The best smart speakers are devices that not only have crystal clear audio, but also act as a capable smart device for music, voice assistants and much more. While this sounds obvious, an advanced smart speaker that doesn't deliver in the audio department defeats the purpose. Equally, a great-sounding speaker that lacks intelligence can be a pointless purchase.
The best smart speaker is one that excels in both camps. Whether you want to look up a recipe, turn on your lights, play an audiobook or your favorite tunes, it should be effortless – and sound great!
A smart screen can give you even more. You get the brains of a smart speaker, you generally get some strong speakers, but that screen opens up options: you can pull up a live view of compatible security cameras, watch videos, skim through recipes, and get visual notifications – they're much more than just digital photo frames. Although they'll do that, too.
The very smartest smart speakers give you a little extra smart home control, incorporating smart hubs that allow you to do away with dedicated bridges for smart home gear. This isn't a requirement for the smart home – 'works with Alexa' devices will work as well with a Dot as they will with the big Amazon Echo – but if smart home control is a big draw for you, this is definitely something to consider.
Which is the best smart speaker to buy?
The Top 10
Oh, sure, the Google Nest Hub Max is a baby compared to some of the more venerable entries in this list, but there's a long list of reasons it's taking the top spot. It was the winner of our T3 Awards 2020 award as the best smart speaker because it does absolutely everything in one package. Sure, if you'd rather run the compact Nest Mini, or opt for a smaller screen in the Nest Hub which came before it, you can. But for the most full-on Google Assistant smart speaker experience, this is the way to go.
Why? It's the combination. The screen is a crisp ten inches, so you won't need to squint. The speaker is a heavy, loud and great quality cone. There's a camera for video calls, and you can use it to monitor your security cameras. And Google Assistant is a great smart environment to play in.
Assistant is made even better with that screen on board: you can control your music with touch controls, watch videos, skim through photos and a lot more, and this also works as a Chromecast speaker and display.
Read our full Google Nest Hub Max review
The Amazon Echo Show 10 is the most comprehensive Alexa smart speaker to date, capable of doing the most, and with a unique trick: its large screen rotates to follow you around the room, so that you can always see it clearly even if you need to move around.
Smart screens have often found a home in the kitchen, where they can be used for recipe videos or fun videos to keep you entertained, and that's a great example of there the Echo Show 10 excels: if you need to move from position to position in the kitchen, then screen just turns to go where you go, and you don't need to touch it with your dirty hands to be able to see what's going on.
But equally, if you want to make a video call in the living room, it doesn't matter where you sit – when you invoke Alexa, the screen turns straight to you, using the direction of your voice. And sound quality from the built-in 360-degree speaker system is rich.
In terms of what Alexa can do, it's the same as other Echo products, with the smart assistant become more useful than ever, with smarter responses to an ever-growing range of enquiries – and you can add Skills for things it can't do, of course.
The big screen is also ideal for making the most of what a smart display can do, and videos look good on it – the only downside here is that Alexa isn't the strongest for video service support (with its half-hearted YouTube integration being the biggest sore point). It's also more expensive than simpler smart speakers, but we can't begrudge it than when it's so useful. You can read more about it in our full Amazon Echo Show 10 review.
Sonos has been making great wireless speakers for years, capable of streaming music from multiple online services and local media libraries all around the home. With the Sonos One, they've started adding voice assistants to the mix – specifically, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. You can choose which you prefer.
You get the usual Sonos quality, plus the ability to use your voice to change songs (and check the weather, and so on). It's an appealing combination, and the Sonos One is easily one of the best smart speakers around in 2021 if you listen to a lot of music. At a base price of $200, it's more expensive than the similarly-sized Echo (4th gen) or Nest Audio, but in terms of audio quality, it sits at the more luxury end of the market alongside the Echo Studio or Google Home Max.
Detail and balance is just a level above here, thanks to Sonos' extensive expertise with hi-fi. You can play music using the voice assistants, or via Sonos' app and Apple AirPlay 2. It works as part of a multi-room system with either of those options, too.
