Put a Virtual Assistant in Your Home
There’s a good chance that your first smart home device will be a smart speaker. For one, it works just fine as a way to play music from your smartphone or the cloud. But if you start talking to it, the speaker will respond to your commands. It can do things like look up the weather and sports scores, turn on your coffee maker, read you a book or even change the channel on your TV.
Our favorite smart speaker is the Amazon Echo. It produces very good sound, and the Alexa voice assistant currently has the most robust set of features and abilities. Our budget pick is the Echo Dot, which costs just $50. Google Home is worth considering for its price and compatibility with Google’s services, but it doesn’t have as many skills as Amazon’s Alexa.
Editors’ Note: We are in the process of reviewing the Echo Show, the first Alexa speaker from Amazon with a built-in touch screen. Check out this review roundup to see what critics are saying so far. The Apple HomePod will be released this December, so stay tuned for a review.
What to look for
Before you purchase a smart speaker, decide how you plan to use it. If it’s going to be the only device in your living room that will play music, then you’ll want one that has good speakers.
But while audio quality is important, it shouldn’t necessarily be the deciding factor in which smart speaker you choose. For example, the Amazon Echo Dot has perhaps the worst-sounding speaker among those we’ve tested, but its small size and low price make it useful for people who already have a good speaker and merely want to add some smarts to it. The Dot is also a cheap way to spread a voice assistant throughout your house.
If you want a speaker that you can take outdoors, though, you’ll want to consider a portable option, such as the Amazon Tap (pictured above), or a third-party speaker, such as the Fabriq.
Our Favorite Smart Speakers
At just $50, the Echo Dot is the least expensive way to get Alexa into your home. The Dot has both Bluetooth and a 3.5mm jack, so you can connect it to a better-sounding speaker, which we recommend you do if you’re planning to use it to play music. The Dot is ideal for places where you want Alexa, such as a kitchen, but don’t want another large device cluttering the space.
One problem with most smart speakers is that they need to be plugged in for them to work. The battery-powered Amazon Tap takes care of that limitation, and we found that it will last up to 9 hours on a charge. Its audio quality isn’t as good as that from the Echo or other Bluetooth speakers, but it’s useful if you want to extend Alexa’s reach to your backyard. However, it’s not waterproof, so take it inside if it starts raining.
Google’s entry into the smart-home category is a strong one. The Google Home speaker is more attractive, and sounds better than, the Echo. Take your pick from six colors and two finishes for the base (fabric or metal). At $129, it’s also cheaper than the Echo. Plus, you can use Google Home to control Chromecast-enabled devices, such as TVs. Alexa can’t do that. However, in a face-off between the two assistants, we found Amazon’s to be more well-rounded than Google’s.
Other Alexa Speakers
There are several third-party speakers with Alexa inside, but none are quite as good as the ones made by Amazon.
Fabriq’s speaker comes in a variety of colorful skins, and lasted about 5 hours on a charge. It also has pretty good bass for such a small speaker. However, you have to press a button on the speaker before you can use Alexa; its treble is thin; and it’s not waterproof.
The Omaker Wow speaker lets you use Alexa without having to press a button first. It produces good bass and lasted nearly 9 hours in our tests. However, its controls weren’t as easy to use as we had hoped.
If you already own an Echo Dot, the Vaux could be for you. You slip the Dot into the Vaux to turn Amazon’s device into a better-sounding, portable speaker. That’s because the Vaux has a battery that will power the Dot for up to 6 hours, and the speakers are loud, with crisp treble.
This cheap speaker produced muddled audio, and barely lasted 4 hours on a charge. You also have to press a button to engage Alexa.
Speakers Coming Soon
Apple’s smart speaker promises to be the best-sounding by far. Due out in December for a pricey $349, the HomePod will have seven tweeters and a subwoofer, which makes it more of a competitor with Sonos than with Amazon. While you’ll be able to use it with Siri, we have yet to see how Apple’s voice assistant will be integrated.
Powered by Harman/Kardon speakers, this Cortana-enabled speaker is expected to be released sometime this fall, though pricing has not yet been announced. Users will be able to make Skype calls through the Invoke, which has a tapered cylindrical design and a twistable knob at the top.
Lenovo Smart Assistant
Harman/Kardon is hedging its bets, as its technology will also power Lenovo’s Alexa-enabled speaker, due out later this year. The Lenovo Smart Assistant has a similar cylindrical design, but its lower half will be available in light gray, green, orange or matte black. The device has a single 5-watt tweeter and one 10-watt woofer, as well as eight microphones to pick up your voice from anywhere in the room.