Top Smart Speakers with Voice Assistants

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This is our list with the top 10 smart speakers. Look at it and find the one that suits you best.

1. Amazon Echo Dot (3rd generation)

smart speakers

OVERVIEW

  • The virtual assistant is: Alexa
  • Does it have Wi-fi: Yes
  • Does it have Bluetooth: Yes
  • The Outputs are: 3.5 mm
  • The Dimensions (hwd) are: 4.3 x 9.9 x 9.9cm
  • How much it weighs? 300 g

Our thoughts on this one are that this is one of the top smart speakers you can buy on the market. That’s why we included it in this list. The reasons why are gathered in the text below.

Why do you need it?

  • Clear sound
  • Amazing price
  • Improves Alexa skills

REASONS TO step back

The intelligence of Alexa is limited

DETAILED REVIEW

For not a lot of money, you will get a bunch of smart voice features and good quality sound.

If the CEO of Amazon, does get control over the tech world, he might just have the Amazon Echo Dot to praise. As Amazon does its best to be in every product market, every home and every room, the new Echo Dot is perhaps the strongest way to bring Amazon’s Alexa voice into your home. But if you are on board for a smart assistant plus a simple music speaker, it will be hard to argue against the Echo Dot.

THE CORE

There is something futuristic about giving commands at, and hearing responses from, a little electronic voice in a box, but when you look from distance, everything about this product is pretty straightforward. The small design remains but it has been jazzed-up and improved on this 3rd-gen Dot. That’s maybe what makes it a top smart speaker pick.

Fabric replaces the hard exterior of the previous model and the controls on top of the device have changed, too. It looks remarkably smarter as a result – we see it as a modern addition to a room rather than something you want to hide from the eye.

You will need to connect the Echo Dot to power, and you can wire in other devices via the 3.5 mm aux output for a better sound, but otherwise, it can go anywhere that it can hear your voice. Once the setup is done, it’s simple to use the Amazon Alexa app and get it connected to your Wi-Fi network.

FEATURES

The 3.5 mm audio output, and Bluetooth connectivity is about as much as you get it. This means if you do want a bigger, better sound than the Echo Dot can deliver, then you can connect to another device wired or wirelessly. Otherwise, it’s all about Alexa regarding the features. And it’s worth adding that all this connectivity, and everything Alexa is capable of doing, is in line with the 2nd-gen Echo Dot.

Alexa can still play your favorite music, answer your questions, read the news you are interested in, check the weather for you, set alarms to wake you up and control compatible smart home devices, starting from TVs to home cinema amplifiers and speakers. You are able to control Spotify and TuneIn, as well as Amazon Music. Voice call is something new, while the list of Skills – devices that work with Alexa – is getting bigger and bigger and includes a whole suite of products from Sonos to Domino’s Pizza and Uber.

UPGRADES

What is new, is a new driver and a change to the microphone layout. There’s a 4 cm driver here as opposed to 3 cm on the previous model and Amazon claims it’s 70 % louder as a result. Interestingly there are fewer microphones, four rather than seven, but tweaks to the design aim to make performance every bit as strong.

THE SOUND

The three key strands of Dot’s performance are one, how well Alexa hears you, two, how good the speaker sounds (for answers and music), and finally, what it can do. The previous Echo Dot was doing a pretty good job in terms of hearing your commands, and we’re even more happy with the performance here. Even while there is music playing, a clear command will wake Alexa. Understanding your question, and allowing for accents, means it’s not perfect but, for the most part, it’s pretty impressive.

“Alexa, what are headlines of the news?” and “Alexa, what’s the weather?” prove easy; “Alexa, play some French rap” pulls up a relevant Spotify playlist, while “Alexa, say something in French” just makes the assistant reply to the answer with the word ‘something’ in French – just like with the issue with Alec’s response which AI will hope to improve in coming years.

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We add the Sonos skill and can soon control music across a multi-room system of Sonos devices. Naturally, the Echo Dot needs to be able to hear you, but you can also talk to the Alexa app on your phone when you’re out of earshot. The brands that are compatible are Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Yamaha, etc..

The sound quality is for sure the most impressive upgrade here. Despite similar dimensions, the change to the driver has clearly had a positive effect. Not only that is now louder but the lean, thin sound of the previous models, which was comfortably bettered by the Google Home Mini, has been replaced by actual bass notes, full-bodied voices and a smoother treble.

