What is a smart speaker?

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We’re more dependent now on smart home technology than ever before, and voice automated assistants are all the craze. Smart speakers are very quickly becoming commonplace in most households and oftentimes serve as the central hub for their smart devices.

You may be wondering though, what exactly a smart speaker is and what it’s for:

A smart speaker is a speaker that can be controlled with your voice using a “virtual assistant”. It will answer questions for you, perform various automated tasks and control other compatible smart devices. This may include telling you the weather, turning on the lights, playing music and countless other tasks. These capabilities are ever-expanding.

So, we’ve decided it’s no longer enough for a speaker to simply play music, but what else can we make it do?

What Does A Smart Speaker Do?

So, we’ve established that smart speakers are voice-activated virtual assistants, relieving you of your everyday tasks. However, the capabilities mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Smart speakers now come packed with features that were unheard of just a few years ago. You can use them as an entire smart home hub. They can integrate with color-changing lights, smart locks, thermostats, security systems, TVs, and even the coffee maker!

Smart speakers come in many different brands, sizes, and colors. Some are larger with amazing sound quality. Others are smaller and sound mediocre at best (but may be able to plug into a larger external speaker). Some will even come with a color display.

Gone are the days when you needed to walk across the room to switch off the lights or to crank the thermostat. Just voice your request to your virtual assistant via a smart speaker and your wish is their command

Once your virtual assistant recognizes your voice, it will relay your request through IoT (Internet of Things) and respond. Of course, all of these processes are handled within an instant. The more you interact with a virtual assistant, the more efficient they become in sensing your accent and delivering accurate results. 

The Smart Speaker Industry

If you’re struggling with a purchase decision, this section may show you that it probably isn’t worth going with a no-name product. While there are several brands of smart speakers, only a few have risen to the occasion. The most crucial element of a smart speaker is the ‘artificial intelligence’ of their accompanying virtual assistant. Developing such cutting-edge technology doesn’t allow many small players to join the space.

Smart Speaker Market Share

US Market Share (All Age Groups)

20172018201920202021
Amazon82.4%70.9%72.9%69.7%68.2%
Google 25.7%30.4%31.1%31.7%32.0%
Others9.7%14.9%17.9% 18.4%18.8%

As you can see, the only two contenders worth mentioning are Google and Amazon Smart Speakers. Amazon’s Alexa reigns supreme and is, undoubtedly, the most popular smart speakers over the past 4 years. Die-hard Apple users may be wondering where their Apple Homepod is. That would be included in “others”. The Homepod is a quality speaker, but it has a lot of limitations and its virtual assistant (Siri) isn’t quite as advanced as its competitors.

If you are a math whizz, you may notice how the percentages add up to more than 100%. This is because of the fact that some smart speaker users prefer multiple devices, for instance, an Amazon Echo and, perhaps, a Sonos One, Harmon Kardon Invoke or an Apple HomePod.

Privacy Concerns

A recurring concern with the smart speaker industry is that their users are constantly worried about privacy and data security. For instance, consumer conversations being recorded or listened in on. These worries also include becoming a victim of voice hacking – for instance, copying a user’s “voiceprint” in an effort to access accounts with specific voice commands.

One of the best solutions to this is to ensure that your Wi-Fi network (and other connected devices/accounts) is well-protected with highly secure passwords. Default passwords are among the easiest ways to hack a system and hackers are always on the prowl for such systems. 

Any device that’s connected to the internet or a Wi-Fi network is potentially vulnerable to attack. Security should always be considered and taken seriously. It does, however, make me giggle inside when people refuse to put a smart speaker in their house, but have Siri or Google Assistant enabled on their smartphones. Most models do offer an easy-to-access button to turn off the mic.

For detailed information to protect your smart home from hackers, check out this article from Norton.

Most Popular Smart Speakers

We’ve established that the 2 most popular smart speakers are powered by Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home.  Amazon’s “Echo” line features Alexa as the virtual assistant.  Google, on the other hand, has several similar products, which naturally, have different model names and features.  In this article, we’re going to cover the most popular of both product lines and what makes them different.

Amazon’s Echo Line – Alexa Smart Speakers

In terms of smart home integration, Alexa has remained in the driving seat for smart speakers. Alexa is the digital virtual assistant that lives in the smart speaker if you will. She is the software. The Echo line is Amazon’s flagship smart speaker showcasing Alexa. Echo is the hardware that houses Alexa.

I prefer Alexa because she has more 3rd party compatibility than any other smart speaker on the market. This means there are more products you can buy that will integrate with her technology.

In the sections below, we’ve selected three awesome Alexa smart speakers, each with their own unique selling points.

