The smart speaker market is more crowded than ever. But although many of these smart speakers do many of the same things — play music, give you information, control smart home accessories — each goes about it a little differently.
They’re all pretty good, but you’re probably only going to get one smart speaker. Making the right choice comes down which tech ecosystem you belong to/like the most and which services you use or plan on using with the device.
We broke down the need-to-know information for the four biggest smart speaker choices from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Sonos. We encourage you to compare them all against each other before making your choice.
The amazon echo
The original smart speaker, Amazon’s Echo is now in its second generation, and getting smarter all the time.
Services: Amazon wants the Echo to work with everything, so it’s opened up the platform to every major audio service. In addition to its own offerings — Prime Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, Audible — you can play music from Spotify (premium only), Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more.
Key features: Not only does the Echo support several services, it’s also compatible with all major smart home accessories, in some cases exclusively. The Echo can also be used as a standard Bluetooth speaker to play a podcast or song from your local library. Alexa, Amazon’s smart assistant, is also quick, accurate, and gets updated with new capabilities every week.
Who it’s for: Openness is the Echo’s greatest strength, so if you want a smart home speaker that works nicely with the biggest number of services, it’s a good option. Of course, if you’re a die-hard Google or Apple services user, or serious about audio quality, you may want to weigh your other options.
My take: Insider Picks recommends the Amazon Echo as the top pick in our smart speaker guide, and as a person who’s used one every day for two years, I agree with that recommendation. Besides my phone, it’s the one gadget I use first thing in the morning and before I go to sleep at night.
The Google Home
Google got into the smart speaker game a little over a year ago, but it’s made big strides in that time.
Services: Like Amazon, Google supports its own services, so the Home speaker is compatible with Google Play Music and YouTube Red in addition to Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and more. As a nice bonus, you won’t need a premium Spotify or Google Play Music account to stream. Google has also partnered with several smart home accessory vendors to make it competitive with the Echo, so if you’ve already invested in Philips Hue bulbs, for example, you won’t have to buy additional hardware if you switch.
Who it’s for: Google requires you to link its hardware to your Google account, so it’ll instantly have access to your information, which it can use to better serve you. If you’re looking for a smart assistant who can tell you about your commute time because it knows where you live and work, or give you a top-level view of your week’s calendar, the Google Home is a good choice. That said, if you don’t want to submit your data to Google, this is a no-go.
My take: I’ve had limited hands-on time with Google Home speakers, but they seem to work very well. The smart assistant called up accurate information any time I asked and didn’t get tripped up if I changed my query from “Is it going to rain?” to “Will I need an umbrella this week?”
A speaker company first, Sonos’ Alexa-enabled “One” speaker gives you the best of two different worlds.
Services: Everything mentioned in the Echo section, plus Apple Music and Google Play Music (without voice support.)
Key features: Everything mentioned in the Echo section, plus significantly better audio quality. It can also connect to other Sonos speakers — a big benefit if you’ve been investing in them over the years.
Who it’s for: The Amazon Echo is a smart home gadget first, and a speaker second. That’s fine for casual listening, but if you want the intelligence of Alexa baked into a speaker built with audio quality in mind, the One is a really good choice. It should be said that you can connect any speaker to an Echo over Bluetooth, but nothing beats a totally integrated solution. Plus, the One can play music from Google Play Music and Apple Music through the Sonos app.
My take: As a music lover, I liked the One when I tested it late last year. It sounds good, plays any audio from every source, and wasn’t spared any of the “smart” features that make the Echo so compelling.
Arriving “late,” Apple’s HomePod will be released on February 9, several months after it was unveiled at the company’s developer conference last June.
Services: Apple Music, iCloud Music Library. Yes, it’s limited to Apple-only services at this time, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stay like that forever. Over time it’s possible the HomePod will support several streaming music services — just don’t count on it.
Key features: In addition to streaming music from Apple’s streaming services, the HomePod can be used to control HomeKit-compatible smart home accessories. While that does include some heavy hitters, like Philips Hue bulbs and the Lyric T5 smart thermostat, the HomePod isn’t nearly as useful as a smart home hub as its competition.
Who it’s for: Music lovers who also use Apple services. Unsurprisingly, the HomePod is the most locked down speaker on this list, but while it’s also the most expensive, it’s meant to sound the best. Some of its biggest features, including AirPlay 2 support and multi-room audio support, are also delayed until later this year. If audio quality is paramount to you, and the ability to ask questions and control other gadgets via Siri seems like a nice bonus, this is your only option.
My take: I’m not one of the few who have gotten to try the HomePod yet, and may not get the chance for a little while yet. I have, however, purchased speakers that were more expensive. Given that key features won’t ship at launch, the HomePod may not hit its stride in the smart home world for another year. But, if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, care deeply about music, and don’t mind waiting for it to get better over time, early adoption might not be as crazy as it seems.