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The best smart speaker 2021: which one should you buy?

Included in this guide:

The Apple HomePod Mini, Sonos One and the Amazon Echo (202) on a blue background
(Image credit: TechRadar)

The best smart speakers not only let you listen to your favorite albums and tracks, they also come with a voice assistant built-in. So whether you want to hear the latest news, weather report, or get your burning questions answered, a smart speaker can take care of it all for you. 

Whether you prefer to use Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri, there’s a smart speaker to suit you. While the most well-known smart speakers are manufactured by the brands behind the voice assistant, such as the Amazon Echo, the Google Nest Audio, or the HomePod Mini, there are a number of third-party smart speakers to choose from, too.  

Sonos and Bose are just some of the names combining a choice of voice assistants with their audio expertise to create a wireless smart speaker that doesn’t mean you have to compromise on sound quality. 

Unlike the best smart displays, which feature a screen so you can see as well as hear the information a voice assistant is serving up, the best smart speaker only offers audible responses from the voice assistant. But they can still be used to make calls, and get smart home devices to work together.

So whether you have smart plugs, smart lights, or even video doorbells or home security cameras, if they’re compatible with the voice assistant built-in to your smart speaker, you’ll be able to use voice to control them, even if they’re made by different manufacturers.

With so many options on the market, choosing the right smart speaker for you may leave you feeling confused. So we’ve put an array of models to the test to discover just which is the best smart speaker for 2021. 

The best smart speaker 2021

the sonos one smart speaker in black on a white background

(Image credit: Sonos)

The best-sounding smart speaker on the market

Specifications
Voice assistant: Alexa or Google Assistant
Dimensions: 6.36 x 4.69 x 4.69 inch / 16.15 x 11.97 x 11.97 cm
Speaker: 2 x class-D digital amplifiers, 1 x mid-woofer, 1 x tweeter
Physical controls: Volume up/down, previous/next track, play/pause, microphone mute
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Rich sound+Access to Google Assistant or Alexa+Mic array picks up commands even from a distance
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive compared to the rest of the market

Sonos’ debut smart speaker is the best you can buy right now, in our eyes. A cleanly designed, feature-rich, and great-sounding device, it can be used with either Alexa or Google Assistant and thanks to AirPlay 2. With it, the Sonos One can talk to Siri and form a multi-room pairing with the Apple HomePod or Apple HomePod Mini.

On test, we were also impressed with the mic array, which ensured our voice was picked up, even from the other side of the room. However, this is an expensive smart speaker when compared to the rest of the market. 

If you feel a bit tied down by the Sonos One, be sure to check out its portable cousins, the Sonos Move and the Sonos Roam, which are both excellent options for those that want to take their tunes on the move.

Read more: Sonos One review

the amazon echo 2020 smart speaker with its light ring lit up in blue

(Image credit: Amazon)

The best smart speaker for Alexa

Specifications
Voice assistant: Alexa
Dimensions: 5 x 5 x 4.7 inch / 14.4 x 14.4 x 13.3 cm
Speaker: 1 x 3 inch woofer, 2 x 0.8 inch tweeter
Physical controls: Volume up/down, play/pause, microphone mute
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Futuristic look+Improved sound+Zigbee hub integration
Reasons to avoid
-Max volume level isn’t loud enough

The latest spherical Amazon Echo is a complete revamp of the company’s flagship smart speaker, and the aesthetic overhaul, while impressive, is just the half of it: with improved audio, a built-in Zigbee smart home hub, and a new AZ1 neural edge processor that will reduce the time it takes for Alexa to respond to commands, it’s a complete makeover. 

 So are there any negatives? Not many, really. The Echo’s only real issues are that its max volume level is a bit soft, especially compared to larger smart speakers like the Apple HomePod and Google Home Max, and that Amazon remains a rather insular company, limiting the technology that’s compatible with its speakers. That means you won’t be able to Cast audio to the Echo the way you can with the new Google Nest Audio, and you’ll have to use Bluetooth any time you want to connect to your phone. 

Read more: Amazon Echo (2020) review

two apple homepod mini smart speakers; one in gray, and one in white

(Image credit: Apple)

The best smart speaker for Siri

Specifications
Voice assistant: Siri
Dimensions: 3.3 x 3.9 x 3.9 inch / 8.43 x 9.79 x 9.79 cm
Speaker: Full-range driver and dual passive radiators for deep bass and crisp high frequencies
Physical controls: Volume up/down, previous/next track, play/pause, summon Siri
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Incredible sound+Sleek design+Only smart speaker with Siri built-in
Reasons to avoid
-Needs Apple Music for full function-Small number of compatible smart home devices

For anyone looking to enter the Apple smart ecosystem, or who has an Apple Music subscription, this is the smart speaker to go for. It's far cheaper than some might expect, packing mighty sounds and an elegant design for under $100 / £100 / AU$150. It's also the only smart speaker on the market with Siri built-in, as Apple discontinued the bigger HomePod in early 2021, and stocks are no longer available.