Amazon’s Echo (4th Gen)

All-new Echo (4th Gen) | With premium sound, smart home hub, and Alexa | Charcoal

The Amazon Echo is the standard smart speaker – Period. It’s also the standard model in their line, which all their other models are built around. This is the newest 4th Gen Echo (found here on Amazon). The 4 Generation model offers better quality sound output and a smart home hub that were only found in the upgraded “Plus” model previously.

The photographs are a little deceiving, as the Echo shown in the section looks just like the Echo “Dot” in the next section. This one is quite a bit larger and more powerful than the 4th Gen Echo Dot.

Pros:

  • The same features as other comparable smart speakers for about $50 less.
  • A continuation of the built-in Zigbee receiver from the discontinued Amazon Echo Plus.
    • This receiver doubles up as an intersection for compatible smart home products and other Zigbee accessories. 
    • Simply put, the Echo itself can become a smart home hub without any additional hardware. 
  • Great mic built in to pick up voice commands efficiently.
  • Great sound and quite a little bit of bass for such a small speaker.

Cons:

  • Not ideal for a household using Google Nest smart products
  • If you’re looking for a powerful speaker, you would need an upgraded model.

Amazon’s Echo Dot (4rd Gen):

All-new Echo Dot (4th Gen) | Smart speaker with Alexa | Twilight Blue

The 4th Gen Echo Dot (found here on Amazon) is the newest budget Alexa smart speaker. The Echo Dot is the smaller version of the standard Amazon Echo. It isn’t very loud, but it’s great for your desk or nightstand. It’s also the perfect entry-level smart speaker. This way you can see if it’s something you’re interested in without spending much money.

That being said, it can do anything a standard Amazon Echo can do. It can answer any questions you like:

“What’s the square root of 2,444?”

“Who won the 1984 World Series?”

“What’s the temperature Outside?”

Heck, you can even ask her to marry you….

You can also control any other compatible smart devices in your house.

Pros 

  • Surprisingly crisp and loud sound quality
  • New and improved aesthetics
  • Compact design
  • Easy on the pocketbook

Cons

  • The power adapter requires more space on an outlet
  • Only sold in shades of gray
  • Bass response is only as good as the 4th Gen with the help of an external subwoofer.

Amazon’s Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen)

All-new Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen) | HD smart display with motion and Alexa | Glacier White

This interesting little gizmo is Amazon’s latest iteration of the Echo Show (current pricing found here). This is more than a smart speaker, it’s a smart video display…..with a smart speaker.

The latest model has been termed Echo 10 and of course, there are numerous new updates and changes from its prior generations. The biggest change, however, is that the Echo Show will not sit still.

The smart display is fixed atop a motorized base, which can swivel around to face you whenever you interact with it. The credit for this unparalleled technology goes to its echolocation (pun intended?) and vision technology. As a result, whenever you enter a room, the new Echo Show 10 will sense your presence and pivot to face you while in use.  It also allows you to continue video calls from anywhere in the room.

Here’s a snapshot of the Echo Show 10

Pros

  • The digital zoom and panning feature makes viewing videos easy while multitasking.
  • The screen pans itself much like Facebook’s Portal auto frames the users’ faces.
  • If you’d like to disable these features, you can just say “Alex, switch off motion”, or just manually close the built-in camera.
  • Perfect for following recipes off of the screen while cooking in your kitchen.

Cons

  • The Echo Show 10 cannot yet identify specific users (it only recognizes when a user is in view).
  • I would like the resolution to be a little better.
  • A little pricey.

Related:

What is an Echo Show and How Does It Work?

Google Nest Smart Speakers and Displays

It seems as if both Google and Amazon are in a cold war, competing to make life easier for their customers during trying times. So, what’s in store for the users at the forefront of smart speaker wars? We’re about to take a look at Alexa’s biggest competitor – Google’s Nest Smart Speakers. “Google Assistant” is the A.I. that operates these devices. Google Assistant is the software in a sense, just as Alexa is the software behind Amazon’s Echo line.

These smart speakers are also of extremely high quality, and some of them sound fantastic. Alexa seems slightly more advanced and seamless from a consumer perspective though. My only other beef is their 3rd party compatibility. They just aren’t as versatile. Again, if I were using other Nest Products, for instance, their video doorbell or their thermostat, I would definitely go with one of these smart speakers.

Let’s take a look at what they have to offer:

Nest Mini

Google Nest Mini 2nd Gen - Wireless Bluetooth Speaker (Chalk)

The Google Nest Mini is the Echo Dot’s direct competitor. This is a small-budget speaker, however, it does just about everything its big brothers do – just at a lower volume. It also makes a great hockey puck, if you find yourself in a pinch – couldn’t resist….

