Best Smart Speaker Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best smart speakers you can buy in 2021.
Virtual voice assistant speakers from big-hitters Amazon, Apple and Google have never been so full of smarts. Whether you want to know the news headlines, how many calories are in an avocado (around 250), quick and failsafe scone recipes or even whether the cat misses you now you're commuting again, Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant can now be found nestled inside certain speakers, waiting patiently for your next query.
Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant products aren't just humble fonts of knowledge, either. These speakers play your chosen music over Bluetooth or wi-fi and, depending on the brand, also offer access to a number of different music streaming services, including Apple Music, Deezer and Spotify.
But what should you look for when selecting a smart speaker?
The first thing to consider is compatibility. Most smart speakers are platform agnostic, so they'll work with both Android and iOS devices, but the Apple HomePod Mini isn't much use without an Apple mobile device to set it up.
It's also worth thinking about which ecosystem you use most. If you frequently use Google's services – Calendar, Maps, Gmail – maybe a product with Google Home baked in would be best for you. Love shopping at Amazon and have a Prime account? An Amazon Echo might be right up your alley. (While these do both work with other services, they're tightly integrated with those made by their creators, making them much slicker to use.)
Finally: sound quality. This can vary quite a lot between models and manufacturers and spending more doesn't always guarantee a better listening experience. Some of the smaller smart speakers are limited purely because of their dimensions. Be realistic about your budget and what to expect. Luckily, every product here comes with our full fat, unabridged, comprehensively star-rated review attached – and if it didn't get at least a highly-commended four-star review under test conditions, you won't find it on this list.
From cheap budget options to premium sonic experiences, read on for our pick of the best smart speakers for music and voice features. And Amazon's most expensive smart device to date, the 3rd-gen Echo Show 10 launched on 25th February, swiftly followed by Google's more budget screen-enhanced option. And they're both in this list, with full-fat reviews attached...
The HomePod Mini really is bijou. At just 8.4cm tall and 9.8cm wide, it’s quite a bit smaller than the similarly spherical Amazon Echo. In fact, it’s even dwarfed by the new Echo Dot. Get its swirling orb of coloured light up and running (when Siri is listening or processing) though, and you realise you've got a classy performer on your hands.
After a short period of learning, Siri will respond to the phrase “Hey Siri, play something I'll like” not by streaming your most played track of the last few weeks, but by playing something that you may have never listened to before but is a good fit for what you often do listen to. It’s a really powerful way to discover new music, and Alexa is nowhere near as good at it.
It goes loud, too. From the moment we start playing music, it’s clear that the HomePod Mini comfortably outperforms its size and price, quite frankly embarrassing its direct competition with the sophistication and maturity of its sound.
Read the full review: Apple HomePod Mini
The question of which voice assistant to introduce to your home is largely a personal one. But by updating its most popular and affordable Echo device with this degree of skill, Amazon has laid down the most compelling case yet for choosing Alexa. Regardless of the Marmite aesthetic (yes, it looks like a little Magic 8-Ball) Alexa's responses are slightly quicker, the answers are much (much) clearer, and the sonic performance is better than ever.
Amazon’s entry-level smart device has come a long way in terms of sound quality since the arrival of the first and second Dots – so much so, you could say Amazon has come a 'full circle’ in the smart speaker arena.
Read the full review: Amazon Echo Dot (4th Generation)
The JBL Link Portable's neat connectivity features bring a plethora of streaming options to the table – features rarely seen in the sub-£150 speaker category including AirPlay 2, Chromecast and hi-res support. You also get hands-free Google Assistant, a charger cradle and wireless streaming via wi-fi or Bluetooth.
The Link Portable looks and feels like a premium product. For a speaker of this size, it has oodles of detail and an expansive mix with everything present, including bass. While there's no PartyBoost or Connect+ support for daisy-chaining other JBL speakers, the Link Portable makes JBL a serious contender in the category of affordable wireless speakers.
Read the full review: JBL Link Portable.
Amazon's inaugural smart speaker is back with a whole new look, a built-in Zigbee smart hub, and more potential under its new 100 per cent recycled hood. You don’t need an especially keen eye to realise that Amazon has started from scratch for this fourth-generation Echo.
