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The best smart speakers 2021: Get the best bang for your buck

The best smart speakers 2021: Get the best bang for your buck
(Image credit: Pixbay)

It’s probably true that many of us get our daily music fix through our phones – either on their own – not ideal, let's face it – or with a decent set of headphones or wired or wireless earbuds. However, when it comes to getting the most from your music and sharing it with others – no, not the neighbours – there’s really only one choice… a cracking smart speaker or two.

No longer is it a pain carting speakers between rooms, with the range from companies including Apple, Amazon and Sonos offering the ultimate in flexibility and the best portable sounds. 

But with a wide selection of smart speakers on the market, what should you go for? We’ve hand-picked a selection of our favourites which will hopefully help you find exactly what you’re looking for this summer.

No matter what you choose, you'll find a voice-assisted speaker extremely useful. It is, after all, a do-it-all gadget that can answer questions, play music (and video), check the weather, control your smart home, manage your daily schedule, make calls and much more besides.

Best smart speakers: The Louder Choice

OK, let's cut to the chase: If you want the best smart speaker on the market right now, we think the Amazon Echo Studio is where it's at. It boats fab sound – which is reflected in the higher price – but it's worth bearing in mind that it comes with the Amazon Alexa right out of the box, and it represents the smart speaker finding a new level of sophistication and power.

If you find yourself leaning more towards Google's ecosystem rather than Amazon's, then take a look at the Google Nest Hub Max. It doesn't offer quite the same sound quality as the Amazon Echo Studio, but it does have a rather nifty screen – and Google Assistant is arguably just ahead of Amazon Echo in terms of understanding and intelligence. A comfortable second place from us.

How to choose the best smart speaker for you

At the heart of a smart speaker is a digital assistant – Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple's Siri – which is able to respond to voice commands. You can ask it just about anything you like: From what the weather is going to be like next week, what the latest news headlines are, or when the next full moon is etc. Hook up your services, and you can then have them play your favourite music and podcasts, or – if there's a display attached – movies and TV shows.

Choosing the right smart speaker really comes down to which ecosystem you're most heavily invested in: Amazon, Google or Apple. If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, it really does makes sense to get an Amazon Echo speaker. If all the hardware in your home is made by Apple, then the HomePod is the obvious choice. If you already own Nest cameras and a Nest thermostat, they're going to work best with a smart speaker also made by Google.

That's not to say you can't have several smart speakers dotted around the home featuring different digital assistants – but sticking with Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri will make for the most harmonious smart home.

Once you've decided on that, you can start weighing up other factors such as sound quality, price, and more technical features like audio inputs.

Here are today's best smart speakers

Best smart speaker

(Image credit: Amazon)

1. Amazon Echo Studio

The best, smartest smart speaker

Digital assistant: Amazon Alexa | Dimensions: 206 mm (8.11 inches) by 175 mm (6.9 inches) wide | Audio: Three 2-inch mid-range speakers, 1-inch tweeter, 5.25-inch woofer | Display: n/a | Features: Dolby Atmos, 3.5 mm and mini-optical line-in

Superior sound quality
Alexa is always getting smarter
Works well with Amazon services
No integrated display

One of the newest entries in the increasingly huge Amazon Echo range, the Echo Studio is aimed at people who want some seriously good sound from their smart speaker – it has five separate speakers built into it, as well as support for Dolby Atmos and music mastered in immersive 3D.

The Amazon Echo Studio is able to adapt its audio output to the room it finds itself in too, making this very much Amazon's HomePod. Add in the magic of Alexa, the always-ready, always-improving digital assistant, and the ability to act as a smart home hub, and it's an excellent all-round package.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Google)

2. Google Nest Hub Max

The best smart speaker with Google on board

Digital assistant: Google Assistant | Dimensions: 250.1 mm (9.8 inches) by 182.55 mm (7.2 inches) by 101.23 mm (4 inches) | Audio: Two 0.7-inch 10 W tweeters, one 3-inch 30 W woofer | Display: 10-inch, 1,280 x 800 pixel | Features: Doubles up as a Chromecast and a Nest cam

The best Google Assistant speaker
Makes full use of its display
Recognises your face
Better-sounding speakers out there

The Google Nest Hub Max isn't for everyone, but it's the best smart speaker with Google Assistant on board at the time of writing. That 10-inch display means you can bring up videos, weather forecasts, news bulletins, music playlists and more, besides everything the Assistant does with audio only.

