Smart speakers are one of the fastest growing and most exciting things in consumer tech right now. But with so many smart speakers competing for attention and more coming out every month, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s even easier to buy “one of the bad ones”.
To make things easier, here’s a quick primer on what smart speakers are and which ones are going to be worth your money.
What is a smart speaker?
Simply put: it’s a speaker that talks back.
A smart speaker is usually a small-to-medium-sized wireless speaker that comes with at least one integrated set of microphones and at least one on-board smart assistant - usually either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
Best Smart Speakers
- Sonos One
In addition to being a great Sonos, the Sonos One is one of the best smart speakers you can buy. It’s a few years old at this point but it still sounds better than most of the other options and it's easy to integrate with any Sonos you already own. It’s also pretty much the only smart speaker you can buy that supports both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant - though not both at the same time.
The Sonos One is a perfect fit for the person who wants to make their Sonos speaker system smarter.
You can read more about the Sonos One in our full review.
- Google Home Max
If you’re after the best first-party Google Home speaker, look no further than the Google Home Max. Under the hood, the Max touts two 4.5-inch woofers, each with 22mm of excursion. All told, this thing is about twenty times more powerful than the original Google Home.
The Google Home Max also supports aux-in where the original smart speaker didn’t and is able to automatically tune itself to the environment around it to deliver a better playback experience in seconds.
You can read our full review of the Google Home Max here.
If you’re looking to buy a smart speaker powered by Alexa, Amazon’s Echo lineup has you covered no matter the specific form-factor or featureset you’re after. Of course, if you’re after the best first-party Alexa smart speaker, you can’t go past the Echo Studio.
The Echo Studio boasts a 24-bit DAC, a power amplifier with 100 kHz of bandwidth and the ability to analyse the acoustics of the environment around it in order to optimise the experience - this thing is basically an Echo HomePod. It’s also got a built-in ZigBee hub, making it ideal for smart home setups.
In Australia, the Echo Studio is one of the most expensive Alexa speakers you can currently buy with an Australian at recommended retail price of $329. You can buy it through Amazon here.
Best Cheap Smart Speakers
- Google Nest Mini
The previous Google Home Mini was the gateway drug of the smart speaker world and the new Google Nest Mini looks to maintain the legacy. The Google Nest Mini pairs a familiar design with bright new color schemes and re-engineered hardware.
The new Nest Mini delivers bass that's twice as loud as the Google Home Mini and incorporates new proprietary audio tuning software that allows the unit to seamlessly tune itself to its surroundings.
If you want to tip your toes into the world of Google Assistant smart speakers, you can’t go past the Google Nest Mini.
In Australia, Google are selling the Nest Mini directly at a price of AU$79. You'll also be able to find it through JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman and The Good Guys.
- Amazon Echo Dot With Alarm
The new Amazon Echo Dot With Alarm embraces the originals smart speaker’s most popular use cases with a newfound sense of style.
Available at a price of AU$149, Amazon say the refreshed Echo Dot incorporates a 3-inch woofer and increased back volume that delivers stronger bass and clearer mids and highs over the previous model.
As the name suggests, it combines the easy interoperability of the original Echo Dot with a nifty new LED display that lets you tell the time at a glance. You can find it on Amazon here.
Best Smart Display
- Lenovo Smart Display
If you’re looking for a smart speaker with a screen, the Lenovo Smart Display is probably the best third-party option on the table. The ability to use it either horizontal or vertical orientations adds flexibility and it both sounds and looks better than the Google Home Hub it launched alongside.
In Australia, the Lenovo Smart Display is priced at an RRP of $299. You can buy it through JB Hi-Fi.
- Google Home Hub/ Google Nest Hub
If you’re after a bite-sized smart speaker for your bedside table, the Google Home Hub (which was recently rebranded as the Google Nest Hub) makes a compelling case for itself. The device’s crisp 7-inch display incredible works well as a digital photo frame and also supports limited video playback. The additional functionality of the Google Assistant is just icing on the cake.
The Nest/Home Hub is also differentiated from the other options through the omission of a built-in camera - which’ll add some peace of mind for those irked by the idea of putting a connected camera in their house.
Best Portable Smart Speakers
- Ultimate Ears Megablast
Compared to its predecessors and many of its competitors, the Ultimate Ears Megablast is bigger, better and - best of all - smarter.
Once setup, Ultimate Ears Megablast owners are able to use the smart speaker to listen to music, deliver news and sports scores, get weather updates, control your smart home devices, listen to Amazon Music Unlimited and eventually even make online orders from Amazon themselves (though this feature isn’t available in Australia yet).
The Megablast touts significantly beefier internals than the regular Alexa and Google Home speakers. It’s also equipped with two 2-inch full range drivers, dual passive radiators plus a portable battery that’s good for twenty hours of playback - allowing you to take Alexa on the go.
You can read our full review of the Ultimate Ears Megablast here.
In Australia, the recommended retail price for the Ultimate Ears Megablast is $299. You can buy it on Amazon here.