We really don’t mind the Echo Dot as a background music device. Of course, your main system should be something better if possible, but for let’s say, the kitchen or kids’ room, we don’t mind music playing on this tiny budget speaker. Alexa sounds much more clear, loud and easy to understand.

SUMMARY

The latest Echo Dot is the easiest, cheapest and best way to bring Alexa into your home. It works well on its own or can be nicely integrated into thousands of smart home and AV products, bringing voice control and smart features just a command away.

Overall, with the latest Amazon Echo products, the sound quality has been improved, and while for a ‘proper’ smart speaker an upgrade even to the more substantial 2018 version of the Amazon Echo Plus would be money well spent, this remains a simple and effective smart speaker that’s easy to recommend.

2. Amazon Echo 2

smart speaker

OVERVIEW

  • The virtual assistant is: Alexa
  • Does it have Wi-fi: Yes
  • Does it have Bluetooth: Yes
  • The Outputs are: 3.5 mm
  • The Dimensions (hwd) are: 14.8 x 8.8 x 8.8cm
  • How much it weighs: 821 g

Our thoughts on this one are that this is one of the top smart speakers you can buy on the market. That’s why we included it in this list. The reasons why are gathered in the text below.

Why do you need it?

  • It has Alexa voice control
  • The hearing commands are now improved
  • It is not an expensive gadget

REASONS TO STEP BACK

  • Ordinary quality for sound

DETAILED REVIEW

When you move up the size (and the price range), the Amazon Echo 2 does everything you can expect of the smart speaker at this level and is the best Alexa speaker by the quality of the sound. There is a variety of smart features you can profile to your preferences and their speaker can go loud enough. The sounds are capable of filling little or medium-sized spaces without too much effort.

On a budget, smarter than before and better at receiving orders – but in my opinion, the sound needs some upgrade.

UPGRADES

Everything has improved aside from the quality of the sound which, unfortunately, still hasn’t.

Alexa is basically in every possible Amazon device on the market, in the form of any voice-controlled speaker. Google Assistant can be found through Google Home, Google Home Mini and a variety of third-party devices. Cortana is aboard one or two and Apple’s Siri-powered HomePod has now been available a good few months.

There’s the Echo Plus, which focuses on smart home connectivity and clear sound; Echo Show features a screen for video; the budget-friendly, mini Echo Dot and the Echo Spot is a voice-controlled bedside clock that features video calling.

THE CORE

So it’s cheaper than before but what more? The 2nd generation Echo has a brand new design, while the Echo Plus looks the same as the old Echo.

The stubbier design blends into the room, the new fabric finish makes for a premium look, and there’s a variation of six colors (charcoal, sandstone or heather grey fabrics; oak, walnut or silver finishes).

The top of the new Echo shares the design of the 3rd generation Echo Dot, with volume buttons rather than the dial found on the first-gen Echo. The mute and set-up buttons remain.

There’s still wi-fi and Bluetooth streaming, but now also a 3.5mm line output at the rear of the 2nd generation Echo for connecting to legacy devices. Previously only the Echo Dot had this audio output.

FEATURES

On the inside, there’s a new 65mm woofer and 15mm tweeter. Amazon suggests an upgrade in sound quality.

It has the second generation of Amazon’s far-field microphone technology.

The big upgrades are said to include better processing of your wake word, and improved noise cancellation – which is related to hearing commands in a noisy space.

Also included is Alexa Routines. Much like old universal remotes, it will allow you to program and control multiple Alexa devices with a single command.

If you say “Goodnight, Alexa” could lead to activities such as: turning the lights off, closing the blinds and even, to turn on your kettle to boil for tea. Or just for the Echo to give you a report for the weather tomorrow. Compatible brands include Philips Hue, TP-Link, Ring, Netgear Arlo, Hive, Tado, and WeMo.

THE SOUND

We were not impressed by the audio quality of the original Amazon Echo. It was perfectly listenable, it played safe at both ends of the sonic spectrum but nothing more.

As a result, similarly priced but less well-specified wireless speakers were comfortably better. To summarise, the second-gen Echo doesn’t change much. We prefer the sound of the old Echo, I can say.

