The smart speaker market is getting crowded, fast. In addition to Amazon’s line of Echoes, and Google’s growing collection of Google Home products, there’s the Sonos One smart speaker on the high end and Apple’s newly arrived HomePod.
We put four of the biggies up against each other to see the strengths, weaknesses, and whether they’re worth the cash.
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Amazon’s $50 talking hockey puck wants nothing more than to be an iPhone controlled by your voice. You add “skills” (apps) and it can do anything from call you a Lyft to play trivia games. Perfect, right?
Well, not quite. The Echo Dot hits the basics really well; it gets you the weather, it gets you the news, and so on. The small speaker won’t fill a big room, but it’s fairly solid for a tiny device. But once you try to do more with it, you butt up against the glaring problem that third-party developers don’t quite know how to write apps driven by your voice. As a result, the skills are shallow or silly, with the exception of smart home tools such as the WeMo outlet and the Anova sous vide, which the Dot integrates really effectively.
The Dot is also annoyingly limited when it comes to music streaming, which will be an ongoing theme. The Echo Dot does not play nice with Google Play or Apple Music; you’ll have to link your phone via Bluetooth if you want to play back your music on those services. It also sometimes doesn’t update itself properly, meaning you have to hard reset the device by unplugging it. It’s a jack of all trades, but it’s a master of almost none of them, and in some cases, stuff that should be voice controlled, like configuring intervals on your timer or setting detailed alarms, is delegated to the companion app.
In terms of voice control, it’s also overly sensitive; in our tests we found it was a bit overeager to mistake distant words for a command, and at one point it started playing Christmas music for no logical reason as a result.
That said, the Echo Dot has one really big advantage: as designed, it’s much easier to mount on walls, and it has nice, big buttons on the top to physically control the volume.
Google Home Mini
The Google Home Mini, also $50, goes in the other direction. It only does a handful of things, but it does them very, very well. It’s got some impressive oomph behind its speaker for such a little guy, although, again, it’s not going to fill the room or offer the deep bass you want.
It really shines through in its use of Google Assistant. In some ways, the Home Mini is a limited device; it can only answer questions you ask it, recite recipes and content you push to it from your phone, interact with your smart home gadgets, and playback music and content. But that’s plenty powerful, and being able to talk to Google is intensely useful on its own. We found it especially useful in the kitchen for questions like “How many cups in a quart?”
The big downside is the simplistic design. You’re supposed to tap the sides of the device to engage in various functions, for example, but those controls are tough to find and don’t really offer a satisfying method of control. If you’re hoping to stick it to a wall, as well, the shape is slightly awkward. It wants to sit on a desk, like any good assistant. Its voice control also leaves something to be desired: Cranked to full blast, it can drown you out, requiring you to literally shout at it to shut it up.
The $350 HomePod sounds amazing. Built to sit on a table, floor or desk, Apple really has worked hard to create a speaker that fills any room with rich, clear sound. As a speaker, it’s lovely. It’s also easy to set up.
In every other respect, though, it lags behind.
To start with, it’s actively hostile towards Apple’s other products. That extends to your music collection; it’ll only play nice with your Apple Music and iTunes, and even then, playing nice is a relative term. We found that the HomePod tended to prefer to push you towards using streaming services and opted for them instead of locally stored music. If it’s not an Apple Music product, well, you’re up the creek.
This glitch isn’t unique, as we noted with the Google Home products, but Apple takes that a step further by lobotomizing Siri. Siri is supposed to be your main interface with the HomePod, but she’s not allowed to do anything beyond take the names of songs you want to hear. She won’t interact with your calendar or any function of your phone other than music. In fact, the stupidity of Siri here trips up the HomePod. It won’t even play nice with your iPhone — which is literally needed to set the thing up.
In terms of overall usability, this was, by any yardstick, dead last.
Granted, some of this, even all of it, can be fixed in the long term, with software updates, new apps, and the like. But $350 is a lot to spend on future promises, no matter how great your music sounds on it.
The Sonos One
The Sonos One has two advantages: Sonos has been building standalone, powerful all-in-one speakers for rooms for years, and it’s a separate company. So it can work with pretty much every company out there, and that’s a big deal.
The $200 Sonos One is sort of a budget entry point to their broader ecosystem. If you’ve ever heard a full Sonos system in action, with a speaker or two in every room, you know it’s both really good and really expensive. The One does an admirable job of filling the room, and probably only really fussy audiophiles will notice much of a difference between the Sonos One and the HomePod, but it’s technically designed to be one piece in a larger system.
The main advantage it has, though, is that it’s easiest to use and friendly to almost any audio streaming service you can name. Setup was simple, involving downloading an app and connecting one of a huge range of music services and media servers — though there’s a pretty big gap in that news services like NPR One aren’t supported directly. Instead, you’ll need to install Alexa or a streaming service with news options such as TuneIn if you want news briefings.
The voice controls are completely optional, but you can install Alexa easily, and frankly, it’s easier to use on the Sonos One than on Amazon’s own Echo line. The Sonos is also responsive without being too responsive; our distance tests found that the Sonos One heard us three rooms away. More importantly it didn’t mishear us. It’s also a hair more responsive with smart home tools.
The Sonos isn’t perfect: The more services you connect, the more difficult it is to find exactly what you want, especially if you connect sprawling services like SoundCloud. The app crawls the entire service, although it at least files results under each service. But in terms of usability, especially for using more than one music service, it’s far and away the most user-friendly.