In recent years, we've begun to require a lot more from the technology in our homes. Not only do we now expect our speakers to play our favourite playlist, we also want it to tell us the weather forecast, keep our calendar up to date and turn off the light when we're too comfy to do it ourselves.
And, this is where smart speakers come in. Powered by a virtual assistant, smart speakers are able to answer questions, set timers, reminders and alarms, as well as controlling any other smart devices in your home.
If that isn’t enough, they will also play your favourite radio station, playlist or podcast, just like you’d want your standard speaker to do. Some of the more expensive models even have the ability to adjust the audio depending on where you’re listening to it so that you get the best quality sound possible.
Below, we will talk through what makes a speaker “smart”, how the voice recognition technology works and offer a few suggestions of smart speakers to try out.
If you’re already convinced you need a smart speaker in your home, we would recommend taking a look at our pick of the best smart speakers and the best Google Home accessories and Alexa compatible devices to go alongside it.
What is a smart speaker?
A smart speaker is a voice-activated device, within which is a virtual assistant that helps you with everyday tasks. For example, Amazon’s smart speakers use an assistant called Alexa and when you ask questions such as ‘what is the weather like on Sunday?’, she will respond.
A smart speaker also typically has a number of other features including playing music, making notes of appointments and controlling other smart home devices in the house. The latter allows you to turn on lights or adjust the thermostat with a simple voice command.
The most popular smart speaker brands include Amazon and Google, though you can also buy speakers made by the likes of Apple, Sonos, and Bose.
Amazon has an extensive smart speaker range and has already sold over 100 million Alexa devices worldwide. Their best-selling device is the Amazon Echo Dot, a tiny now spherical-shaped speaker that is wireless, portable and has all the features you’d expect from a smart home device.
Not only can you play music and set alarms, but you can also make hands-free calls and control any Alexa-compatible devices including plugs, light bulbs and other smart speakers. At only 99mm wide, it can also fit on pretty much work surfaces.
The Amazon Echo Dot is on the cheaper end of the scale at just £49.99 but smart speakers can cost upwards of £300.
How do smart speakers work?
The crucial element of a smart speaker is an intelligent virtual assistant and its ability to recognise and respond to voices. The speaker has to understand what you are saying or all the additional features like setting reminders and scheduling appointments won’t work.
Most brands have their own voice recognition technology; Amazon has Alexa, Google has Google Assistant and Apple has Siri. While each virtual assistant has a different name, they are all “woken up” by the user saying their name (i.e. Hey Siri).
Once awake, the speaker will listen to your question, feed it through the system and respond. The virtual assistant will also learn the more you talk so that it can make better sense of your accent and vocabulary over time and give you better answers.
There are then manufacturers such as Bose and Sonos who rely on others’ virtual assistants. For example, both of these have Google Assistant and Alexa built into their speakers to give their consumers a choice.
It can be important to consider which virtual assistant your smart speaker uses if you intend to pair it with other devices because some smart home products only work with either Alexa or Google Assistant.
What smart speakers are available?
The Amazon Echo range is one of the most popular and varied of any available. The collection includes the core Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and the Echo Studio. Or, if you are more of a visual person, there is also the Echo Show 5 and Echo Show 8; smart displays with various size HD screens.
Having first been launched back in 2015, the Amazon Echo was one of the first smart speakers available to the public. Since then, it has been upgraded and improved and is now in its fourth reincarnation. With 360° speakers powered by Dolby, hands-free calling and the ability to be used as an intercom between rooms, the Amazon Echo offers a lot for £90.
Trying to work out whether to upgrade? Read our Amazon Echo (3rd Gen) review to find out the key differences.
Google Nest Audio
Powered by Google Assistant - Google's answer to Amazon's Alexa - the Google Nest Audio is the latest smart speaker from the company and is designed to give "real-time" answers to questions such as "will it rain later in London?" or "What meetings do I have today?"
It has most of the other key features, too, such as connecting to an assortment of Google Home accessories, playing music, and it can support multiple users. This last feature is particularly useful if more than one family member want to use the smart speaker to keep track of appointments. Google Assistant should be able to tell each family member their individual appointments just by identify who is speaking.
If you'd rather a smaller speaker, the Google Nest Mini offers many of the same features in a more compact form.
The Apple HomePod is considerably pricier than many of smart speakers on the market but for those used to using Apple products, it may be the preferred choice. Thanks to Siri, you can use the Apple HomePod to set reminders, make hands-free phone calls and play music through your house with multiple connected devices. This smart speaker will also adjust music depending on the room or setting you're listening to it in so you always get the best quality sound possible.
Water and dust-resistant, the Sonos Move really is designed to be portable. Because it is wireless, it can also be used in or outside the house and Sonos' Trueplay feature will use the microphone to assess its surrounding and then balance the audio for the best quality possible. Both Google Assistant and Alexa are built-in so you can use whichever virtual assistant you prefer and you can simply use the touch controls on the top of the speaker when you don't feel like speaking.
Bose Home Speaker 500
The Bose Home Speaker 500 also offers you the choice between Google Assistant and Alexa. It has all the main smart speaker features and can be connected to other Bose smart speakers in order to create a multi-room sound system.
The design is sleek with an anodised aluminium body and a colour LCD display to shows what song, radio station or podcast is playing. Finally, similarly to the Sonos Move, the speaker can also be controlled via the Bose Music app or touch controls on the speaker if you're fed up of speaking.