Varsha is a research enthusiast and a tech geek. She loves to do extensive research on topics of interest.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the very notion of speakers that can’t understand voice commands will seem preposterous. Archaic, even.
Smart speakers are a fast-growing segment of the market. Amazon, Google and Apple are currently the main players, each of which boasts their own proprietary smart assistant platform. All combine a traditional audio speaker with an integrated, always-on voice technology. It’s essentially the same voice tech that smartphones have been offering for several years now but planted into its own discrete device that’s designed to be the centre of your ‘smart home’.
Think of it as an all-knowing digital butler that can answer trivia questions, get you prepped for the day ahead, remind you about groceries you need to pick up on the way home from work and control music playback and any smart home devices you have installed in the house, including lights, plugs, robot vacuum cleaners and smart TVs.
The beauty of a smart speaker is that you don’t need to fumble for your phone every time you want to perform a particular action. It’s a completely voice-driven interface that lets you, and anyone else in the house, access key functions simply by speaking to the speaker like you would a person.
Plus, the sophisticated microphone arrays in each smart speaker are far more advanced than the mics in a mobile device, and they’re able to pick up your voice commands in a rowdy living room. Veteran audio brands like Sony and Sonos have also entered the mix supporting one or more of the aforementioned smart speaker platforms, with plenty more tech companies on the way, including Lenovo, Samsung and Harman Kardon.
Amazon Echo Devices
Specs- Dot: 8.4 x 8.4 x 3.2cm; 163g; 0 6-inch woofer 163g; 0.6-inch woofer.
Echo: 14.85 x 8.8 x 8.8cm; 820g; 2.5-inch woofer; 0.6-inch tweeter.
Echo Plus: 23.5 x 8.4 x 8.4cm; 954g; 2.5-inch woofer; 0.8-inch tweeter; ZigBee certified.
Echo Show: 7inch LCD touchscreen, 50mm speaker array
Common specs- 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth A2DP & AVRCP; 3.5mm audio output; 7 microphone array
Amazon was the first to market with a smart speaker back in 2014. While the full range of Echo smart speakers isn’t available in every country — notably, the niftier models with built-in colour displays are absent — there are still more models on offer than the competition, namely the Echo Dot, Echo Show, the Echo and the Echo Plus. What’s more, Amazon has been in the market long enough to have gone through two iterations of its product range already, with the first two aforementioned speakers now in their second generation.
The number of years that Amazon has had to work on the Echo also means that, in many ways, it’s the most advanced smart speaker of the lot. As well as the standard bread-and-butter voice assistant capabilities that come with every smart speaker, the Echo has access to the Alexa Skills marketplace, which boasts more than 10,000 additional skills that the speakers can perform.
Skills are much like smartphones apps in that they extend the Echo’s base functionality, and while there are plenty of duplicates and duds in that collection (much like you’d find in a smartphone app store), there are a fair few gems in there that let use your voice in novel ways. You can hail an Uber, order a Domino’s pizza, check the surf conditions and even find out what your bank balance is although you need to phrase the voice commands exactly right for the Echo to understand what you’re asking for.
The Echo also boasts broad support for smart home devices using the aforementioned Skills, but the annoying thing is that some of these aren’t available in many countries. So while you can connect smart home devices from the likes of Philips, LIFX, Logitech, D-Link and Telstra, products from Belkin, Nest, Sonos and others are yet to arrive Down Under.
The premium model in the range, the Echo Plus, comes with a built-in ZigBee hub that theoretically simplifies the process of connecting smart home devices. But many popular gadgets don’t use the ZigBee standard, which renders the built-in hub useless. Worse, devices that are supported — such as the Philips Hue smart lights — don’t have as many features available when connecting them via
the ZigBee hub.
Of course, you’ll probably use the Echo most for music playback, and in that regard, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It offers native support for the ever-popular Spotify music streaming service, along with Amazon Music Unlimited and Deezer, and if your preferred platform is something different, you can take advantage of the Echo’s Bluetooth capabilities to stream that music from your mobile device.
Sound quality is the Echo’s Achilles’ heel. The puck-shaped Echo Dot is notably inferior to the Google Home Mini, and while the regular Echo is capable of a bigger sound than the Google Home, it does distort quite noticeably at the higher volumes. It's saving grace is that all models can connect to external speakers, either wirelessly using Bluetooth or using a 3.5mm audio jack, making them flexible compared to the current competition. But the Echo Spot is the best sounding among all Echo devices.
A combination of a mature feature set and the ability to connect external speakers directly makes the Echo platform my pick of the bunch.
Specs: High-excursion woofer with custom amplifier; 7 horn-loaded tweeters; 6 mic-array; internal low-frequency caliberation microphone; 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO Bluetooth 5.0; 17.2 x 14.2cm; 2.5 kg
Apple only has the one smart speaker on the market at the moment, the HomePod.Consistent with the Cupertino company’s strategy in other product verticals, this is not the most full-featured entrant in the market, nor does it compete well from a value-for-money perspective. However, Apple has correctly identiied that driving sales in this category isn’t necessarily going to hinge on the smart assistant capabilities. At least, not this early in the game.
The HomePod is unabashedly a premium audio speaker first and smart voice assistant second, and as such, it’s packed to the brim with enough audio components to make other speakers in this category cringe with embarrassment. A unique array of seven beam-forming tweeters — each with their own amplifier and transducer — produces a remarkably wide soundstage that reaches you wherever you happen to be in the room, while the built-in spatial awareness technology automatically optimises the audio output based on the speaker’s location in the room (ie. whether it’s against a wall or not). It’s also clever enough to equalise the sound levels based on the song it’s currently playing.
