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Best smart speakers for 2021: Amazon Echo, Google Nest Mini and Apple HomePod compared

Best smart speakers for 2021: Amazon Echo, Google Nest Mini and Apple HomePod compared

AmazonGoogle and Apple all sell good smart speakers, and the competition between these tech giants keeps pushing them to improve the products. Amazon gets the credit for the popularization of smart speakers with the original Echo and the Alexa voice assistant, but now there are many models on the market, each with their own pros and cons. 

When shopping for the best smart speaker for your needs, the key differences you’ll encounter largely come down to size, price and audio quality. If you don’t need much oomph from your music and you’re good with a little lower audio quality, you can save money and get the same smarts in a smaller smart speaker.

Pretty much all of your options include multiroom audio and let you turn on the lights, play music, ask a question, set reminders and more with simple voice commands. If that sounds appealing to you, it might be time to give in to the growing hype of this burgeoning category of devices and buy a smart speaker.

Read more: Best Sonos speakers from $100 and up

If you have an affinity for one of those brands in particular, picking a speaker is easy. Head here for help picking an Amazon smart speaker model. Here’s a guide if you want a Google-equipped smart speaker.

If you’re platform-agnostic, and don’t need to choose between Alexa or Google, the range of choices might seem intimidating at first. Here are our thoughts. 

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Deciding which assistant you want at the center of your smart home is a tough call. Both Alexa and Google Assistant work with lots of devices. Both help you organize and control them easily. While Google Assistant is a little smarter, Alexa works with more smart home devices and makes setup with voice commands easier. 

Ultimately, we’ll give the smart-home edge in the best smart speaker category to Amazon thanks to Alexa and the $100, fourth-generation Amazon Echo. 

Alexa can send alerts if your smart speaker hears glass breaking or a smoke detector blaring. The newest Echo combines the usual Alexa smarts with a speaker that sounds great and has a smart-home Zigbee hub built in so you can sync your small sensors with it instead of needing to buy more gear.

Read our Amazon Echo (2020) review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The $200 Sonos One allows you to pair two units to play stereo sound or multiroom audio, but even a single speaker sounds awesome playing a wide variety of music genres and it costs significantly less than other smart speakers with premium sound quality such as the Google Home Max and the Apple HomePod.

Better yet, the Sonos One has both Alexa and Google Assistant built in — simply pick which one you’d like to use for your voice commands during setup. Plus, Sonos has Apple’s AirPlay 2 so you can control it with any Siri-enabled device, including your iPhone

Add it up and the Sonos One is a great-sounding, reasonably priced smart speaker that can fit into households centered around Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri. That’s a tough pitch to beat.

Read the Sonos One review.

James Martin/CNET

Amazon used to be the unquestioned ruler of the smart speaker world, but Google has done an admirable job of catching up its digital assistant in the sound race. At this point, picking between the lowest-price smart devices from the two companies comes down to splitting hairs. 

If Alexa is your voice assistant of choice, you should go with the latest Echo Dot. It’s affordable and offers all the Alexa skills and smart home integrations you’ll need.  

Google Assistant now has almost as many capabilities as Alexa, making the Google Nest Mini a solid alternative to the Amazon Echo Dot if Google Assistant is your preference. Plus, Google Assistant is a little smarter voice assistant than Alexa. It responds more flexibly to voice commands if you can’t remember the exact name of your smart home devices, and Google’s grouped commands, called routines, work with more types of smart devices than Amazon’s similar routines. Google Assistant can recognize multiple voices, so it’ll give you and your spouse different answers if you each ask about your calendars, though Alexa can now do this too.

Overall, Google still has the edge in assistant intelligence, and the Google Nest Mini is a great, low-cost way to take advantage of those smarts.

Read the Google Nest Mini review.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Siri’s first smart speaker adapts its sound to the room you’re in and sounds fantastic playing all genres of music. Its sound quality outclasses the Sonos One and even squeaks by the similarly priced Google Home Max. Thanks to Siri, you can also use an Apple HomePod to control your smart home products with the sound of your voice, ask for help as you would with the other smart speakers and answer phone calls coming to your iPhone.

Then, there’s the newly released HomePod Mini. Apple’s smaller smart speaker offering costs $99 and sounds great. It doesn’t pack the volume and power of its older sibling, but you’ll get the same Siri smarts at a more affordable price. 

When it comes to smart home, both speakers are limited to devices that work with Apple’s smart home platform, HomeKit. The HomePods have a few limitations the rest don’t, but that shouldn’t matter to you if you’ve already invested in Apple products and just want great sound quality.

Read the Apple HomePod review.

Best portable smart speaker

JBL Link 20

Sarah Tew/CNET

Given the wide array of smart speakers, it’s surprising how few are portable. Fortunately, the JBL Link 20 checks all of the right boxes to qualify as a good smart speaker, and it’s battery-powered. It has decent battery life and solid sound quality, and it has Google Assistant built in, like the Google Nest Mini.

Even better, the wireless speaker is fully waterproof, so you can play music outside, and can connect to your home’s Wi-Fi network or you can stream audio with it through your phone’s Bluetooth. $200 is a little pricey. It’s often on sale for $150 and it’s sold out at the moment, but JBL representatives reassured us it’ll be back in stock soon. 

In the meantime, the similar JBL Link 10 is a solid and cheaper, if slightly less impressive, alternative.

Read the JBL Link 20 review.

Other options

Those smart speakers are our favorites, but you still have lots of other options if you’re looking for something specific. Read our breakdown of Alexa versus Google Assistant versus Siri if you’d like to learn each one’s pros and cons and decide by platform.

Note that neither the original Amazon Echo nor the Nest Audio made an appearance above because you can get the same capabilities for less with the smaller (Dot and Mini) versions. That said, if you want a smart speaker that splits the difference between affordability and premium sound, both are still solid options.

If you like the idea of always-listening help but want something more visual, check out our smart display best list. Smart displays essentially combine a smart speaker with a touchscreen so you can watch videos on YouTube, make video calls, scroll through pictures and control your smart home gadgets with a touch. Amazon and Google both have several options in this booming smart display category of smart home tech.

Read more: Best Wi-Fi speakers and music systems of 2021

There are also lots of third-party devices with Alexa built in, and a growing number of third-party speakers with Google Assistant. Check out the Amazon Tap or the UE Megablast if you want Alexa in a portable body. The TicHome Mini is another, more compact choice if you want a portable smart speaker with Google Assistant. You can also buy add-ons from a company called Ninety7 if you want to make your Google or Amazon smart speaker portable. 

Finally, the Harman Kardon Invoke uses Microsoft’s assistant Cortana. It’s competent enough if you’re a Windows fan but otherwise doesn’t have enough going for it to stand out from the crowd. Samsung even has a much-delayed smart speaker, the Galaxy Home with Samsung’s assistant Bixby

Figure out what platform or features you’d like, and you should be able to quickly narrow down your options and find the best smart speaker for you and your family.

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