How to buy the best smart speaker
In brief: what smart speakers and smart displays can do
A smart speaker is a speaker you can talk to. It has a voice assistant built in, which means you can tell it what to do with your voice. There is similar technology built into most smartphones – on iPhones this is Siri.
Voice assistants allow you to control your speaker hands-free from across the room, without even getting out your smartphone. They offer a much wider range of functionality than traditional speakers. For example, you can:
- Play and control music and radio
- Ask for weather, news, directions, traffic updates and other simple, trivia-like questions
- Set alarms, calendar events, alerts and reminders
- Initiate calls and messaging (on select devices)
- Create shopping lists, ask for cooking and recipe instructions, egg timers, plus buy and book things online
- Control smart home devices – smart speakers and smart displays can act as a hub to control smart lights, smart thermostats, smart doorbells and more, helping you to manage your home. Most also allow you to set up a routine that activates multiple devices with a single voice command, saving you time and effort. For example, you might say ‘Alexa, good morning’ to both switch on your and raise the heating – without even getting out of bed.
- Smart displays - the models with a screen - allow you to perform tasks like taking video calls and watching videos, see how your cooking should look every step of the way and interact more deeply with the voice assistant, such as searching the internet more like you would do on a PC or mobile device.
The best smart speakers to buy in 2020
Smart speakers have a challenging brief – they need to be both great wireless speakers and fantastic voice assistants. You’ll want to find something with exceptional sound quality, that’s easy to use, has great features and build quality, and be a fantastic voice assistant as well.
Our expert lab tests and discerning professional listening panel cut through hype to expose models that simply don’t live up to the competition. Plus we also conduct technical penetration tests on all wi-fi-connected speakers, so you can be sure they’re safe and secure to use.
Alexa vs Google Assistant vs Siri – which voice assistant should you choose?
When choosing which smart speaker to buy, you also need to check which voice assistant/s they support. Some of the most popular are Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri.
While they all work in slightly different ways, they are very similar in what they can do.
For example, if you do lots of online shopping on Amazon, Alexa is a great choice as you can link your Amazon shopping account to your speaker and place orders using your voice alone.
Android phone owners and those that use Google services such as Gmail or Google Calendar may find Google Assistant a better choice, as it integrates well with Google services. You also get the power of Google Search for more depth to the more complex queries you make.
Finally, those that own a number of Apple products will find that Siri integrates best with their devices and services.
If you’re not sure which to go for, if you have an Apple or Android smartphone or tablet, you could road test the voice assistant you have on these (Siri and Google Assistant respectively).
However, an increasing number of smart speakers, including those from popular brands like Bose and Sonos, are giving you the option of choosing between multiple voice assistants.
Using voice assistants is free of charge, but some services you can access through them, like music streaming services, may require a subscription.
Some voice assistant features are also only supported on some smart speakers, such as taking calls.
Other voice assistants include Samsung’s Bixby and Microsoft’s Cortana.
How do voice assistants work?
Each voice assistant has a 'wake word' you use to wake the speaker up so it listens to you. You need to say this word before each voice command you make, otherwise the voice assistant won’t be listening to you. Although you can sometimes change it from the default, here’s the wake word to use for popular voice assistants:
- Alexa - you just need to say 'Alexa' to get Amazon's assistant to start listening. So you could ask: ‘Alexa, what is the time?’ You can also change this to ‘Echo’ or ‘Computer’ if you prefer.
- Google Assistant - you need to say 'Hey, Google' or 'OK Google'. For example: ‘Hey Google, what’s the weather like?’
- Siri - saying 'Hey, Siri' is enough to get Apple's assistant to pay attention. Ask something like: ‘Siri, what’s six feet in metres?’
- Bixby - you simply need to say 'Bixby' within earshot of your device and Samsung's assistant will start listening. So you could say: ‘Bixby, tell me the news.’
Which smart home devices are compatible with my smart speaker?
First you need to check whether your smart speaker has full support for its voice assistant built-in – most do. If the smart speaker says you can do more than control your music with your voice – and doesn’t say you require a separate device – it probably has full support. Smart displays with a screen almost always have full support. Support for calling features often varies, however, but this isn’t a prerequisite for connecting most smart home devices.
For smart speakers with full voice assistants built-in, you need to check for the following wording on the smart home devices (like smart lights) you’re looking to use with them, to make sure they’ll be compatible:
- For Alexa smart speakers and smart displays, look for smart home products that say ‘Works with Alexa’.
- For Google Assistant, check for smart home devices that state: ‘Works with Google Assistant.’
- For Siri, you need smart home products that say they’re compatible with Apple Homekit.
- For Bixby, you’ll be looking for Bixby-compatible smart home devices, including many made by Samsung.
Which brands make smart speakers?