You can cast audio and video to the display from your phone using the Chromecast protocol, and the device even doubles up as a Nest camera (so you can check up on what's happening at home while you're out for your daily walk). The sound quality is very good for a speaker this size, although it's not the best on the market.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Google)

3. Google Home Max

Google smarts meets excellent audio

Digital assistant: Google Assistant | Dimensions: 336.6 mm (13.2 inches) by 190 mm (7.4 inches) by 154.4 mm (6.1 inches) | Audio: Two 4.5-inch high-excursion dual voice-coil woofers, two 0.7-inch custom tweeters | Display: n/a | Features: 3.5 mm line-in

The super-smart Google Assistant
The super-clear audio fidelity
Line-in, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
Takes up plenty of space

The Google Home Max hasn't changed at all since its introduction in October 2017 – unless you count the new features that are regularly added to the Google Assistant software – and we hope Google hasn't forgotten about this speaker. It offers the best sound fidelity of all the speakers with Google Assistant on board.

It's versatile too, with a 3.5 mm line-in port and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as the ability to play songs from your phone over your Wi-Fi network. Google Assistant really impresses, as does the room-filling audio, which is tweaked via machine learning to match your room's acoustics.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Amazon)

4. Amazon Echo Plus

The affordable all-rounder

Digital assistant: Alexa | Dimensions: 148 mm (5.8 inches) by 99 mm (3.9 inches) | Audio: 3-inch neodymium woofer and 0.8-inch tweeter | Display: n/a | Features: 3.5 mm audio in/out

Very reasonably priced
Alexa is hugely talented
Doubles as a smart home hub
You might not need the home hub

If Alexa is the smart assistant for you, and you don't need a display, then get the Amazon Echo Plus. It hits the sweet spot between price, sound quality, and functionality, and is more aesthetically pleasing than ever – yours in charcoal, heather, or sandstone fabric.

Any Echo can control various smart home devices through Alexa and the power of your voice commands over Wi-Fi. What the Echo Plus does is double as a smart home hub running the popular Zigbee protocol, so on top of the Alexa control, you can do away with separate home hubs for Zigbee-compatible kit and just use the Echo Plus instead.

We haven't included the standard Echo in our list as it's so similar to the Echo Plus. If you want to save some money and don't have any other smart hubs to replace, then get the normal Echo instead.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Apple)

5. Apple HomePod

The best smart speaker for Apple fans

Digital assistant: Siri | Dimensions: 172 mm (6.8 inches) by 142 mm (5.6 inches) | Audio: Seven horn-loaded tweeters, high-excursion woofer | Display: n/a | Features: Can act as a HomeKit hub

Superior, intelligent sound quality
Great for Apple gadgets and services
Really nicely designed
Siri has some catching up to do

As with pretty much everything made by Apple, the HomePod is a great choice as a smart speaker if you exclusively use Apple hardware and software. However, it's not the best choice if you use anything running Windows or Android – or think you might in the future. That's the way the Apple ecosystem works, so check this works with your existing kit before taking the plunge.