The new Echo has more bass but the sound is not that clear as the old Echo. The detail is lost, caused by the muffled sounds with thick vocals and a midrange which we can describe as cloudy.

This new Echo is 40 percent cheaper than its predecessor. And you can’t find anywhere else the Alexa functionality at this price (unless you count the Echo Dot, which isn’t much of a speaker at all).

There are regular updates which means that the sound will get clearer and other features will get better.

We don’t need to raise our voice to make ourselves understood with the second-gen Echo, while the original at times requires child-scolding levels of shouting to respond to commands.

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Setup is simple and intuitive via the Alexa app, though its usefulness hinges on the number of Alexa devices you have in your home.

Now you can call people using Alexa if they have Alexa device. The ability of Alexa to call and send messages promises to let you “drop-in” and out of other people’s devices, which sounds both like something useful and creepy.

When you sign up and enable the drop-in option you can listen (or watch with video-enabled devices).

SUMMARY

The Amazon Echo (2nd gen) is cheaper than the previous version, it is looking smarter and it has a better ability at hearing your commands than the original, but the sound quality the same.

Provided you don’t expect more for your £90 – and considering there isn’t an alternative for the money – the second-generation Echo remains a good buy. On the other hand, if your main priority is playing music, we’d suggest you look elsewhere.

3. Sonos One

sonos speaker

OVERVIEW

  • Virtual assistant: Alexa, Google Assistant
  • Wi-fi: Yes
  • Bluetooth: No
  • Outputs: N/A
  • Dimensions (hwd): 16.1 x 11.7 x 12cm
  • Weight: 1.85kg

Our thoughts on this one are that this is one of the top smart speakers you can buy on the market. That’s why we included it in this list. The reasons why are gathered in the text below.

WHY DO YOU NEED IT?

  • Stylish and unobtrusive
  • Solid, sophisticated sound
  • Alexa well integrated

REASONS TO STEP BACK

Lacks full Alexa control

No hi-res audio

DETAILED REVIEW

Arguably the best all-around smart speaker you can currently buy, the Sonos One sounds superb for the money and has all the functionality you’re likely to need. There are Spotify and Tidal integration, the ability to chat with Alexa and Google Assistant, and the option to build a multi-room system around it using other Sonos speakers or AirPlay 2. The best speaker by Google on the market now.

The Sonos comes with Alexa built-in, and that’s a winning combination for us.

THE CORE

In terms of shape and size, the One’s looks are practically identical to those of the Play:1. The only significant aesthetic departure is the replacement of the Play:1’s grey wraparound grille with a black or white grille, depending on the color of the speaker you’ve chosen.

Overall, the One blends into its surroundings even more effective than its predecessor.

Things have changed on the top plate, where the three buttons of the Play:1 have been replaced by a touch-sensitive panel decorated with a circle of tiny, white LEDs and symbols.

These represent play/pause, the microphone and Sonos’s now-familiar context-sensitive actions, while the white LEDs illustrate whether Alexa is switched on.

Sonos is keen to point out that switching Alexa off is a matter of tapping the microphone symbol, and your total privacy is represented by the lights being off altogether.

UPGRADES

Unlike the Play:1, the One also gets a dedicated Pairing button, just above the ethernet socket.

You no longer need to have one of your Sonos units wired into your router, although we’d still recommend using cables for the most stable and reliable connection. Sonos’s wireless network is one of the best around, so you are unlikely to encounter too many issues with the wi-fi router.

FEATURES

Although you can switch Alexa off entirely, it’s often worth having her listening, particularly as she is more deeply integrated here than with rivals.

The clearest example is that you can talk to the One exactly as you would Amazon’s own Echo, so instead of having to say “Alexa, play Bowie on Sonos”, you simply say “Alexa, play Bowie”, and one of his classics will spring forth from your One. That might sound like a small detail but, in terms of regular interaction, it’s a big difference.

If you want to voice-control the background music in every room, specify where (eg. “Alexa, play Beetles in the living room”) and the One will send the playlist of Beetles to the Sonos kit you’ve ascribed to that ‘zone’ – even a non-Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker, such as a PlayBar or Play:5. “Alexa, play Beetles everywhere” sets all your Sonos speakers to synchronized Ziggy Stardust mode.