The cylinder design has gone, in favour of a Magic 8-Ball-esque sphere, and perhaps fittingly you can ask it any question you want – as long as it’s plugged in to power and linked to your wi-fi. There's an impressive selection of third-party support, (once you’ve linked your streaming service accounts, it'll play music from Apple Music, Spotify or Deezer over wi-fi, and even if you don’t link any music-provider subscriptions, the Echo will play from Amazon Music by default – and you’ve always got TuneIn radio) and the pulsating ring of light is relocated to the lopped-off base.
Alexa feels present and useful but not imposing, the Alexa app support makes placement and multi-room configurations a breeze, and the sound quality, while a step down from superb, easily passes the sound-per-pound value test for a smart home hub of this modest price.
Read the full review: Amazon Echo (4th generation)
Bang & Olufsen isn’t noted for following the herd. In the Danish tech specialist’s catalogue you'll find a wheel-shaped wireless speaker, a TV that opens up like a butterfly, and an 8200-watt monolithic speaker comprising 18 drivers. B&O's output could reasonably be described as "premium" and "innovative" – and the Beosound A1 (2nd Gen) wireless speaker is no exception.
It boasts similar dimensions to a large floury bap, but that's where any comparisons with baked goods end. The new A1 supports Qualcomm’s latest aptX Adaptive Bluetooth 5.1 codec, and of course, Alexa is built-in (in a manner of speaking – it's a Bluetooth-only speaker).
It works a treat, too, delivering a pleasingly comfortable yet authoritative performance that you'd be happy listening to all day. Throw in its classy, well made design, easy to use operation and the bonus of Alexa (as long as your smartphone is nearby and connected to wi-fi), and you're looking at a Bluetooth speaker sequel that has very much been worth the wait.
Read the full review: Bang & Olufsen Beosound A1 (2nd Gen)
It's the most expensive smart device Amazon has produced by a whole £20 ($20, AU$50) but when you consider that its 10.1in Full HD screen can now tilt and twist to follow you around the room, and that both the speaker and camera performance have been significantly improved from the previous-generation model, that price hike begins to look entirely reasonable.
Physically, it's imposing. It will require a space the size of a large pizza to operate fully (it comes with a footprint so you can check). The camera has been boosted from 5MP to 13MP and it’s here one of the biggest gains is to be had, because you can now ‘drop in’ visually on the Show 10 by selecting ‘communicate’ and tapping on the Show 10 icon – and nobody need answer at the other end. But you can go even further. Tap ‘All devices’ on the Alexa app and the Show 10, then ‘camera’ and you’ll get a live feed of your home. Swipe left or right on your smartphone and it manually moves the Show 10 to pan around your room in real-time.
If you want to make sure the family silver hasn’t been pinched, see if a parcel has arrived or just spy on the cat, you now have a security camera that zooms in and out, depending on how close a moving object is to the screen. It’s a neat feature and the Show 10 is likable and helpful overall. It won’t be your new sound system – for this money, we would expect a little more from it sonically – but it is a very good smart device indeed.
Read the full review: Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd Generation)
To put the Google Nest Hub’s 7in (1024 x 600) touchscreen into context, the display real estate is only marginally bigger than the 6.7in one sported by the largest iPhone 12 Pro Max when measured on the diagonal – and here, there's no camera for selfies, video calls or security duties.
But there are plenty of music streaming and TV services available, including All 4, Deezer, Netflix and Disney Plus – and remember, Amazon's smart products don't currently have 'skill' support for Disney Plus. The headline-grabber, however, is Sleep Sensing, which is free to trial on the Hub this year but will come at a cost from 2022. As the Nest Hub includes Google’s Soli sensor for motion detection, plus light and temperature sensors, not only can you stop and resume tracks by simply showing your Hub the palm of your hand, the chip housed within the speaker can tell you how long you slept for and how restful your sleep was. It's something different and trying to align your 'sleep circles' with a good eight hours is quite addictive.
Amazon's Echo Show 10 (above) – a similar smart-speaker-with-screen concept – is almost three times the price and is bigger, beefier, and comes with a snapper. But thanks to Disney Plus, Sleep Sensing tech and a good (if not great) sound, the Google Nest Hub is a worthy proposition depending on your priorities.
