The Ultimate Guide to Smart Speakers

The Ultimate Guide To Smart Speakers

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Smart speakers are incredibly versatile. A lot of people use them only to play music, which is such a limited application of this gadget. They can make calls, set alarms, control all the smart devices in your home, and even play fun games with you.

There are some excellent options in the market, and it can get confusing trying to pick one based on all the functionalities. This is why we have analyzed all the aspects of a smart speaker, which will help you decide the right smart speaker for you.

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Image source: Yoshina

What are Smart Speakers?

Smart speakers are voice-controlled assistants that can control a lot of tasks around the house, hands-free. Just issue a command and watch the magic happen.

Alexa, Siri, the Google assistant are some of the super popular smart speakers used and loved by millions of people. A straightforward application of a smart speaker is weather news. Consider that you are ready for work and heading out the door, and don’t have the time to check whether it will rain today to decide if you need to carry an umbrella. You can just ask Alexa to read you today’s weather and make the decision split second.

Smart speakers can do so much more. But the problem is, people, don’t even realize how intelligent and versatile these machines are. We will talk about all the features you can utilize when you own one of these magic machines.

How Do Smart Speakers Work?

The most basic function of a smart speaker is voice recognition, although the technology is much more advanced. The speakers can listen to what you are asking and respond to it accordingly.

Not all smart speakers have the same voice recognition algorithm in the background. They are all slightly different from each other in their operation, but the core concept is the same. Your smart speaker is listening to you for a command, and when you use a wake word, they are ready to follow your instruction.

The default word is pretty much consistent in all these speakers, so if you own multiple, you don’t need to learn entirely different command chains. Once this system has been activated, the speaker takes a recording of your command and searches the internet for results. Of that is what it looks from your end.

In the background, the speaker sends the voice record to voice service in the cloud. Amazon’s Alexa has the AVS or Alexa Voice Services. This voice service then deciphers your question and sends the answer to the speaker. The speaker reads it out aloud. The algorithm behind the process varies from one brand to another, which makes each voice assistant unique in their own ways.

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Smart Speaker Core Features

If you own a smart speaker or thinking about getting one, you need to know all it can do. Because using it for playing just music is not doing justice to your speaker.

Voice Control

We know about this one. There is an in-built microphone that takes your commands and gives you the result.

Connect To The Internet

Your speaker is connected to your home WIFI system. You might have already set this up with the specific app for your smart speaker, so you already know this. However, what you don’t know is the power the speaker gets when connected to the internet.

Virtual Home Assistant

At the very least, your smart speaker is great for providing home assistance. You can access various radio channels, play music, control multiple features of your smart home, play an audiobook, shop online, and even call your family.

Music Streaming

Your smart speaker can connect with all kinds of music streaming services depending on which brand it comes from.

Music Playback

If you have an audio system in your home with a multi-room setup, then you can genuinely appreciate the abilities of smart speakers. You can play the same thing in all the smart speakers from the same brand kept in different locations of your house, which is very similar to how audio systems like Bose, Sonos, work.

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Bluetooth (optional)

It depends on your speaker, but most modern smart speakers come with Bluetooth connectivity. This means you are not limited to doing things through voice commands. You can connect your smartphones and tablets with the same Wi-Fi network and use them to determine what your smart speaker does.

Want to watch a podcast on your phone and crank up the sound over the smart speaker? All the more power to you.

Play Games

In all my years of using smart speakers, I came across this feature at last. Who knew you could use your smart speakers to play games? There are some excellent voice-based games online that you can choose form.

One of my particularly favorite games is where the speaker plays me a sound clip and asks me what the song game is, or who the artist is, or other questions. I can play quiz and even some fiction games too.

Free Calls And Drop-In Calls

Want to call your loved ones for free across the continent? Your smart speaker is connected to the internet, so call away. Most speakers will make calls across the US, Mexico, Canada. There might be a restriction on calling toll free numbers.

Plus, you can add a drop in message with Alexa when you are going out to some relative’s home. Have Alexa call your friends and leave a message that you are dropping in later.

Reminders, Alarms, And Timers

Setting reminders and alarms have never been easier. You can easily connect the speaker with your phone, and then open the app for the smart speaker. This app will have options to set up reminders, and then it will broadcast it across your speakers just at the right time.

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Compact Size

Many of you might want to carry the smart speaker if you are going to a picnic or a friend’s place. And this is why most smart speakers come in tiny, compact sizes that are super light and can be carried anywhere. In fact, when you are buying, make sure you take into account what kind of portability you are looking for from this speaker.

