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The best smart speakers of 2020

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(CNN) —  

Smart speakers go beyond just playing music. They provide control over your other home devices, answer queries and connect you with friends and family — and the best ones should execute all those tasks equally well. We’ve been testing smart speakers for years, reviewing each new iteration as it hits the market, and we’ve whittled the long list of smart speakers down to the best four:

Amazon’s fourth-gen Echo is the biggest redesign to the original smart speaker. While keeping the same $99 price tag, Amazon swapped the tall cylinder design for a spherical one. Not only does this give it a more appealing aesthetic than most competing speakers, but the form factor also aids in delivering richer and clearer sound with ample access to Alexa smarts. With more room for the sound to bounce around internally, the fourth-gen Echo Dot pushes out a soundstage that’s unmatched at its price point. Alexa is constantly getting smarter and giving you more control over your information as well.

Matching the Echo stride for stride (even outpacing it in certain areas), Apple’s HomePod Mini ($99) is our runner-up due to one big caveat: You need an Apple device to use it. If you aren’t in the Apple ecosystem, it doesn’t make sense. But for those who are, it’s a no-brainer. It acts as a home hub for HomeKit devices, seamlessly integrates with Apple’s ecosystem, allows easy handoffs between devices and enables the ability to use services like iMessage and FaceTime with just your voice. For its minuscule size, it delivers the best sound in its class — and at times sounds better than the Echo.

If sound quality is the be-all and end-all for you (and you’re budget-conscious), the Sonos One ($199) is kind of the Goldilocks of smart speakers. It’s not exorbitantly expensive yet it still packs the critical hardware (two amplifiers, a woofer and a tweeter) to deliver robust sound. Instead of sound hitting you from only one angle, the Sonos One pushes sound out in every direction with a crispness that shines through in each note (low, mid and highs) while delivering booming bass.

The fourth-gen Echo Dot ($49.99), which is basically the mini version of our best overall pick, folds pretty much everything we love about the Echo (save for a few elements) into a pint-size, wallet-friendly package. For 2020, the Dot also went spherical. And, like the Echo, it’s a reliable smart speaker with access to Alexa and solid sound (especially when you consider its size).

The fourth-gen Echo really embodies all that a smart speaker can and should be. It plays music clearly and richly, gives you easy access to information and can control your smart home devices.

First off, we were really jiving with the futuristic ball shape during our tests of the Echo. Not only does it take up less space in terms of height, but it adds a casually futuristic touch to a shelf or countertop. Our favorite part of the design is that Amazon moved Alexa’s light ring from the top to the bottom, but in use it provides more function: The LEDs reflect off the surface that the device is on, making it easier to see the colors.

The fourth-gen Echo pushes sound out of the front (and front sides) courtesy of two tweeters and a woofer. It represents the largest soundstage we’ve ever heard in a core Echo speaker. And you don’t have to be shy about bumping up the volume; the Echo gets room-filling loud, more so than the Nest Audio and HomePod Mini, though the HomePod Mini delivers more clarity at higher volumes.

Amazon also upped the audio quality across all tones — low, mid, high and bass — by adding in room-reading technology that can auto-mix tracks based on the Echo’s surroundings. It will detect how close it is to walls, for instance, and analyze in real time to make adjustments. (You can still make manual adjustments via an equalizer in the Alexa app.)

The Echo also shone because of Alexa, who’s gotten smarter and quicker; in just six years her response time has nearly doubled. Alexa and the Google Assistant are still pretty much neck and neck (with Siri a bit further behind), but Alexa has especially grown in the realms of handling nuances of the English language and recognizing different voices. For instance, Alexa on the Echo had no trouble detecting whether it was this tester speaking or another household member.

It’s also easy to catch Alexa’s attention, as the fourth-gen Echo boasts six built-in microphones. With modest volume levels, we never had to raise our voice, though we did have to at times with the volume at its maximum.

Alexa isn’t just for random information, either, but can also control the smart home. The fourth-gen Echo contains the core connectivity you need (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), and tosses in Zigbee and Amazon Sidewalk as well — two smart home standards that make it more seamless to connect various devices. Essentially, when you buy a Zigbee smart bulb or plug, you won’t need to purchase a hub also, as the fourth-gen Echo can connect to it and get it set up for use. It makes the fourth-gen Echo a more all-in-one device than most other speakers.

Amazon has also been adding in more control to ensure privacy. Via the Alexa app for Android and iOS, you can wipe your history and adjust settings to make you more comfortable with having Alexa in your home. Plus, you can always mute the microphone to cut her off from listening for the wake word.

At just $99.99, the fourth-gen Echo delivers robust audio performance, provides access to Alexa and can power the smart home in a futuristic build.

The HomePod Mini could have very well taken the top spot here — if only Apple gave Android users the ability to use it. But it’s designed for the Apple ecosystem, so if you don’t have an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, you can’t set it up (whereas the fourth-gen Echo is Android and iOS agnostic, for the most part). Still, the HomePod Mini is a tremendous speaker.

