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The Best Smart Speakers of 2018 — Hear More Than Just Music

By Vaidyanathan Subramaniam / October 30, 2018

With the proliferation of digital assistants across desktop and mobile, people are getting used to voice-controlled devices for managing their digital lives. Popular digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple Siri can do a lot more than just tell you the weather. They can help keep track of your daily appointments, alert you of traffic, read out news headlines, manage your music, update you on the latest sports scores, call your contacts, and even control other smart devices in the house such as thermostats and security systems, all with voice commands.

What if you'd prefer such an assistant to be at the center of your home than just being tucked away in your smartphone? Enter smart speakers. Smart speakers are like any other conventional speakers and can play audio from various sources. However, unlike others, they come integrated with a digital assistant that helps manage the aforementioned tasks. Say, for example, you need to play a favorite track, you just talk to the speaker and ask it to play the song. Smart speakers integrate with music subscription services such as Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM, etc. and also with other content providers.

While smart speakers can be extremely convenient, there are a few caveats to be kept in mind. For one, these speakers are limited to specific assistants and there is no interoperability between them as of today. So, you need to invest in a platform that can address all your needs. For example, Alexa works best with Amazon devices and cloud services while Cortana works best with Microsoft's platforms. Google Assistant does not work on Amazon Echo devices and Google does not officially support streaming YouTube videos to Echo. Therefore, it is best to opt for a smart speaker system that gets you the digital assistant of choice while still offering a great sound quality.

For this article, we have rounded up a list of the 10 best smart speakers available in the market today. While Amazon dominates this category, there are other noteworthy products from the likes of Sonos, Harmon Kardon, and more. These speakers are known to offer great audio quality and can do everything that is expected of a smart device in 2018.

1. Sonos One

The Sonos One is one of the best smart speakers for music and offers great playback with rich audio and room-filling sound. More than that, it is a very capable smart speaker with the power of Amazon Alexa built right in. With Alexa, you can control your music, check news and traffic, and a host of other Alexa skills. Alexa can also integrate with other music services such as Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and SiriusXM so that you can continue utilizing your existing subscription and enjoy music everywhere in the house. The Sonos One boats of some neat features. You can pair it with multiple Sonos speakers to create a multi-room listening effect. The custom-designed drivers and microphones allow a great aural experience, which can be further tuned using Trueplay.

The Sonos One is designed with privacy in mind. An LED indicator lets you know whenever the microphone is being used and the indicator is also hard-wired to prevent snooping. There are a few niggles such as buggy integration between Spotify and Sonos, Alexa missing out some voice commands occasionally, and no way to help it identify once you change the SSID of your Wi-Fi network apart from disconnecting and reconnecting. Also, there is no support for Alexa voice calling and the Sonos One cannot pair in stereo with other Sonos speakers.

2. Amazon Echo (2nd Gen)

The Amazon Echo is one of the best smart speakers available for Alexa and you can use it to control various other smart devices in your home as well. The Echo is now in its 2nd generation and is a great option for those who'd like to add some smartness to the home without having to spend too much. As expected, Alexa works great with Amazon Music (requires a subscription) and the dual Dolby speakers ensure rich omnidirectional audio. The Echo has seven beamforming microphones with noise cancellation that can hear from any direction.

There are many versions of the Echo available so check if you are interested in having a localized version for your language. For those in the US and other English speaking countries, this international version should work. It is even known to recognize non-American accents very well. You can also pair the Echo with other such devices to create a stereo effect.

3. Sonos Beam

The Sonos Beam is one the best sounding smart speakers that can complement your home entertainment setup. Just like the Sonos One above, the Sonos Beam comes with Amazon Alexa built-in and can also support Apple Siri when connected to an iOS device via AirPlay. The Sonos Beam is a great soundbar in its own right but you can also wirelessly link it with other Sonos speakers and a Sonos Sub to create a true 5.1 setup.

The Beam connects via HDMI ARC, which allows it to directly control the TV. You can also use the Beam to control an Amazon Fire Stick using Alexa. With the hard-wiring of the microphone to the soundboard, complete privacy is ensured. The Sonos Beam offers enough sound for a small-sized room but might not be really suitable for larger rooms like the Sonos Playbar. Support for Google Assistant is incoming as well so the Beam will also work great with Google services in the future.

4. Amazon Echo Show (2nd Gen)

The Amazon Echo Show is now in its 2nd generation and with comes enhanced processing power and a vibrant 10.1-inch 720p display for playing back movies, TV shows, lyrics, and showing who's at the door. With Alexa's skills built-in, hands-free control for most tasks is possible. Alexa can control most smart home devices and the Echo Show comes with built-in ZigBee Hub for controlling ZigBee devices such as security cameras. The screen is vibrant and shows the lyrics for the songs being played or Amazon Prime video shows. The Echo Show also support Alexa dialing so you can call your friends and family hands-free while cooking that delicious recipe.

Setup is easy — just connect the Echo Show to a wall outlet, connect to the internet, and it's done. While the performance is as good as any other Echo device, the Echo Show is not compatible with some streaming services such as Hulu and YouTube, although the latter has more to do with Google than Amazon.