Read the full review: Google Nest Hub (2nd Generation)
The headline here is that the third-gen Echo Dot with Clock is actually much better sounding than the second-gen Dot (without a clock). The differences between it and the third-gen Echo Dot (also without a clock) aren’t huge, certainly not proportionate to those between previous generations, but they’re noticeable.
There’s no denying the Echo Dot with Clock is more comfortable keeping a tempo as well as offering more rhythmic drive than previous iterations. It’s almost as if that digital timepiece has had a beneficial effect on the music. Oh, and what if you already have a clock in the room where you want your Echo Dot? Then change the LED display to show the outside temperature or use it as a kitchen timer.
Read the full review: Amazon Echo Dot with Clock
Considerably larger than any previous Echo, the Studio manages to dwarf both the Sonos One and Apple HomePod. As well as boasting 330W of power and upgraded internals fit for CD-quality and hi-res audio (which are both now available from Amazon's latest incarnation of its streaming service, Amazon Music HD) the Echo Studio also promises to deliver 3D audio via tracks encoded in Sony's 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos.
Producing immersive, directional audio is always going to be difficult, but doing it from a single speaker source is even more challenging. Nevertheless, it’s an open, airy presentation that suits the 3D environment well. The speaker sits you in the jaws of a tall soundstage, where there's a good amount of detail to percussion and high frequencies. While we're not entirely convinced by the way it handles bass – and we wouldn't exactly call it audiophile quality – for the money, the Echo Studio has a lot going for it.
Read the full review: Amazon Echo Studio
If you want to get fully ensconced with the world of the digital assistant – and by that we mean with both audio and video – this is as a good a starting point as we’ve come across.
You see, where most Alexa-enabled kit on the market is audio based, concentrated on the Bluetooth speaker market in particular, the Echo Show 5 embraces both sound and video in its abilities to communicate. So, as well as playing music or reading out information, you can access video content on the Echo Show 5's 5.5in LCD touchscreen.
There’s also an HD camera, allowing the user to make Skype calls (for example), or view images from cameras in other rooms of the house – and elsewhere.
Although it can be beaten for sound quality, this is an £80 box of tricks that opens up the world of the digital assistant to a whole new audience for both audio and video; and if that’s what you’re after, this is about as good as you’ll get – especially for this kind of money.
Read the full review: Amazon Echo Show 5
Arguably the best all-round smart speaker you can currently buy, the Sonos One sounds superb for the money and has all the functionality you're likely to need. There's Spotify and Tidal integration, the ability to chat with Alexa and Google Assistant, and the option to build a multi-room system around it using other Sonos speakers or AirPlay 2. This is now the best Google speaker on the market.
Read the full review: Sonos One
The Megablast is Ultimate Ears’ loudest and smartest speaker yet. With Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built in, it can answer your questions as well as play all your favourite tunes.
More crucially, the Megablast joins the brand’s portfolio of five-star Bluetooth speakers that are simply fun to use and listen to. Good-looking and great-sounding, the Megablast is an absolute treat.
Read the full review: Ultimate Ears Megablast
The Audio Pro Addon C5A is almost identical to the Addon C5, which was our wireless speaker Product of the Year in 2017. So adding Alexa voice control to an Award-winning speaker is, frankly, the icing on the cake.
Available for the price of an Addon C5 plus the cost of an Amazon Echo product bolt-on, it brings the whole package into one tidy, easy-to-set-up box. And with that same Award-winning sound, this is the ideal combination for those who want an excellent Alexa wireless speaker that can be expanded into a full-blown multiroom system.
Read the full review: Audio Pro Addon C5A
It looks like your average smart speaker, but the Citation 100 produces bass by the bucket-load and can play extremely loud without strain. It is great for parties, though perhaps not so much for purists.
This Harman Kardon speaker has a pretty standard, minimalist design, and it keeps connections to a minimum, too, with no aux input. Control comes via the Google Home app and Google Assistant, and commands work well enough, though it seems slightly more prone to wi-fi drop-outs than rivals.
Sonically, while the Harman Kardon Citation 100 isn't exactly balanced, it is otherwise a tasteful-sounding smart speaker with enough scale to fill most rooms. If you don't mind that bassy over-exuberance, there's a lot to like.
Read the full review: Harman Kardon Citation 100
See our pick of the Best wireless speakers 2021