THE SOUND

When we first heard the One at the launch event, we suspected it was a slight sonic upgrade on the Play:1 but, having listened to both in our testing rooms, the two speakers sound pretty much identical.

That’s no bad thing, though, because the Play:1 was already near the top of the sonic charts for wireless speakers at this price point.

We’d recommend going to the effort of TruePlay tuning the One with an iPhone (if you have one), as it opens the sound up. We prefer the sound with the Loudness setting left on, but experiment to discover which combination works best for you and your room.

We set it up the way we like, and get a delivery that’s weighty, full-bodied and loud – not traits you’d generally expect from a wireless speaker of this size. The soundstage is spacious and impressively organized, with vocals given plenty of breathing room, making them instantly more engaging.

That’s not to say that instruments are left out – they emerge in an impressively stereo-like way from either side of the singer. It’s rather sophisticated and natural in that regard.

The One’s weight makes for deep, solid bass for a speaker this size, and there’s enough rhythm to just about keep up with Trivium’s Pull Harder On The Strings Of Your Martyr, and enough tonal shading to make the most of Flea’s finest Red Hot Chili Peppers basslines.

Treble is crisp and clear but treads a fine line between excitement and harshness. You’ll occasionally notice the odd sharp edge or hint of sibilance, but it’s not enough to be bothersome. More often, it’s simply clear and sparkly.

UPGRADES

As with the Play:1, two Sonos Ones can be combined to create a stereo pair capable of filling a room with a hi-fi-like focus, and for £400 that would be quite an accomplished little system.

Given the sonic similarities, it’s a shame you can’t form a stereo pair from one One and one Play:1. Buying two Alexa-powered speakers for one room just feels like overkill, particularly if you already have a Play:1.

Unsurprisingly, you can also use the One as a surround speaker for a Sonos Beam, PlayBase or PlayBar-based system, with or without a subwoofer. The new Sonos Amp also allows you to create a 4.1 system, with a phantom center channel, from a pair of wired front speakers and a pair of Ones acting as surround.

The One isn’t the only way to add Alexa to a Sonos system – you can add an Echo or Echo Dot to your multi-room system, which brings with it the ability to send music to your Sonos speakers.

That’s not as neat, though, as you need to specify which room or speaker you want to listen to. A system comprised of Sonos Ones, on the other hand, will respond based on proximity – unless you instruct otherwise.

The combination of the Sonos Play:1’s audio quality and Alexa’s usefulness and intelligence is a real winner, particularly as the One costs broadly the same as its predecessor.

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If you’re worried that having a song blasting from your speaker will trouble Alexa to hear your request to skip that particular song, a combination of noise-canceling, there is a feature called “smart voice capture” and a custom-designed six-microphone array ensures that she always will be able to hear you.

The Sonos One launched only supporting Amazon Music but has now added Spotify, Deezer, TuneIn and Audible voice control into the mix, which is very welcome.

Of course, you can also use Alexa on the One exactly as you do an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, so as well as playing music you can set timers and alarms, check the weather, add items to your shopping list – all small features, but useful nonetheless. I suggest the One is pretty good as a kitchen speaker.

We have loud music playing from the One in the kitchen and can still get Alexa’s attention from the adjoining room with only a slightly raised voice.

You know when Alexa hears you, too, as any mention of her name is met with a chime of acknowledgment, signaling that you can continue your request. That might make the experience sound disjointed, but it’s quick and natural.

COMPARISON

With an Echo Dot, you have to check for a visual clue that Alexa is listening to. The One’s chime is quicker and more in keeping with audio communication, so it leads to more natural-feeling interactions.

The quality of the microphones make the One less likely to mishear your requests and instructions – we find it makes fewer mistakes than our Echo Dot. Correctly hearing the request is only half the battle, though, and Alexa is still capable of misunderstanding.

The most common issue is when you say “play Ladytron”, for example, and she instead starts playing a song with those words in the title. That can be annoying at first, but you can avoid that by saying “play some music by Ladytron” instead.

Those in the Google ecosystem were promised Google Assistant was to be added to Sonos by the end of last year, but, despite some delays, will be pleased to know that is still very much in the company’s plans. It follows on from the recent update which brings AirPlay 2 support.

SUMMARY

After ironing out some of the initial software bugs, and adding features such as Alexa control of Spotify and AirPlay 2, the Sonos One cements its place as one of the best £200 smart speakers on the market.