The HomePod Mini can serve as the centerpiece to your smart home system. It not only has the technology inside give you out-of-home control for door locks, cameras, sensors and countless other gizmos, but Siri is also a lot better at fielding these requests. In comparison to previous tests with Apple-made smart speakers, Siri is twice as fast when making smart home adjustments; things like turning the lights off are generally done before she confirms that the request has been handled.

The mini smart speaker’s form factor belies the decibels it can push out. In short: The HomePod Mini can get loud without muddling sound quality. No snapping, crackling or popping hindered whatever track we chose to play. What’s more, it uses computational audio to perfectly mix tracks in real time — so you get the optimal experience for whatever room you’re in. This way if it’s on a shelf, for instance, it can deliver sound that won’t overtly echo or cause notes to be outshined by each other. In fact, it applies its algorithms at over 180 times per second. All that comes together to produce higher-quality sound than the Nest Audio or Echo Dot, and it’s nearly on par with the fourth-gen Echo.

And for those in the Apple ecosystem, the HomePod Mini is designed for you — with virtually no compromises. If you have an iPhone, you’ll be able to take advantage of some helpful functions. For instance, we were able to come back from a run and just tap our iPhone on the HomePod Mini to move our playlist over to a speaker. We asked Siri where the closest gas station was, and when we got in our vehicle, CarPlay presented us with directions to the closest one.

At $99, the HomePod Mini tested in line with our other winners and was a top performer, but it limits itself by not being an option for anyone without an iPhone.

The Sonos One quickly rose to the top of our testing pool in terms of sound, delivering extraordinary performance in our audio tests. At $199.99, the Sonos One packs a punch bigger than its relatively small size would have you think was possible.

A tweeter, a woofer and two amplifiers are packed inside to power the Sonos One. All three work together with an onboard processor to properly mix a track and deliver a clear listening experience. It also produces the appropriate amount of pop and vibrancy with each track. That way a pop song like “Paper Rings” by Taylor Swift or “Sucker” by the Jonas Brothers can really produce a dynamic mix with strong bass, high vocals and tones across the spectrum. It can also get considerably louder over our top pick, the fourth-gen Echo, without introducing muddiness or crackling. If you want a louder and true stereo experience, you can easily create a stereo pair with an additional Sonos One. Syncing the two speakers is super easy and takes just a few minutes via the Sonos app.

To a degree, it’s the best of both worlds from the HomePod Mini and the fourth-gen Echo. You get a bold and full mix even at full blast. Bass is exceptionally strong, even at higher volumes, and acts as a weight for a track. You’ll notice some shaking on the speaker itself at higher volumes, but it’s minimized thanks to a grip on the bottom of the Sonos One. There’s even a threaded mount on the bottom, and Sonos makes several mounts as well.

You get your pick of an assistant on the Sonos One and can select either Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa as the default voice assistant via the Sonos App. (That app and a Sonos account are required for setup.) And using either of these assistants on the Sonos One is nearly an identical experience to using it on a first-party device from either brand. You can ask questions, control other devices and ask for music. Sadly, the ability to make calls with Alexa or Google Assistant aren’t here, and you can’t drop in on other Echo or Nest devices.

Like other smart speakers, the Sonos One listens for the respective wake word courtesy of four microphones — all of which you do have the ability to mute. This is good news for those with privacy concerns and anyone who doesn’t want the assistants accidentally chiming in. You’ll know the microphone is muted thanks to an orange glow from an LED on top of the device.

The same Android or iOS app used for setup comes into play when linking music services. Sonos One can pull from music saved on your device or a service like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal, Pandora, iHeartRadio and SiriusXM, among others. (With some, you will need a paid account to enable this integration.) You can conveniently control all of this with the Sonos app, and if you ever choose to expand your Sonos system, it’s all managed through the app as well.

Apple is thrown into the mix, as the Sonos One supports AirPlay 2, which means that from an iOS, iPadOS, macOS or watchOS device you can select the Sonos One and control what’s playing natively. Neither Echo nor Nest speakers offer this, and it’s nice that Sonos is willing to work with all platforms.

We think the Sonos One is the ideal choice if you want an assistant-agnostic smart speaker that focuses on bold and clear audio. You’d be hard-pressed to find better sound at $199.

The fourth-gen Echo Dot is really just a miniature version of the fourth-gen Echo.

Similar to the full-size fourth-gen, the Echo Dot sports a spherical build — and that’s a big deal here. Compared to previous versions of the Dot, the fourth-gen has a bit more room to push out and produce audio. This gives it marginally better bass and a slightly wider soundstage than the previous-generation Dot. In comparison to the Nest Mini and other budget speakers, this provides a sound experience that’s much better. It doesn’t get nearly as loud as any of our other top picks, but for the price it’s a fully dependable speaker. You can also play music from a plethora of services on this speaker: Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeart, TuneIn and countless others.

