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.
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 CARE DEEPLY ABOUT PRIVACY: HomePod. While the other companies like Google and Amazon give assurances about the way the microphones on their smart speakers are used, Apple is the most committed at a company level to keeping your information secure. (Amazon and Google, for instance, give you the chance to listen to and delete recordings so that you're in control of them; Apple can't do that, because it deletes them all.)
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 Sonos in this regard. And that's not even getting to the fact that you can then send your TV audio all around your house.
If you want MULTIROOM AUDIO: Sonos. This has always been one of the company's finest achievements, and it continues to be. Everything works together perfectly – you can fire up an entire house with music, all of which will be perfectly in sync and let you play and pause them all at the same time. This is coming to the HomePod later in the year, but it's not arrived yet, and we still have no idea how or how well it will actually work.
If you want TRUE STEREO: Sonos. The same applies here: Apple says the ability to link two HomePods is on its way, and one on its own does have a beautiful, wide sound, but it's not here yet. So Sonos is the only brand really offering this. (Also, two Sonos Ones can be bought for about the same price as a HomePod.)
If you want A WIDE SOUND OUT OF ONE SPEAKER: HomePod. Apple doesn't let you use two HomePods together in a stereo arrangement at the moment, though it says that's coming later this year. But thankfully it's done the next best thing, by arranging its speakers and software in such a way that they're able to throw the sound out wide enough to fill a whole room.
If you want VIDEO: Amazon Echo Show. This is another where there’s no question: there’s simply no other smart speaker — apart from Amazon’s smaller Echo Spot — that also includes a screen to show information. That can be anything from song lyrics to full TV shows and films, and when it’s not in use it cycles through news, tips and other information that might be useful.
If you want SOMETHING FOR THE BEDSIDE: Amazon Echo Spot. While this can be used elsewhere, like a desk, it’s a perfect smart bedside radio, alarm clock and speaker. For such a small thing it throws out a lot of sound – and it uses its small screen to show the time and other useful things.
If you want A REALLY NICE POWER CORD: HomePod. It's only a power cord. But the HomePod's one is beautiful, and seems like it will last far longer than the fiddly ones supplied with the Echos, and even more durable feeling than the chunky ones that come with Sonos.
If you want to MOVE YOUR SPEAKER AROUND THE HOUSE: HomePod. Of course, all of these speakers will happily move; none of them are especially big, and as long as they still have a WiFi connection they'll get working as soon as you plug them back in. But none of them are quite as good at this as the HomePod, which has an accelerometer built in so can recognise that it has been moved – once it sees that, it will start all of its analysis again, and quickly build up a picture of where it's been placed. The sound will then adjust accordingly. (The ultimate portable smart speaker is the Amazon Tap, which puts Alexa into a battery powered tube, but that isn't sold in the UK.)
If PEOPLE WILL BE MOVING AROUND THE ROOM A LOT: HomePod. The speaker can understand the shape of the room and fit its sound around it – allowing it to fill up a big room in a way that almost makes it hard to see where the sound is coming from. This is one of the real breakthroughs of the HomePod: it almost makes you forget about the speaker itself. So if, say, you're going to be putting the speaker in a big living room and don't want to worry about placement, the HomePod should do the trick.
If you want to PLAY MUSIC WHILE PEOPLE ARE ROUND FOR DINNER: Sonos. Yes, this is a rather complicated use case. But it illustrates something very specific about the difference between the sound from the Sonos One and the HomePod. The Sonos is much more flat, and doesn't burrow into your ears quite so much, meaning that it is perfect for setting going and still chatting over the top of it.
If you want everyone to dance at your parties: HomePod. Whereas the HomePod's clear bass and vocals – which use technology in the speaker to separate the various parts of the sound – mean that the music also has the benefit of cutting through whatever's going on. Which is great if you want to get people dancing, but less so if everyone is eating.
This article is so long and varied because there are so many different use cases, so many failings, and so many strengths, for each of the different smart speakers. But that's in large part because the market is so new, and getting better all the time. Each of the companies making smart speakers are improving their software continuously – so, whatever you buy, you'll get something that will gradually lose some of its other problems over time.
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