5. Amazon Echo Dot

For a compact smart speaker that gets the basics right, have a look at the Amazon Echo Dot. The Echo Dot offers Alexa voice support and can connect to other speakers via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm audio cable. You can also control other smart devices that support Alexa and also place calls or send messages to other Echo devices. The Echo Dot is a good entry point for those wishing to test the waters before splurging on more expensive smart speakers.

The Echo Dot still is not a replacement for more expensive models as it includes only a single speaker. It also does not pair with other Echo Dots for a stereo effect so for a more immersive listening experience, you should connect it to a proper stereo setup.

6. Amazon Echo Plus with Hub

The Amazon Echo Plus has all the features of the Amazon Echo and additionally, comes with a built-in ZigBee Hub to control ZigBee smart devices such as security cameras. Like other Echo devices, the Plus is based on Amazon Alexa for all things smart. It can also connect to other external speakers via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm jack. The dual speakers with Dolby audio lend an immersive 360-degree listening experience.

Although the ZigBee Hub is built into the Echo Plus, it does not work with all ZigBee devices such as the Z-Wave. The issue of having to reset the speaker whenever Wi-Fi networks are changed can get somewhat irritating over time.

7. Ultimate Ears Megablast

Ultimate Ears is a well-known brand when it comes to Bluetooth speakers and with the Megablast, we now have a best sounding smart speaker thanks to Amazon Alexa. The Megablast sports a 360-degree soundstage and far-field microphones with beamforming and noise cancellation to deliver a great aural experience. You can use Alexa to stream music from Amazon Music or hook up to other streaming services such as Spotify, TuneIn, or iHeartRadio. The Megablast is also IP67 rated for dust and water resistance.

The Megablast gets continuous OTA updates via the mobile app that adds more features. An update will soon be available to enable pairing multiple Megablast and Blast speakers. While the Ultimate Ears Megablast supports most Alexa commands, it does not support Alexa voice or video calling, notifications, and messaging.

8. Fabriq Riff

The Fabriq Riff offers a budget smart speaker solution and comes with Amazon Alexa built--in. It does not boast of high-end speaker drivers and microphones but the built-in 2-inch precision active driver yields a 5W output that should be sufficient for a small room. The Riff can be connected with up to 10 other Fabriq speakers to create a multi-room audio system.

The Riff is also available in multiple colors and patterns for personalization. That said, the Riff does have a few downsides. The battery life is on the lower side and lasts only up to 5 hours. The speaker needs to be tapped to activate it as voice activation is not available. The bright LED ring can sometimes be a distraction at night but Fabriq says its working on an update to address this issue.

9. Harman Kardon Invoke

The Harman Kardon Invoke is a smart speaker based on the Microsoft Cortana platform. Cortana is available on Windows 10 PCs, tablets, and Android devices and helps in managing your day, staying in touch with contacts over Skype, and more. The Invoke could originally play music via the Microsoft Groove service but since that has been shut down, it can now play over Spotify, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. With an impressive array of 7 beamforming and noise canceling microphones and 6 speakers, the Invoke's audio quality is actually better than many other devices in this list. Cortana has proved to be a better assistant than Alexa — it can sing songs, crack jokes, and is more natural sounding but Alexa does some skills better.

If you want, you can configure the Invoke to use Alexa as well from within Windows 10 or Cortana. Cortana can also work with smart devices such as Philips Hue lights and is better at recognizing foreign languages as well. The sound quality of the Invoke is excellent and leaves little room for complaint. The only downsides with the Invoke are that it lacks a 3.5mm out and it requires a separate power adapter unlike the Echo, which works on microUSB.

10. Sonos Play:5

The Sonos Play:5 is one of the best smart speakers for music and it reflects in the price. This is mainly a dedicated wireless speaker but you can make it 'smart' by wireless connecting an Echo or an Echo Dot for Alexa voice control. The Play:5 is geared towards audiophiles and has dedicated amps for each speaker driver. The three woofers provide ample bass response. The Play:5 can be used in multiple orientations as well — it works in mono mode in vertical mode and in stereo mode when placed horizontally.

While the audio quality is great, some of Sonos's policies might be a bit frustrating to deal with. For example, newer firmware updates are known to reduce functionality instead of adding new features. There are also reported issues of dropped connections and settings resets but overall, when it comes to audiophile-grade quality, the Sonos Play:5 has little competition out there.

Final Thoughts

Dear readers, that wraps up our list of the best smart speaker options available in the market. Do note that all digital assistants are a work in progress and will only get better as you keep using them. Therefore, your mileage with each assistant might vary. We suggest investing in a platform you are already comfortable with. For example, if you have used Cortana extensively on Windows devices and you have invested in a Microsoft ecosystem, it makes sense to go for a Cortana-powered smart speaker. Likewise, Alexa is fast catching up and is the assistant of choice on most platforms. A lot of new skills and services are being developed for Alexa, which makes it a worthy investment.

Hopefully, this article has made your smart speaker purchasing decision easier. That said, if you have any additional questions, post them in the comments below and we will get back to you at the earliest.

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