This smaller version is designed with a wall mount for convenient placement options. Encased in its design are three microphones, so it can pick up voice commands pretty well from anywhere in the room. If you have Google Duo or your mobile device, you can even make calls using your Nest Mini as a speakerphone.

The mini’s cutting-edge processing power allows for machine learning and adaptive commands. and controls. The speaker also uses ultrasound to sense when someone is in the room.

The Google Nest Mini will definitely get the job done and get you started on building out your smart home. These are great as a gift. Either by itself or with an accompanied smart device, such as a smart light bulb.

Pros

  • Compact and budget-friendly.
  • Produces a pretty good sound for its size.
  • The sleek design can blend into just about any room.

Cons

  • While it’s good for its size, you’re going to want it to be louder if you’re using it for music.

Nest Audio

The Google Nest Audio

Ever since the first Google Home smart speaker was released, Google has offered a model for both extremes – ubiquitous use (the Nest Mini) and gargantuan use (the Home Max). However, some users prefer great sound without breaking the bank and that’s exactly what the Google Nest Audio is all about.

The Nest Audio comes with 5 different colors to choose from to complement your home or office décor. Designed with partially recycled magnesium and aluminum and wrapped in a recycled plastic mesh, its casing is both durable and environmentally friendly. These materials aren’t generally used with a speaker at this price and this is partially responsible for the enhanced sound quality.

This model features both a 3″ subwoofer and a .75″ tweeter, providing a pretty good punch. This dual-driver feature allows higher pitches and vocals to survive audio with heavier bass.

Pros:

  • Delivers a quality listening experience for much less money than the Google Home Max.
  • Better audio quality than its predecessor, and of course the Google Nest Mini+
  • Can pair two smart speakers as one for an exponentially greater audience or experience

Cons:

  • The compact size of this smart speaker limits its perceived oomph factor.
  • The execution of playing specific songs via voice commands isn’t always perfect.
  • Its multi-room voice commands can be unreliable

Nest Hub

Google Nest Hub Max Rock Candy (Gray)

The Google Nest Hub is a smart speaker combined with a video display screen for even more functionality. This is The Echo Show’s rival and has often been a real favorite for adding a little smart tech to the common areas.

With the Nest Hub, users get to pick out from 4 colors including sand, aqua, charcoal and chalk. Despite the small 7-inch screen, I have to say that the picture is pretty good. This is the perfect Kitchen counter gadget. Whether you’re using it to display recipes or to watch YouTube videos as you pack the kids’ lunch, it’s a fantastic luxury for the multitasker.

Pros:

  • Very responsive touchscreen and it works best in combination with Google Assistant.
  • Can access video from Nest Cams and Nest Video Doorbell
  • You can watch several streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix and YouTube on the device.

Cons:

  • Google’s Nest Hub doesn’t have a camera, so you can’t execute video calls
    • (The Nest Hub Max, does have a camera and can make video calls)
  • Doesn’t adjust for ambient sounds as well as the Echo Show.

So, What Smart Speaker Is Best?

Amazon’s Echo Smart speakers are much more versatile and have more 3rd party integrations.  They’re compatible with more gadgets and, therefore, my brand pick would be the Amazon Echo Line.  Some of my favorite integrations include Ring products, Fire TV and Ecobee Smart Thermostats.  

Google is fantastic and they are a close second.  If I were someone who already had some Nest installed devices (i.e. Nest Video Doorbell, Nest Smart Thermostat, Nest Cams, etc), I would say you should use Google Nest Smart Speakers.

Useful:

What’s the difference between Google Home and Alexa? Check out this article…

Best Smart Speaker For Music

The Amazon Echo Studio with built-in Alexa is arguably the best smart speaker for music in the industry. The Echo Studio is the most advanced pure audio smart speaker Amazon has released so far. They’ve created a “3D music” effect using 5 separate speakers. This includes a 5.25″ downward-facing subwoofer, three 2″ midrange speakers for left and center, and a forward-facing tweeter. Some features also include:

Echo Studio - High-fidelity smart speaker with 3D audio and Alexa
  • Built-in Smart Home Hub
  • 3.5 mm/mini-optical line in
  • 3D music available through Amazon Music HD subscription

Related:

Read our full breakdown of the best smart speakers for music.

Conclusion

So, which is it going to be? Google Assistant, Alexa…or both

After reading this, you should understand in detail what a smart speaker is and what it’s for. Now that you’ve been brought up to speed about everything there is to know about the smart speaker industry, the most popular smart speakers and the best smart speakers for music, there is only one thing left to consider….

Ask yourself this question: “Which smart speaker is right for me?”

Remote Support Smart Home Specialist at his computer with headset on

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