How To Choose a Smart Speaker For Your Smart Home
If you clicked on this article, you’re probably thinking of raising your home’s IQ by turning it into a smart home. And one of the first things that you’ll pick up would be a smart speaker. There are plenty of options out there right now but back in 2014, the first – and only – voice-controlled smart speaker that was available was the Amazon Echo.
It’s September 2018, and Amazon has just released updated as well as new versions of its Echo line of smart speakers (yep, there’s more than one now). So is it worth investing in a smart speaker if you’re building your smart home? And if so, should you go with the Amazon Echo or consider a Google-based smart speaker instead?
I Want A Smarter Home… Which Smart Speaker Should I Get?
We did a little research and what we can safely say is this: it largely depends on the virtual assistant and the features you want.
- If you want a Siri-enabled smart speaker, then the Apple HomePod is your only option (just don’t leave it on a wood surface, trust us).
- Want a smart speaker with Google Assistant? Then the Google Home it is. For a smaller and more affordable option, you have the Google Home Mini.
- For those who aren’t really picky, why not try Amazon’s Alexa? You’ll get to choose from the likes of the Amazon Echo 2 and its smaller sibling, the Amazon Echo Dot 3. Or even the (soon to be) multi-assistant compatible SONOS One.
Intrigued? Well, read on…
What Is A Smart Speaker?
A speaker that is capable of anything beyond just emitting sound can technically be called ‘smart’. So that Bluetooth speaker which you connect your phone to, to blast LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem (Writer’s note: I really need to update my playlist…) during your last barbecue party at East Coast Park? For all intents and purposes, that’s a “smart” speaker.
To be more specific, the smart speakers that we’re talking about in this article are speakers with voice-controlled virtual assistants built into them. Thus enabling them to double up as a means of control for your smart home.
Remember this scene from the first Iron Man movie when J.A.R.V.I.S. wakes Christine Everheart with the time, weather, and surf conditions in Malibu?
Yep. The seemingly distant dream of being able to control the tech in our lives with just our voice is very much a reality now.
And although we don’t have access to Tony Stark’s sarcastic A.I. assistant, the smart speakers out in the market today come with artificially intelligent virtual assistants such as:
- Amazon’s Alexa
- Apple’s Siri
- Google’s Google Assistant
You won’t be discovering a new element with them, but these smart home devices will allow you to use your voice to turn on the TV or to switch off the living room lights. Basic stuff for a smart home.
Assistant-First Smart Speaker
Listed here are solid, go-to options with a focus on the “smart” in smart speakers.
Amazon Echo 2
Disclaimer: We’re aware that there’s a new Amazon Echo Plus 2 coming out on 11 October 2018. But for the sake of a more comprehensive look at what the Amazon Echo line has to offer, as well as offer an option to compare other smart speakers too; we decided to go with the established Amazon Echo 2 instead. We also prefer the Echo 2’s fabric look over the current Echo Plus’ industrial exterior.
While the first iteration of the Amazon Echo looks like a Pringles can, the current version is shorter and reminiscent of Apple’s Mac Pro, albeit with a fabric cover. A really nice touch is the option to switch out the fabric cover for other colours and even decorative shells in wood finishes (Writer’s note: I personally like the Sandstone option).
Sound-wise, the Amazon Echo has a downward-firing woofer (same as the original Echo) and an upward-firing tweeter to deliver “crisp vocals and dynamic bass”. A colleague here at ShopBack, who has the Amazon Echo 2, confirmed that Alexa’s voice is clear and listening to audiobooks is a joy. But when it comes to playing music at moderate volume, the sound is slightly flat and the bass lacks punch.
However, this can be easily fixed by connecting it to a more powerful speaker or a dedicated stereo system via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm audio jack. Another cool thing about owning an Echo is the ability to play music on multiple Echo devices via Multi-Room Music!
|What is Multi-Room Music?|
Multi-Room Music allows you to play and control music across multiple Echo devices at the same time. All you need to do is ensure that all of your Echo devices are on the same Wi-Fi network, set them up for "Multi-Room Music", and create a "Group". This means that if you have an Echo in the living room, an Echo Dot in the kitchen, and another Echo Dot in the study, you can say "Play music everywhere" and you can walk through your entire apartment without missing a beat! Neat huh?