The Echo Dot also gives you an identical Alexa experience to the fourth-gen Echo. You can ask Alexa for jokes, a story or the weather — and Alexa picks up queries here just as fast as on the Echo. Still, the Echo Dot lacks some smart home chops, as there’s no extra connectivity or hub inside to help you get those devices online. For instance, if you have a Zigbee bulb, you’ll need a Zigbee hub to get that connected. The Dot is unlike the full-size Echo in this capacity, but it still allows you to control devices once they’re connected.

For half the price of our top pick, you do give up some features: Namely, the Echo Dot lacks the extra smart home connectivity (Amazon Sidewalk and the Zigbee hub), features fewer microphones and is overall a smaller speaker.

What doesn’t change, though, is the immense value you get from this tiny speaker. It blazed past the Nest Mini and other budget speakers in our testing categories, especially when it came to audio quality and response time for requests.

Before deciding on our testing pool, we spent time crafting a testing methodology and rubric for rating smart speakers. Given the players in the space and main use cases of these devices, we focused on three main areas: audio quality, convenience and the smart assistants.

Audio quality was the largest category, both in points and subsections, allowing us to look at an overall mix while also examining tones across the spectrum and the clarity within each. We had a range of test tracks that we played on all speakers at varying volumes and in different spaces.

Core songs used in testing include “Let It Be,” “Hotel California,” “Light On,” “Born to Run,” “Domino,” “I’m on Fire,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “What a Man Gotta Do,” “Ex’s & Oh’s,” “Rosalita,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Dance Tonight,” “Higher Love,” “You Make My Dreams,” “Get Down Tonight,” “Alaska,” “Exile,” “Heroes,” “Ghosts,” “Pink Houses,” “Closer,” “Sweet Thing,” “Shape of You,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Jack of Speed,” “Slow Burn,” “Monkey Man,” “American Girl,” “Sucker,” “Paper Rings” and “House of a Thousand Guitars,” among others.

Convenience was top of mind throughout the testing process as, at the end of the day, a smart speaker should be helpful and not hinder experiences. You want to be able to get the assistant’s attention with relative ease (having the microphones accurately pick up the request and for the processing to be done correctly). We also took a look at privacy on each one and settings that the user could enable or disable.

Convenience also carried over into its smart home capabilities and how these smart speakers can integrate. Do they offer extra connectivity to help get devices online? Can they make minute adjustments on individually connected gadgets? Can we group gadgets together? Do they support out-of-home control? These were just a few of the questions we posed and answered.

In terms of design, we looked at the materials used and how those both fit into the home along with compatible devices. Some opt for a classic speaker look, while devices like the HomePod Mini or 2020 Echo’s embrace the spherical design language. Nest Audio looks like a small pillow — we don’t recommend sleeping on it, though. We looked for the expected controls along with the all-important ability to mute microphones.

After unboxing the smart speakers, we tested the setup and how intuitive it was to complete. Did you need to sign up for an account? How long did it take to set up? We also looked at whether each device had a warranty and, if so, for how long.

Below is our exact point breakout for each category and subcategory.

  • Audio quality had a maximum of 50 points: overall mix (10 points), clarity (10 points), soundstage (10 points), low (5 points), mid (5 points), high (5 points) and bass (5 points).
  • Smart assistant capabilities had a maximum of 20 points: overall (10 points), response time (5 points) and accuracy (5 points).
  • Design had a maximum of 15 points: overall (10 points) and controls (5 points).
  • Smart home capabilities had a maximum of 15 points: connectivity (5 points), compatibility (5 points) and convenience (5 points).
  • Setup had a maximum of 10 points: overall (10 points).
  • Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).

Echo Studio ($199.99; amazon.com)

At $199.99, the Echo Studio is the most expensive Echo, but it’s also the best-sounding one thanks to its almost delirious amount of speakers. But a not-so-sleek build, too-steep price and limited support for 3D music kept it from getting a top pick. We feel, for half the price, the fourth-gen Echo is a much better buy.

HomePod ($299.99; bhphotovideo.com and expercom.com)

Apple’s $299.99 HomePod focuses squarely on delivering the best sound possible. It has seven tweeters, a larger woofer and multiple amplifiers that all push out sound, alongside a custom chip to mix it in real time. But it lacks as a smart speaker, with no extra connectivity features and a price that pushes it far from affordability.

Nest Audio ($99.99; bhphotovideo.com)

As we noted in our full review, the Nest Audio features a nice design that presents itself with Google DNA front and center. It also delivers deep integration with Google, something Android users will appreciate. Alexa is just a smarter assistant as a whole, and sound quality was lacking with this smart speaker. It delivered on clarity but not in its ability to get loud or fill a room.

Nest Mini ($24.99, originally $49.99; bhphotovideo.com)

The donut-sized Nest Mini was neck and neck with the Echo Dot — however, sound quality and speed left us wanting more. Audio was clear at lower volumes, but the Nest Mini didn’t achieve loud volumes and, at its maximum volume, it introduced crackling.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:


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