The mic quality isn't quite as good as the latest from Amazon and Google at picking up your voice over other noises, but it works more than well enough. Just bear it in mind if your house is regularly chaotic.
The new Amazon Echo is bigger than the previous model, but that's because it added extra muscle to its speakers and features as well as its shape. A large woofer and two tweeters provide better balance and clarity for music, while the Zigbee smart home hub functionality that used to be exclusively part of the Echo Plus has been moved into the standard Echo.
Alexa is as capable as ever, but it can also respond a little faster to some queries in this model, thanks to Amazon's new learning chip, which can process some common voice requests on the device itself, making it quicker to respond to questions such as turning the lights off.
We think the new design is a little less decoration-friendly than the old one, but that's made up for by all its new improvements – it's the best Alexa speaker overall.
Read our full Amazon Echo (4th gen) review
The big-boy HomePod is a beautiful thing, but next to the competition it's hard not to look at its price without wincing. Apple has, with customary casualness, taken its time in bringing home a HomePod for the rest of us. Now the HomePod mini is here, it's clear the folks from Cupertino have pulled off a cost-effective sequel in magnificent style.
This is a quality little speaker with all the brains of its chunkier cousin – including, importantly, the ability to act as a HomeKit hub to control smart home devices – and even some new capabilities; support for up-and-coming smart protocol Thread means it may help the growth of your smart network. Siri's focus may be on mobile, but don't discount it as the driver here either. If you're using an iPhone, going HomePod is the slickest phone-to-speaker experience there is.
The HomePod mini also packs a surprising punch in the sound department, with 360-degree audio filling most rooms without issue. It's the size of the Echo Dot, yet sounds as good (arguably better, depending on preference) to the full-size Echo or Nest Audio.
Read our full HomePod mini review
JBL's neat little speaker is something of an under-the-radar option, but that doesn't mean it's not a quality device. In fact, it's really rather good, particularly in its price bracket, with Google Assistant support built-in and AirPlay 2, Chromecast and hi-res support topping its surprisingly strong list of speakers.
Physically, this is also more premium than its price would suggest, with a tidy cloth finish and a delicate curve to its shape; in terms of audio, it can fair belt out the tunes, with a loud and detailed mix which includes a serious amount of bass if you want it.
The only points it loses are in connectivity. There's no way to pair this with another speaker, there's none of JBL's PartyBoost functions, but this is seriously affordable and seriously good nonetheless.
Watch out Sonos and Apple, because Amazon has unveiled its best-sounding Echo yet: the Amazon Echo Studio. It comes with support for the Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio standards, so it's capable of filling a room and then some with rich, vibrant acoustics. Three 2-inch mid-range speakers, one 1-inch tweeter, and one 5.25-inch woofer are fitted inside.
As well as the superior sound quality, you do of course get all the smarts of Amazon Alexa, and it's reasonably priced too. Amazon recently launched an HD version of its music streaming service as well, which is probably the perfect app to pair with the Amazon Echo Studio.
All the smarts of Alexa in a little ball that fits in the palm of your hand make the new Echo Dot a very appealing option in our best smart speaker list – especially considering its latest refresh, which upped the audio quality.
The genius of the Dot is that it's just good enough. Its audio isn't spectacular, but it's miles ahead of the disappointing sound of early versions. Its price isn't super-low, but it's low enough; at $50, you can pretty much just piecemeal upgrade each room as you come to it. It doesn't have a Zigbee hub, but it can pull off the full range of Alexa voice commands and functions.
Keep an eye out for sales, because they're when the Dot really comes into its own. If you find an Echo Dot for under $50, seriously consider buying – that's the sweet spot, and it lands there often.
Read our full Amazon Echo Dot (4th gen) review
There's a lot to love about the largest Google Home Max. In this case, you're getting some fantastic audio quality, some serious volume, and a room-filling smart speaker in the same sort of space as a traditional bookshelf woofer.
Top-level audio quality, then, plus the excellent Google Assistant on board, plus the option of a cabled connection, plus casting abilities – what's not to like? It'll cost you a lot of money, that's the key drawback, and it's probably overkill for most people's smart speaker needs.