Some Considerations When Getting The Amazon Echo 2
Although the Amazon Echo is not officially available in Singapore yet, you can get one through one of the marketplaces listed on ShopBack. But here’s where it gets tricky…
Not all Alexa functions are supported yet. So you won’t be able to do stuff like order pizza or arrange for a ride. Placing your Amazon order via Echo is also a little problematic. Even though Amazon Prime is available in Singapore, it’s still a slightly messy experience – the Echo is after all largely meant for an American market.
You also can’t ask Alexa “What’s the weather like?” because she’ll give you Seattle’s weather instead. It’s the default location since it won’t register your zip code (because duh… We’re in Singapore). A workaround would be asking her “What’s the weather in Singapore?” instead. You can, however, teach Alexa Singapore-related skills!
NOT that kind of skills, but stuff like:
- 4D Results Singapore (obvious what this does)
- Straits Times to get your “news in a minute”
- SG Buses to find out when your bus is arriving at your designated bus stop
And besides listening to music streaming services like Prime Music and Spotify, you can also listen to local radio stations like Gold 90.5FM or Kiss 92.0FM via TuneIn.
In terms of smart home control, Alexa will play well with Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, SmartThings, and Wink devices – just to name a few. She can also:
- Support multiple, named timers so you can set and differentiate between a “pizza timer for 20 mins” and a “coffee timer for 10 mins”
- Set an alarm to wake you up from a nap with a song like James Brown’s I Feel Good
- Add bread to your shopping list
- Sync with your Google calendar so when you ask Alexa “What’s up?”, and she’ll list your events for the day and end off with “That’s what’s up.”
Even though some services are limited, there are lots of reasons to love Alexa. And considering that she has been around for so long, Amazon has had plenty of time to iron out any kinks so the voice assistant works pretty well. The addition of far-field voice recognition to the Echo 2 also means that Alexa will hear you, even if you gave a command from across the room. Overall, if you use Amazon services and can live without the US specific options – for now at least – then an Alexa-powered smart speaker is best for you.
- Price: $199 on Lazada (up to 2% cashback)
Disclaimer again: We’re also aware that there’s the Google Home Max as well. But to put a room-shaking behemoth (that has two 4.5-inch woofers and two 0.7-inch tweeters) against the Amazon Echo 2 (one 2.5-inch woofer and one 0.6-inch tweeter) is a little overkill.
Plenty of tech reviews have pointed out that the Google Home looks like an air refresher, and yeah… We can’t argue with that. That aside, the Google Home’s minimalist aesthetic means that it will blend in nicely in your home.
Google Assistant works pretty much the same as Alexa, however, it is slightly smarter. A good example of such “smarts” would be Multi-User Support. With this function set up, your Google Home is able to distinguish between different individuals and customise responses accordingly. So if you and another family member ask Google Home to “Play my favourite playlist on Spotify”, you’ll get very different playlists. Unless you both have the same taste in music, that is.
Like the Amazon Echo, listening to music on the Google Home is a somewhat subpar experience (Writer’s note: I still <3 my Google Home though). This is probably due to it only having a single, front-firing speaker with passive radiators on the sides to reinforce bass. This set up will cause sounds to seem slightly muffled especially when you are at the sides and back of the Google Home.
But here’s a bit of good news: Google announced in March 2018 that you can now connect Google Home directly to your Bluetooth speaker! Problem solved.
Some Considerations When Getting The Google Home
The advantage of using Google Home to control your smart home is that it’s officially supported in Singapore. This means that you’ll have full access to the Google Assistant suite of skills and actions that are available.
Google Assistant is also able to understand Singaporean accented English. We say this instead of “understand Singlish” because even though it recognises and uses words like “NTUC” and “kopitiam“, it’s not going to understand if you ask “Can chope a table for 2 at 6pm, at the nearest Aston’s or not?”.
Yeah… You might fry Google Assistant’s circuits with this (one).
Google Assistant might have slightly fewer skills and actions as well as compatible smart home devices when compared to Alexa, but it has enough that it is useful. Some examples of smart devices that work well with Home are:
- August smart lock
- iRobot vacuum
- Nuki smart lock
- Samsung SmartThings Hub
- TP-Link smart plug
If you set it up right, you can walk into your bedroom, dive into bed, and ask Google Home to switch on the air-conditioning and draw the curtains. Oh, and if you forgot to lock the smart lock of your main door, you can simply ask Google Home to do it for you.
Yes, that could be you. When you have Google Home in your life.
