Smart speakers with inbuilt access to voice assistants (such as Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant) are some of the hottest products in tech right now. And for good reason. These AI-enabled speakers are the quickest route to a 'connected', 'smart' lifestyle. Among other things, these devices let you perform various tasks and activities by using just your voice - call a cab, play music on demand, and even control lights in your home. Smart speakers can basically act as 'command centres' - without needing to be connected to your phone.
Amazon was the first to launch smart speakers globally, and last year became the first to do so in India as well, when it introduced its Alexa-powered Echo range. Amazon has also opened up the Alexa smart assistant to other brands such as Harmon Kardon, JBL, and Sonos, while Google has just introduced its Home speakers in India. Apple also has a smart speaker in the form of the Siri-powered HomePod, but that isn't available in India yet. We sure hope it makes its way over soon!
If you're planning to buy a smart speaker yourself, here's a guide on the options available. We'll also give you an idea of which ones are suitable for your specific needs.
Amazon's Alexa is available not just on Amazon's Echo range, but also on other speakers and even upcoming smart TVs. Alexa also offers perhaps the widest series of features at the moment, with pretty decent support (using Alexa Skills) for smart home products and popular services, apps, and gadgets. Echo devices can also be used as intercoms and offer voice and video (for devices with a display) calling to other Echo devices or via the Alexa app.
The baby of the Echo range is affordable and compact enough to be hidden away in a corner of your room, yet it offers excellent voice recognition thanks to seven mics. While you can use the Echo Dot as a stand-alone speaker (with 360-degree coverage), you're better off connecting it to your other, 'dumb' speakers that may offer better audio quality (via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm aux cable).
Suitable for: those who're looking for an affordable option to try out, and also if you already have a capable speaker at home already.
The original Echo device (now in its second-generation) offers a feature set similar to the newer, smaller Echo Dot. However, better audio quality (with a 2.5-inch woofer and 0.6-inch tweeter) makes this a smarter choice if you don't want to use another speaker alongside.
Suitable for: those looking for a capable all-round smart speaker that doesn't break the bank.
The Echo Plus offers slightly better audio than the Echo (thanks to its larger, 0.8-inch tweeter), but what really makes this different is the inbuilt smart home hub and support for the Zigbee wireless standard which can control many IoT / smart home products. For example, the Echo Plus can control the Philips Hue smart bulbs directly, without the need of a separate hub.
Suitable for: those looking for an all-round speaker and also as a future-proof option for setting up a smart home.
Related read: One month with the Amazon Echo Plus
The Echo Spot adds in a 2.5-inch display and a front-facing camera, making it possible for you to use it for making video calls, as well as to see your shopping lists, calendar and search results on the display. You can play videos on it too, but the small screen means the experience isn't that great. The integrated speaker isn't very capable, but the Spot can be connected to external speakers for better audio.
Suitable for: those looking for a smart bedside clock with support for Alexa, and a convenient video calling solution.
Related read: Amazon Echo Spot review
This third-party smart speaker boasts high-res audio streaming, 360-degree audio output, and should be a great choice for audiophiles thanks to its three 1.5-inch mid-range drivers and a 3.5-inch subwoofer. The Allure also offers a four-mic array, with far-field voice recognition (making placement of the speaker less of an issue as it can identify and respond to voices coming from even the furthest corners of your room), and Bluetooth streaming if you'd rather just play music from your phone.
Suitable for: those who don't mind spending to acquire an Alexa-powered smart speaker with good audio capabilities.
Google might have been late to the smart speaker game, but is has one advantage over everyone else. Google's other services (Gmail, search, Android, and even the Google Assistant on your phone) are used by so many of us that in-built integration could tip the balance in Google Home's favour. You can also cast audio from cast-capable apps on your phone to Google's smart speakers.
The Google Home offers voice control similar to what you'd find in Google Assistant on your phone - you can perform searches, check your calendar, add reminders and create lists. Other features include Bluetooth, as well as voice control of Chromecast devices, Chromecast-enabled Smart TVs, and smart home products. On the audio front, the Home has a 2-inch driver and dual 2-inch passive bass radiators, with dual mics that offer far-field voice recognition. There's no line-out, but the Google Home can be paired with external speakers via Bluetooth.
Suitable for: those enticed by its integration with Google services and personalised responses. The Home answers queries more intelligently than the Echo, and is a decent speaker as well.
Related read: 7 killer features of the Google Home
This more affordable alternative to the Google Home has a similar feature set but offers a cut-down audio experience, with a solitary 1.5-inch driver. The Home Mini does not come with a 3.5mm aux option, but offers Bluetooth connectivity just like its bigger sibling.
Suitable for: those looking for an affordable smart speaker that offers great integration with Google's other services.
Related read: Fun things you can do with Google Home and Home Mini
There are many more options if you're looking for a smart speaker, although these aren't available in India (through official channels at least). Still, we're hoping at least some of these make their way over to our shores as soon as possible!
Apple's HomePod brings Siri to the smart speaker arena, and also boasts excellent audio quality - it's got an array of seven tweeters, can pair up with another HomePod for stereo audio, and can be used to stream to and control other AirPlay 2 compatible speakers. You'll also find a six-mic array for far-field voice recognition as well as audio processing that can fine tune the sound to match your room's acoustics. Apart from this, there's support for Apple services such as Apple Music streaming as well as voice control of HomeKit-compatible smart home gear.
Amazon Echo Show
Think of this as a bigger Amazon Spot - with a 7-inch display, the Echo Show makes for a better video experience. Other features include dual 2-inch speakers, eight mics with beam-forming tech for far-field voice recognition, and inbuilt support for the Amazon Cloud Cam security camera.
One thing you'll realise when you start reading up on smart speakers - they're invariably meant to be connected to a power supply and aren't really portable. So if you need a portable smart speaker, check out the Amazon Tap - it offers up to nine hours of playback. Another option is to buy battery pack cases for the Echo / Echo Dot.
Google Home Max
With a sealed rigid housing to minimise vibrations, dual 4.5-inch woofers, and dual 0.7-inch tweeters, this is Google's answer to audiophiles who covet powerful sound capabilities. The Home Max also features a 3.5mm aux port.
You don't need to buy a Google speaker to get Assistant or Chromecast Audio features. Case in point - this Sony speaker, which offers gesture control, a 2.09-inch woofer, IPX3 water resistance, and Bluetooth.
JBL Link 20
This portable speaker from JBL offers Bluetooth connectivity, a 6,000mAh battery (for up to 10 hours of playback), support for high-res audio, IPX7 water resistance, and as you'd expect from a smart speaker, Google Assistant and Chromecast Audio support.