Which 2018 Smart Speaker Should I Buy

If you haven’t heard, smart speakers are one of the biggest growth categories for consumer technology. Google Home dominated the lists of Christmas shoppers in 2017 and things only look like they’ll get bigger in 2018 with the local arrival of Amazon’s Echo range and the Apple HomePod.

Here’s a quick primer on what smart speakers are, and what to expect from each of the major ones.

What is a smart speaker?

Simply put: it’s a speaker that talks back.

A smart speaker is usually a small-to-medium-sized speaker that comes with at-least one-integrated set of microphones (usually far-field ones) and at-least one on-board smart assistant (usually either Amazon Alexa or the Google Assistant).

Why would I want one over a regular speaker?

As we said in our round-up of Google Assistant smart speakers, there are three key reasons you’d usually opt for a smart speaker over a regular one

The first is that voice-based controls can offer a more intuitive and convenient experience compared to controlling your speaker using an app or set of physical buttons. Rather than fumble with a volume slider, you can just tell your speaker to turn the volume down. Suddenly want to change the track to something else? Tell your speaker and watch it happen. To some people, this might sound like a bit of a frivolous luxury but when the technology to enable this experience exists - it kind-of just makes sense to offer it.  

The second reason you’d want a smart speaker over a regular one comes with their capability when it comes to integrating with things like smart appliances, smart lights and smart plugs. Using systems like IFTTT (If-This-Then-That) or Apple’s HomeKit, you can then integrate your smart speaker as a unified hands-free controller for these devices. Again, rather than mess around with around with this or that app, you can turn your lights on and off by just telling them to.

[Related: Which Google Assistant Smart Speaker Should I Buy?]

[Related: Is My Smart Speaker Always Listening?]

The last pillar of the sell for smart speakers is all about the ghost in the machine: the AI-like smart assistant at the core of the experience.  At the moment, the list of - to use a overly-general term - “things” you can do with your smart assistant is long, but not that long.

However,  as a result of the growing popularity of smart speaker-based implementations of these assistants, a lot of service-based companies are now moving to develop more complex and meaning integrations with smart assistants.

For example, NAB now allows customers to consult their customer service platform for queries like  how to have a lost credit card replaced or how to reset their password using the Google Assistant. In some markets, you can already order a pizza using your smart speaker.  

Therefore, buying one now means you’ll be ready to make use of these new possibilities when and as they become a reality.

How much do smart speakers usually cost?

At present, there are four ‘styles’ of smart speaker available. There’s the baseline pod-speakers (Google Home, Amazon Echo), which are usually priced between AUD $150 and AUD $200.

Then, there’s the cheaper “Mini” variants like the Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo Dot, which are priced around $70 to $100. These offer an inferior audio experience to their regular-sized counterparts. However, the shortcuts being taken here are counterbalanced against a savings in price-point that potentially makes them more affordable to those interested in smart speakers but doubtful about how much they might actually use one.

Thirdly, there’s the Amazon Echo Show and it's growing legion of copycats. These slick-looking smart speakers come with an integrated display, opening up new possibilities. For example: you could ask your smart assistant how to cook a meal and it could present you with a copy of the recipe using the display.

Finally, there’s the high-end, “plus-sized” smart speakers like the Google Home Max and Apple HomePod. These are very much the smallest of the four smart speaker styles to date. They tend to be priced above $300 and put that premium price back into the audio side of the experience, offering up a higher quality of playback than you’ll get out of other smart speakers.

Google Home

What smart assistants does it support?

For obvious reasons, the only smart assistant supported by the Google Home is the Google Assistant.

What can I do with it?

Using the on-board Assistant, the Google Home lets you ask questions, play music, check the weather, set reminders, consult your calendar, listen to news bulletins and interact with both connected smart appliances and compatible third-party services.

In addition, further functions are being added every month or so via software update. As recently as February 2018, Google added support for setting up alarms with custom audio and finding out when your favorite TV show is coming back with a new season.

How much does it cost?

In Australia, the Google Home is priced at an RRP of $199.

Google Home Mini

What smart assistants does it support?

Again, for obvious reasons, the only smart assistant supported by the Google Home Mini is the Google Assistant.

What can I do with it?

Like the baseline Google Home, the Google Home Mini lets you ask questions, play music, check the weather, set reminders, consult your calendar, listen to news bulletins and interact with both connected smart appliances and compatible third-party services.

In short, you can everything that the regular Google Home can do - it just won’t sound as good.