Read our full Google Home Max review
Size, say the insecure, is not everything, generally without any proof. Here, B&O has the goods that cements it as true: the Beosound A1, about the size of a Sausage and Egg McMuffin (so slightly larger than a third-gen Echo Dot, but not by much) is a stormer in the sound department. It's nimble, capable, and handles dynamic performances with no effort at all, everything you could ask for from a speaker. And more, in fact: it's portable, with up to 48 hours battery life if you're careful about the volume, and IP67 rated, meaning you could fling it in the bath (if you really wanted to) and it would emerge just fine.
Admittedly its Alexa functionality is a little, shall we say, subjective – this is a Bluetooth speaker, so it only works when tethered to your phone. Good job it supports the extra range of Bluetooth 5.1, we suppose, although the funky way in which Amazon links audio streaming services to devices means you won't be able to fire up Spotify or Tidal via your voice – but get them going using your phone, and you'll be more than happy with the results.
The best of the rest smart speakers
The smart speaker category continues to be invaded with smart speaker/display combos, which brings us to the Amazon Echo Show 5 – it's obviously intended to go head to head against the Nest Hub, with a smaller display (5.5 inches) than the standard Echo Show.
It's significantly smaller than the big Echo Show but it's significantly cheaper as well, and has all the magic of Alexa on board. The screen is still perfectly readable when it comes to weather forecasts, recipes, calendar entries and so on, just not so great for video footage.
Read the full Amazon Echo Show 5 review
Bang & Olufsen's smart speaker department is pushing hard right now; the Beosound Balance and second generation of Beosound A1 both make the grade here, and this newest entry in the canon falls somewhere between the two in the price department. But given that it's falling between a $250 portable speaker and the sky-high asking price of the Beosound Balance, you'll probably appreciate that this is still rather expensive.
For the money you get a (currently) Google Assistant-only smart speaker with some serious attention paid to the audio side of things. Stood on its edge, it'll beam out some room-filling sound from its five individual drivers; laid down flat, it can pull off 360-degree audio. There's also an optional wall-mount charging stand, which is perfect: the various finishes of the Level, either cloth-covered or wood, beg to be displayed.
Given that you can charge it, it follows logically that you can carry the Level around - and it employs active room compensation to ensure it sounds good wherever you happen to put it. Brilliant hardware, then, as long as you can afford it.
Besides the rebranding that's taken place to reflect Nest becoming the umbrella label for everything in the Google smart home range, the Nest Mini adds a wall mounting hole and boosts the audio from the original Google Home Mini.
Voice detection should be improved with the introduction of a third microphone, and Google has brought back the tap controls as well – just touch the top of the speaker to pause or resume audio playback, and slide along it to change the volume.
Otherwise, the Google Nest Mini is very much like the Google Home Mini: all the power of the Google Assistant in a very compact, aesthetically pleasing form factor. Your choices for colors are chalk, charcoal, coral or sky.
Read our full Google Nest Mini review
Here's the Apple HomePod, which has a lot going for it: very impressive sound quality, for instance, which can adapt to the room it's in to make sure your ears are always hearing your tunes at their best. It also looks and feels fantastic, a very premium product, and definitely one of the best smart speakers of 2021.
On the downside, you're going to be disappointed if you need to go beyond Apple Music, Siri and the iPhone with your HomePod: support for the likes of Spotify or anything else not made by Apple tends towards the difficult or non-existent (though you can stream audio from iTunes on Windows). Nonetheless, it's the best-sounding smart speaker for those already heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, only bested (arguably) by the cheaper HomePod mini.
Note: this model has now been discontinued but may still be available from some retailers. Read our full Apple HomePod review
Google's replacement for the Google Home upgrades the sound over its predecessor by including a woofer and dedicated tweeter, giving a more full sound overall – though the audio doesn't quite match the new Amazon Echo, and definitely trails behind the likes of the Sonos One.
The new tall, slim design is attractive and is smaller than it comes across in photos. It has hidden controls on top – slightly too hidden, in our view, but if you know they're there, it's nice not to have the look broken up.