How much do smart speakers cost?
Smart speakers can cost £50 or less, and some cost £300 or more. You should expect to spend around £90-£200 for a Best Buy or very good model. They don’t tend to cost more than other wireless speakers, although they often cost more than simple portable Bluetooth speakers as they have wi-fi built-in for the voice control functionality.
Do smart speakers sound good?
The best-sounding smart speakers can rival the very best traditional speakers at similar price points. Many are superb to use simply as speakers in their own right, even if you don’t intend to use voice control all that much.
However, beware that simply paying more or going for a big brand is no guarantee of getting the best sound quality. We’ve found awful-sounding costing well over £100, so be sure to check out our reviews to ensure you don’t end up with a dud.
Which music streaming services can I use?
Most smart speakers support music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music (may require subscriptions). However, which music streaming services are supported vary from speaker to speaker, so it’s an important buying decision. To find out which are the best music streaming services to choose, see our dedicated .
Can I make my existing speaker smart?
If you already have a great setup of traditional speakers, you don't need to completely replace them to get smart functionality - you can easily turn them into a smart speaker by connecting a small separate device called a streaming DAC.
The best of these is a small hockey puck-sized device called , available for around £35, which adds most of the same functionality possible with the Amazon Echo Dot, just without being a speaker itself. You can connect it to your existing speaker via a standard 3.5mm cable or via Bluetooth. This will give you full access to the functionality of the Alexa voice assistant, including music and radio streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music (may require subscriptions), controlled through the Alexa app on your smartphone.
Google used to produce a similar device called Chromecast Audio, which has now been discontinued but can still be sourced second hand. It plugs into the 3.5mm aux-in or line-in socket on your speakers. You can then access smart features like music streaming services through the Google Home app on your smartphone (available for iOS and Android). The only downside is that it doesn’t give you voice control to access these - you need to get out your smartphone to do it. If your hi-fi supports Bluetooth, you can also access this functionality via a Google Home Mini (£49), which does have Google Assistant voice control and is a small speaker in its own right.
Another alternative is to get a simple Bluetooth adaptor you can plug into your speaker. You can then connect it to your smartphone and stream audio from your phone to the speaker over Bluetooth. However, this will drain battery life from your phone considerably if you do it for long periods throughout the day. If using music streaming services or internet radio, also make sure you’re connected to wi-fi to avoid eating up your phone’s data allowance.
Many newer speakers now have Chromecast Audio built in, which is often just called Chromecast but is different to . It also gives you multi-room support to link multiple speakers together into a larger setup, even between Chromecast-enabled speakers from different brands.
Privacy and risks: Is my smart speaker always listening to me?
No, they’re not always listening to your conversations. They are only listening for their ‘wake word’, such as ‘Alexa’.
However, they do record all the commands you give them (available for you to view in your voice search history, which you can delete), and voice commands are also recorded by Amazon and Google to improve their services.
If you don’t want your smart speaker to listen to you at all, you can put them in mute mode - often a red light will make clear when they're in this mode. Often, if you don’t plan to use the voice assistant, you can simply skip setting the voice assistant up when you set up your smart speaker – although keeping them continuously on mute will have the same effect.
Since voice assistants offer powerful functionality, they also come with risks even if you set them up and rarely use them. For example, if you set up your Amazon account on an Alexa-powered speaker with one-click purchasing enabled, it's possible that your kids could buy things using your smart speaker without your knowledge. To remove this risk, you must turn off purchasing when you set up the speaker or set up a password for making voice purchases, which you can configure in the Alexa app.
We conduct full privacy and security testing on all smart speakers and smart displays we review. We will alert you in our reviews – and follow-up with the manufacturer to correct the issue – if we find any concerning security issues during our tests. Manufacturers also frequently release updates to make sure their smart speakers stay secure – so the best way to keep yours secure is to ensure you keep it updated with the latest software if it doesn’t update automatically.
Smart speakers with large screens: should I get a smart display?
Smart displays are a bit of a hybrid between a smart speaker and a tablet. They typically have larger speakers than a tablet of similar size, aiming for better sound quality, and their design is optimised for their voice assistant and smart features. For example, you can ask it to play a video on YouTube showing you how to make a recipe while you cook, or use it with a to check on your child upstairs.
However, like smart speakers, smart displays are often still used primarily for music and radio listening. When listening to music or the radio, a smart display adds a new dimension by displaying lyrics or album artwork, and you can see what radio programme or song is currently playing, without needing to ask. You can also browse music streaming services (may require subscriptions) if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.
What about features like multi-room and Bluetooth?
Now you know what a smart speaker is and what to look for, visit our guide on . Here you’ll find out more about other important features to consider, such as portability and battery life, to ensure you get the ideal smart speaker for you.