The Amazon Echo popularized the smart speaker when it made its debut in 2014. With Amazon's assistant Alexa built in, a simple voice command allowed you to do so many things -- from playing music to searching the internet to controlling your smart home.
The first big competitor to the Amazon Echo, Google Home helped debut Google's digital assistant (just called Google Assistant). The $130 Home offered a lot of the same functionality as the $180 Echo, and integrated with Google's services such as Google Calendar and Google Maps. Since the Home debuted, Alexa and Google Assistant have engaged in a thrilling back-and-forth as the two main competitors in the smart speaker space continually try to outdo the other.
Apple's smart speaker is now on the market as well. The $350 Apple HomePod boasts amazing sound along with the smarts we've come to expect from smart speakers, thanks to Apple's digital assistant, Siri.
The expensive HomePod doesn't have as many capabilities as its competitors from Amazon or Google, and you can stream songs only from Apple Music. Plus, it could leave a stain on your wood furniture -- but if you're invested in Apple anyway, the HomePod's sound quality won't disappoint.
Even before Google Home debuted, Amazon expanded the Echo lineup with the Echo Dot. The second generation Dot is only $50. Essentially an Echo with most of the speaker cut off, the Dot offers Alexa's full range of abilities, and it plugs into your own sound system. It was and still is our favorite of the bunch -- the value and versatility of the Dot are unmatched.
The portable Amazon Tap started off as the black sheep of the Echo family. Yes, you could take Alexa with you on the go -- as the Dot is battery powered -- but without Wi-Fi, you couldn't talk to Alexa. Even at home, you had to hit a button to give a command, which took away from the always-listening convenience of the other Echo devices. A recent update allowing you to turn on an always-listening mode has made the $130 Tap the portable Alexa device we've always wanted.
Last fall, Google finally expanded its own smart speaker lineup with the $50 Google Home Mini. Designed to compete with the popular Echo Dot, the Mini offered a more affordable and stylish entry point for Google Assistant-enabled smarts. Disappointingly, you can't plug the Mini into your own speakers, but it still boasts the same tricks as Google Home for less.
If you want a Google smart speaker with high end sound quality, the Max fits the bill for a price. The $400 Max sounds great playing a variety of music genres and still boasts all of the smarts of the original Google Home.
Amazon also refreshed the original Echo last fall. The second-generation Echo sounds better than the first Echo. It also costs less at $100, and it even includes the popular aux-out jack that the Dot introduced so you can plug it into your own speakers.
Another part of the Echo's revamped lineup, the $150 Amazon Echo Plus sports the same Alexa smarts we've come to expect from Echo devices. The Plus adds a ZigBee radio to the standard Echo formula. ZigBee is a low-frequency signal used by smaller smart home devices like light bulbs and door sensors, so you can use the Amazon Echo Plus as a hub for your smart home.
Perhaps the most unique twist on Alexa's abilities, the $200 Echo Look is an Echo with a camera. The cam's not for security, it's for full body selfies and fashion advice -- seriously. And it actually works. Take selfies and compare outfits, and the Look will use algorithms and advice from real stylists to suggest what to wear.
With Alexa and Google dominating the smart speaker race, Microsoft's Cortana had a steep hill to climb to gain relevance. The $200 Harman Kardon Invoke helps Cortana put up an admirable fight. Cortana doesn't have the same breadth of abilities as its competitors yet, but the Invoke works well and has good sound quality.
If sound quality is your top priority in a smart speaker, look no further than the $200 Sonos One. The first smart speaker from Sonos makes listening to music a joy, and it has almost all the tricks of an Echo speaker because it has Alexa built in. It'll even work with Google Assistant and Apple Airplay 2 starting in 2018, making the Sonos One a great option for clever shoppers willing to step away from Amazon and Google's first-party options.
The Sonos One is definitely our first choice if you want a third-party smart speaker, but you have plenty of other options as well. The Fabriq Riff works with Alexa, costs the same as a Dot at $50, and has a built-in battery.
Fabriq also built an Alexa device similar to the Tap, the $100 Fabriq Chorus. Choose among the variety of color options, and you can take the Alexa-enabled Chorus on the run for less than the cost of the Tap.
One of the first third-party Google speakers to hit the market, the $100 TicHome Mini is also Google's first battery-powered smart speaker. It's even splash-proof. With Google Assistant built-in, the TicHome can do almost everything Google Home can do.