If you don’t value the voice assistant you may be happy with an original Play:1 (which is cheaper) and there’s now also the Beam speaker to consider, but for compact convenience and quality, the Sonos One is still highly recommended.

4. Apple HomePod

Top smart speakers

OVERVIEW

  • Virtual assistant: Siri
  • Wi-fi: Yes
  • Bluetooth: No
  • Outputs: N/A
  • Dimensions (hwd): 17.2 x 14.2 x 14.2cm
  • Weight: 2.5kg

Our thoughts on this one are that this is one of the top smart speakers you can buy on the market. That’s why we included it in this list. The reasons why are gathered in the text below.

WHY DO YOU NEED IT?

  • Compact, solid and stylish
  • Siri and Apple Music works well
  • Weighty, authoritative sound

REASONS TO STEP BACK

Over-reliance on voice control

Mid-range a little muddled

Too Apple-centric

DETAILED REVIEW

Apple was late to the smart speaker market, but the HomePod was well worth the wait. Aimed squarely at Apple users, it helps if Apple Music is your go-to music streaming service, but this is a clever, capable and desirable device. There are multi-room and stereo pairing support, plus a Siri voice assistant that works extremely well in this musical context. Very impressive.

But being late is perfectly acceptable if you’re the life and soul when you arrive – and that’s pretty much the story with the HomePod.

Despite some flaws and limitations, the HomePod is the best-sounding smart speaker available – and by quite a margin.

When combined with Siri’s reinvention as your personal DJ/musical guru, it makes for an endlessly entertaining all-in-one system. Assuming you’re already deep in the Apple ecosystem, that is.

DESIGN

The HomePod is beautifully made and looks classy. It’s a bit smaller and much heavier than you might imagine – dense in the manner of dark matter.

It comes with a subtle style, particularly in the Space Grey finish of our review sample.

Not that it’s without neat touches. That glossy top panel, uniformly black when the speaker is resting, is where Siri appears as a shifting ball of color. The way it floats within the blackness of the panel is undeniably cool.

When playing music, ‘+’ and ‘-‘ symbols appear, giving you touch-points to raise or lower the volume. Tapping the center of the surface will play/pause, skip a track or go back to the previous track, while keeping your finger pressed summons, Siri.

UPGRADES

But the really impressive stuff is hidden beneath that acoustically transparent mesh. Having started with an entirely clean slate and apparently worked on concepts for years (HomePod development began in 2012), Apple eventually settled on having the tweeters at the bottom and the woofer at the top – the exact opposite of the arrangement found in most traditional speakers.

The tweeters fire outwards and are angled slightly upwards, with the intention of not bouncing sound off the surface upon which the HomePod is placed. By avoiding these reflections, Apple can exert greater control over the treble’s behavior.

There are seven tweeters in total, evenly spaced around the base of the unit. The woofer is at the top and fires upwards, reflecting the mids and bass frequencies off the bottom of that panel so they are distributed equally around the device.

Embedded in the underside of the top panel, shielded from the bassy battering it receives from the woofer below, is Apple’s A8 chip. This is the same chip that first appeared inside the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus back in 2014. That might make it sound rather old, but for a wireless speaker, it’s quite the powerhouse.

THE CORE

So, what’s all of that processing power used for? There’s Siri, of course – but, perhaps more interestingly, it analyses the speaker’s surroundings and the music being played to ensure you always hear the HomePod at its best.

The surroundings are only analyzed when you use the HomePod for the first time or move it to a new position (there are accelerometers to let it know) and, unlike the creation of something like Sonos, involves no manual measuring on the part of the user. Instead, the HomePod uses the first song you play to listen to itself and adjust the sound accordingly.

FEATURES

Siri will do more than control your music – you can control your lights or heating, readout, and reply to messages, find cinema tickets, read news headlines and all sorts of other tricks. But the focus is music, and we’re all for that.

What we’re not so keen on is Apple’s walled garden. There are elements that are unsurprising, such as the fact that Apple Music is the only streaming service that Siri can control (as well as podcasts and anything you’ve stored in your iCloud Music Library), but there are some that seem overly controlling, even by Apple’s martial standards.

