.
Alexa has the upper hand in having more ‘skills’ and working with a greater and broader variety of third-party apps (such as National Rail Enquiries, Just Eat, Uber, Lyft, Hive, Expedia, Fitbit, Tube status updates and Amazon Music). It even works with Google Calendar. If your home is kitted out with lots of smart gadgets, Alexa is likely to work with nearly all of them.
Google Assistant, meanwhile, doesn’t fully support all of Google’s services (you can't get it to read or compose emails through Gmail, and it won't recognise all the Calendars available), but it does have the world’s most powerful search engine at its disposal. So it’s better at answering your questions and providing useful information than Alexa.
It also works with Google Play Music, iHeart Radio, The Food Network and, best of all, through Chromecast and its compatible products. This means you can voice-control YouTube and Netflix videos on your TVs (but not, so far, Google's own Play Movies or Amazon Prime Video). Another boon is being able to call anyone for free via wi-fi using Google voice commands, and if you have Chromecast Audio, you can play hi-res audio through your system.
Apple's typically closed ecosystem means Siri's scope is more limited. On the music side, Siri is only compatible with Apple Music on the HomePod. There's no voice control for third-party music apps like Spotify, nor for any BBC or internet radio stations, which will be off-putting to many. Smart home aspects available to you via Apple HomeKit - such as Philips Hue lights and more - are widely supported, and you can use Siri with native iOS apps in the same way you do on iPhones and iPads.
Most smart speakers still function as basic wireless speakers, of course. You can stream songs to them via Bluetooth and/or AirPlay if you're not using voice control, and a lot of them now support multi-room audio streaming.
Do smart speakers sound any good? What are the alternatives?
The first smart speakers, Amazon Echo and Google Home, prioritised ‘smart’ aspects over audio performance. We aren't huge fans of the way they sound, and wouldn't recommend them as the main music source in your home.
But that tide is changing. While most smart speakers still don't offer the best in sound quality, others, such as the Apple HomePod, Sonos One and Ultimate Ears Megablast, have shown sound quality needn't take a back seat – they can function as great-sounding wireless speakers in their own right.
The HomePod takes it one step further, with its excellent audio performance outstripping its smarts.
And with established hi-fi brands such as Bang & Olufsen, Harman Kardon, Libratone, Audio Pro, Sony, and more, bringing out their own smart speakers (and soundbars), and with Amazon now making Alexa-powered subwoofers and amplifiers, it might be the case that future hi-fi and AV products will come with voice control support as standard.
Equally, if you’re not fussed about controlling your music using voice commands and simply want a good wireless speaker with good sound quality, you’re spoilt for choice in that department. There are some fantastic wireless speakers in every shape, size and price range - read our handy guide to finding the perfect wireless speaker for you.
Alternatively, if you're only interested in the voice control element of smart speakers, you can simply add the puck-sized Amazon Echo Dot, new Echo Input or Google Home Mini to your existing music system. They'll give you all the smart features of their full-sized versions, but you won't need to depend on them for sound quality.
What are the best smart speakers?
But if you have your heart set on a smart speaker, here are some of the best options:
The Sonos One has the best of all AI worlds: it is deeply integrated with Alexa, supports Siri, and will also feature Google Assistant in 2019. It also sounds and looks good (additional colours cost £30 more), and comes with all the benefits of Sonos's multi-room ecosystem alongside the voice control smarts. Crucially, Alexa plays nice with Spotify. The One is the most well-specified and versatile smart speaker we've encountered yet.
Ultimate Ears' Bluetooth speakers are the first portable speakers to support Alexa voice control. Alexa aside, they've retained all the best qualities that we've come to love about Ultimate Ears speakers: excellent portability, rugged build, and fun, easy to use features. Their punchy, enthusiastic, 360-degree sound is immensely fun to listen to – some might even prefer the Megablast to the Sonos One - and they're a great portable option for smart speakers.
Amazon started the whole smart speaker trend with the clever Echo. The next-gen Echo is smaller, cheaper and a whole lot smarter when controlling your smart home. It's not the greatest Bluetooth speaker in terms of sound, but the Echo Dot and new Echo Input sound like great ways of introducing smart elements into your existing sound system.
Don't use the Google Home speaker for its so-so sound, use it for its Chromecast streaming and multi-room abilities. A new premium version called Google Home Max and a smaller £50 Google Home Mini are also part of Google's smart family.
If you like using Google Assistant for its smarts but want better sound, this LG ticks that box. Partnered with audio brand Meridian, LG's first smart speaker plays hi-res 24-bit/192kHz files, has Chromecast built-in, and has an expansive, punchy and detailed sound that's worth auditioning.
Apple's pricey HomePod only works for Apple users with an Apple Music subscription - but it's easily the best-sounding smart speaker we've tested so far. The 360-degree design is packed with intelligent audio technology, Siri is an intuitive curator for music discovery, you can pair two HomePods together for a good stereo set up, and there's now multi-room streaming via AirPlay 2.