Google Assistant is excellent, of course, and though there are no unique features to it on this device, it's a really good balance of speaker quality and capability for those in the Google ecosystem.
Read our full Google Nest Audio review
You don't have to be a genius to work out what the story of the Amazon Echo Show 8 is – it's another smart speaker display from Amazon, this time with an 8-inch screen. That puts it right in the middle of the 10-inch and the 5-inch Amazon Echo Shows that were already on the market. This is all blindingly obvious stuff.
The price is in the middle too, so it might be the sweet spot for some people. For us, it kind of falls between two stools: either you want a compact display, or you want a large one... why would you want a middling one? We do like the design though, which continues to improve with each Show.
Read our full Echo Show 8 review
Relatively new to the best smart speaker scene – or should that be the smart display scene? – is the Google Nest Hub, essentially a Google Home with a tablet attached. It acts as the center of your smart home operations, controlling other devices and all your Google apps.
So, you can watch YouTube videos, see a slideshow of Google Photos, up the heat or tweak the HVAC on your Nest Learning Thermostat, ask Google a question, and so on. We like the style and feature-set of the Google Nest Hub (originally called the Home Hub), and there's no camera to worry about.
Read our comparison of the Google Nest Hub and Amazon Echo Show.
Some smart speakers work best when placed closer to the center of the room while some, like the Beosound Balance, are made to sit next to a wall. It's almost a shame the beamforming smarts of its speaker layout are set up with such a bias, because the Balance's raw Scandinavian-inspired design is worth celebrating, particularly in its natural oak colorway.
That said, you can select between a couple of sound profiles, one of which is more omnidirectional than the other. Both profiles, inherited from the B&O's Beolab speakers and pumped through a high-quality seven-speaker array, sound just great - as you'd hope, at this price.
This is premium stuff through-and-through, right down to the aluminum top plate with its shine-through controls. But this lamp-sized speaker won't necessarily do everything: unlike some others, which started with Alexa and added Google Assistant support later, the Balance has launched with only Google support for now, with Amazon's assistant coming in a later update.
Lenovo has found the sizing sweet spot for bedside table smart screens. The 4-inch display of the Smart Clock lands somewhere between the tiny circle of the Echo Spot and the bit-bigger-than-it-truly-needs-to-be Nest Hub Max.
But it's not just the size that matters: the company has built-in so many little extras to help it earn its place next to your pillow. There's an integrated USB port for charging, a screen that dims itself automatically at night, a comfortable cloth covering that just blends in. It's a very neat take on Google Assistant.
OK, it's no audio powerhouse, but the Smart Clock is perfectly adequate at waking you up with a tune or two. And at the time of writing, it's super-cheap, too: it has reached as low as $25 in many places.
Sonos' jump to the outdoors isn't just a battery-powered Sonos One, even though we would have been happy with that. The Move has been engineered for outside. It's weather-resistant, with an IP56 rating; that first digit means there's dust protection, and the second means it should be protected against strong water jets. It's drop resistant, too, making this by far the most rugged speaker Sonos has ever made. There's also a carry handle molded into the casing.
Sonos states 11 hours of battery life, which obviously depends on volume and usage, and there's a charging base included which means this doubles nicely as an indoor speaker when you're not carting it around – it also charges via USB-C if you're looking to power it from a power bank.
Hook it up to Wi-fi and you can choose your smart ecosystem, as Sonos has joined Bose in offering both Alexa and the Google Assistant, and you can obviously tap into Sonos' rich app and multi-room expertise to expand your playback possibilities.
Ultimate Ears' whole attitude just seems to be to make the most balls-out speakers it possibly can. Speakers made to be handled while not entirely in control of your faculties. Speakers that can handle a party or twelve, and deal with being hurled into a swimming pool and come out shouting. And, critically, speakers with a loud, bouncy, full-on audio mix that will make you nod your head.
