Ever wished you could place an Amazon order without lifting a finger? What about playing music from your favourite band just by saying their name? Surely you want to know what the weather is going to be like today, or what time the local supermarket closes. If you like the idea of a smart home assistant that can help you with all that and more, then you should think about buying a smart speaker.
Read on and we’ll explain which smart speakers will work best for you, and run through everything you need to know about the different brands and types on the market. And if you already know everything there is to know and just want to buy one right away, then simply scroll past our buying guide and dive into our top picks.
How to choose the best smart speaker for you
Why should I buy a smart speaker?
Unlike Bluetooth or wireless speakers that need to be controlled via a smartphone or tablet, a smart speaker is a far more versatile choice. Whether you’re lying on the sofa or cooking in the kitchen, you’re in control: you can pause and play your music, choose a new artist or genre, ask for a news update, or even add products to a weekly shopping list, all with a set of simple voice commands.
In short, you can ask them anything you’d otherwise ask your smartphone’s assistant, such as Google Assistant, Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa.
READ NEXT: Our pick of the best Bluetooth speakers
How does a smart speaker work?
Smart speakers need to be woken with a wake word – such as ‘Alexa’ or ‘Ok, Google’ – before you can ask questions or issue commands. These instructions can be as simple as asking the time, or what the weather will be like, but you can also ask for more specific facts and details, such as asking your assistant basic maths questions, to perform conversions from ounces to grams, or just to find out opening times for a local store.
If you also subscribe to a music streaming service such as Spotify, then you can play music simply by searching by artist, album or track name, genre or year.
And as the name suggests, smart speakers can also be used to control your smart home appliances. So, if you’ve got a Philips Hue bulb (or preferably several) you can adjust the brightness, colour and power all with a simple voice command.
READ NEXT: Our pick of the best desktop speakers to buy for gaming and music
What features should I look out for, and does size matter?
Smart speakers come in all shapes and sizes. The Amazon Echo Show is the biggest of them all. Its features a 10in touchscreen, a large speaker, a 5-megapixel front camera, and looks rather like a digital photo frame. At the other end of the scale, there’s the Amazon Echo Dot and Home Mini, both of which are tiny devices which will fit unobtrusively anywhere around the house – these have multiple microphones to hear you from across the room, and a small, basic internal speaker.
Then there’s the likes of Sonos’ One, which is roughly around the size of a bag of flour – still small enough to sit unobtrusively on a side table, but has amplification and drivers big enough to fill a room with full-bodied, crisp-sounding music.
It all depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a speaker with competent sonic capabilities, then size does matter – if you want to enjoy your music then you’ll need to look at Google and Amazon’s mid-sized devices, and if you want the very best then you’ll want something like the Sonos One with Amazon’s Alexa built-in. If, however, music isn’t your top priority, or you just want to have access to your virtual assistant in every room in the house, then the Google Home Mini or Echo Dot are cheaper, smaller alternatives that take up barely any room at all.
READ NEXT: Our pick of the best wireless in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones
Which voice assistant is best? Amazon Alexa vs Google Assistant vs Apple Siri
There’s no right or wrong answer here, as it all depends on what you use more often, or what you’re used to.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, an Amazon Alexa device would make more sense, as it’ll connect with your Amazon account and allow you to place orders on a whim. If, however, you’ve got an Android phone and have got used to Google Assistant (or Google Now), then you’ll probably prefer a Google-enabled product.
Regardless of your affiliation, one current big plus point for Amazon’s Echo devices is the Drop-In function. This allows you to call any Echo in your home (or someone else’s) and use it as an intercom – you can chat, hands-free, with someone in any room with an Echo device. Google’s approach is a little different: you can broadcast a message to all your connected Google Home devices, only; it’s not an intercom.
There’s also Siri, the voice assistant that only features on the Apple HomePod. It works in the same way as it does on an iPhone. It might not be as comprehensive as the other two assistants, but if you’re devoted to the Apple ecosystem, it’s worth a thought.
Do voice assistants work together?
Speakers with different virtual assistants can be used on the same Wi-Fi network, however, if you want a multi-room setup, you’ll want to ensure all your speakers run on the same service (i.e. all using Amazon Alexa) – they’ll talk to you, but they won’t talk to each other, sadly.
There are a few options that don’t leave you tied to one specific voice assistant, however. For example, the Sonos One supports both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant – you can use either for assistance.
Is a smart speaker always listening to everything I say?
By its very nature, a smart speaker ‘listens’ to everything you’re saying, as it needs to be ready to pick up a voice command. You can, however, disable the automatic voice detection by turning off the mic through a hardware switch found on the device.
If you’re worried about your privacy, or are talking about something you believe is of a particularly sensitive nature, then simply toggle the mute switch – just remember to toggle it back on again if you want to interact with the speaker hands-free.
In practice, you may find yourself disabling the microphones during phone calls or video calls, as these voice assistants can tend to be triggered by any speech which sounds like their wake word. When confronted by everyday noise and conversation, they may occasionally pipe up and start listening for commands (and responding) when they’re not meant to, which can be annoying.
READ NEXT: The best wireless speaker deals you can find in the UK
The best smart speakers in the UK
1. Google Nest Audio: The smartest smart speaker of them all
Price: £90 | Buy from John Lewis
Google’s latest smart speaker is a real gem: it looks great, sounds great and with Google Assistant on board it’s the smartest speaker you can buy, too.
Coupled with Google’s clever Ambient IQ tech, which adjusts volume and EQ on the fly depending on background noise, the Nest Audio is a joy to listen to and a pleasure to interact with.
The only thing it lacks, in comparison with Amazon’s smart speakers, at least, is a 3.5mm input/output. Otherwise, it’s a winner and a big upgrade on the original Google Home speaker.
Read our full Nest Audio review for more details
Key specs – Voice Assistant: Google As