The year 2014 was a pivotal moment in the world of home audio. For it was the year Amazon shook up the market with the release of the Echo. With it, homeowners were suddenly presented with a real-life personal assistant ready to keep tabs on shopping lists, make purchases, play music, stay up to date on the latest news stories, and even control home lighting with a simple command. Like a contemporary genie granting simple wishes within reason, these tableside companions were embraced quickly by smart home enthusiasts the world over.
And now, just four years later, the smart speaker market has expanded greatly with the likes of Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana joining in with Alexa to provide first-class service at a moment’s notice. Just like any other product dynamic, however, with choices come opportunity — or peril — that depends heavily on ensuring the smart speaker you choose best fits your purposes, whatever that may be. So, because we understand the importance of such decision making, what follows is a brief guide to the best smart speakers currently available. These range from Siri to Alexa to Google in their capabilities, each offering the same idea at its core, but accomplishing that idea in unique ways.
The Future is Now
Toward the end of 2017, NPR and Edison Research published a report claiming upward of 39 million Americans — or 16% of the U.S. population — owned a smart speaker of some kind. Mind you, this is a mere three years since the first smart speaker was introduced by Amazon. And in the short time since then, we’ve seen Apple, Microsoft, Alibaba, Google, and Samsung all pitch in and join the party. But where did it all start? And what’s the intended purpose/implications of catering to such an on-demand lifestyle?
Well, while that is what some would call a loaded question, we’ll do our best to address the answer as briefly as possible. To start, if we’re to address voice-assistants in general — speakers aside — we see that it was back in 1962 when IBM introduced the very first digital speech recognition tool dubbed the IBM Shoebox. And over the decades that followed, Microsoft introduced their speech recognition feature for Office XP, Apple unleashed Siri into the world via the iPhone, Google Now dropped in 2012, and Cortana was introduced at a developer conference in April of 2013.
Then in November of 2014, as stated above, Amazon released Alexa as the first portable smart speaker for the home. And from there, well, you get the idea. As for the second half of the question, it would appear that just like any other technological advancement we’ve seen, the intended purpose is that of convenience. On-demand music, controlling your smart home with your voice, keeping tabs on intended purchases — basically handling the menial day-to-day tasks we’d rather outsource than take care of ourselves is what makes smart speakers so special.
Siri vs. Alexa vs. Google Assistant
Who's Right For You?
With three big players in this space, we can say there’s some much-needed deliberation to determine which AI system is best suited for your needs and expectations. It’s from here where we’ll work to compare them using a litmus test complete with what we consider as the primary differentiators between them. That is, voice recognition, making phone calls, music services, general interaction, and smart home connectivity/integration.
Starting with the basics, voice recognition is dominated by both Alexa and Google Assistant smart speakers in that they boast voice differentiating capabilities, unlike Apple’s HomePod. Meaning, anyone who drops a “Hey Siri,” will get a response from the device — which could be a good or bad thing really — while voice recognition with Alexa could prevent any unwanted purchases/shopping list additions. Much-needed deliberation is needed in order to determine which AI system is best suited for your individual needs.
Next up? Making phone calls. And while most of us would use our smartphones for this sort of task, nothing really beats an on-demand call from your smart speaker. However, out of the three options, only Google Assistant speakers can dial out while Alexa can only receive calls. HomePod can’t do either, though you can use the device to send text messages to friends and family. All three can also be used as speakers for phone calls made on your smartphone. A little mix and match between the three but helpful in their own ways nonetheless.
And what about music? Possibly the most sought after or utilized feature for smart speakers, integrated streaming services for smart speakers is a huge bonus — it just depends on which service you’re after. Apple, for example, works to keep you in their ecosystem by only offering streaming via Apple-approved music services. Alexa and Google Assistant, however, allow for syncing of third-party music services like Spotify without any issues. Not all is lost though. For if you wish to play a Spotify song through the HomePod device, you can via their Airplay service. You’d just have to manage everything from a smartphone.
Finally, for those looking to streamline other smart devices in their home, each of the “Big Three” smart speakers has benefits and limitations to consider. Regarding the HomePod, as long as each of your smart home devices are HomeKit products, the setup and linkage for this is insanely simple since the HomePod automatically receives your preferences and device info during the setup process. What results is a “Hey Siri, turn on the lights” protocol that many will find enjoyable. The HomeKit lineup is just limited in nature so the versatility here is as well. As for Alexa and Google Assistant, you’ll need invocation words to interact with devices outside of the ecosystem such as having Alexa ask the other smart device for a status or task. Not ideal, we know, but with a larger library of compatible options, it is a solid workaround to say the least.
