(Pocket-lint) - Finding the right smart speaker for your home may seem easy enough, with plenty of options now available to pick from, but the task is actually anything but.
Chiefly, this is because speakers still require you to understand a bit about the smart assistant you want to be the dominant voice in your home. Else, things can become fragmented between devices quite quickly.
With that said, while it pays to learn your Amazon Alexa from your Google Assistant - and whether existing smart home devices can play nice with them - the lines are beginning to blur thanks to the rise of interoperability standards like Matter and Thread.
Soon, hopefully, the smart speaker you pick won't gatekeep you from the benefits of other ecosystems, but, for now, we'd suggest thinking long and hard about who you jump in with.
The smart capabilities of these speakers, naturally, are a big factor in how we decided on our pick of the current best options available. If you're seriously looking into one, sound quality and design are obviously also huge elements to weigh up - just as they are with the best wireless speakers. And we've provided more advice on choosing a smart speaker in the section below our picks.
Without further ado, though, let's explore our top recommendations.
What is the best smart speaker in 2022?
Our Top Pick: Best Smart Speaker
- Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant
- Outstanding sound
- Beautiful design
- Not the cheapest option
It's hard to look past the Sonos One when deciding which the top smart speakers are. It gives you the choice between Google Assistant and Alexa as the voice assistant - though these can't run concurrently, of course - and offers a sound profile that's balanced, rich and a joy to fill your space with.
The design, as is typical of Sonos, too, with the rounded block featuring a touch control panel on the roof. Voice control, as well, is stellar - the speaker can pick up your requests from afar and is more than capable of becoming the central commander of your home.
This alone - along with the very palatable price tag - is enough to make it a standout smart speaker, but it also perhaps ignores the biggest benefit of going with Sonos - multi-room audio. If you're looking to build up an arsenal of speakers that can easily link sound from room to room, or perhaps form a one-room surround sound setup, you can get things off to a great start with the One.
Smart speakers we also recommend
While the Sonos One is at the peak of this list, it's not necessarily the right speaker for every home - or, indeed, every budget. That's why we've also selected the following devices for you to consider.
Amazon Echo Studio
- Powerful sound
- A premium home for Alexa
- Not the most attractive design
Amazon's own speakers had always been getting better in their sound quality over the initial iterations, but the Echo Studio took the lineup into another dimension.
This is proper, high-fidelity sound performance, with 3D audio more than just a nickname for an overrated feature. If you pair the Studio with lossless music, you'll hear just how well-tuned this speaker is.
It comes at a bit of a price, but still undercuts high-end rivals by a major margin, and, frankly, knocks them out of the park. Added to that, you get a full Alexa experience - and Amazon add-ons like Fire TV support.
With five speakers housed within the unit, we found the sound to be balanced from all angles, bass with some actual oomph and an all-round great experience. The Echo Studio is tough to beat - especially for those already embedded with Amazon's smart assistant.
Google Nest Audio
- Classy design
- Solid sound
- Not a Zigbee hub
Google has clearly positioned Nest Audio to be a natural rival to the Amazon Echo. The competition from Amazon is still fierce, but, in Nest Audio, Google now has a speaker that can hold its own.
Google also now has a speaker that's more appealing than its previous efforts. The Nest Hub is great for bedrooms, the Nest Hub Max is best suited to kitchens, and the Nest Mini and Nest Audio provide two size options for every other room.
For Google fans, this model slots easily into the home to provide music, information and voice control whenever you want it.
Apple HomePod mini
- Cute design
- Surprisingly good sound output
- Siri is not as strong as Google Assistant or Alexa
- Undercut by cheaper, impressive rivals
After the disaster that was the original Apple HomePod, the smaller, newer HomePod mini is a thankful step in the right direction for Siri and HomeKit fans.
Despite its miniature stature, the HomePod mini sounds great. It will appeal to many Apple users locked firmly into the Cupertino company's ecosystem - particularly those with an Apple Music subscription - and that's a good enough reason alone to go for this model.
Despite its excellent sound and neat design, though, it's also fair to wonder whether those dipping into the smart speaker realm for the first time would be better served with the cheaper (and still very good) options from Google and Amazon that are roughly half the price.
We're still happy to recommend the HomePod mini, of course, especially with its new, vibrant finishes, but this isn't the right speaker for everyone.
Amazon Echo (4th generation)
- Unbeatable value
- Great mid-range entry into Alexa
- Design not for everyone
The Amazon Echo range has various price points covered, but the standard Echo is the pick of the range for most people, even though the Echo Studio is still quite comfortably the best-sounding model.
