Today we want to convince you your home needs, wants and deserves more microphones than a recording studio. Why? Smart speakers.
These compact, living-room-ready speakers let you talk to digital assistants like Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa. You can ask for your favourite songs, to turn your smart lights on and off and to remind you do call your mum at 6pm.
And even if you have little interest in talking to tech, the best smart speakers also work perfectly as affordable fuss-free wireless sound systems. They are the easiest, often cheapest, way to get multi-room audio in your home.
If you’re concerned about privacy, Amazon and Google now offer a wider array of user-focused features such as auto deleting voice recordings, as well as various guarantees around user data. The ads are broadly true, though, as Apple is your best bet if you’re interested in the convenience of voice controls while still inclined to shoot for some privacy in your home.
Here are six of our favourites, complete with pros, cons and other factors to consider before buying.
Which smart speaker should you buy?
All the smart speakers we’ve tested so far have some flaws. The Apple HomePod Mini (£99) is a good bet, though – it’s our best smart speaker right now for its small, stylish design and balanced sound.
Amazon’s 4th gen Echo (£90) meanwhile is the best Alexa smart speaker. It’s not the last word in refinement, but you get great sound punch and scale per pound. When it’s on sale, it’s a real bargain.
Meanwhile, the Amazon Echo Studio (£190) is the best party smart speaker under £200, thanks to its monster subwoofer.
Apple HomePod Mini
WIRED Recommends: This smart speaker sounds larger than it looks
Voice assistant: Siri | Standby power use: 0.5W | Dimensions: 84 x 84 x 97.9 mm | Weight: 345g | Audio: 1x full range driver, 2x passive radiators | Mics: 4 microphones | Input/output: No wired input
The HomePod Mini (£99) makes you wish Apple designed the HomePod after this one, because it is a little marvel. It is the best sounding XS-size speaker by quite a margin.
And, bizarrely, it arguably has a better tonal balance than the original HomePod. There’s no over-reliance on treble, no too-keen bass. The HomePod Mini is balanced, tasteful, and sounds composed right up to its maximum volume. No shouty mids, no bass distortion. The HomePod Mini’s bass is also remarkably powerful for such a small unit. But Apple only deserves so much credit, because it uses the same tech employed by every great small Bluetooth speaker: the passive radiator.
Active speaker cones are coaxed into movement by magnets, but passive radiators are powered by the air pressure generated by those drivers’ low frequency output. This amplifies bass, resulting in sound so powerful you’d never believe it comes from this tiny ball. Maximum effect, minimum effort.
Apple uses a particularly clever radiator setup. There are two of these bass boosters, and they act as a force-cancelling pair so you’ll never hear radiator-related distortion. Again, this is nothing new but it’s one of the best implementations we’ve seen in a tiny speaker. The caveat: Amazon’s Echo 4th Gen still has significantly deeper bass and can go much louder. It’s more powerful, if less well-controlled and refined.
The HomePod Mini’s design is also a delight. It uses the same “3D” mesh outer as the full-size HomePod and there’s a little display up top.
This is a Siri speaker, which comes with pros and cons. There are neat tricks, like the ability to switch from playing a song on your iPhone just by holding it close to the speaker. But third-party app support is limited and the Siri digital assistant just seems a little, well, dumb next to Google Assistant. You also need to use AirPlay to connect via Spotify, which is not as responsive as Spotify Connect.
Pros: Cute, small and stylish; great bass per cubic centimetre; balanced sound
Cons: Size naturally limits scale of sound; it’s for Apple fans only
Price: £99 | Check price on Apple
Amazon Echo (4th gen)
Great sound and smarts for the money
Voice assistant: Alexa | Standby power use: 1.7W | Dimensions: 144 x 144 x 133 mm | Weight: 970g | Audio: 2x 0.8in mid drivers, 3in woofer | Mics: 6 microphones | Input/output: 3.5mm line in/out
Amazon has thrown out its classic Echo pillar design in favour of something round. Very round. The Amazon Echo 4th gen (£90) is a ball with a flattened bottom.
It’s a cute orb. An eyeless eyeball with a footprint similar to a full-size Apple HomePod. It makes better use of the Echo series’s characteristic LED light ring than any to date too. This ring sits on the Echo’s bottom, casting colour onto whatever surface it sits on, a bit like a Philips Ambilight TV.
It’s a solid deal at £90, and will be a killer bargain during Amazon’s regular sales, particularly as it has Zigbee support. This was once only found in the pricier Echo smart speakers. Zigbee lets it connect to Samsung SmartThings gadgets, Philips Hue lights and more without those platform’s connection hubs.
The Amazon Echo 4th Gen sound is enthusiastic. It has three drivers. A bass unit points upwards, and two mid-range speakers point out at an angle from the front, for wide dispersal.