The Best Smart Speakers On The Market
Now to the good stuff: the best smart speakers currently on the market. For this, we felt it beneficial to scour the market for all options — including those speakers outside the individual brand lineup like the HomePod, Echo, etc. Don’t get us wrong though, for we did include and support those options; we just wanted to expand the lineup so to speak.
With Amazon Alexa built right into the speaker’s interface, Sonos not only offers a premium listening experience but convenience you’d expect from Amazon. Here, play music on demand, remain updated with local and international news cycles, and control your smart home. The device also seamlessly connects with other Sonos Home Sounds System speakers for multi-room listening and hosts incredible sound thanks to a set of Class-D amplifiers and custom-built drivers for good measure.
JBL Link 20
Compatible with Google Assistant, JBL offers the same portable sound quality as previous iterations but now with a little hands-free voice control. Nothing beats a portable personal assistant, which is why we fell in love with the Link 20. Enjoy far-field voice recognition, simple setup with the Google Home app, and additional features like built-in Chromecast, high-quality 24 bit sound, multi-room playback, Bluetooth streaming, and 10 hours of playtime per charge.
In addition to the Sonos One, the Sonos Beam adds some serious sound quality to the home entertainment system. With it, upgrade your music listening, movie watching, and video-game-playing experience to professional quality. And with Alexa integrated seamlessly into the device, enjoy on-demand Fire TV remote-free control as well. We all know a home theater system is an end-game status to achieve, and fortunately, the Beam is here to facilitate just that.
Amazon Echo Show
Ideal for the kitchen, the Echo Show offers everything you enjoy about the standard Echo but now with a visual aid. Need to access some instructional videos for cooking up that five-star meal? Not a problem. You can also make video calls on the fly if your hands are busy, access security cameras around the home, and connect with other Echo devices around the home for total control from the hungriest room in the homestead.
Google Home Max
The big boy for the Google Home operating system, this smart speaker is built to turn your home into an arena-quality sound-infused party thanks to the likes of acoustically transparent fabric, dual 4.5” woofers, and custom tweeters for clear highs. And let’s not forget the helpful nature of the device — this is a Google Assistant after all — so just ask it for help and you’ll be granted.
Amazon Echo 2nd Gen
The second generation of the smart speaker that started it all, it was impossible to not include the Echo in this list. Anyone even vaguely interested in purchasing a smart speaker is somewhat familiar with this device but to cover the basics, Alexa can learn hundreds of individual “skills” to help make life a bit less complicated. Also, we can’t forget about Echo’s ability to play music, make calls, set timers, ask questions, and control smart home devices on the fly.
The newest member to the party, Apple just couldn’t help but bring Siri into the mix with the HomePod. Think most of the capabilities offered on the mobile version but with better sound quality and a more streamlined experience housed within a design-forward speaker that looks good in any room. Each device comes equipped with Bluetooth 5.0, multi-room speaker support with AirPlay 2, and instant connectivity to other HomeKit smart home devices. Not a bad addition to the Apple ecosystem if you ask us.
Lenovo Smart Display
With a little help from Google Assistant, Lenovo developed this appropriate response to the Amazon Echo Show. It’s with the Smart Display that all the benefits of Google’s AI come to life for your enjoyment. We’re talking features such as visualized alerts, how-to videos for the amateur chefs, connection to other in-home cameras, and hands-free video calling in addition to — you guessed it — a streamlined music-playing experience. By now we should have you sold that a hands-free life is something worth pursuing. And with the Lenovo Smart Display, we’re offered a solid step in the right direction.
It's All About Your Ecosystem
A little long-winded we’ll admit, but we’re hoping this has helped a bit in your smart speaker search. Needless to say, one major takeaway is understanding the limitations each device offers along with how each piece would best suites the needs of your home. Not fully integrated into the Apple ecosystem? We’d suggest steering away from the HomePod. On the other hand, Alexa and Google Assistant devices allow for broader compatibility with other products making for a more user-friendly experience across the board.
Again, this is all about preference. Our advice? If you’re looking for Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant compatible speakers outside of the brand lineup, opt for quality and don’t skimp for budgetary options. It’s also important to realize this is just the beginning. For as smart speakers continue to gain popularity, the user interface, experience, and product offerings will continue to improve as well. Today’s market is formidable and key brands understand the potential here, so there’s really only one possible outcome to consider in the near future. And it’s looking quite bright.
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