11 best smart speakers for virtual assistance at home and on the go

Control a whole host of features with these clever companions, from portable to home-based options

David RS Taylor@davidrstaylor
Friday 21 May 2021 15:32
<p>Choose from multi-room systems to waterproof options with  impressive battery life, perfect for days out </p>

Choose from multi-room systems to waterproof options with impressive battery life, perfect for days out

To most people, the idea of a smart speaker is probably still fairly alien.

What can a smart speaker actually do, besides talk to you and let you know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow?

Plenty, it turns out. From controlling your smart home products (see lighting, heating etc.), to analysing your sleep patterns (not creepy at all), smart speakers are a one stop shop for making your home life a little bit easier.

For proper smarts, the three big names are Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Each company makes its own speakers to show off smart capability and help users stick to a seamless ecosystem, but there are countless companies out there producing speakers compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant.

With the advent of AirPlay2, even Siri is getting in on the third-party action: plenty of big audio brands are compatible with the software, giving you the chance to enter the Apple world with a little more flexibility.

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Price and quality vary hugely with smart speakers, and choosing the right one is a balance between audio quality and smart capability, with the two not necessarily coming hand in hand. In our testing, we looked at both portable and home-based options to find some of the best examples of harmonious smart speakers on the market.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

The best smart speakers in 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Sonos one: £199, Currys.co.uk
  • Best for sound quality – Bose smart speaker 500: £279.99, Johnlewis.com
  • Best budget-friendly smart speaker – Google nest mini: £49, Currys.co.uk
  • Best for iPhone – Apple homepod mini: £99, Apple.com
  • Best for multi-room audio – Audio Pro addon C5A: £229, Currys.co.uk
  • Best for Alexa – Amazon echo dot 4th generation: £48, AO.com
  • Best smart speaker with display – Google nest hub 2nd generation: £49, AO.com
  • Best portable smart speaker – Bose portable smart speaker: £289, Johnlewis.com
  • Best for the bathroom – Bang and Olufsen beosound A1: £200, Bang-olufsen.com
  • Best for music – Sonos move: £399, Sonos.com
  • Best waterproof smart speaker – JBL link portable: £129.99, Bt.com

Sonos one

Best: Overall

The Sonos one, the original Sonos smart speaker, is still among the best when it comes to the full package. In many ways it was the first “proper” smart speaker, a product made by an audio-focussed company: other companies in the smart speaker field, such as Google, Apple and Amazon, are very much smart-feature-first. The one’s audio is crystal clear, with no discernible distortion, and provides a normal-sized room with enough volume to fill it twice over. The Sonos sound signature is hard to top, and if you’re starting out on a smart multi-room system with Sonos, it’s the perfect flagship product.

Bose smart speaker 500

Best: For sound quality

Another speaker from an audio-focused brand, the Bose home speaker 500 runs head to head against the Sonos one. It offers fantastic sound, and is compatible with Google Assistant and Alexa. The small front screen is a nice touch, adding a little character to an otherwise quite predictable design. The eight microphone array under the grille is the best on the market and picks up even the slightest voice commands, perfect for parties where the sound would be cranked up too high for other smart speakers to hear you asking what the weather will be like later.

Google nest mini

Best: Budget-friendly smart speaker

This is a case of a good thing coming in a small package. This pebble-shaped beauty is the brainchild of Google, whose Google Assistant has been around much longer than the brand’s main competitors. This time has been used wisely, making Google Assistant the easiest and most intelligent voice assistant on the market. The nest mini is small – it fits in the palm of your hand – but produces strong sound and clear voice responses. This would fit seamlessly into almost any home and perform admirably. For its price, it’s difficult to find anything that can touch it.

Read the full Google nest mini review

Apple homepod mini

Best: For iPhone

For many users of Apple’s ecosystem, a homepod is the obvious choice, keeping things streamlined and easy to pair. However, for us, the homepod’s little brother, the mini, is the better option out of the two. It’s smaller, taking up less room on your bedside or coffee table, but still packs plenty of sound into its speakers. The internal microphones work without any issues, and the mini’s software is, reassuringly, Apple. The design is nothing less than you’d expect from the branding gurus in California, a gorgeous look that transports us into a future where everything is made of white marble, and the smart speakers are actually in charge of us. A good price for an impressive smart speaker.

Audio Pro addon C5A

Best: For multi-room audio

We’re fans of the addon range, especially as part of a multi-room system, so it was music to our ears to see that Audio Pro has released a speaker with Alexa to join the voice assistant world. The sound from addon speakers is impressive, especially considering their price – these are proper bits of audio kit, and should be treated as such. However, a little smart capability never hurt anyone, and adding this to your multi-room system will provide an extra level of sophistication.

Amazon echo dot 4th generation

Best: For Alexa

Amazon’s range of smart speakers are wildly popular, with good reason: Alexa is easy to set up, simple to navigate and the speakers themselves are of a high quality. Once again, we prefer the smaller version of the brand’s original trailblazer. The echo dot is a bitesize version of the original echo – everything is pretty much the same besides the size and price. The new design proves to be a revamp of Amazon’s main smart speaker line, and we think it does the business. If you’re an Alexa user, or dipping your toe into the world of smart speakers, the echo dot is a great choice for a non-invasive speaker that produces great sound and slots nicely into the Amazon ecosystem.