However, if you don’t have an Apple Music subscription, you’re rather limited when it comes to music streaming. You can't ask the HomePod mini to play anything through Spotify – that can only be enabled through AirPlay, and requires using your phone rather than the simpler method of asking Siri to play tunes with your voice. There's also a much smaller number of compatible smart home devices that work with the smart speaker, compared to the range available for Alexa and Google Assistant-enabled smart speakers.

For us, the audio performance is the key reason to buy the HomePod mini. It's excellent for a speaker that's so small, and it really feels like the right mix of price and sound quality. The bass isn't too heavy, vocals aren't lost in the mix, and when you pair two minis the stereo experience is really immersive.

Read more: Apple HomePod mini review

the google nest audio smart speaker in light gray

(Image credit: Google)

The best smart speaker for Google Assistant

Specifications
Voice assistant: Google Assistant
Dimensions: 4.9 x 4.9 x 3.1 inch / 17.5 x 12.4 x 7.8 cm
Speaker: 1 x 75mm woofer, 1 x1 9mm tweeter
Physical controls: Volume up/down, play/pause, microphone mute
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Subtle and unassuming design+Picks up voice commands very well+Quick, clear responses
Reasons to avoid
-Missing detail in the mids and trebles-Doesn't function as a Zigbee hub

If you're looking for a smart speaker with Google Assistant built-in, the Google Nest Audio is currently the best Google-manufactured smart speaker you can buy, since the brand discontinued its Google Home Max speaker.

It picks up our commands with ease, and Google Assistant is quick to respond, all of which are loud and clear. The subtle and unassuming design also blends in well with home decor. It’s also a surprisingly intelligent smart home hub. It already hooks into some of the largest platforms now available by including Nest, Philips, and Samsung’s SmartThings – however, there's no built-in Zigbee hub as with the latest Amazon Echo.

However, as a speaker, the Nest Audio is a little disappointing and the sound quality doesn't really live up to our expectations. It sounds just fine with uncomplicated pop music, but other genres reveal a lack of detail in the treble and mids that make tracks lack sparkle and sound muffled.

Read more: Google Nest Audio review

the amazon echo studio smart speaker

(Image credit: Amazon)

The best smart speaker for home cinema set-ups

Specifications
Voice assistant: Alexa
Dimensions: 6.9 x 6.9 x 8.1 inch / 17.5 x 17.5 x 20.6 cm
Speaker: 1 x 1 inch tweeter, 3 x 2 inch mid-range speakers, 1 x 5.25 inch woofer
Physical controls: Volume up/down, play/pause, microphone mute
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Impressive sound quality+Pair two together for an affordable home cinema set up+Doubles as a Zigbee hub
Reasons to avoid
-Large size won't suit all-Requires subscription for 3D audio

Amazon’s first high-end smart speaker for home cinemas is its best-sounding Echo so far. One of the most powerful speakers you’ll find for the money at 330W, buy two Amazon Echo Studio speakers and you can set them up in the Alexa app to create an immersive home cinema system

It’s seriously impressive, and for those that want a smart speaker to control their smart home devices, it doubles as a Zigbee hub too. However, to get the best from it, you'll need to subscribe to Amazon Music HD and the large size won't suit all.

That said, it's certainly more affordable than similar speakers from rivals such as Sonos.   

Read more: Amazon Echo Studio review

the Bose home speaker 500 with its display lit up

(Image credit: Bose)

The best smart speaker for audiophiles

Specifications
Voice assistant: Alexa or Google Assistant
Dimensions: 8.67 x 6.7 x 4.3 inch / 20.3 x 17 x 10.9 cm
Speaker: Not provided
Physical controls: Volume up/down, previous/next track, play/pause, microphone mute
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Excellent sound quality+Elegant stylish design+Preset buttons for quick access to playlists
Reasons to avoid
-One of the most expensive smart speakers on the market-Hit and miss Wi-Fi setup

If you’re searching for the best-sounding smart speaker, stop searching. With Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa built-in, the sleek anodized aluminum Smart Speaker 500 has the smarts alongside room-filling sound and an elegant design. 

An eight microphone array, designed for near and far-field listening, lets you talk to Alexa or Google Assistant even when music is playing loud. We also loved the preset buttons that offer one-touch access to your favorite playlists, radio stations, or albums. However, setting the speaker up on a Wi-Fi network using the Bose Music app is harder than it should be, and it's one of the most expensive smart speakers on the market. Although if you're an audiophile, it's worth every penny. 