- Sonos Move
The Sonos Move is the first Sonos speaker that ditches the wires entirely. It’s the wireless audio brand’s first effort in the migratory speaker space and, while that portability does come with a premium, it does sound really compelling in action.
It’s also got all the same smarts as the cheaper Sonos One - which means you can use it with either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.
You can read our full review of the Sonos Move here.
Best Smart Speaker For Audiophiles
- Apple HomePod
As you might expect, the Apple HomePod comes designed to play nice with the rest of your household’s existing Apple-produced things. Like the AirPods, the HomePod will pair with your iPhone or iPad in seconds. THen, once setup, it’s able to seamlessly integrate with all your other Apple devices, HomeKit-enabled appliances and your Apple Music account.
The HomePod is equipped with an array of seven tweeters, each with their own individual drivers, custom amplifiers and transducers. The HomePod also runs on Apple’s A8 processor - which was last seen in the iPhone 6.
You can read more about the Apple HomePod in our full review here.
It’s one of the more expensive smart speakers you can buy but the HomePod is still arguably the best smart speaker for Apple diehards.
In Australia, the Apple HomePod is priced at a recommended retail price of $499. You can buy it through Apple here.
- Amazon Echo Link Amp
The Amazon Echo Link Amp is a 60W two-channel amplifier that support high-fidelity music streaming and comes with a built-in Amazon Alexa. If the cheaper and smaller Echo Input is designed to let you turn any speaker into an Alexa speaker, the Echo Link Amp is designed to let you turn your best speakers into Alexa speakers without compromising on fidelity.
The Echo Link Amp comes equipped with a full complement of legacy audio inputs, including analogue, digital and a matching set of speaker binding posts.
In Australia, the Echo Link Amp is priced at AU$459. You can buy it on Amazon here.
Why would I want one over a regular speaker?
As we said in our previous round-up of Google Assistant smart speakers, there are three key reasons you might want to buy a smart speaker over a regular non-smart speaker.
The first is that voice-based controls can offer a more intuitive and convenient experience compared to controlling your speaker using an app or set of physical buttons.
Rather than fumble with a volume slider, you can just tell your speaker to turn the volume down. Suddenly want to change the track to something else? Speak the words and watch it happen. To some people, this might sound like a bit of a frivolous luxury but when the technology to enable this experience exists and isn’t that difficult to implement - it kind-of just makes sense to offer it.
The second reason you’d want a smart speaker over a regular one comes with their ability to easily integrate alongside other “smart things” like smart appliances, smart lights and smart plugs. Using systems like IFTTT, Alexa Skills, Samsung SmartThings or Apple’s HomeKit, you can then integrate your smart speaker as a unified hands-free controller for these devices. Instead of messing around with this or that app, you can turn your lights on by just telling them to turn on.
That easy scalability also makes smart speakers a compelling substitute for traditional wireless speaker systems like Sonos.
[Related: Is My Smart Speaker Always Listening?]
The last reason that you might want to buy a smart speakers has to do with the ghost in the machine: the ever-learning, AI-like smart assistant at the core of the experience.
At the moment, the list of things you can do with a smart assistant is long but no means encyclopedic. However, as the technology involved improves and smart speakers themselves become more widespread. Beyond just setting alarms, requesting music and asking trivia questions, many smart assistants are now do anything from letting you pay your gas bill to ordering pizza.
For example, NAB now allows customers to consult their customer service platform for queries like how to have a lost credit card replaced or how to reset their password using the Google Assistant.
Buying a smart speaker now means you’ll be ready to make use of these new possibilities when and as they become a reality.
What kind of smart speaker is the best?
At present, there are four broad types of smart speaker available to everyday consumers.
There’s the baseline pod-speakers like the Google Home and the Amazon Echo, which are usually priced between AU$150 and AU$200.
Then, there’s the cheaper and more portable variants like the Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot, which are priced around AU$70 to AU$100.
These offer an inferior audio experience to their regular-sized counterparts. However, that drawback is balanced against some savings when it comes to the price-point. Being more affordable, these smart speakers are usually a good option for those intrigued by the potential smart speakers but doubtful about how much they might actually use one.
Thirdly, there’s smart displays like the Amazon Echo Show and Google Home Hub. These slick-looking smart speakers come with an integrated display and usually land between AU$250 and AU$350. This addition opens up new possibilities. Rather than have your smart speaker read you the recipe for a meal, a smart display can show you the recipe.
Which 2019 Smart Speaker Should I Buy?
Though some smart speakers do command more technically-advanced features, your mileage with any smart speaker is ultimately going to be driven by your own personal preferences plus what products you already own.
If you already own an iPhone and have an Apple Music subscription, the HomePod is going to make the most sense. If you already own smart home kit that'll play nice with the Echo Plus' ZigBee connectivity, that might be a strong enough reason to go in on Amazon's deluxe offering. If you already own several Sonos speakers, then maybe it makes sense to pick up the Sonos One even though it's currently lacking in the smarts department.
Keep in mind that while the smart speaker category has undergone massive growth in recent years, it’s still early days. The smart assistants inside each of the speakers listed above are always learning and always evolving. The best is likely yet to come.