Once upon a time, home speakers were boxy things you hooked up to your stereo system. But times have changed. Amazon’s introduction of the Echo smart speaker in 2014 kicked off a revolution in speakers that do more than just transmit sound. They now have voice assistants inside that take commands, control our homes and put huge music libraries within reach. The big dilemma for 2018 is which smart speaker to buy.
The smart speaker decision is a big one. The hardware plays a role as you need to decide how big of a device you want and what sort of sound quality you’re going for. Price is a factor. It’s also about the ecosystem around the speaker, which mostly breaks out into the choices between Amazon, Google, or Apple.
Now that the holiday shopping season is heating up, it’s time to give smart speakers a fresh look and figure out which one is the best bet for you, whether you’re giving it as a gift or you’re looking to upgrade your own smart home.
Best budget speakers
Amazon’s third-generation Echo Dot sports a new look and upgraded sound quality. It also has an attractive price of $49.99. That almost puts it into high-end stocking stuffer territory. It’s not the best choice for listening to music due to its small size, but it’s a perfect way to extend an existing network of Alexa devices.
The Dot has some competition in the form of the $49 Google Home Mini. They both have a cute, round puck-like design and are fairly evenly matched. The decision on which to purchase will come down to whether you have a bigger investment in the world of Amazon or the world of Google. If you’re shopping for someone else, then you might want to make some discreet inquiries to see if she’s a Prime member, or if she already uses Alexa or Google Assistant devices.
Best speaker for Apple fans
Apple fans tend to be a dedicated bunch, sporting iPhones, iPads and MacBooks. If you (or your gift recipient) are deep into Apple and use iTunes for your music collection, then Apple’s $349 HomePod can be a sensible purchase despite its relatively high price tag.
The HomePod offers a lot of the same features that you’ll find from Amazon and Google’s devices, except Siri will be your voice companion. It brings top-notch sound quality and rich bass along for the ride, but the HomePod is best as an option for die-hard Apple fans who don’t mind dropping the cash on a high-end smart speaker.
Best speaker for music
Smart speakers come in all shapes and sizes, and their different designs can have a big impact on how they sound. If music is a priority for your speaker, then look to the $199 Sonos One, a speaker with Amazon Alexa built in. The Sonos One puts a priority on sound quality, but at a price lower than Apple’s HomePod.
If you’re really looking to notch things up, then consider picking up two Sonos One speakers and using them as a stereo pair. You can get a package deal on two for $379. It may not satisfy all audiophiles, but it’s a great-sounding package that will elevate your music listening experience.
Best all-around smart speaker
Amazon’s latest version of the $100 Echo softens the look of the original design while still keeping its now-iconic cylindrical shape. It doesn’t sport the same high level of sound that you’ll find in the HomePod or Sonos One, but it’s also much less expensive while still delivering all the usual Alexa features we’ve become accustomed to. The Echo is also a friendly option for people who are new to smart speakers, making it easy to give as a holiday gift.
The Echo’s main competition is the slightly more expensive $129 Google Home, the big sibling to the Home Mini. You should consider it over the Echo if you’re an Android-toting Google fan, or if you’re not tied into Amazon as a Prime member or Amazon Music subscriber.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to smart speakers. The Amazon, Google, Apple, and Sonos speakers we’ve just talked about will cover almost anyone on your shopping list, or make the perfect addition to your own home. Just be sure to keep an eye out for hot deals as the holidays approach. Expect many of these speakers to drop down into outright tempting sale price territory.