Benefits of Smart Speakers

Now that we know about all the features let’s see why people think these mini assistants are so valuable.

  • Listen to music

You don’t need to exhaust your phone battery to play music any longer. Simply connect your smart speaker and play your favorite tunes.

  • Convenience

Most smart speakers are super light and can be placed anywhere in the house. You can use the voice assistant to do virtually any task across your smart home. You can configure the speaker with the remote or phone, and when you can’t find those, use your speaker to find them.

Or better yet, just call or change channels directly through the speaker. No need to find your phone every time you need a little trivia, need to know the time, want to hear the news. Let your smart speaker do the work.

  • Integration

Smart speakers have smooth integration features to work with other devices in the house. It might not be as smooth as an external custom system, but is much cheaper and works just fine.

  • Audio quality

The newer smart speakers can rival your favorite home music system. Apple HomePod is a prime example of how good the audio quality can be with these speakers.

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Image source: Yoshina

Why Are Smart Speakers Popular?

If your speaker could teach your child math problems, go with you everywhere in the car, bus, or plane, call your friends free two countries over, would you think it is worth buying?

Smart speakers are not just for people who have smart homes with lots of integrative devices. Even if you are buying it as a standalone device, you could have the full power of the internet completely hands-free.

If you have a busy lifestyle, need a little help around the house, or just want to listen to music without the hassle of finding your phone, opening the music streaming service, and manually searching for ‘Senorita.’

Why You May Want a Smart Speaker?

If you are thinking of buying a speaker, a smart speaker can be a natural upgrade. Why be limited to just playing music when you can have half the functionalities of your phone? The convenience, flexibility, and sophistication of the voice assistant will allow you to get news, music, alarm, games without even your couch.

How To Pick The Best Smart Speaker For You?

Picking the right smart speaker depends less on what features it has, and more on what you want to use it for. Here are the qualities you should account for when deciding.

Size, Sound Quality, And Price

The artificial intelligence component in a smart speaker is the key. But smart speakers also need to come in the right style for you. The size, quality of audio, and price tag are the most basic shortlisting features.

A rule of thumb is, the smaller you go, the audio quality will get lower. However, so will the price. Bigger speakers will amp up on audio quality. Understanding your preference in all three things gives you the right choice.

Super small smart speakers like Echo dot and Google mini have good audio feedback, but the sound quality isn’t the greatest. If you are primarily looking for a digital assistant and play music occasionally while also want to stay in a tight budget, here’s your pick.

Medium budget speakers like Echo, Google Home look cool and take up the size of a water bottle. You will also get color choices in some of these speakers.

Sonos, HomePod, or Google Max have significant improvements in the audio quality. The AI is also super versatile.

Choose An AI Assistant

Using a smart speaker solely based on sound quality is wasteful. You need a powerful assistant. A speaker that is smart and can assist you around the house. So the quality of the assistant matters a lot.

Google, Alexa, and Siri are the most complex and capable AI in the market. But don’t let it be the final decider.

An AI assistant will help you around the house and connect with other devices. So your home ecosystem will be an essential qualifier in the decision-making process. If you have an iPhone and Mac at home, HomePod from Apple is the ideal choice for you, because you get seamless integration across devices.

Similarly, if your phone is android, google assistant will allow you to use the speaker with the most ease, along with the other services. If you use third-party apps like Spotify or Apple music, your speaker matters even more. HomePod allows only to connect with Apple music. Google Home will let you sync with Spotify. So, do your homework before deciding.

If you don’t want to be burdened by all the complexity and want a speaker that will work with pretty much everything, then you should go for Sonos or Amazon speakers.

They have the most open ecosystem and allow you to add thousands of third-party apps. Alexa will still favor amazon apps like audiobooks or amazon music, but you can still hook it up to Spotify if you wish. And that is all that matters, having the choice to be flexible.

Choose a speaker that works seamlessly with other apps, services, and devices you have. Your AI assistant will work best. You can read the product review and understand the inputs of other buyers to decide if you would face the same problems they are.

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Check For Compatibility With The Products You Already Own

We have talked about the essential features already. The audio quality, cost, and size of the device are significant considerations. But we want you to think about advanced terms because a voice assistant is so much more.

This is why you need to pick a device that also has smooth compatibility. And here is where things get a little technical. Read on to know what kind of questions you should be asking, and what features you are looking for.

