The best smart speaker
Smart speakers are one of the most dazzling inventions in recent years, allowing you to control the lights and appliances of your home with simple voice commands to a device's integrated and interactive virtual assistant. Any smart speaker requires a WiFi connection to communicate with other devices in your home and to connect to the internet, but the features and audio quality of smart speakers can vary.
Before you buy, you should consider whether your device will be used primarily for phone calls, streaming and internet queries or for controlling your smart devices--or all of the above. The quality of voice recognition and the devices' responses to smart commands will differ from one model to the next. Our favorite is the popular and versatile Amazon Echo, which stands out for its sound quality and variety of voice commands. However, if you already have smart appliances in your home, you should check the compatibility of a smart speaker before you buy.
Considerations when choosing smart speakers
Smart speaker functions
A smart speaker can serve as the versatile hub of your smart home, or as a way to quickly search the internet without lifting a finger.
If you have other smart devices, such as lights or security features, many smart speakers allow for voice commands to control your various devices or turn lights on and off without getting up. While this may seem like a superfluous feature, wait until you adjust your lawn sprinklers from the comfort of your bed.
A smart speaker can also be a mini entertainment system, especially if it has excellent audio quality. With several linked smart speakers, you can create multiroom audio in your home, making it easy to control the music wherever you are and set the mood for your entire home.
Since any smart speaker is connected to the internet, you can also ask it questions or look up information such as local weather.
Assessing the virtual assistants
Smart speakers have integrated virtual assistants that vary in their responsiveness, voice, and functions.
Google Assistant, featured in Google Home products, has the advantage of using Google as its search engine. Voice recognition is not the most reliable.
Amazon Alexa is the best-known virtual assistant and is found in the Amazon Echo series. With excellent voice recognition and a steady influx of new features, this is a versatile and easy-to-use virtual assistant.
Siri from Apple is found in the Apple HomePod and has spotty voice recognition. In addition, the number of compatible applications is limited, and the device may require you to use certain Apple services.
Smart speakers for $50 to $85 are low-end products that may have subpar audio quality and lack features such as portability.
In the $85 to $150 range are the most popular brand-name smart speakers, which often have room-filling sound quality and work well for streaming music and a variety of voice commands.
For $150 to $500 are larger speakers with superior sound quality but the same functions as mid-range models.
Q. Are smart speakers always listening to everything within microphone range?
A. Technically, they are--this is how they are able to "wake" upon hearing their name. However, they do not necessarily record everything they hear.
Q. How hard is it to set up a smart speaker?
A. Setup varies from one device (and assistant) to the next. In most cases, setup is as simple as plugging in the speaker, connecting to WiFi, and logging into your Google, Amazon, or Apple account.
Smart speakers we recommend
Best of the best: Amazon Echo (2nd Generation)
Our take: This compact smart speaker has become the industry standard with its excellent sound quality and voice recognition.
What we like: Alexa is a reliable virtual assistant capable of performing several functions, and constant updates are improving this speaker regularly.
What we dislike: This speaker does not perform well at high volumes.
Best bang for your buck: Google Home
Our take: Google Home is an easy-to-use smart speaker that is compatible with many smart home devices.
What we like: The ability to use Google search is a huge plus, and the learning curve is very forgiving for those unfamiliar with smart speakers.
What we dislike: This is not the best option for music streaming.
Choice 3: Apple HomePod
Our take: This smart speaker boasts excellent sound quality but limited music-streaming options.
What we like: The sleek design of this speaker allows it to blend in with your decor. If you already use Apple Music and other Apple services, this is an excellent smart speaker.
What we dislike: The high price tag may put this speaker out of reach for some, and it is not compatible with most music streaming services.
Peter McPherson is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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