The best smart speakers 2018: which one should you buy?

A smart speaker mash-up image featuring Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod

Smart speakers, virtual assistants or smart home speakers, whatever name you decide to call them, they're pretty cool, unbelievably handy and aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

In fact recent reports reveal the best smart speakers are now owned by one in six Americans and UK smart speaker ownership has doubled in six months

That's because many consider smart speakers to be the future of home automation, not only controlling your smart home devices, like your Philips Hue bulbs or your smart locks, but running everything from your fridge to your garage door, too. 

Besides talking to an ever-increasing amount of IoT devices, smart speakers also have within their capabilities to manage your schedule, record your shopping list and even learn more and more about your preferences over time. 

The only thing they can't do, it seems, is help you decide which one is right for you.

The Sonos One now supports Amazon's Alexa and Siri via AirPlay 2.

The Sonos One now supports Amazon's Alexa and Siri via AirPlay 2.

But we know you're here because you want to find the best smart speaker for you - the one that plays nicely with the devices you already have, understands you the best and, ultimately, sounds the best when it's time to rock out. 

So take a look at our guide below and find one that suits your current set-up, your budget and the aesthetics of your home - each of the speakers in our guide below has something called an artificial intelligence (or AI) inside of them. All of the tasks above (and many, many more) are carried out with help from the AI and without it, the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod would just be regular old speakers. 

All of the smart speakers below are more than capable of making your smart home smarter, playing tunes and keeping tabs on your family. 

Not seeing the perfect speaker for you at this current junction? Don't worry. Be sure to keep checking back, as we'll be updating this list with the best smart speakers, as well as the top rumors of the new speakers to expect soon at the end. 

Apple HomePod

Superb sound, so-so smart speaker

Great sound
Nice, minimal design
Siri accuracy is high
Siri scope is limited
No Bluetooth streaming
Apple Music needed

The highly-anticipated Apple HomePod finally entered the smart speaker battle for your bookshelf in early 2018. 

The obvious benefit of an Apple HomePod over an Echo or Google Home device is that it'll play nice with your other Apple products. So if you're a die-hard Apple fan the HomePod may be a no-brainer. 

But it's worth asking the same question you should always be asking yourself when you want to splurge on a new Apple product: how much of a premium should you pay for owning a device that fits only seamlessly into the Apple ecosystem?

When we reviewed the device we were torn because we were really reviewing two things at once: how the HomePod weighs up as a premium speaker and how it fares as a smart home hub.

In the former category, the HomePod is excellent, it boasts incredible sound and a very intuitive set-up. But in the latter Siri is only middling in its implementation, and the fact that you're not able to break out of the Apple ecosystem for many key functions also rankles.

A still of the Amazon Echo smart speaker

(Image: © Amazon)

Amazon Echo (2nd Gen)

Amazon's speaker got even smarter (in looks at least)

Great new look
Lower price
New Alexa features
More of the same
Alexa app could be better
No more rotating dial

If you're after a smart speaker that's affordable and sounds good quality enough to play your favorite tracks, the latest version of the Amazon Echo is your safest bet. In fact it's our current top pick for the best smart speaker on the market right now.  

The newest, 2nd generation Echo sounds better than Amazon's Echo Dot, but it's cheaper than the Echo Plus and Apple's HomePod. 

We don't think you should be using it to replace your hifi, but it's a really great place to start if you want to try out what the smart home life is like.

Amazon has also improved the Echo's style since the first version was released in 2015. The new fabric finishes will suit most living rooms better than the brushed aluminium of the original.

The only downside is the Echo doesn't have the neat volume dial of Amazon's Echo Plus. It's also worth mentioning that Alexa often doesn't seem quite as intelligent as Google Assistant. At the price, though, it's a great option that should suit most people's needs.  

(Image: © GE)

Google Home

Great for Chromecast owners and inquisitive types

Customizable base
Big song library
Expanding hardware ecosystem
Missing Google's own services
Requires precise phrasing
Google Cast support needs work

For starters, you might never appreciate just how much music is on YouTube without buying a Google Home. We’re not saying Google Home is capable of playing any song you can think of, but after dredging the depths of the ’90s we still couldn’t find a tune Google Home couldn’t find.