It’s not a 360-degree speaker, but the sound cone is much broader than the Nest Audio’s. Just put it in the corner of a room, crank it up and let the Amazon Echo 4th Gen do its thing.
This speaker is remarkably good at filling mid-sized rooms, but it’s no perfectly tuned near-field monitor. Bass is deep and powerful at the size and price, with only moderately careful management and a relatively slow decay. The Amazon Echo 4th Gen also relies on mid-bass to beef up vocals.
However, Amazon lets you improve this significantly with EQ. There are only three band settings (bass, mids, treble), but taking a healthy chunk out of the bass really levels the Amazon Echo 4th Gen out without killing the impact of kick drums. Minus 40 to 50 per cent bass with a slight mid and treble bump works wonders.
Pros: Powerful bass; louder; wider sound than its rivals; funky table-level LED ring
Cons: Sound lacks a little refinement
Amazon Echo Studio
The obvious sub-£200 party smart speaker
Voice assistant: Alexa | Standby power use: 4W | Dimensions: 206 x 175 x 175 mm | Weight: 3.5kg | Audio: 3x 2in mid drivers, 25mm tweeter, 5.25in woofer | Mics: 7 microphones | Input/output: 3.5mm/optical input
The Studio (£190) is Amazon’s first attempt to make a higher-fidelity Echo smart speaker. And it is only slightly more expensive than the earlier standard Echo speakers.
Amazon’s Echo Studio seems inspired by Apple’s HomePod, but is actually a much larger speaker. As is generally the case with Echo products, you get a lot for your money, although the Studio is no style match for the HomePod.
Its top is dotted with visible pinhole microphones and buttons. Clear controls are a usability win, but other smart speakers are much more concerned with how they’ll look, and fit, in your living room.
The Echo Studio has five drivers. Three mid-range 2in units point upwards and to each side. A tweeter faces forward, and a downward-facing woofer is the reason there’s a big cut-out in the Studio’s bottom half.
This may look like a 360-degree speaker, but it is not one and you should think about placement at least a little. There’s a big benefit. Where the HomePod is a mono speaker, Amazon takes the Echo Studio’s sound field to stereo and beyond. A Stereo Spatial Enhancement mode uses software to expand the soundstage.
This mode sounded pretty dreadful at launch, but now just slightly downgrades mid-tone fidelity in favour of expansiveness. And it may get even better with updates. Amazon Music also offers “3D” tracks that make better use of the Studio’s multi-directional drivers.
It all seems very advanced, and the Studio is perfect for party-level volumes neighbours will quickly learn to hate. The sound is huge, the bass is deep, its impact subwoofer-like, and the upper mids and treble are clean for what is still a fairly affordable speaker.
However, there are some issues to note if you take the “Studio” name too literally and expect real high-fidelity sound. The Echo Studio does not have particularly well-integrated bass, which can at its worse sound disconnected from the rest. Mid-range quality is also only passable, relying heavily on the upper-mids to relay the detail in lower register male vocals.
There’s a gap between what the 2in speakers and the big woofer put out. Buy an Echo Studio for the sheer sound scale per pound you get, not for chin-stroking album listening sessions.
Pros: Subwoofer-style bass; extreme volume and scale, given the cost; dedicated sound imaging optimisation
Cons: Bass not very well controlled or integrated; less elegant design than Apple’s HomePod; quite large
Google Nest Audio
The perfect smart speaker for pretty music at polite volumes
Voice: Google Assistant | Standby power use: 1.5W | Dimensions: 175x 124 x 78mm | Weight: 1.2kg | Audio: 19mm tweeter, 75mm woofer | Mics: 3 microphones | Input/output: No wired input
The Google Nest Audio (£89) is one of the most traditional smart speakers in one sense. It’s the 2020 equivalent of the hifi bookshelf speaker some of you may have owned and replaced years ago. This gives it a small footprint, even if it is about as tall as the Apple HomePod. It lets the Nest Audio fit onto cramped desks and kitchen counters, much like the HomePod mini.
A Nest Audio blends into rooms, particularly as it has Google’s classic hyper inoffensive all-fabric outer. And if that inoffensiveness seems flat-out bland, there are pastel colour versions to add a little magnolia-adjacent flavour. Given it costs £89, Nest Audio has the makings of a best of all worlds scenario. Whether that pans out or not depends on what you want this speaker to do.
The Nest Audio offers the same quick, reactive and intelligent Google Assistant experience as the other Google smart speakers. At times it feels like another limb of your Android phone, invisibly attached via Wi-Fi. However, there are some sound limitations. The Nest Audio has two drivers, a 75mm woofer and a 19mm tweeter: again, classic bookshelf speaker style arrangement.
This is one of the few smart speakers that focuses on the mid-range. At moderate volumes playing simple arrangements led by a rich vocal the Nest Audio can sound better than the Echo, HomePod mini and even the Echo Studio. It has real body to the mids.