The first thing we need to do is set up the speaker with wifi, irrespective of which device you buy. So read the specs to know that your WIFI connection is compatible. For example, if you need only Bluetooth or a WIFI connection, the google nest mini is the right choice. However, if you need a line out, you won’t get it with nest mini. Echo Dot has Bluetooth and a standard 3.5 mm jack.

You should also consider future home improvements. Because a smart assistant is a one-time investment, and you want to make the right choice. Make sure your speaker is compatible with your other gadgets.

You can read the spec to know what other smart devices can be connected to your speakers from amazon product specifications. Read reviews online, go to the manufacturer site, and read the details straight from the source. Trust us; the research pays off.

Consider Features

Broaden your imagination when it comes to smart speakers. The power these tiny devices have is unbelievable. This is why we want you also to consider all the bonus features you can get from them.

Consider this; you might need a speaker that responds to multiple people. You, your spouse, and your kids all wish to use it. However, you want to keep your calendar separate from your spouse’s. You don’t want your kids to get access to your to-do lists. Your assistant can recognize the voice of the speaker. Google Home, Nest, some Amazon Echo speakers have this capability through the Google Range is far superior.

It can distinguish the voice and change accounts automatically. So, there is no way you will get confused with someone else. However, with the Echo, you need to ask Alexa to switch accounts before the command.

If you need a multi-room setup, Sonos is better than any other speaker. If you need a screen, you have to go for the Amazon or Google devices that come with a screen along with the speaker. This lets you watch videos with enhanced audio, as well as make video calls.

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Amazon Echo Vs Google Home Vs Apple Homepod Vs Sonos: Which Smart Speaker Should I Buy?

Now to the million-dollar question, which speaker should you buy. Before you decide that, read through the individual capabilities of each of these smart speakers.

Amazon Echo

This is already a vast network, with millions of customers. Echo is audio capable of the most extraordinary degree. You can play music, loosen to podcasts and command it around the house, especially if you have the models after 2019, which are new generation speakers with much more enhanced capability. For example, the 2018 Echo did not have Zigbee, whereas the new model does.

The echo looks pretty much like the old echo plus, but with this device, Amazon has raised the game. It is cheaper than the Echo Plus but has a much better sound quality. The model has a soft look that is fit for the modern living room. The earlier models had a more industrial look that many might not be comfortable with.

The echo also comes with enhanced AI processing, which lets you introduce multiple voice profiles, and allows you to change the speed of speaking when commanding the device, working much more accurately than ever before.

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Image source: Mark Mathosian

Apple HomePod

Starting off the bat, the sound quality is superior. The design is minimalistic and sleek. But one caveat is that you must have Apple music, which might not be ideal for everyone. If you are an Apple family, this is the perfect choice for you.

The HomePod entered the market in 2018, and the biggest edge it has is that there is a massive market for Apple product enthusiasts. So, easily for many people, this is the default choice when it comes to smart speakers. It has the same premium pricing and policies. If you want a device that only works within the Apple ecosystem, this is a great choice. But like we said, if you don’t have every other product from Apple, this does not make any sense.

HomePod does have excellent sound, and the setup is a breeze. Siri is, however, limited. Apple is also working on the HomePod 2, which is supposed to be a much more compact version of the previous one, and we can expect to see it sometime in 2020.

If the limited ecosystem and premium pricing is not a deterrent for you, we say go for it. Because there is no gripe about this device when it comes to performance, like all other premium Apple products, the HomePod is a technical marvel and worth the price.

Google Home

Google home is insanely popular because of the customization option and how expandable the ecosystem is. It is a truly versatile device that pretty much anyone can use. Although the phrasing is a little complicated and you might need a couple of days to catch up to the command system.

The best thing about this is that you are not paying for too many third party services. YouTube has eons of music, and the Google Home lets you leverage it to the full extent. It will track down most of the tracks you want and play it for you.

If you are not a big fan of subscribing to 5 different streaming services, then Home would be perfect for you. Besides, google home lets you sync up your streaming services with the device, which means even if you have third party services, you can still enjoy it just fine.

Whereas the main strength of the device comes in the music, it is also a pretty good choice for a home hub. You can integrate Philips and Samsung devices with it, and the hardware compatibility just keeps expanding.

The Google Home is so close to being the perfect device, but just not there yet. The language capability is a little complicated, and the most significant negative factor is that it has very little of the core Google services built-in.

