How to choose the best smart speaker for you

Compare and contrast.

Smart speakers
Not all smart speakers are created equal.Amazon/Google/Apple

So you've decided to upgrade your home with a smart speaker. What, you thought it was just a matter of choosing which Amazon Echo you prefer? Think again: At this stage, it's probably easier to list the tech companies that don't sell their own smart speakers.

After the Echo hit the market in 2015, the Google Home followed last year, and the Apple HomePod will arrive this December. Now audio companies are joining the fray: Sonos is introducing a new speaker that has Amazon's Alexa on board, and some speakers, like the Harman Kardon Invoke, now come equipped with Microsoft's Cortana AI assistant.

With some manufacturers offering whole families of smart speakers, you have a lot of devices to choose from. In this guide, we'll break down the differences and show you how you can choose the best smart speaker for your needs.

Decide on size (and sound quality and price)

In addition to the AI assistant it carries—more on that later—a smart speaker has three main specifications you need to consider: size, audio quality, and price. In general, the smaller, lower-priced speakers tend to have lower-quality audio output. As you scale up in size, price and quality increase as well. By examining how speakers match up in these categories, you can narrow down your options.

At the smaller, cheaper end of the scale, you'll find wee speakers like the Google Home Mini ($49 on Google) and the Amazon Echo Dot ($45 on Amazon). The quality of their audio output isn't great—they work best when playing spoken feedback and alarms rather than music—but if you want high-fidelity playback, you can connect them to a larger, dumber speaker.

On the higher-quality, more expensive side, several options focus on audio quality and keep the AI assistant's smarts as well. Examples include the upcoming Apple HomePod ($349 from Apple, available in December), the Google Home Max ($399 from Google, available now), and the Sonos One ($199 from Sonos, available starting on October 24). Although the sound from the Echo is perfectly reasonable, Amazon doesn't really offer any products in this top-tier category.

Finally, the middle ground includes the most options. You've got the funky-looking Google Home ($109 on Google) and the chunky new second-generation Amazon Echo ($100 on Amazon). Both come in multiple colors and take up about as much room as a large thermos. Amazon also offers two more options in this middle category: the bigger, better-sounding Echo Plus ($150 on Amazon) and the smaller Echo Spot ($130 on Amazon), which has a smaller speaker but adds a miniature screen.

While these groups offer a general way of categorizing the field of smart speakers, you can also try to determine audio quality by looking at specific features: Check the size and number of internal speakers, including woofers for bass sounds and tweeters for high sounds. That said, you can't determine audio quality from specs alone. To get a better sense of a speaker's performance, read professional and user reviews and, if possible, check out an in-store demonstration or two.

Check for compatibility

While size, audio, and price are a great trio of basic considerations, you need to weigh a few other abilities to determine which speaker will best fit your needs. Primarily: Will your new purchase be compatible with the products you already own?

If you plan to hook your speaker up to other hi-fi equipment—which is pretty much a requirement for little models like the Amazon Echo Dot and the Google Home Mini—check the specs to make sure the connection will be compatible. The Echo Dot, which has both Bluetooth and a 3.5mm line-out jack, is more flexible; the Home Mini can only work over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

Smart home enthusiasts should determine whether their desired speakers will play nice with their current or planned setup: Make sure your speaker can command the gadgets you already own or want to purchase. Amazon, for example, provides this list of smart gear that will work with Echo and Sonos One speakers.

Consider bonus features

While you're thinking about what you want from your smart speaker, review the bonus abilities that some of these devices boast. For example, families might look for devices with multi-user support, which gives speakers the ability to recognize different people. In other words, when you go to check your schedule, the AI assistant won't read your dad's or daughter's calendar instead. Google just added this feature to its range of speakers. The Echo line also offers multi-user support, but you must tell Alexa to switch accounts each time—Google Home speakers can change users automatically based on the sound of a person's voice.

Those who need constant background noise will want multi-room streaming: the ability to switch playback from room to room, pumping tunes all around the house as the listener moves. All of the big-name speakers should be able to pull off this feat, but if multi-room streaming is a priority for you, you should check the specs to make sure. Sonos has a slight edge here, as it lets users control playback from their computers, phones, and tablets, as well as through voice commands.

Finally, if you're constantly telling your friends to watch your latest YouTube obsession, then look for a smart speaker with a good-size screen. Although the Echo Spot can play video, it's tiny—the Echo Show ($200 on Amazon) is a better choice for viewing enthusiasts.

Choose an AI assistant

Of course, you're not just shopping for sound quality. A speaker's smarts are even more important than its audio capabilities, so the on-board AI assistant will also influence on your decision. Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana are all extremely capable—but that's actually irrelevant. The more important factor: Which company's ecosystem are you already locked into?

Increasingly, tech giants' hardware offerings work best with other software and hardware from that same manufacturer. Apple users can swap seamlessly between a MacBook and an iPhone; a Google Chrome browser runs Chromebook laptops and interfaces smoothly with the Chromecast streaming device; Amazon Fire and Kindle users have an advantage if they're also Prime customers. In some cases, one company's products don't work at all with competitors' lines—for example, you can't stream from the Amazon Prime app to a Google Chromecast. And this trend continues with smart speakers: The products you already own may determine which AI assistant you'll choose.

By design, Apple HomePod and Google Home speakers prefer other Apple and Google products. A Chromecast will only work with a Google Home device, for example, while an Apple TV only partners with an Apple HomePod. If you already chat with Siri or Google Assistant on your phone, a compatible device lets you carry on the same conversation with your speaker. The same goes for apps and services such as calendars, emails, and web browsers. While Google Home does let you link a Spotify account, the HomePod only lets you work with Apple Music, although it may add third-party services after it officially launches later this year.

The Amazon Echo line, and other Alexa-enabled speakers like the Sonos One, provide the most open ecosystem of the bunch. You can connect calendars from Google, Apple, and Microsoft, and add tens of thousands of third-party "skills" created by other developers. That said, Amazon does favor its own services as much as possible, preferring platforms like Audible for audiobooks and Amazon Music for tunes (although you can connect a Spotify account if you want).

All this means that, when you're choosing a smart speaker, you'll have the most seamless experience with the AI assistant you already know. While you can certainly try out more than one of these AIs, your favorite gadgets and services might not work with all of your assistants.

So you've got a checklist of four items: Size (and the related sound quality and price), compatibility, bonus features, and ecosystem. Work through each of those, make time to read a few reviews, and your best bet should become obvious. Happy listening!