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Smart Speakers: The Ultimate 2018 Guide

We run down the latest offerings, from Apple’s HomePod to the Sonos One. Which one is right for you?

Apple Homepod

Read our in-depth guide to the finest smart speakers currently on the market, including the Apple HomePod.

Apple

The hottest category in tech right now is smart speakers: wireless speakers that have a brain (either Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa) and respond to voice control. Now that Apple’s long-awaited HomePod is finally here, we rounded up the latest and greatest smart speakers and tested them to find out which is the best for you – whether you’re an audiophile or just someone who wants to have a fulfilling conversation with your living-room sound-system. 

Apple Homepod

Apple

Apple Homepod, $349

Apple’s long awaited, Siri-powered smart speaker is a gorgeous object – and an even better music player, featuring seven high-frequency drivers and a four-inch long-throw woofer. As a speaker, it is simply unbeatable – especially when compared to anything close to its price or size. And in classic Apple fashion, there is some serious tech hidden behind a seamless user experience: set your HomePod up in anywhere in any room, and it will automatically adapt itself to the acoustical environment. The downside to that simplicity is also classically Apple: it only works as a smart speaker with Apple Music (although you can also use it via Airplay as a regular wireless speaker with other services). It also requires an iPhone for setup and full functionality, and Siri is still a much less capable virtual assistant than Google and Amazon’s versions.

Killer Function: The rich, crystalline, room-filling sound. Apple completely rethought the speaker, placing the seven horn tweeters in a ring around the bottom and a single beefy woofer firing upwards from the center of the unit. Its virtual assistant tech might lag behind the Sonos One’s, but as a music player it is way smarter – it is essentially a powerful little computer dedicated to making music sound excellent. And privacy-minded fans will likely feel more comfortable in the hands of Apple – which is much more focused on the issue than any other major tech company – when it comes to a device that includes microphones that are always listening.

Bottom Line: If
you’re already deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem, and care more about
sound quality than virtual assistant capability, HomePod is hard to beat. 

Sonos One

Sonos

Sonos One, $199

Even though it’s just 6.36 inches tall, this little speaker produces surprisingly robust, full-range sound – just like its bigger Sonos siblings. Want to talk to it? That part works well, too. Its digital assistant functions are powered by Amazon’s excellent and capable Alexa, which can do everything from controlling connected devices like Philips Hue lightbulbs to teaching you how to tune your guitar. But you aren’t just limited to Alexa – if you prefer to chat with Google Assistant, which does an even better job of understanding natural language, a software update will soon allow Sonos One owners to switch to Google’s virtual brain.

Killer Function: That openness – the fact that the speaker is compatible with almost any music service and to two different digital assistants – is the biggest single difference between Sonos One and Apple’s HomePod. And it is also a perfect and modestly priced way to dip your toe into Sonos’ slick, seamless, multi-room music integration – especially since the company is selling a special bundle of two Sonos One units for the price of a single HomePod.

Bottom Line: For most music fans, the Sonos One hits the sweet spot of price, sound quality, usability and platform openness. 

amazon echo spot

Amazon

Amazon Echo Spot, $130

This teensy orb has a feature the others can’t match: a screen. Use Amazon Prime to dial up concert films like Grateful Dead: Truckin’ Up to Buffalo while you make dinner. The 1.4-inch speaker isn’t mind-blowing, but it can be easily connected to others.

Best For: Your kitchen or bedside table.

amazon echo dot

Amazon

Amazon Echo Dot, $50

What if you already have a stereo you love but want to get in on the smart-speaker action? This hockey-puck–size gizmo will imbue your current sound system with a state-of-the-art brain, so you can tell it what you want to listen to and more.

Go Solo: It also works as a stand-alone unit, but don’t expect much more than smartphone sound quality.

google home max

Google

Google Home Max, $399

The smartest smart speaker: Google’s simple, elegant device has killer voice-recognition tech – it will even tailor music to whomever is in the room. 

Killer Sound: The largest of the bunch, giving it low-frequency oomph.

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