Still, the device has been updating like crazy. You can now call the UK, use it if you are bilingual, have continued conversations with the device, and perform multiple actions. There is also a security alarm system feature added to the Google Nest.

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Perhaps the best audio quality you can get in a speaker, Sonos has its strength in multi-setups. You can play music with Alexa, which is a neat integration. But the problem, if you are on a budget, is that it has premium pricing. And for a good reason. The quality of Sonos speakers is top-notch.

Sonos got Alexa and developed an obvious operating system, which offers you the best of both worlds. And it even supports google assistant, which makes it the most versatile speaker on this list. Alexa itself is improving at a rapid pace, and you can reap all the benefits of it when you buy the Sonos speaker.

If you have the Sonos multi-room smarts, then you can experience truly epic performance. Besides, Airplay 2 is also a new feature that is looing in the future, which could make this a winner in our list. Sonos already can interact with Siri and even pair with an Apple HomePod.

If budget is not a constraint, we say that you go for Sonos one. You also have a more portable and cheaper choice in Sonos move.

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The Most Popular Smart Speakers, Worth Buying Today

Now that you know all the tricks and tips of selecting the perfect smart speaker, you can make the best choice there is. But here is a quick sum up for you.

Decide the size, price, compatibility, and application of the device. If you need a budget speaker, google and Alexa are both excellent choices. Google gives you the scope to use it as a multi-people speaker, whereas Alexa is a rapidly growing feature library.

Apple HomePod is best for Apple enthusiasts because of the limited ecosystem. And Sonos, if your budget permits, can give you a genuinely conclusive experience with access to all these voice assistants through smart integration. The right speaker depends on your usage. If you don’t use it frequently and want it for only music or a couple of tasks, don’t feel like you have to spend a lot. So, happy hunting!

Smart Speakers FAQ: Quick Questions Answered

  • Do Smart Speakers sound good?

A good quality smart speaker can give you a great music experience. Still, you might not get the same level of sophistication in audio performance that comes from a costly speaker.

  • Can Smart Speaker play radio stations?

Yes. Smart speakers are fully equipped for playing the radio.

  • Do Smart Speakers usually have a battery?

Portable smart speakers come with a battery, like the Echo Input. But most smart speakers need to be plugged in on a power outlet.

  • Who is the Smart Speaker for?

Smart speakers are great for any modern home. If you are looking for a speaker to play music, a smart speaker can bring many other benefits to it beyond just the music player.

  • Do Smart Speakers have an aux input?

Some smart speakers might have the aux port. For Alexa or Dot, you can buy an external aux cable to use it as an aux input.

  • Do Smart Speakers spy on you?

The voice assistants are designed to listen in to everything you are saying, and recent studies have shown that they can record what you are saying even when you are not interacting with the speaker itself.

  • Can Smart Speakers be hacked?

Under specific conditions. This is rare, and companies take a lot of safeguard measures against anyone tampering with the devices.

  • Is there a monthly fee for Alexa?

No. There is no monthly fee to use Alexa.

  • What is the best Smart Speaker for the elderly?

Alexa or google mini are good choices because they don’t need any external paid services like Apple Homepod; they are easy to set up and use.

  • Are Smart Speakers safe?

There have been some concerns with privacy, as some smart speakers can record what you say. They are always listening for your command, and that makes them vulnerable.

  • Which Smart Speakers has the best sound quality?

Of the list, Sonos is probably the best sounding speaker in the market.

  • Are Smart Speakers always listening?

Yes. Smart speakers always listen to catch the trigger words. This is why when you say, ‘ok Google,’ or ‘Hi Alexa,’ they know you are issuing a command and respond.

  • Who created the Smart Speakers?

The very first smart speaker was released by IBM and called Shoebox. It could recognize up to 16 spoken words, 10 digits, and do mathematical functions.

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Before you purchase any of the best smart speakers, decide how you plan to use it. If it’s going to be the only device in your living room that will play music, then you’ll want one that has excellent audio quality. But while the sound is essential, it shouldn’t necessarily be the deciding factor in which smart speakers you choose.

For example, the Amazon Echo Dot has perhaps the worst-sounding speaker among those we’ve tested, but its small size and low price make it useful for people who already have a good speaker and merely want to add some smarts to it. The Dot is also a cheap way to spread a voice assistant throughout your house.

If you want one of the best outdoor speakers, though, you’ll want to consider a portable option, such as the JBL Link 20. The Sonos Move and Bose Portable Home Speaker are great options, too.