We’ve had speakers in our homes for many years now, but the advent of the “smart” speaker is a relatively new phenomenon. If you’re wondering what the difference is, it’s fundamentally to do with the inclusion of a microphone, an internet connection and a smart assistant that can hook into streaming music services as well as run smart home gadgets and answer a wide array of queries you might have.
To answer the obvious question, yes, this does involve having a live speaker in your home, and it’s well worth reading the privacy policies around that and judging on your own comfort levels about how happy that prospect makes you. If you’re uncomfortable, a smart speaker isn’t for you.
If you can leap that hurdle – and despite what some may say, they’re not part of a mass surveillance activity to speak of, although some providers will use search queries and the like to target advertising in other mediums to you – then a smart speaker can be a great way to start the shift to a smarter and more connected home, or to make it easier to get your news, messages and of course enjoy your choice of music.
Right now, three of the biggest tech companies on the planet all have an “entry level” smart speaker in the market at $149. There are cheaper smart speakers, like the Google-owned Nest mini or Amazon-owned Echo Dot, but those are very basic speakers with pretty poor audio output – so much so that the Amazon Echo Dot has an external 3.5mm jack that’s explicitly there for folks to send audio to better speakers!
That $149 price point can buy you some surprisingly good speakers, but you should consider the benefits and drawbacks of each model. I’ve tested all three, and here’s a quick rundown primer on what to think about when making your choice. Bear in mind that while a fair amount of smart home gear will “talk” to any given assistant, you can’t mix and match Amazon, Google or Apple smart speakers and expect them to talk to each other. As such, the choice you make is going to work best if it’s the choice you stick with, no matter which that is.
Amazon Echo 4th Generation
Onboard Assistant: Amazon Alexa
Pros: Of the 3 models tested, Amazon’s Echo 4th Gen has the best microphone pickup if that spoken accuracy is key for you. Amazon’s near-dominance in the smart speaker space in the US also means that there’s a huge variety of devices that work with Amazon’s Alexa assistant, making it pretty easy to integrate with most smart home appliances. It’s also the only one of the three with audio input and output for maximum flexibility.
Cons: The sphere shape of the Echo 4th Gen might make you think that it delivers 360 degree sound, but this isn’t the case. Its speakers are quite directional, so careful placement is a must. If you want a smart speaker for home office or small room music playback, it’s the least impressive of the three.
Apple HomePod Mini
Onboard Assistant: Apple Siri
Pros: Like the Echo Dot 4th Gen, the HomePod Mini is a spherical speaker, but it has much better audio output, edging out the Nest Audio in my tests for the most pleasing tone across a range of music genres. It’s also the showiest, with a swirling LED display at the top that reacts to touch and flares up when it hears the Siri wake word.
Cons: Like a lot of Apple gear, it makes the most sense if you’re already living in an Apple world. Currently it only supports Apple Music where its competitors will generally talk to a number of music services including Spotify. Apple’s HomeKit standard that the HomePod Mini uses for smart home integration isn’t quite as common as Google Home or Alexa compatibility either, so you have to pick your internet-aware gadgets a little more carefully.
Google Nest Audio
Onboard Assistant: Google Assistant
Pros: Google’s Nest Audio speaker is the largest of the three speakers tested, and it’s only just pipped by the HomePod Mini in the audio stakes. However, it’s far more flexible in terms of the music and content services it will work with and broadcast than Apple’s speakers, which could be important if you’re already subscribed to a third-party music streaming service. The flatter design of the Nest Audio makes it a lot less obtrusive than the spheres of the Echo 4th Gen or HomePod Mini if you’d prefer your smart speaker to be heard but not seen.
Cons: Google makes the Nest Audio in a range of 5 colours for the US market, but here in Australia we only get 2 of them, which is rather dull. There’s no audio input, so if you want to send music from a phone it has to be via Bluetooth. If you’ve got multiple Google Home/Nest speakers or phones in the same area, it can also sometimes be a touch confusing working out which speaker is actually replying to a request.