The audio produced by the HomePod is unquestionably fantastic, but Siri isn't quite up to the same standard as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant at the moment. The only 'native' music service you can use – as in, "Hey Siri, play some rock" – is Apple Music: if you want to play anything else such as Spotify, you need to stream it across using AirPlay, which is only available on Apple devices, of course. It works well, though, meaning your library of music will sound fab thanks to the HomePod's top-notch sound quality.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Sonos)

6. Sonos One

The best sound – and a choice of digital assistants

Digital assistant: Alexa and Google Assistant | Dimensions: 161.45 mm (6.36 inches) by 119.7 mm (4.69 inches) | Audio: Two class-D digital amplifiers, one tweeter, one mid-woofer | Display: n/a | Features: Physical buttons

Superior audio quality
Best multi-room features
Fits in with a broad range of hardware
Voice control isn't as seamless as other speakers

Sonos has long been setting the standard for wireless audio speakers, and the Sonos One speaker introduces support for both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. You can take your pick when it comes to which digital assistant you want to make friends with, and control your tunes with your voice.

All the usual Sonos goodness is here too – powerful, crisp sound, support for a whole host of streaming music services – and Apple's AirPlay 2 standard as well – and simple setup and operation. The perfect choice if you don't want to commit to Amazon or Google or Apple.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Amazon)

7. Amazon Echo Show 8

Supercharge your smart speaker with a display

Digital assistant: Alexa | Dimensions: 200.4 mm (7.9 inches) by 135.9 mm (5.4 inches) by 99.1 mm (3.9 inches) | Audio: 1.7-inch 4 W speaker | Display: 8-inch, 1,280 x 800 pixel | Features: Camera privacy shutter switch

Good compromise of size and sound
Competitively priced
See weather, news, calendars on screen
Not the best-sounding smart speaker out there

Amazon's Echos-with-displays speakers are called Echo Shows – you can get them with 5.5-inch, 8-inch and 10.1-inch screens, so we're going for the middle one here. The bigger and smaller ones offer you slightly more and slightly less screen space respectively, of course, plus slightly worse and slightly better sound.

The Echo Show 8 could well be the sweet spot for most people: You get all the power of Alexa, plus that screen, which can be used for viewing Amazon Prime Video and making video calls to friends and family. The sound is impressive, though other entries in this list beat it in that department.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Google)

8. Google Nest Mini

A small but perfectly formed smart speaker

Digital assistant: Google Assistant | Dimensions: 98 mm (3.9 inches) by 42 mm (1.7 inches) | Audio: 360-degree sound with 40 mm driver | Display: n/a | Features: Tap to pause and play

Very affordable
Wall mounting socket
Works as a Chromecast
Lacks visual feedback

A smart speaker boiled down to its very essence, the Google Nest Mini brings you all the power of the Google Assistant in a small, perfectly crafted form factor – and four very nice colour options too. If you just want the smarts and are less bothered about the speaker, this is definitely worth considering.

That said, the audio packs more of a punch than you might think: It's fine for listening to a couple of tracks or a podcast while you munch your breakfast or lunch, and it can fill a small room satisfactorily. It's not the smart speaker to pick if you want great audio fidelity, obviously, but it's not going to let you down if you ramp up the volume. Also, for the price, it's hard to beat.

best smart speaker

(Image credit: Amazon)

9. Amazon Echo Dot

Small, inexpensive, but packing a punch

Digital assistant: Alexa | Dimensions: 99 mm (3.9 inches) by 43 mm (1.7 inches) | Audio: 1.6-inch speaker | Display: n/a | Features: Pick one of four colors to match your home

One of the cheapest smart speakers
Fits in almost anywhere
Amazon Alexa continues to impress
The Echo Shows may suit you better

The Echo Dot is Amazon's equivalent of the Google Nest Mini – if you want to get access to everything Alexa can do at the cheapest price point, this is the smart speaker for you. It's affordable enough for you to kit out every room in the house with one, too.

Now in its third-generation, and with the option of an integrated LED clock if you want to pay a little extra, you can rely on the Echo Dot to answer your questions, tell you the weather, play you some music, and much more. It's the least impressive smart speaker in our list in terms of audio oomph, but it's by no means a disaster if you want to quickly listen to podcasts or a couple of songs.