The Megablast absolutely fits the mold. The company has imbued its 360° (or, let's be realistic given that large volume panel, more like 300°) output with some truly rocking bass, and given it all the element-proofing possible. And yes, it's an Alexa speaker, and not a bad one either; great to take in the bathroom or get tunes running in a busy kitchen. Maybe leave the Alexa functionality switched off if you're partying though – that's just asking for trouble.
The Echo Dot Kids' Edition is really just an Echo Dot with a kid-friendly cloth outer. Right? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that the hardware is technically exactly the same, so you get all the benefits of the Echo Dot, but no in the sense that you get a lot more besides.
You get a no-quibble two-year warranty (extended from the 90 days of the usual Echo Dot) perfect if your kid decides Mr Panda needs to see what the shower is like. You also get a far cheaper subscription to Amazon's Kids+ (formerly Freetime Unlimited) which gives you extra control over what they can do with their Echo and offers up a bunch of child-friendly skills too. It works out a lot cheaper to buy the Kids' Edition, if you put that subscription in the equation, so even if it does cost $10 more than the standard version this is worth a look.
An out-there option here, but one which is well worth considering if you're after voice assistant functionality and also looking to boost your network's abilities. TP-Link's Deco Voice X20 builds full Alexa access (we're told it includes drop-ins and calling) into each of its dot-around-the-home nodes, essentially doing the job of an Echo Dot and a Wi-fi 6 network booster in one. It's a little like Google's Nest Wifi, which adds Google Assistant to its nodes, but it's not showing its age quite as much as Big G's 2019 mesh system.
Admittedly it's not showing an awful lot at the moment, given that we're still waiting for TP-Link to release it, but if you're in the market this might be one to hold on for - we'll give it a full assessment when it does arrive.
What to look for in a smart speaker
The most common options for the best smart speaker are Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant – for most folks, it’s a choice between these two. Apple’s Siri is also an option, but it’s only available on two smart speakers at this point, and generally isn’t quite as capable as the other two overall, so it’s more of a marginal option. Mostly.
But for the majority, it’s Alexa or Google Assistant. And actually, for most people, the choice won’t make too much difference still – they’re both able to play music pretty comprehensively, they can both answer most question types, they both offer a lot of smart home control.
To help decide which is right for you, read our in-depth comparison of the two: Alexa vs Google Assistant. The gist of all this is that we’d slightly recommend Alexa more overall because it’s a bit more flexible and has more cool additional abilities you can add. Google Assistant ties into the Google ecosystem better, though, so if you’re deep into Google services, that will probably the better choice.
Honestly, though, if talk of advanced extra skills and ecosystems makes you shrug, you can choose either and be happy – it will probably come down to the hardware.
For the speakers themselves, consider their size, design, audio quality and any of the additional hardware features we've talked about, such as having a screen or a smart hub inside. Price will obviously be a major factor, but it's likely to be something you'll consider in combination with the above – you might well choose a smaller and nice-looking option if it’s going prominently in your living room, but if you want a powerful music speaker for the office, your priorities will be a bit different. When it comes to speakers of all kinds, bigger usually means better sound.
Finally, a vital component of a smart speaker is the microphone, naturally. Everything we’ve recommended has a strong mic setup, designed to pick voices out from other sounds, and to hear you from across a room.
Is a smart speaker or a Bluetooth speaker better?
To answer this question, we'll need to explain the difference between a smart speaker and a Bluetooth speaker.
While both can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth connection, a smart speaker is designed with voice assistants in mind. While a Bluetooth speaker can play your favorite music, audio books and other audio-based entertainment, a smart speaker will be designed primarily for use with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant or any other AI-based voice controlled assistant.
Bluetooth speakers, depending on the model, will usually have better hardware inside designed to get the most out of multi-layered audio tracks. Some will even support surround sound or have improved sound support technology that improves the quality overall.
Smart speakers, however, will feature lighter hardware that provides a great mix of sound quality and versatility for voice assistants. If you're hoping to listen to your favorite tracks at their optimal levels, a Bluetooth speaker with audio-enhancing features and tech will be what you want to look for.
If you're just looking to grab a solid speaker for use with Amazon Alexa, however, then a smart speaker will do the job and then some.