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Americans have spent close to a year in and out of lockdowns, and most of us are still spending our days living and working at home — and finding new ways to improve our space. This includes smart home technology, which can easily connect your devices and appliances together to be controlled under one system. One of the most popular smart products are smart speakers, which have become even more popular during the pandemic.
SKIP AHEAD How to choose the best smart speaker for you
“Smart technology has become an ‘integral system’ that connects home, work, education, shopping and people,” said Justin Joseph, an associate professor at Boston University and former director of public relations for consumer technology brands, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to Nikon and Canon. “A decade ago, we would marvel when Iron Man would talk to his smart home and the robotic tools in his home would act on his commands. Smart speakers and connected devices are the future of this industry.”
To that end, smart speakers do more than just play music. They can connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and control your other smart devices, including smart bulbs or smart plugs. Most models are compatible with voice assistants like Alexa or Google Assistant, and can do things like answer questions, report the weather and read the news. We consulted experts to learn everything you need to know about these speakers, from how they work to which brands make the best models.
Best smart speakers in 2021
This highly-rated, compact speaker emits 360-degree sound and connects via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, AirPlay or Spotify Connect. Users can connect multiple Bose speakers for multi-room sound, and the battery lasts up to eight hours. You can control the speaker using the Bose Music app, or voice command via Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. If you want to go old school, there’s even an aux jack to plug your phone into.
This speaker’s round design allows for 360-degree sound and minimal vibrations. It’s compatible with Google Assistant, allowing users to control the music from another room. Users can connect other Belkin speakers together for a multi-room system. One unique feature of the Soundform is its charging dock, allowing you to charge your smartphone wirelessly while you stream music.
This sleek, round speaker emits 360-degree sound and can connect to your phone via Bluetooth. Unlike other models, the Allure doesn’t look like a standard speaker, helping it seamlessly integrate into your home’s design. The Allure has multi-room connectivity, allowing users to control their smart home via Amazon Alexa.
This speaker is one of the more affordable models out there, and has a simple design that allows for 360-degree sound. It’s also extremely compact and lightweight, around 1.5 pounds, making it easy to throw in your bag to bring with you wherever you go. The Link is integrated with Google Assistant and can be controlled by your smartphone via built-in Chromecast, AirPlay or the Link Music app.
This smart speaker sports the brand’s iconic design and clean, black-and-gold finishes, making it one of the more stylish speakers out there. The model is integrated with Google Assistant, and can connect with other Marshall speakers via Chromecast or AirPlay for a multi-room system. The model also equips adjustable bass and treble button controls to fine-tune your music without having to reach for your phone.
This speaker is larger (and pricier) than other models, but makes up for it in quality: The Move currently has a 4.8-star average rating on Amazon from thousands of reviewers. This model connects via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and can be controlled via voice command, smartphone or AirPlay — or by using the buttons on the top. The model is Alexa-enabled and its battery lasts up to 11 hours. The Move is also weather-resistant and weighs under seven pounds.
How smart speakers work
Smart speakers are standalone speakers with built-in microphones, explained Nick Wolny, a marketer specializing in business in technology. They allow you to play music or perform tasks via voice command. Smart speakers are different from basic Bluetooth speakers, which simply emit sounds from your smartphone or computer, “like a megaphone,” he said. This includes all sounds — including notification buzzes and pings — which can “sometimes kill your vibe.”
Most speakers can perform basic commands via voice assistant, too, from turning the lights on and off and playing music to answering questions and setting reminders, said Wolny. They are also designed to pair with other smart home technologies such as doorbells, thermostats and security cameras. Users can even buy multiple speakers and pair them together for a multi-room system.
Most speakers are integrated with popular voice assistants like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri. These companies also make their own smart speakers — think Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod.
Naturally, a Google Nest will most likely have better integration with Google Assistant than another brand, but speakers from brands pushing their voice assistants will typically have lower sound quality than a third-party smart speaker, said David Papp, a technology consultant and speaker. These speakers, including options from Sonos and Bose, have evolved to be adequately integrated with voice assistants — if you’re primarily looking for a speaker, these models are your best bet.
How to shop for a smart speaker
The most important considerations when shopping for a speaker are price, size and audio quality. Smart speakers range from $100 to over $300. You’re typically going to get what you pay for in terms of sound quality and other features, explained Papp. The same goes for size: The larger the speaker, the higher quality the audio typically is.
If you’re looking for a smart speaker that doubles as a voice assistant, pay attention to speaker connectivity, Wolny noted. For example, if you already use Amazon Alexa for your other smart home products, it’s smart to find a speaker that’s Alexa-enabled. It’s easier to choose one smart home setup and stick with it.
Most modern day smart speakers with voice assistant capabilities are constantly listening for commands like “Alexa” or “Hey Siri,” said Papp. The idea of a device listening to you 24 hours a day may raise privacy concerns, and Papp advises considering where you plan to place the device (for example, you may not want your smart device listening in your bedroom or bathroom).
As for security issues, Wolny said a smart speaker is generally pretty secure from hackers, about as secure as your smartphone. But if you’re worried about security, go with a recognized brand name.
“Startup smart home devices are what you want to be on the lookout for, as their weaker security systems are often how home hackers find their way into your network and wreak havoc,” said Wolny.