Google has always been pushing the boundaries of A.I. hard and it is aggressively closing the gap with more Google Home and Assistant compatible third-party applications and products. It’s only a matter of time when it matches or surpasses the Amazon Echo.
For those who own a Pixel smartphone, are deep in the Chromecast ecosystem or are subscribed to YouTube Red or Google Play Music, the Google Home is a no-brainer. It’s also worthy to note that Google Assistant’s machine learning is bolstered by information from location services such as Google Maps (an app almost everyone uses), and user behaviour feedback derived from Google Chrome browser.
Heck. We wouldn’t be surprised if Google leads the way for smart homes of the future (Editor’s note: This is totally the writer’s biased opinion…).
- Price: $157 on Shopee (up to 8% cashback)
Speaker-First Smart Speaker
The entrants here give you the best sounds you can expect from a smart speaker.
The Apple HomePod looks like a melon-sized meshed lantern that will definitely be a conversation starter.
More importantly, it’s a smart speaker that was built specifically for Apple fans because it only works with iOS devices and Apple Music (sorry Spotify Premium users). It cannot be used as a Bluetooth speaker, and it does not come with any form of audio line output.
Android users everywhere:
You could technically play your Spotify playlist via AirPlay 2, but not all of your voice controls will work. This means that you’ll be able to fast forward or backtrack a song and adjust the volume on your HomePod, but you won’t be able to ask for a specific song on your Spotify playlist.
|What is AirPlay 2?|
AirPlay allows you to take images, audio, or videos from one device (say... your new iPhone XS Max) and play it on another device (like the HomePod) via a wireless connection. With AirPlay 2 (released with iOS 11.4), you can also:
Sound-wise, the HomePod is arguably the best sounding speaker on our list. The device has a 7 tweeter array at the bottom and 1 high excursion woofer on the top. This creates a 360° omnidirectional auditory experience. The advantage of this design is that while most speakers are built to be forward facing, the HomePod can be placed anywhere in the room and it’ll fill it with a really, really rich sound.
We haven’t tested it ourselves but the majority of reviews online indicate good instrument separation and a punchy bass for its relatively small size. It also has the ability to play music REALLY loud (tip: you’ll only need to set it at about 50% volume for everyday use).
Some Considerations When Getting The Apple HomePod
The HomePod is… To put it gently, the “dumbest” smart speaker on our list. And it largely boils down to Apple’s voice assistant, Siri.
What Siri is programmed to do, it does really well:
- Answer trivia and questions like “What’s the weather like in Seoul?”
- Can recognise and answer contextual questions like “Who is Dwayne Johnson?” followed by “How tall is he?” (meaning Siri can recognise that the pronoun “he” refers to Dwayne Johnson)
- Connect to Evernote (a note-taking app)
- Is able to read your last text message and craft a reply (this is ALSO a problem, more about it in a bit)
- Set reminders
- Switch on and off HomeKit lights and switches
But when you compare it with Alexa or Google Assistant, here’s what Siri can’t do:
- Can’t read or set any calendar events
- Doesn’t allow you to “Find My Phone”
- Order products online like Alexa can with Amazon
- Set multiple timers (like you would in a kitchen when you need to time a pizza in the oven while cooking soup on the stove)
- Won’t be able to look up recipes
The list goes on…
But the real kicker here (for most readers at least) is that the HomePod only works with HomeKit accessories. Meaning you need to buy smart home equipment with this label:
Some products include:
- D-Link 180 Camera
- Philips Hue Lights
- Eve suite of accessories (home remotes, switches, and sensors)
The list is not exhaustive but if you compared it with what Alexa Echo or Google Home can currently work with, you’ll find your options lacking slightly.
Siri also can’t distinguish between voices yet, so remember how we talked about it being able to read your last text and reply to it? Yeah… That means your bratty younger sibling can technically “reply on your behalf” and cause pandemonium…
|How Can I Prevent People From Accessing My Text Messages Via HomePod?|
It's simple. Open up the Home app and tap on the "Location Arrow" icon on the top-left corner of your screen. Tap on your profile picture under "People" and tap on the toggle switch for "Personal Requests" under "Siri on HomePod" to disable the feature.
Note that you will not be able to access your text messages, notes, and reminders via the HomePod, but at least it'll prevent your roommates from mass sending "Lunch on Me" texts to everyone.
To be fair, Siri arrived slightly late to the A.I. game and is currently playing catch-up. But give it some time and we’re pretty sure that Apple will create a stunning product.