Read more: Bose Smart Speaker 500 review

the amazon echo dot smart speaker with its alexa light ring lit up

(Image credit: Amazon)

The best budget smart speaker

Specifications
Voice assistant: Alexa
Dimensions: 3.9 x 3.9 x 3.5 inch / 10 x 10 x 8.9cm
Speaker: 1 x 1.6 inch speaker
Physical controls: Volume up/down, play/pause, microphone mute
Power: Mains
Reasons to buy
+Space-age aesthetic+Easy setup and integration+Extremely affordable
Reasons to avoid
-Directional, shallow sound-No Zigbee hub inside

The Amazon Echo Dot has always been the best option for those who aren’t sure about smart home tech and want to take the first step. It provides a place for Alexa to live inside your home and packs in enough sound performance to fill a room. All that for under $50 / £50 / AU$80 and it’s easy to see why it’s long been one of the most popular smart speakers on the market.

Its got the same space-age aesthetic as its bigger brother, the Amazon Echo (2020), which looks stylish and is certainly a change from the previous Echo Dot design, and on test, we found it extremely easy to set up and use. However, you won't find a Zigbee hub inside, unlike its more expensive sibling and the affordable price tag does mean that while the sound can fill a room, it's directional and shallow.

Read more: Amazon Echo Dot (2020) review

How we test smart speakers

To discover the best smart speakers on the market, we assess the the sound quality of the speaker and how effective the built-in voice assistant is at controlling playback for you; from selecting specific playlists, albums and tracks to adjusting the volume, skipping tracks and even the number of streaming service its compatible with. 

We also evaluate each model on its ability to pick up your voice when issuing commands to the voice assistant, privacy features that help ensure the smart speaker isn’t constantly watching and listening, and the smart home devices it's compatible with, as well as how compact and durable the design is.

What to consider when buying a smart speaker

When it comes to choosing the right smart speaker for you, there are a number of factors to consider. 

Start by working out which voice assistant you want your smart speaker to offer access to. If you already use a voice assistant on your smartphone or tablet, or have existing smart speakers or smart displays in your home, it makes sense to plump for a smart speaker that  has the same assistant baked in. However, if you’ve yet to settle on the voice assistant for you, Alexa vs Google Assistant can help you decide. 

Next, consider where you intend to locate the smart speaker; smaller, more compact smart speakers are best suited to bedrooms and kitchens, for setting timers when cooking, while larger smart speakers work in rooms with bigger footprints such as a lounge or dinning room. 

If you intend to use the smart speaker as your main listening device, make sure you consider the number of speakers, and the sound output and quality they offer. Those with smaller speakers are best suited to background music, while larger smart speakers will offer a louder, more room-filling sound. Also look for models that can be paired together to create stereo sound if you’re planning to use a smart speaker as part of your home cinema set-up. 

What is a smart speaker used for? 

As we’ve already mentioned, a smart speaker can do more than just offer a way to listen to your favorite music streaming service, or the albums and tracks stored on your smartphone. The built-in voice assistant can control the playback of your music for you; adjusting the volume, skipping tracks and even selecting a specific song, album or playlist for you, leaving your hands-free. 

It can also provide a weather report, offer an audible summary of the day's headlines, and answer your burning questions; whether that’s ‘what is the tallest mountain in the world’ or simply ‘who is the Queen of England’.  

Smart Speakers can even be used for light entertainment in the form of jokes and games and also allow you to stay in touch with friends and family by making audio calls through the device. 

If that wasn’t enough, a smart speaker can also control compatible smart home devices; for example it can dim or brighten any smart lights you have in your home, turn the temperature up or down if you have a smart thermostat and let you converse with anyone at your doorstep by connecting to your video doorbell. 

Which voice assistant is best?

On the whole that's subjective. Some people have always liked Apple products the best and stay loyal to Siri. Others really like Alexa after snapping up an Echo as soon as the smart speaker was first launched. 

The general consensus seems to be that Google Assistant is, largely, the most accurate voice assistant. If you've got a lot of Apple products, of course Siri is the best and for overall compatibility, you're best opting for Alexa. But they're not hard and fast rules. 

Is Alexa better than Google?

For starters, the choice might depend on which speaker you like the look of the most. Sure Amazon's Echo range is very similar to the Google Home, but the Show, Spot, and Dot look quite different – check out our guide to the best Alexa speakers for more information. 

When it comes to the smart assistants within the speakers, they're both extremely capable. Amazon's Alexa has many, many Skills, which set it apart from the rest. But Google has been a leader in the AI game for a long time now, well before the smart speaker market emerged. It's a lot harder to change Alexa's voice, too.