The latest version of Echo improves the offering with new technology, a faster Alexa, and better sound.
We're not totally sold on the new design, which has transformed the cylindrical shape into a literal ball of sound, but it does give the Echo range a shake-up and makes it even more distinctive. Some will love it, some won't, but that's not, in itself, too much of an issue.
Other products we considered
When deciphering which smart speakers we believe to be the best currently available, we spent hours testing and researching. As we alluded to up top, we consider a range of factors when it comes to recommending devices - and also when a new device enters our top five selections. This isn't just our own testing, either, but also consumer reviews, brand quality and value.
In all of our roundups, there are also many products we test that don't make the final cut. Since they may be the right fit for some people, however, we've listed them below.
How to choose a smart speaker
The range of available smart speakers is now very broad, and including ones with screens and others designed to replace your hi-fi system. We've focused on pure smart speakers in this guide, but you can check out our other speaker guides for info on the top options in other areas. Head down below for some FAQs when buying regular smart speakers.
What can smart speakers do?
Smart speakers are extremely versatile. Most commonly, however, users can benefit from using the speaker's virtual assistant as a verbal search engine for both basic or complex queries, as well as a way to control other smart devices. What's more, while these speakers range massively in price, you get roughly the same smart assistant experience whether you spend big or small.
Of course, they're also a great way to enjoy your music and podcasts. Whether this is through streaming or casting, most now offer support for the major platforms - Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music Unlimited and Audible, to name a few.
Are smart speakers safe?
All smart speakers feature microphones, and, though they generally have a switch or button to turn them off, this does also slightly defeat the point of having one. Pocket-lint has spoken to Amazon about its privacy measures, but, as a general point, we'd say the always-listening concerns people rightly hold against smart speakers is something that's improving all the time.
Be it through features that only allow for microphones to work for a period of time once a wake word is uttered, or perhaps even the work of companies to reduce the amount of false-positive recordings, we're certainly moving towards a time when your voice data and privacy can be classed as very secure. For now, though, we'd still recommend checking out the official, up-to-date FAQs directly from Amazon, Google and Apple if you hold concerns.
What size smart speaker is best?
This all depends on how you'll use it. Perhaps your smart speaker will be used by your kids to ask who the Prime Minister was in 1967 to help with their homework, in which case a small, simple and cheap speaker may suffice. If you plan to use a music streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music, though, then you will want something with more audio oomph. This tends to be what separates the entry-level and the top-tier picks.
If you want to also pick up smart home devices, such as smart lights, don't forget that they sometimes require a sold-separately hub. A smart speaker - providing it has a Thread radio, Zigbee chip or another manner of communicative interoperability - can replace this, so it pays to know this before you buy.
Does smart speaker size affect sound quality?
You could choose a big hi-fi speaker that needs a shelf to itself or a tiny one that can hide in the corner of the kitchen, bedroom or living room. Some petite speakers have poor audio playback while others, like the recently-released Apple HomePod mini, produce a sound that’s way bigger than you expect. While the most basic speakers can connect to hi-fi speakers to improve their sound, if music playback is important, you’re better off choosing one with bigger speakers built-in.
Are smart speaker microphones important?
In short, yes. If you’re playing back music, the microphones need to hear the wake words to respond. The same applies in a noisy room. So, better and more numerous microphones can help. Of course, smart speakers make mistakes, too, so better microphones can help them be more accurate.
More about this story
Every smart speaker in this list has been tested in real-life scenarios, just as you would use it in your day-to-day life.
As part of our dedicated reviews - and also for these buyer's guides - we've been putting these devices through their paces since they've emerged onto the market over the last 5-10 years.
As we've alluded to throughout this piece, there are many factors that we consider when grading the performance of a smart speaker. Since the point of these devices is to be smarter than a sound-only speaker, we place quite a big emphasis on the smart assistant at the heart of the system. However, this is also crossed with its design, value and privacy features.
Sound quality, of course, is also a huge consideration. It's also a notoriously difficult thing to judge, given that we all hear slightly differently and prefer different things from a speaker's sound profile. That's why we've made sure to consult as many of the Pocket-lint team about our picks before delivering them to you.
In all of our buyer's guides, including this one, we tend to skip over the spec comparisons and marketing spiel; we just want to provide an easy to understand review that gives you an idea of what it's going to be like to use. Our verdicts are concise, but this is in the interest of brevity - rest assured all the things on this list have been fully tested. You can also check out our reviews section for more in-depth coverage of all the top devices.