While Google Home excels as a DJ, it’s also a surprisingly intelligent smart home hub. It already hooks into some of the largest platforms now available by including Nest, Philips and Samsung’s SmartThings, and given a few months that number will grow even more.

But we're torn when it comes to recommending the Google Home. In some ways it's disappointing and doesn't live up to be the coveted center of the smart home Google has marketed it as. 

That's because it's just not there yet. It’s a little too rigid in its language comprehension, its list of smart home devices is growing but still a bit underwhelming, and, perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, it doesn’t have many of Google’s core services built into it.

It has the potential to develop to compete with Amazon's Echo in the future, but for now the Google Home is simply a smart novelty with access to YouTube Music, built-in Google Cast and the ability to save you a trip to the light switch. 

It's also worth mentioning a more recent update: Google Home can now make calls to landlines in the UK! This was a feature unveiled at last year's Google IO, and has now finally made its way into the home.

Ultimate Ears Megablast

One of the best-looking smart speakers around

Waterproof and robust
Portable
Great sound
Still awaiting key features
Expensive
Charging dock sold separately

Ultimate Ears is an audio brand that's known for its great quality and sturdy Bluetooth speakers. With its new Megablast speaker it’s gone and thrown Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant into the mix. 

The result is one of the best-looking and sounding portable speakers around with the Megablast. And thanks to the Amazon Alexa integration, it's also one of the smartest too. 

With the Megablast you get the 360-degree sound, portability and durability of the excellent UE Boom speaker with the smarts of an Echo. It’s a marriage made in speaker heaven.

But unfortunately, it's still lacking some key features months after launch and for those looking for a straightforward smart speaker, its price may be too high.

The Amazon Echo is significantly less expensive than this speaker. At $299.99 / £269.99 (and that's not even including the dock) the Megablast will set you back more than the most recent Amazon Echo or a Sonos One speaker. 

Overall, the Megablast is a great addition to the Ultimate Ears lineup and may be its best sounding speaker yet. It hasn’t quite lived up to all of our expectations but when it gets Alexa support for a wider range of music services and can create a multi-room speaker network it’ll be pretty close.

Google Home Mini

Mini sound but fully functional

Plays nice with Google Cast
Bluetooth support
Good value
Weak sound performance

In many ways, the Home Mini is similar to the Amazon Echo Dot. It's Google’s attempt at getting the Assistant into as many homes as possible. 

The huge amount of capabilities that the Google Home brings, in addition to its minimal, premium build and its low price make it an instant star.

This means if you’re in the market for a cheap speaker, the Google Home Mini will do the trick for many. But do keep in mind that it’s best viewed as a supplement to the Home family rather than the foundation. 

This device’s specialty, aside from being oh-so smart, is mainly to reward those who are already within Google’s Cast-enabled ecosystem with a cheap, new device.

Yes, the Google Home Mini is less than half the price of the larger Google Home, and half its size, too; however, it just doesn’t sound like we’re getting half its performance – we’re getting something a bit less.

Amazon Echo Show

Like an Echo, but with a screen

Great voice recognition
Nice touchscreen
Competent smart home hub
Speaker sounds shallow
Video calling limited
Alexa needs some schooling

The Echo Show, like the Echo before it, is more of a fun, ancillary device rather than a true necessity or smart home hub in its own right.

The addition of the 7-inch touchscreen is unique, and helps separate the Show from the crowd. Like the 5MP camera, the Show hasn’t quite made the most of the touchscreen, but that can – and likely will – change down the road.

However, it adds value by combining devices you already have and ones you could buy at a lower price elsewhere – just look at the Amazon Echo Dot, for example. 

But all-together the Show is a marked improvement on the original Echo, and one that deserves a spot on your kitchen counter.

Sonos One

Sonos and Alexa might be a match made in heaven

Rich sound
Best of Alexa and Sonos
Plays music while Alexa is muted
Google Assistant MIA for now
Premium price

Sonos’ debut Alexa speaker is a cleanly-designed, feature-rich and great-sounding device that brings together the best of both ecosystems. You’ve got the ever-improving Alexa on the one hand, and on the other you’ve got Sonos with its own multi-room smarts. There's also a new feature in the mix that promises to change the game: AirPlay 2. With it, the Sonos One can talk to Siri and form a multi-room pairing with the Apple HomePod, making it the most versatile speaker on the list.

