Cheap smart speakers for music, cooking and more: A beginner's guide

Should you buy an Echo Dot? A Nest Mini? Or would a higher end speaker be the best fit?

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
4 min read
Sonos One
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In the last few years, smart speakers have gone from niche gadgets of the early adopter to common counter-toppers and stocking-stuffers. For beginners,the number of choices to consider is growing rapidly. And which device you buy now could lead you (or whoever you're gifting a smart speaker) into a longterm relationship with a new voice assistant.

So how do you pick which speaker to buy?

Well, most people start with a budget speaker like the Echo Dot or Nest Mini . But even between those wallet-friendly options, the answer isn't clear. We could tell you to buy one speaker or another, but honestly, these budget speakers aren't one-size-fits-all products. So here are the main contenders, and what they have going for them.

The big players

Essentially, the two leaders in the smart speaker category are Google and Amazon. Apple has a single high-end speaker with strong sound quality, but you probably don't want to dive into the deep end (read: a $300 investment). So Google and Amazon each have three basic categories of speaker: the high-end speaker for music-lovers (between $200 and $300), the budget speaker for casual use (on sale between $25 and $60) and the midrange speaker for that just-right mix ($100).

Generally, newcomers are best advised to start with a budget speaker, because they offer such a low-cost way to try out all the smarts of Alexa or Google Assistant. Despite a few other entries into the market, the third-gen Echo Dot, the Echo Dot with Clock and the Nest Mini are the budget smart speakers worth considering: they all have impressive designs and strong voice assistants built into them. But each one excels in different areas. Here are the best devices for first-time buyers.

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For the cheapskate

When it comes to the best general smart speaker for the price, the Echo Dot is still ahead of the pack. If you're just looking to try out a smart speaker for the first time, to get a sense of what one can do, the Echo Dot is the perfect starting point. The $50 price tag is the same as that of Google's Nest Mini, but the Dot is on sale for $25 or less so often that you really shouldn't have to buy it for more. The Dot brings solid sound and great general features like smart home control and  Amazon Prime  delivery tracking. It's the easiest entry point into smart speakers because of that unintimidating price, and it can easily show new users the highlights of integrating a smart speaker into daily life.

For the music lover

Both the Echo Dot and the Nest Mini are multiple iterations into hardware, and you'd be hard-pressed to fit better sound quality into their small design profiles. That said, the Nest Mini gets the teeny-tiny nod here, for having a slightly sharper and better balanced midrange sound. But really, sound shouldn't be the determining factor for you between the Echo Dot and Nest Mini, because they're both great for the price... and insufficient for the true music-lover, when compared to full-size speakers. If you really want great sound, speakers like the Sonos One ($200), Apple Homepod ($300), Google Home Max ($300) or the upcoming Amazon Echo Studio ($200). You can check out your best options for sound quality here.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For the Google user

This might seem niche, but it's not. If you're one of the millions of people already relying on  Google Calendar , Gmail, Android or any number of Google's other services, the Nest Mini is a great speaker for offering personalized assistance. Plus, Google Assistant works with a decent number of popular  smart home  devices, like Nest's  learning thermostat . While Google is still working out the kinks in its smart home ecosystem, the Nest Mini is the anchor for Google's brand of smarts -- and while that's limiting in some regards, it can make a smoother and better-integrated experience for customers already invested in Google products and services.

For the cooking enthusiast

If you're looking for the best cooking assistant, you might be best served by a smart display like the Nest Hub ($130), Echo Show 5 ($90) or Lenovo Smart Display 10 ($250). These devices can show recipes and help around the kitchen in a way smart speakers can't. That said, a speaker can still be helpful.

At $60, the Echo Dot with Clock is a little more expensive than the standard Dot and Nest Mini, but its introduction of the  LED  clock equips it for surprisingly practical around-the-house duties. You can put it on your bedside table to make a great smart alarm clock (yes, you can even hit the top to snooze), or plant it on your kitchen counter to set and display timers for your culinary experiments. Although the Nest Mini might beat out the Dot for affordability, when it comes to sheer practical usefulness in a household context, the Echo Dot with Clock has the competition handily beat.