In addition, further functions are being added every month or so via software update. As recently as February 2018, Google added support for setting up alarms with custom audio and finding out when your favorite TV show is coming back with a new season.

You can read our full review here.

How much does it cost?

In Australia, the Google Home Mini is priced at an RRP of $79.

JBL Link

What smart assistants does it support?

The JBL Link 10 and 20 rely on the Google Assistant for their smarts. They do not support any additional smart assistants.

What can I do with it?

Everything you can do with the regular Google Home:  you can ask questions, play music, check the weather, set reminders, consult your calendar, listen to news bulletins and interact with both connected smart appliances and compatible third-party services.

In short, you can everything that the regular Google Home can do - but it will sound better.

What’s the difference between this and the Google Home?

Three things: the first is a heftier speaker rig that promises better audio playback. The JBL Link 10 boasts two 8W speakers and The JBL Link 20 bumps that output to 10W.

The second is added durability in the form an IPX7 rating against water damage (found in both the JBL Link 10 and JBL Link 20). This, as with Sony’s LS-S50G, will serve to make the range potentially a better fit when it comes to outdoor or kitchen-based settings.

Finally, both speakers also touts standalone portable batteries. This means that, unlike most smart speakers, they can be used away from a power plug - at least for a time. The JBL Link 10 packs 5 hours of battery life. The JBL Link 20 doubles this to 10 hours.

You can read our full review here.

How much does it cost?

The JBL Link 10 is priced at $229. The JBL Link 20 is priced slightly-higher at $299.

Sony LS-S50G

What smart assistants does it support?

The Sony LS-S50G comes powered by the Google Assistant. It does not support any additional smart assistants.

What can I do with it?

Everything you can do with the regular Google Home:  you can ask questions, play music, check the weather, set reminders, consult your calendar, listen to news bulletins and interact with both connected smart appliances and compatible third-party services.

What’s the difference between this and the Google Home?

There a few things to note when comparing Sony’s Google-powered smart speaker to the regular Google Home.

At first glance, the Sony LS-S50G boasts an integrated LED-based clock on the face of the speaker. Then, the LS-S50G also comes IPX3 rated against splash-damage, making it more kitchen-friendly than the Google Home is.

Then, under the hood, a 48mm satellite and a 53mm subwoofer promise to provide audio playback with a little more punch behind it than the Google baseline smart speaker.

Lastly, it’s got a unique gesture-based control system.  In addition to the regular “Okay, Google” and “Hey Google” activation phrases, you can twirl a finger above the speaker to adjust the volume or swipe your hand above it to pause and play music.

You can read our full review here.

How much does it cost?

In Australia, the Sony LS-S50G is priced at an RRP of $249.

Sonos One

What smart assistants does it support?

The Sonos One is quite unique among smart speakers in that it is envisioned as assistant-agnostic. Unfortunately, at present, it only supports Amazon Alexa - and not even in Australia.

Sonos say that it will also become Google Home compatible sometime in 2018. When it does, you'll be able to pick and choose which assistant you want to use.

Sonos also haven’t ruled out adding other assistants - like Microsoft’s Cortana or Samsung’s Bixby - to the Sonos One later down the track.

What can I do with it?

At present, Australian customers who purchase a Sonos One are only really able to use it for music playback via the Sonos app. This means that, for now, it’s functionally more-or-less the same as the company’s existing Play:1 speaker.

However, once Amazon Alexa launches in Australia, Sonos One owners will be able to use the smart speaker to listen to music, deliver news and sports scores, get weather updates , control your smart home devices, listen to Amazon Music and even make online orders from Amazon themselves.

Likewise: when the support arrives for it, you’ll be able to do everything you can do with the regular Google Home:  ask questions, play music, check the weather, set reminders, consult your calendar, listen to news bulletins and interact with both connected smart appliances and compatible third-party services.

What’s the difference between this and the Google Home / Amazon Echo?

On a software level, the biggest difference worth noting here is that the Sonos One supports multiple assistants. Then, on the hardware front, it comes equipped with two Class-D digital amplifiers, one mid-woofer, one tweeter and six far-field microphones. The sum total of all these components: a speaker that sounds better and is (in theory) more reliable to control than the stock standard offerings from both Google and Amazon.

You can read more about the Sonos One in our full review.

How much does it cost?

In Australia, the Sonos One caries an RRP of $299.

Next Page: Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Plus and Apple HomePod

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Tags AlexaAmazon EchoHomePodGoogle AssistantSmart SpeakersSonos OneApple HomePodEcho Plus

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