Turn up the volume, feed the Nest Audio something more complicated and it starts to get lost. Its bass is less deep than that of the Echo or HomePod Mini, the mids get shouty at high volume. And the speaker arrangement is very directional. The cone of sound it creates is relatively narrow. This speaker benefits from stereo pairing, which is an option. It begs for a partner.
Still, for room-filling sound we prefer the Echo 4th Gen and HomePod mini. The Nest Audio works best with polite volumes, but offers greater refinement than an Echo if that’s what you are after. Less house party, more dinner party.
Pros: Great mid response at moderate volume; small footprint; innocuous design
Cons: Struggles at higher volumes and with busy tracks; no wired input
Google Nest Mini
A smart speaker you can hang from the wall
Voice: Google Assistant | Standby power use: 1.2W | Dimensions: 42 x 98 x 98mm | Weight: 183g | Audio: 40mm speaker | Mics: 3 microphones | Input/output: No wired input
The Nest Mini (£49) looks almost identical to the Home Mini. It’s a cute little puck-shaped speaker. This generation comes with a whole stack of benefits. It is not just a name change.
The Nest Mini has a new processor, reworked touch controls that let you play/pause audio as well as change volume. And bonus LED indicators show you where to tap to alter volume. They disappear when not in use.
Google also doubled the bass output. Twice of “not very much at all” is still not a lot, but the Nest Mini sounds a world apart from something like the original Amazon Echo Dot. Unlike some tiny speakers this one does not sound like an angry wasp careering across a window.
Of course, it does not have anything like the scale or weight of the other speakers here either. But we like it as a speaker to play podcasts in the kitchen while cooking, to sit at your bedside. Or just to function as a portal to Google Assistant rather than shuffle through its life as a rather disappointing micro hifi.
The Nest Mini is also wall-mountable. As it doesn’t weigh much you could hang it off an aberrant nail in your living room you might otherwise use to hang up a cheap IKEA picture frame. This makes it one of the most versatile smart speakers, as long as you don’t mind the power cable trailing to the ground.
Google could have made the Nest Mini sound even better by squeezing in a passive radiator, but it leaves that to its bigger speakers. These little units are there to dot your house with smart speakers, without too great a cost.
We’d find it hard to pay full price for the Nest Mini now, though. It has been on sale too often, and was even offered for free to some Spotify subscribers at one point.
Pros: Cute, small and easy to use; sounds better than other micro speakers; wall-mountable
Cons: Bass is still anaemic; no output for a hifi hook-up
Apple’s first smart speaker set the standard for elegance
Voice assistant: Siri | Standby power use: 1.7W | Dimensions: 170 mm × 140 mm | Weight: 2.5kg | Audio: 7 Tweeters, 1 woofer | Mics: 6 microphones | Input/output: No wired input
The HomePod (£279) was Apple’s first attempt at a speaker in over a decade. It was released in 2018, 12 years after the iPod Hi-Fi dock.
Apple didn’t go for half measures. The HomePod has seven tweeters for 360-degree sound and a larger woofer that points upwards. A waveguide ushers the low frequencies out in all directions. This driver setup is reflected in the sound character. The HomePod has very deep, assured bass and forward treble. It sounds detailed, and significantly brighter than any other speaker in this line-up.
This is a nice-sounding speaker. But direct comparisons, particularly with the best less-smart models, reveal some weaknesses. Its mids are cold next to those of a Sonos speaker, Google’s Nest Audio and even Apple’s half-pint-size HomePod mini. There’s a sense “detail” and “power” were written in large lettering during an Apple design meeting. But the HomePod misses out on the mid-range texture that makes vocals in particular more realistic and engaging.
Bass and treble are the starlets of the sound world, the grifting influencers and reality TV stars who are masters of attention-gathering, but mids are actually the number one component of truly great sound.
Still, the Apple HomePod has much better bass management than the Echo Studio, is happy to be placed in the centre of a room and has more power and volume than you’ll likely need. But it isn’t quite the second coming of home audio some claimed in 2018.
It also works best if you’re a full-on Apple user. You need an iPhone or iPad to set it up and Siri only takes song requests for Apple Music. She likes to pretend Spotify, TIDAL and BBC radio stations don’t exist, although you can transmit their audio to the HomePod in apps using AirPlay.
The result is the HomePod seems less smart, less intuitive, than a Google or Amazon speaker when used as a voice-activated device. The thick 3D mesh fabric sides and top display add up to a design radically more sophisticated than the Amazon Echo Studio’s. And its living room presence is still a class above that of its rivals.
Pros: Deep, powerful bass; high-detail treble; sophisticated design
Cons: Relatively under-served mids; Siri interactions aren’t always as natural as rivals
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