If there's anything holding the Sonos One back from greatness it's the fact that Google Assistant is still MIA - something Sonos has been particularly quiet about.

Once Google Assistant support hits later in 2018, the Sonos One promises to become the market leader in smart home speakers.

A still of the amazon echo dot smart speaker

(Image: © Amazon)

Amazon Echo Dot

A small-but-mighty entry into the smart home category

Great, smaller design
Stellar voice recognition
Line out functionality is very useful
Limited voice control

Amazon’s Echo Dot is a great little product. It maintains almost everything that made the original Echo so great, while also bringing a substantial cut in price. 

Being able to use an external speaker means the Dot is genuinely a great way of listening to music around the house, but its internal speaker is also surprisingly adept at dealing with simpler requests too. 

If you’re curious about the Amazon Echo experience, then the Dot is a great way of trying it out at a much cheaper price, and in some ways its audio output options mean it’s actually the superior device. 

We’re not quite living in the age of Tony Stark’s Jarvis just yet, but if developers continue to rally behind Alexa by developing ever more intelligent skills, then the future may be just around the corner.

JBL Link 300 Smart Speaker

This Google Home speaker kicks serious bass

Good sound, good bass
Physical buttons
Great value
Tonal balance too warm
Can't make calls
Mediocre voice detection

The JBL Link 300 is a great sounding Google Home speaker that gets loud and pumps out loads of bass. While not everyone will like the warm tonal balance, the speaker represents good value compared to the competition. We hope Google and JBL can work to make its voice detection better via a software update.

The JBL Link 300 is the sweet spot in the company’s Google Home speaker line. For the money, you get a good-sounding speaker that gets loud, drops serious bass and features handy physical controls. Its design may be a little forgettable, but that’s forgiven since the speaker works so well. 

The speaker isn’t perfect though. Voice recognition is average, as we have to shout at the speaker when music is playing loudly. There’s also no way to make voice calls currently, which is something that the cheaper Google Home and Google Home Mini can do out of the box. 

Up against competitors, the Sonos One offers more balanced sound, but only supports Amazon Alexa at the moment. The company promises to bring Google Assistant support to the speaker in 2018, but the feature hasn’t appeared yet. 

Amazon Echo Plus

Alexa wants to rule your home with new smart hub functions

Good Alexa voice control
Improved audio
One-box smart home solution
Sound could be better
Smart hub features need work

The Amazon Echo Plus is the higher-end choice among its tower speakers. You should consider buying one if you want decent sound quality but don't want the display of the Echo Show or Echo Spot

It's louder and bassier than the standard Echo, particularly useful for music. Does it sound as good as the Sonos One? No. But like Amazon’s other Echo gadgets, its price is competitive. It costs $149.99 (£139.99) with a Philips Hue bulb included to kick-start your smart home future. 

Like other smart home systems, Amazon Alexa is a work in progress. However, it’s easy to recommend the Amazon Echo Plus. It’s a convenient one-stop solution for both audio, smart assistant functions and Internet of Things controls, with Alexa still going strong as the most feature-rich voice assistant.

But the strength of the Echo range, especially at the lower price tiers, still makes these top-of-the-line models a harder sell. The Echo Dot has comparable smarts for a fraction of the price, it just doesn't sound as good. Likewise, the built-in smart hub is a great addition, but isn’t yet feature-complete, meaning committed smart home users may not want to make the jump just yet. 

In short, if you’re looking to enter the world of the connected home, the Echo Plus is a great place to start. Just be aware that more economical options may, for the time being at least, suit your needs just as well.

Ultimate Ears Blast

Portable Bluetooth speaker first. Smart speaker second.

Excellent sound quality
Good battery life
For home and on the go
Amazon's walled garden
Alexa useless without Wi-Fi
Poor voice recognition

The UE Blast is a portable Bluetooth speaker first and a smart speaker second. The inclusion of Alexa makes the Blast useful in the home when paired with the optional Power Up dock - but, even when you're away from Wi-Fi, the Blast is still an excellent-sounding Bluetooth speaker.

The UE Blast is a slightly confusing product as its tries to be both a smart and portable speaker. As a portable speaker that you don’t have to worry about taking to the beach, the Blast is excellent like the older Boom 2. However, don’t expect the UE Blast to be great in the home with its poor voice recognition and lack of the included dock. 