If you’re upgrading from a portable Bluetooth speaker, the HomePod’s audio quality will be a revelation for your eardrums. The bass reproduction is tightly controlled, but boomy enough to pull of bottom-heavy tracks with gusto. I am not talking Beats-level bass here, but the HomePod opts for a more accurate sound over emphasising the lower registers. In fact, all of the frequencies are reproduced equally well with exceptional clarity.
But if you’re looking to play songs through anything other than Apple Music, it’s a bit of an uphill battle. You really only have two choices: you can play music directly through the speaker using an Apple Music subscription, or you can stream any music that’s currently playing on an Apple device (including MacBooks and iMacs, or aWindows PC running iTunes) via AirPlay.
The lack of auxiliary input means you can’t connect an external music player (such as a TV, laptop or smartphone) with an audio cable. Nor is there a Bluetooth option. Importantly, you won’t even be able to set the HomePod up in the first place if you don’t have an iPhone or iPad. Not even a MacBook and iMac will suffice — it has to be an iOS device.
As a smart assistant, the HomePod has some serious catching up to do. While it can perform most of the functions available on an iOS device using Siri, there are notable exceptions, such as making calls (you can only hand over calls that have already been initiated from your iPhone) and checking your calendar.
The HomePod can control smart home devices like Philips Hue lights, Elgato Eve Motion and August Smart Lock using voice commands, but the list of supported devices are skimpy compared to its Amazon and Google rivals.
If you happen to fall within the small niche of users who won’t be phased by the HomePod’s limitations, the good news is that it’s an outstanding audio speaker. But if you’re specifically looking for smart assistant functionality, you’ll get much better value from one of the other platforms.
Smart Speakers Comparison Chart
Home Mini, Home
Echo Dot, Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Show
Spotify, Google Play Music, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, YouTube
Spotify, Amazon Music Unlimited, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Deezer, Apple Music
Mobile devices supported
Multiple user support
Audio output jack
Group smart home gadgets
Google Home and Mini
Specs- 2-inch full range driver; dual 2-inch passive radiators; compatible with Android 4.2+ and iOS 8.0+; 802.11ac Wi-Fi; 14.3 x 9.64 x 1.8cm; 477g
Google Home has plenty to recommend it for those in the market for a smart speaker. Currently consisting of the Home Mini and the Home, this ecosystem of smart speakers takes the Google Assistant voice-powered technology that’s been available on Android smartphones and tablets for several years now and makes it accessible within a speaker that the entire family can use.
The latter point is one of the main distinguishing factors of the Google Home. Unlike the Echo and the HomePod, it can recognise different voices, each of which is linked to its own Google account. This makes the Home far better suited for households than any other smart speaker, as each family member can access their individual calendars, tasks and music libraries.
The other point in the Home’s favour is that it taps into Google’s extensive search engine expertise. Being the market leader for search has given the online juggernaut an extraordinary amount of data to work with, and this breadth of experience really shows in the Home’s ability to answer questions on almost any topic you can throw at it. Whether you’re asking about the weather forecast or when your favourite football team is playing next, the Home is adept at both understanding conversational English and accurately responding with the requested information.
As a music playback device, it supports a decent selection of music services (Spotify, Google Play Music, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and YouTube), however, the audio quality falls short of the mark. The full-sized Home is neither as loud nor as bassy as we would expect for a speaker in this price range, and while podcasts and news reports sound perfectly adequate, we couldn’t help but want more a bit more gusto when it was playing our favourite tunes.
This problem is even more pronounced with the smaller, doughnut-shaped Home Mini. While the larger Home has a 2-inch driver and dual 2-inch passive radiators, the Mini only has a single 40mm driver, making it better-suited for the bedside table than the living room.
Annoyingly, neither of the Home speakers have a line-out port like the Echo range, which means you can’t hook it up to a superior speaker directly. You can take advantage of the multiroom audio feature to have multiple Homes playing the same song, but you can’t configure two speakers for proper stereo sound like you can with a Sonos.
As for the rest of the Google Home’s smarts, it falls somewhere between the Amazon Echo and the Apple HomePod. While it doesn’t support as many smart home devices as the Echo, it works with a good cross-section of the major brands, including Philips Hue, Belkin Wemo, TP-Link, Ring and Roomba. It also has the benefit of native voice-control support for Android TVs and Google Chromecast devices, which can be connected to ‘dumb’ TVs and speakers to add access to popular online music and video streaming services. The Home has also taken a leaf out of the Echo’s playbook with the recent launch of ‘Actions’. Similar to Alexa’s Skills, these extend the Home’s functionality and support a good cross-section
The Google Home performs beautifully as a voice-activated smart assistant -particularly for multi-user households — but it’s let down by the lacklustre audio quality.
Rajat Gupta on July 12, 2019:
Millennial now switching from traditional audio speaker to Smart speaker through voice command which facilitated by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other wireless devices, and driven by artificial intelligence, virtual assistance. The smart speaker can be useful in reading news; can be helpful knowing weather reports, listening to songs, order items on the website etc. The smart speaker has improved microphones, automated speech recognition software and Natural Language Processing (NLP). Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple Siri etc. are some of the examples of smart speakers. Acording to Renub Research Global Smart Speaker Market would be USD 18 Billion