If you're looking to buy a voice-operated speaker how important is sound quality to you? Is it worth buying the new $129 Google Home, or the $179 Amazon Echo, on the strength of sonic performance alone?
Amazon Echo has been out in the wild for two years now. We were never thrilled with its sonic abilities -- plenty of similarly priced Bluetooth speakers sound better -- but Echo eventually won us over thanks to its ever-increasing list of compatible products and tasks.
Now that the Google Home is here, however, is its self-described "superior sound" enough incentive to pull the trigger on that voice-operated speaker instead?
Sure, Amazon may have the jump on Google as far as the number of things Alexa can do -- for now, at least. But the one thing Amazon can't do is meaningfully fix the sound quality. Which is best? We pitched the two speakers against our favorite budget wi-fi speaker, the $199 Sonos Play:1, to see which one you should buy if music is your number one priority.
Both speakers work in the same way: you say the activation phrase and ask for the music you want to play. And both support a number of music services including Spotify, Pandora and their respective proprietary ones (Google Play Music and Amazon Prime Music).
In order to level the playing field, we tested each speaker with a Spotify Premium account and sat each of them on top of an AV shelf about six feet (2m) from our listening position.
We used the default phrases "OK Google" and "Alexa" to issue commands, and it was here we found the first differentiators. In use, Alexa is much easier to say -- especially if you have to say it repeatedly, such as when turning up the volume. Saying "Ok Google" over and over become an especially leafy word salad after a while.
We also played them alongside a Sonos Play:1, which in the absence of voice control right now (though it's coming), which was operated with the Sonos app.
Which one's better? Well, let me put it this way: what's your favorite kind of dental surgery? While neither speaker is outright awful, I wouldn't buy either of them if sound quality was my primary aim. With all of the smarts built into each of them, music performance appears to take a back seat. At best you could say that the Google Home is a "decent" TV speaker while the Amazon is an average one. So, the Google wins right? Well, not exactly.
The Google Home's strength is in how natural it sounds. The mid-range is very expressive and is free of the Amazon Echo's sometimes grating edge. It also sounds present, like you're in the same room as the band, not down the hall as the Echo (true to its name) can sound.
The Echo's biggest plus is that it can go much louder than the Google Home and do so without distorting. We played the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds track "Red Right Hand" on each speaker and found that at full volume (or less) the track's deep bass line causes the Home to distort. I've heard that exact same effect on TV speakers -- it's like the bass player has activated a fuzz pedal.
While the Echo doesn't have full sounding bass it also didn't distort in the same way, and was able to go much louder. The Echo also tended not to distort with really "loud" rock music in the way the Home did -- give the Home some Foo Fighters for example and everything but the midrange became mush. The Echo was at least able to resolve music like this with some clarity, especially in the treble.
When pushed up against a wall -- such as when used in a kitchen -- the Google was able to make better use of the "boundary effect" to produce more bass. In contrast, the Amazon showed minimal bass improvement when used against a wall.
Moving to voice control itself, I found the microphone on the Echo was more sensitive than the Home. Several times, I had to shout at the Google speaker when it was playing music at full volume for it to understand me. This wasn't an issue with the Echo which could get still process my commands at "party conversation" levels. That said, the Echo had real problems with my Australian accent, something the Google Home was unconcerned about.
There is a big "but" here, though, is that Google was much better at finding music on Spotify than Amazon (accent notwithstanding). More often than not, Alexa would say "I'm not able to find 'x' in your music library." It happened for songs like the admittedly tricky to say "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" as well as the straightforward "Stagger Lee." Google had no such issues there.
Comparing both smart speakers to the Sonos Play:1 -- which, admittedly, has no voice control smarts -- was simply no contest: The Sonos sounds like it's playing music, whereas the two voice assistants can only approximate it. It blows both away. Destroys them. It offers deeper bass, an expressive mid-range and articulated highs that the Echo and the Home could only even hint at.
How to choose
If you want a musical speaker, the choice is simple: get neither. Based on sound quality alone, their weaknesses overcome their strengths. If you crave volume the Echo is the "winner," but if you want some semblance of resolution the Home might be better. However if you want a music speaker get the Sonos, and then maybe control it via Alexa (which will require an Echo or Echo Dot speaker as well) once Sonos adds that promised functionality in 2017.
And speaking of the Dot: That $50 entry-level Amazon Echo speaker doesn't even compare to the big Echo or Google Home for audio quality, but it's not supposed to. Instead, it's designed to be paired with a better set of speakers (or stereo system) via its auxiliary output. That's ultimately the best option if you really care about sound quality.
But Google has a similar option, too. The Google Home can be used to control a $35 Chromecast Audio, which -- like the Echo Dot -- is designed to be tethered to a better audio system. The Chromecast can sound amazing on a larger high-end system, and you can buy a bunch to set up a multiroom system, too.
The bottom line is that neither speaker sounds great out of the box, but you can great great sound from either product family -- once you connect them (or their sibling products) to bigger, better speakers.