When smart speaker competitors like the Sonos One retail for about the same price, it’s hard to justify using the UE Blast in the home as the Sonos One works with the company’s mutli-room technology and platform that supports just about every streaming music service under the sun. Plus, you’ll get the option of using Google Assistant in a future update.

Amazon Echo Spot

This addition to the Echo family is a fun, versatile video device

Lovely form factor
Clear video
Video cropping
Pricier than Echo

In our opinion, the Amazon Echo Spot is the best-designed Alexa device Amazon has ever created; it’s a gadget you’d happily have in your bedroom, on your desk, in your kitchen. 

The Spot is versatile - it doesn’t have a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the room you put it in but this is certainly not just a smart alarm clock, something Amazon has been very clear about. 

It does everything the Echo Show does, but it all feels better in this smaller form factor. The design is great - it's available in black and white - and we can easily see the Spot being used in the bedroom, kitchen or even on a desk. In fact, you may want it in all of these places.

That's the thing with the Amazon Echo Spot – much like other Echo devices, Amazon wants you to have a multitude of them in your home so you always have access to video chat no matter where you are. 

Essentially, they want the Echo Spot to replace the Echo Dot. The Amazon Echo Spot is a little more expensive than the new Echo, though, and in turn much more expensive than an Echo Dot.

This is because of the addition of the screen. While we still haven't seen that killer Skill for the screen, it does enhance the look of the Spot and opens up the possibilities for it being much more than just a smart speaker.

We’re just hoping that Amazon’s Skills become much more video friendly - once this happens, the Amazon Echo Spot will become an absolute must have.

What could be coming soon?

They're all of the best smart speakers on the market right now, but with the huge success of these voice-activated smart home assistants, this selection is likely to be just the beginning. 

Right now a number of other companies, including some of the biggest names in tech, are also working on their own smart home audio products. Whether they shake-up the market or turn out to be a load of hot air remains to be seen.

But in the meantime, here are just a few of the highly-anticipated upcoming releases and rumors circulating right now:

Image of the spotify logo

(Image: © Spotify)

Spotify smart speaker

There are loads of speakers on the market that already allow you to connect your Spotify account. But that doesn't mean the popular streaming service can't make its own product to compete with the biggest names in tech.

Rumors suggest Spotify has been working on its own voice search interface, but it hasn't yet lifted the lid on a speaker that could compete with the likes of the Amazon Echo or Google Home. 

That hasn't stopped us from dreaming up what a Spotify smart speaker might look, sound and behave like. Read our Spotify speaker wish-list, what we want to see in a Spotify smart speaker

A photo of the LG smart speaker

Facebook's smart speaker is rumored to offer almost twice the screen real estate as LG's 8-inch WK9 Smart Speaker.

(Image: © LG)

Facebook smart speaker

According to recent reports, Facebook is working on not one but two smart speakers.

Based on a report from Digitimes, Facebook may be looking to jump into smart speaker market with two devices focused more on the luxury crowd, developed by their Building 8 division and slated for release by July 2018. 

Codenamed “Aloha” and “Fiona”, these devices will launch with 15-inch touchscreens built by LG Display—more than doubling the Echo Show’s screen size. They will support voice commands, and will focus on “video chat” and other unnamed “social networking functions”.

A photo of a samsung speaker

(Image: © Samsung)

Samsung Bixby smart speaker

2018 could be the year that Samsung fans, especially those who bought into Samsung’s SmartThings ecosystem, will finally get their comeuppance. 

In a report from Bloomberg, sources told the publication that 2018 will be the year Samsung’s smart speaker should be announced and be available to buy. We're yet to get an official release date, but it looks like it'll be on the way soon.

While the sources couldn’t provide too many details on the shape, size or feature-set of the speaker, they did corroborate earlier reports that it would utilise Bixby, Samsung’s proprietary smart assistant that works like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. 

Everything is a smart speaker

Maybe the future isn't about which smart speaker you should buy after all, but will be much more focused on integrating voice-activated smart assistants into other products. 

Earlier this year at CES, lots of manufacturers were boasting of voice assistant integration; Alexa and Google Assistant found their way into cars, bathroom mirrors, and even smoke alarms.

While that may sound a little gimmicky, it actually solves one of the major niggling points of the smart home: you want to have access to your voice assistant in every room but don’t really want to fill your home with speakers.