The most exciting thing about smart speakers is that they are all so utterly imperfect. Each of the mainstream examples – Amazon’s Echos, the Google Home, Sonos’s wide range and the new Apple HomePod – packs within it stunning technology that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago. But they’re also full of downsides, making choosing one a matter of deciding what you want, not simply settling on the best.
Deciding is a matter of picking which things you want – and which things you definitely don’t. Some sound good, but are terrible at talking back to you. Some include highly-developed virtual assistants who you’ll never want to actually ask you to play anything, since the sound they make is so bad.
Ultimately, you’re going to have to pick the smart speaker that fits best into your life. And so here are all the possible lives you might lead – and which smart speaker suits them best.
But first, here’s the most simple possible ways of categorising the big smart speaker brands.
Gadgets and tech news in pictures
If you want GREAT SOUND: Apple HomePod or Sonos One. These are the two best designed, best sounding, smart speakers on the market. They have differences in the sound (the HomePod is more immediately, obviously great-sounding) and what they can do (you can’t use a HomePod with an Android phone, for instance). But these are the two you should be picking between if you only care about sound.
If you want THE BEST ALL-ROUNDER: Sonos One. It sounds great, and it talks great too. By borrowing Alexa from Amazon, Sonos pack in the best of the voice assistant; by pairing it with their own great sound, they give you a great way to listen to music, too.
If you want the MOST USEFUL ASSISTANT: Amazon Echo (in whatever of its many forms you’d like). Amazon has got lots of practise at making great assistants, and Alexa now speaks to a wide variety of different services and products. So if you just want to leap into voice assistants and aren’t bothered about sound, pick the Echo.
But even that short round-up isn’t really enough to cover each of the speakers’ various positives and negatives. So it’s worth diving into some of the more specific considerations and situations, to see what might suit you best.
If you want A KITCHEN RADIO: Amazon Echo. Even on the best-sounding Echos – like the Echo Plus – the sound isn’t great. But it’s good enough for simply listening to talk radio, or occasionally listening to music while you’re in the kitchen. If you really want to commit, you could get the Amazon Echo Show – which has good speakers and an entire screen, for tracking of timers and more.
If you want A VARIETY OF SOURCES: Sonos. All of the different smart speakers have a way of getting whatever you’d like onto them: you can Bluetooth to the Echos or use Apple’s AirPlay to broadcast anything you’d like onto the HomePod. But because Sonos prides itself on being a platform rather than providing a service itself, it’s been very keen on integrating everything that it possibly can. That means you can get everything the other smart speakers support – Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play Music, Amazon Music – as well as a range of other things, like Tidal or radio shows.
If you want to USE ANOTHER, NON-INTERNET AUDIO SOURCE: Sonos. The company’s big Play:5 features a line-in that you can then use to send audio around your house, meaning that if you want to hook something else up to your smart speaker setup – like a record player, for instance – you can do that in a thoroughly modern way. The company also offers a product called the Connect, which is a little expensive but does much the same thing. The TV speakers – the Soundbar and Soundbase – can also send your TV audio all around your house, which can be perfect if you’re watching sport and don’t want to miss a thing even when you head to the kitchen. (This is one of those where there’s no question – no other smart speaker allows you to do this.)
If you DON’T USE APPLE MUSIC: Just not a HomePod. You can actually get other music – from Spotify, or wherever – onto your HomePod, using Apple’s wireless AirPlay technology from your phone. But there’s little point in trying, and it’s clear that the HomePod is meant to work with Apple’s ecosystem of sound. If you want good sound from Spotify, get a Sonos One, which among other things works perfectly with Spotify Connect so you can start music playing from it in the app.
If you HAVE AN ANDROID PHONE: Same. Just don’t buy a HomePod. Refer to all the other uses cases in here, and the rest of the advice, but don’t get a HomePod. There’s nothing for you here – you can’t even set it up.
If you want A TV SPEAKER: Sonos. Only Sonos lets you plug your TV into its soundbar and soundbase, both of which sound great. And only Sonos lets you then use its smaller speakers as a surround system, and its Sub bass speaker for extra oomph. Nobody even rivals…