Sure, you can send audio from the likes of TuneIn or BBC iPlayer (or Spotify, Tidal or any other audio app for that matter) using AirPlay on your iPhone or iPad, but doing so runs down your portable’s battery and involves a decrease in sound quality.

UPDATES

We’d love to say AirPlay 2, available now via the iOS 11.4 software update, has brought with it the ability to use your iOS device as a controller to direct the HomePod to stream content straight from the internet – which is how Sonos has always worked – but, alas, that’s not the case.

But AirPlay 2 has brought with it the ability to combine two HomePods in a stereo pair, and should you have the appetite and capital for such a setup, the performance is even better than perhaps expected.

You, of course, get a far wider soundstage, with traditional left and right separation, but there’s also excellent panning across the front and impressive central focus for the musical elements that require it – the vocals, for example.

But what’s most impressive is how two paired HomePods continue to use their processing smarts to bounce the more ambient sounds of a track off the wall behind, and the extra spaciousness and three-dimensionality that this lends to the music. This is a big, open, atmospheric performance – much more so than rival pairs of wireless speakers can manage – and two HomePods working in concert also sound predictably weighty and solid.

The update to AirPlay 2 has also, finally, brought with it support for multi-room. This works exactly as expected – add each HomePod (or supported speakers from other brands such as Sonos, Naim, and B&O) to a specific room and, via Siri commands, you can play the same music everywhere or different tracks in different rooms. We’ve had no issues with synchronization across speakers during testing.

IN THE FUTURE

We noted in our original review that the lack of sleep timers, and the inability to set alarms that wake you up with anything but Apple’s own chimes, make the HomePod a less-than-perfect bedroom speaker in its own right. But Apple is making headway here. At the recent WWDC 2019, the Cupertino giant announced that, when iOS13 arrives in the fall, the HomePod will have a sleep timer, allowing owners to set their HomePod to stop playing music after a set amount of time. Hoorah!

The next-gen Apple OS system will also make it easier to seamlessly transfer music playback from an iPhone to a smart speaker. HomePod users will be able to ‘hand-off’ the music/call they’re listening to/taking on their iPhone simply by placing it close to a HomePod, and vice versa.

THE SOUND

But it seems the HomePod has a good grasp of the intentions of a track. At no point in our test do we play a single track that sounds anything other than absolutely correct.

That’s not to say we’re talking about a perfect delivery, but the HomePod is great at honing in on and delivering the essence of everything you play through it, from Mozart to P!nk and from Tiesto to Taylor Swift.

It’s all well and good having a bass driver that can shift some serious air, but keeping it controlled at the same time is a tricky business. The HomePod manages it expertly.

Play Join the Dots by Roots Manuva and Charli 2na and you can revel in the bass that’s superbly deep for a little speaker. It is also tuneful, energetic and punchy, putting to rest any fears the HomePod might be a little too Beats-like.

Instead, this is an expressive bottom end – which is essential to getting the most out of the deep brass and deep vocal on the track.

TEST

Even a track featuring Charli 2na has lots of mid-range action, and the HomePod does a good job of projecting the vocals and horns.

At the most congested points, the HomePod becomes just a little muddled and some rivals (such as the Ultimate Ears Megablast) offer a little more clarity in their organization. But for scale, authority, drive, and excitement, the Apple speaker is just superb.

The HomePod can turn its hand to anything and is just as happy playing The Road by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (“happy” is the wrong word for this collection, but you get the drift). The centralized, simple, solo piano notes at the start of the title track lack the nuance of true, traditional hi-fi – but there’s more texture here than you would expect from a small, all-in-one speaker.

RESULT

It does a superb job of upping the ante as each mournful component is added on the way to the tear-jerking crescendo.

What’s more, you don’t need to pump up the volume in order to get the HomePod singing.

Even at low volumes, the core excitement is retained, with more bass weight and punch than rivals can muster when similarly quiet. The sound is capable of going loud and it will remain to be clear, composed even at the max.

Apple’s promise of 360-degree sound is, unlike many similar promises made by other brands in the past, also pretty darn accurate. The sound you hear coming from the speaker is very consistent regardless of where you are at the moment.

Yes, there are slight variances as you walk slowly in a circle around it – a small drop in the treble, for example, presumably as you step between the beams of two tweeters – but every part of (and person in) a room will get more-or-less the same excellent audio quality.

