The best smart speakers are a treat for your ears, a feast for the eyes, and a great help around the home – but finding the smart speaker that's going to slot perfectly into your living room or drop neatly onto your bedside table isn't always the easiest task.
A great smart speaker is something which mixes in all of those aspects in perfect harmony and doesn't hit your wallet any harder than it has to. Scale your ambitions down one notch to a good smart speaker, and you'll find hardware which can land somewhere in the middle and still offer up a fully satisfying experience.
If you're on the fence about whether you need a smart speaker at all, consider this: they're really cool. Smart speakers can pull off all kinds of tasks beyond the obvious playing music and toggling the lights, and the longer you have one in your life the more you'll find to do with it. Whether you're using Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, you'll be able to set up routines to trigger a number of smart home actions at once, stream all kinds of podcasts and radio, set up lists, reminders and alarms, and communicate with others both within your home and outside it.
Money isn't a barrier. The cash poor can pick up a cheap smart speaker like the Amazon Echo Dot or Nest Mini, perfectly capable of pulling off all manner of smart home tasks without excelling in the audio department, and be very happy with it. Those who are more flush could spend through the nose and pick up a truly spectacular smart speaker like the Beosound Balance, and get an audio centrepiece that also happens to be super-smart – some of the best Alexa speakers are full hi-fi experiences.
It's all about finding the right choice for you. Maybe you're considering a smart screen instead – these generally don't skimp on the audio, and the extra dimension offered to them allows you to (for example) peer at security cameras, see recipe ingredients, and get visual feedback when smart home events occur. They also tend to be pretty solid digital photo frames, if that's your thing.
So, you probably know what kind of smart speaker you want. If you don't, we'll help you there too, so let's answer that first burning question: which smart assistant should you go for?
What to look for in a smart speaker?
The most common options are Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant – for most people, it’s 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 niche option for those reasons – though later, we’ll go into why it still may be worth choosing.
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. We’ve done an in-depth comparison of the two here:
• Alexa vs Google Assistant: which should you choose?
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.
• Read our full Google Nest Hub Max review
Oh, sure, the Google Nest Hub Max may be something of a spring chicken 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, for a start, because it does absolutely everything in one package. By all means, 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-incher 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 for double duty security camera purposes. And Google Assistant is a great smart environment to play in.
Assistant is made even better with that screen on board: you can poke at 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 Amazon Echo (4th gen) review
The new Amazon Echo is bigger than the previous model, but that's because it beefed up 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 part of the Echo Plus only 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 decor-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 HomePod mini 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.
Sonos has been making top-quality wireless speakers for years, capable of streaming tunes 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 2020 if you listen to music a lot. It's more expensive than the similarly-sized Echo (4th gen) or Nest Audio, but in terms of audio quality it's closer to the pricier Echo Studio or Google Home Max.
The level of detail and balance is just a level above here – thanks to Sonos' 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 then well enough. Just bear it in mind if your house is regularly chaotic.
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.
• Read our full Amazon Echo Dot (4th gen) review
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. There's also a clock-packing version for the bedroom and a snazzy kids edition too, which cost just a little more.
If you're just getting started with smart speakers then the Echo Dot is an excellent entry point. At the prices this will fall to during sales, you might as well get one for every room - though we can't guarantee that this new model will feature on our list of the best Black Friday deals of 2020. Amazon may be slightly more likely to clear space in its warehouses currently taken up by the 3rd-gen Echo Dot instead.
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 servies 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.
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 £170-ish 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.
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 midrange 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 a HD version of its music streaming service as well, which is probably the perfect app to pair with the Amazon Echo Studio.
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.
Here's the Apple HomePod, which has a lot going for it: very impressive sound quality, for instance, which can adapt to the room its in to make sure your ears are always hearing your tunes at their best. It also looks and feels fantastic, a proper premium bit of kit, and definitely one of the best smart speakers of 2020.
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 is pretty much non-existent (though you can stream audio from iTunes on Windows). Still, it's the best-sounding smart speaker for those already heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, only bested (arguably) by the cheaper HomePod mini.
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 colours are chalk, charcoal, coral or sky.
• Read our full Google Nest Audio 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 not 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.
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.
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.
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 centre 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, change the temperature on your Nest thermostat, ask Google a question, and so on 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.
There's a lot to love about the big-boy 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.
Some smart speakers work best when placed closer to the centre 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 colourway. 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 aluminium 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" 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. At times it's hit £35/£40 in many places, including Lenovo's own site; we probably wouldn't pay the full £80 asking price, but it's a good choice if it's currently on sale.
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 moulded 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 one's 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 mould. 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 to boot. 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. Perhaps leave the Alexa functionality switched off if you're partying though - that's just asking for trouble.
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.