Best smart speakers of 2020: Amazon Echo, Google Nest Mini and Apple HomePod compared
In 2020, Amazon, Google and Apple are all making good smart speakers. The competition between these tech giants only pushes them to keep getting better. Amazon popularized smart speakers with the original Echo and the Alexa voice assistant, but today you have several options, each with their own pros and cons.
So how do you pick the best smart speaker for your needs? The key differences largely come down to hardware 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.
Editors’ note, Oct. 30: We’ve reviewed Amazon’s new Echo and Echo Dot speakers, but we’re still waiting to get our hands on Apple’s recently announced HomePod Mini. Once that speaker is out and we’ve had a chance to evaluate it, we will update this list based on our evaluations.
Ben Fox Rubin/CNET
Naming the best smart speaker is really tough these days. Both Google and Amazon have very capable smart speakers at affordable prices. If you don’t want to deal with the nitty-gritty of the category and just want to try out a smart speaker, get the third-gen Echo Dot. Amazon’s voice assistant has more capabilities than Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri.
The third-generation Amazon Echo Dot looks and sounds better than previous versions and still only costs $50. Plus, there’s a $60 version with a practical LED clock for timers, temperature and alarms. The Echo Dot offers all of the same digital assistant smarts as more expensive Echo devices. You sacrifice some audio quality for the size and price, but it plugs into your own speakers, so you can easily make up for that difference.
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.
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 — the Amazon Echo Dot or the Google Nest Mini — comes down to splitting hairs. The Dot is still our favorite overall, but by a small margin.
Google Assistant now has almost as many capabilities as Alexa, making the $50 Google Nest Mini a solid alternative to the Amazon Echo Dot in your quest to find the best smart speaker. 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.
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, 4th 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.
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.
The HomePod is more limited than the rest, however. You can only play music from Apple’s music service with voice commands. Other smart speakers give you a few popular streaming options to pick from, like Pandora or Spotify. As for the smart home, you’re limited to devices that work with Apple’s smart home platform, HomeKit. So the HomePod has a few limitations the rest don’t have, but that shouldn’t matter to you if you’ve already invested in Apple products and just want great sound quality.
Best portable smart speaker
JBL Link 20
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.
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 2020
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.