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Best smart speaker for 2021

These are our picks for the best smart speakers you can buy for Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa's help around the house.

Apple, Amazon and Google all sell good smart speakers, and the competition between these tech giants leads to continually improved products. Amazon gets the credit for the popularization of smart speakers with the original Echo device and the Alexa voice assistant, but now there's a whole market of competitors, each with their pros and cons. 

When shopping for the best smart speaker for your needs, the key differences you'll encounter largely come down to price, size 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 smart device options include multiroom audio and let you turn on the lights, play music, ask a question, set reminders and more with a simple voice command. 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.

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 an Amazon Alexa or Google speaker, the range of choices might seem intimidating at first. Luckily, we've been testing the voice control devices on the smart speaker market since they first hit the scene. We considered all of the important smart device features, from the inclusion of a smart display to the ease of installing multiple speakers. 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 with good audio performance. 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 (4th gen) 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 $25 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, and the Google Nest Mini is a great low-cost way to take advantage of those smarts.

Read the Google Nest Mini review.

 

Apple

Apple's small, Siri-enabled smart speaker bridges a strange gap between its competitors with a $100 price tag like Google's Nest Audio and the Amazon Echo, and others that come in small packages like the Nest Mini and Echo Dot

Features like intercom, audio handoff and stereo pairing make this little smart speaker quite practical. It looks good and sounds great, too. When it comes to the smart home, Siri and HomePod Mini are limited to devices that work with Apple's smart home platform, HomeKit.

If you like Apple -- and if Siri is your smart assistant of choice and HomeKit is your preferred smart home service -- you're going to love Apple's newest smart speaker. If you're already living with an iPhone, Apple TV or original HomePod the Mini makes sense as your next small smart speaker.

Read the Apple HomePod Mini review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The $219 Sonos One allows you to stereo 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 like the Google Home Max.

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 smart hub households centered around Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri. That's a tough pitch to beat.

Read the Sonos One review.

 

Other options

Those smart speakers are our favorites, but you still have lots of other options if you're looking for something specific in audio performance. Read our breakdown of Alexa versus Google Assistant versus Siri if you'd like to learn each one's pros and cons and decide on a smart home device 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 smart displays of 2021

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.

Best smart speaker FAQs

Are there any stereo smart speakers?

Yes! 

Nearly every Amazon Echo smart speaker can stereo pair with another Echo speaker. The list is quite long, so take a look at Amazon's stereo device compatibility page. You'll find a list of which speakers can pair with each other for stereo sound. 

All of Google's smart speakers can be stereo paired, as long as they are identical models. Google's Nest Audio speaker is the best bet for stereo pairing, and a two-pack of these speakers often provides a discount off the $99 per speaker MSRP. You'll be able to set up the speakers in your Google Home app and tell Google which speaker is right and which is left. Bass and treble settings are also adjustable from the Home app. 

Apple's HomePod Mini (the only smart speaker Apple is currently producing), can be paired to another HomePod Mini for left and right channel stereo listening. You can also pair your HomePod Minis to your Apple TV for surround sound theater. These smaller speakers won't blow you away, but it's a nice extra feature. 

If theater surround sound for your TV is your biggest smart speaker priority, Sonos offers the best audio quality in our opinion. Two Sonos speakers (of the same model) can be stereo paired

If you're interested in connecting your speakers to a larger system, the following smart speakers are equipped with an auxiliary jack:

Who is the smartest voice assistant?

Today, the race is extremely close between Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa. Apple's Siri is on the board, but in a solid third place when it comes to true reliability, knowledge and comprehension of human requests. 

Overall, we give the edge to Google Assistant for its superior cadence, naturalistic tone and ability to understand (and answer) questions and follow up queries consistently. That said, it's close enough that you can safely invest in either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa based on other preferences like speaker style, devices and compatibility with other popular smart home products.

Alexa is nearly as good, so you really can't go wrong no matter which assistant you choose. You'll learn its quirks and how to interact with your assistant to coax the best responses and helpful information. 

For fun, here's our deep dive into each assistant's "personality".

Which smart speaker is loudest?

In our testing of Apple, Amazon and Google smart speakers, we think the Amazon Echo (4th gen) offers the most when it comes to sheer volume. Nest Audio is close behind with powerful sound, as well. 

However, Sonos One (2nd gen) is our current pick for best sound quality, especially if you're considering using your speaker in a stereo pair or as a theater system for watching TV. 

Read our Amazon Echo (4th gen) and Nest Audio reviews to learn more about the sound quality of these two flagship models.