Even when the HomePod is placed close to a back wall, the sound around the room is pretty consistent right until you’re essentially standing at a right-angle to it. This is the best place to put your speaker, as the reflection of ambient effects on the surface behind will create a bigger, more spacious presentation.

There’s not enough in it for you to be upset should you not have a wall to place the HomePod next to, though.

CONS

If you’re an Android fan and have made it this far into the review, well done. But the bad news is the HomePod is not for you. Not only does it not have Bluetooth, but you also can’t even set one up without an iOS device.

On the surface of it, that might seem unfair, but we don’t think that anyone who doesn’t already own Apple devices will choose the HomePod as their first. That just wouldn’t make sense.

SETTING UP

Assuming that you are an Apple user (running at least iOS 11.2.5), setting up the HomePod is an easy job. Simply hold your iPhone or iPad close to the speaker’s top panel and it will pop on your screen.

Select the room that you’re using it in, enable personal requests and tap once more to transfer your iCloud, iTunes and Apple Music settings, and the HomePod is good to go.

It is important to say that the HomePod doesn’t have a dedicated app on your iOS device. A small number of settings are available via the Home app (which is where you’ll also find any Apple HomeKit smart home devices) and you can skip back and forth through tracks and adjust volume in the Apple Music app – but this is largely a hands-off, voice-controlled user experience, with all the consequent pros and cons.

The big pro is that Siri is surprisingly good here.

Say “Hey, Siri, can play some song that I’ll like, please”, and the voice assistant will use its knowledge of your music tastes to play something that you may enjoy, rather than to browse through your history on Youtube. But if that’s not what you’re in the mood for, say “play something different” and Siri will choose something from a different genre or era.

The result is you’re regularly surprised and delighted by Siri’s choices, as you would be a friend who knows what you may like. This really elevates the HomePod experience over that offered by Alexa and Google.

Siri understands the context better than rivals, too, so if, for example, you say “play Alison” and get the Elvis Costello track when you wanted Slowdive, following up with “play the next song” will get you to the track you were after.

There’s also nuance to Siri’s knowledge, opening up slightly more complex requests. It understands “post-punk music for a party”, for instance, or “romantic music from the 70s”.

Combined with the many different ways you can issue an instruction or ask a question, these things make for natural and useful interactions with Siri.

More info about this smart speaker

It’s also worth noting that a) HomePod does a genuinely impressive job of hearing your instructions over the loudest music – even when you can barely hear your own voice, and b) it’s about to get even better for busy households whereby more than one family member is using the smart speaker. With the release of iOS13 – Apple’s next-gen iPhone OS – in the fall, the HomePod will be able to distinguish voices to offer a more personalized experience in a home of multiple users.

The almost complete reliance on Siri does have its drawbacks, though. For example, adding a track to your current queue is something that can only be done using your voice, which means constantly interrupting what you’re already playing.

And there are, of course, occasional stutters and misunderstandings which, even after a long sequence of positive interactions, can shatter the illusion.

Overall, though, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the overall efficacy of Siri, particularly having been largely unimpressed by it in iPhones and iPads over the last couple of years.

It seems Apple’s tailoring of its voice assistant to music has made it a more solid and useful performer in the context of a wireless speaker.

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If it’s in free space, the sound will be dispersed equally around the speaker, but if it’s close to a back wall the HomePod will actively split out some of the more ambient details of your music and bounce them off the rear surface while projecting the vocals and more direct sounds straight into the room. It’s clever stuff.

Wherever you place the speaker, it is constantly analyzing the music you play and dynamically tuning the sound, from bass to treble, to deliver the track as intended. Or, at least, as the HomePod thinks it’s intended.

SUMMARY

The HomePod still isn’t perfect, but the addition of multi-room support and, to a slightly lesser extent, the stereo pairing has closed two of the biggest gaps in its feature set. A recent discount of £40, taking the price to £279, sweetens the deal a good bit, too.

You still need to be a dedicated Apple user to even consider the HomePod, and Apple Music needs to be your default streaming service for you to get anything like the best out of it.

If that sounds like you, the HomePod is the party-rocking, musical horizon-broadening smart speaker you’ve been waiting for.

That was the first part of this article regarding the top smart speakers of 2020. If you haven’t found the smart speaker with the specifics you are looking for, stay tuned for the next portion of top smart speakers review.

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