Google nest hub 2nd generation

Best: Smart speaker with a display

What many smart speakers lack is a bit of visual usability. The Google nest hub solves this, with a crisp, vivid 7in LED screen that’s great to use for video (think meal recipe tutorials or Netflix), a digital photo frame, or various apps such as your calendar or smart doorbell camera. The speakers also give a great account of themselves, surpassing the nest mini. Another couple of pretty futuristic features are ultrasound and the new Soli radar sensors. Ultrasound is used to determine how near you are to the screen, adjusting font and volume accordingly, while Soli lets the hub keep an eye on your sleep patterns without actually keeping an eye on you (there’s no camera included).

Radar tracks your movements in the night, noting any restless periods – you can even ask it to record whenever you snore. You can look through your sleep data the next morning on the screen, and get tips on when to go to bed for the best sleep you can get. With Fitbit now under the Google umbrella, expect this feature to link in with Fitbit premium soon enough. A smart speaker with more visual smarts than any other.

Bose portable smart speaker

Best: Portable smart speaker

It’s impressive how Bose has managed to cram so much of its very best audio tech into the portable smart speaker. It’s a good deal smaller than the home speaker 500, with a handle that makes it much more portable than many of its rivals, which made us disproportionately happy. Despite its portability, it concedes very little of its sound performance, with a warm approach to music and podcasts alike. It might be pricey, but for portability paired with smart features, this is the best you can get.

Bang and Olufsen beosound A1 2nd generation bluetooth waterproof speaker

Best: For the bathroom

Bang & Olufsen makes lovely speakers. The A1 is no exception, with plenty of quality audio tech hidden underneath the sleek Scandi exterior. Alongside the class-leading output, we had no issues with input, our voice commands heard easily by the A1’s microphones. Compared to the already-brilliant first generation A1, the second generation feels more refined. Bang and Olufsen has seen what could be improved, and tweaked accordingly. It’s now officially waterproof and completely resistant to dust or sand, and battery life has also been improved by a ridiculous 350 per cent. A smart speaker for the budding interior designer, but also a refined companion for any day out.

Sonos move

Best: For music

The Sonos move offers you more in terms of sound and tech than the Sonos one, without the hassle of it being stuck in one place: its audio output also edges the Bose portable smart speaker. The nifty speaker stand doubles as a charger, and the battery lasts a decent 11 hours. The move isn’t a speaker you’ll lug about everywhere – it’s still 3kg – but it’s perfect when you want Sonos smart features in your back garden and don’t want neighbours complaining about you shouting “Alexa” in the house at anti-social levels.

JBL link portable

Best: Waterproof smart speaker

JBL continues to be a solid, unsung hero in audio. Its Charge series of portable speakers is consistently mentioned in best round-ups, including our own, and the link portable is no exception to the rule. It’s compatible with Android and iOS, with Chromecast built in and AirPlay2 compatibility. The sound is classic JBL, but the design has something more sophisticated about it than other portable speakers by the brand. The upright design is reminiscent of the Sonos move, with the charging dock/speaker stand working well and looking good. The eight-hour playtime and IPX7 waterproof certification add to its appeal, and it’s a winner for the price.

Smart speakers FAQs

What is a smart speaker?

A smart speaker is a type of internet-connected speaker that responds to spoken questions and commands. Smart speakers use a built-in microphone that’s always listening for a “wake word” or phrase — such as “Hey Google” or “Alexa” — so you don’t need to get up from the sofa or push any buttons to interact with them.

What can smart speakers do?

The simplest smart speakers allow you to control your music and ask for specific songs or albums, but most smart speakers can do much more than this. They typically come pre-installed with one (or both) of the two most popular voice assistants: Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

These voice assistants can set alarms and timers, control other smart devices around your home like lightbulbs and remind you of appointments. They can give travel times, weather reports and traffic updates, stream podcasts and online radio channels such as BBC Sounds, play games, answer trivia questions, read bedtime stories and — for those with a sophisticated sense of humour — make fart noises on command.

Which voice assistant is best?

Google Assistant. Powered by the search giant’s vast and expanding knowledge base, and fully integrated with other products you might already use such as Google Maps, Android and Gmail, it outperforms rivals on accuracy, voice recognition, language processing and functionality.

Is Alexa better than Google?

Both voice assistants have their pros and cons. Alexa is compatible with a wider range of smart home devices and may be the preferred choice if you own certain Amazon products, such as a Ring video doorbell — which works with most voice assistants, but offers more functionality when used with Alexa.

Google Assistant is better at answering questions about the world and understanding commands even if you’ve phrased them in a strange way. This makes speaking to the Google Assistant feel more conversational and organic.

Is there a monthly fee for Alexa?

No. There’s no monthly fee for Alexa. Certain products that use the Alexa voice assistant, such as the Ring video doorbell, have their own separate monthly fee. You can also pay for an annual subscription to Amazon Prime for services like Amazon Music and Prime Video, which can both be controlled by a smart speaker, but Alexa itself is free.

The verdict: Smart speakers

For the best audio performance with seamless smart features, the Sonos one is the best in its class, while the best portable version is the Bose portable smart speaker. For price, however, the Google nest mini is pound-for-pound the best on this list.

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