PSA: White Rings Of Death
If you wish to display the HomePod in the middle of your wood coffee table, be prepared for this:
Cue gasps. (Writer’s note: I can already hear my mom screaming, “See lah! I told you to use a coaster for your drinks right?!”)
Thanks to the HomePod’s vibration-dampening silicone base, your beloved smart speaker will leave a white ring on wooden surfaces. According to Apple’s support page, the marks are due to “oils diffusing between the silicone base and the table surface”.
We suppose that that’s a brilliant move on Apple’s part. Because wherever you choose to place your HomePod, that is its final resting place. In your home. FOREVER.
The Apple HomePod isn’t available in Singapore officially, but you can easily find one through ShopBack.
For all its shortcomings, Apple has always made beautiful and design-conscious products that work. And if you’re subscribed to Apple Music and are an iOS user, adding the HomePod to your collection of Apple devices is definitely going to enrich your experience as it looks and sounds fantastic. But if you can wait a little longer, there’re rumours that Apple’s already planning the next version of the HomePod…
- Price: $588 on Qoo10 (1% cashback)
The SONOS One looks exactly like the SONOS Play:1 (a really good compact wireless speaker) and is designed like a traditional bookshelf speaker. Unlike the Apple HomePod, the SONOS One has a uni-directional speaker with one forward-facing woofer and tweeter. However, that doesn’t detract from the full-bodied, rich sound it can produce. Apart from that, the One gets its “smarts” from Alexa, which comes pre-installed.
Some Considerations When Getting The SONOS One
A single One sounds great, but pairing another One to create a stereo system significantly upgrades the audio quality and creates an immersive experience which you would normally expect from a proper home theatre sound system. Unfortunately, you can’t create a stereo pair from a One and its lower-tech sibling, the Play:1.
If you already have other SONOS speakers in your home, you can make use of the multi-room sound function to connect your One to your existing setup. This will allow you to dance to Redbone’s Come And Get Your Love from your bedroom to your kitchen, uninterrupted.
In terms of its “smarts”, the One is Alexa-enabled but supports Apple Airplay 2. And is reportedly integrating Google Assistant as well.
On top of this virtual assistant flexibility, music lovers will also be pleased to note that the SONOS One supports 66 different music services (including Amazon Music, Apple Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, and TuneIn). However, Alexa only supports full voice control for certain services. Meaning you won’t be able to select specific tracks, but you can skip songs, and adjust the volume.
Given time, the SONOS One will literally be able to connect to any voice assistant and play almost any music streaming service you can imagine. Its superior sound is also a huge draw for audiophiles but it might be an issue for those who aren’t already invested in the SONOS ecosystem (shoutout to the Bose and Bang & Olufsen gang). For those who want a really good sounding smart speaker, the SONOS One is hard to beat.
- Price: $329 on Lazada (up to 2% cashback)
Mini Smart Speaker
This category is for individuals who already have existing speakers and are looking to smarten their homes on the cheap.
Amazon Echo Dot 3
The Amazon Echo Dot 3 will be released on 11 October and is an upgrade to the existing Echo Dot 2. Unlike its predecessor, the Echo Dot 3 is fabric bound and has a more rounded shape as compared to the more industrial body of the puck-shaped Echo Dot 2. In fact, it kind of looks like the Google Home Mini. In terms of colours, you get to choose from Charcoal, Heather Grey, and Sandstone.
Like the Echo Dot 2, the Echo Dot 3 offers the best of Alexa at a fraction of the size and cost. And while the Echo Dot 2 had a tinny sound, the Echo Dot 3 supposedly has a more powerful speaker that promises to be 70% louder and will sound richer.
Don’t worry too much about the sound performance though as you’ll still be able to connect the Echo Dot 3 to your favourite speakers via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm audio jack.
If you already have the Echo Dot 2, the upcoming version may boast a better speaker and nicer design, but you can easily remedy that by connecting your existing Dot 2 to a better speaker.
For those who are thinking of getting their first Echo product, then the Echo Dot 3 is the perfect introduction to Alexa’s features, presented in a small, handy package that could (if we dare say) be a potential contender against the Google Home Mini.
Price: TBC. But for reference, the Echo Dot 2 costs $50 on Lazada (up to 2% cashback)
Google Home Mini
In terms of “smarts”, the Google Home Mini does everything a Google Home can, but is smaller and more affordable. Looks-wise, we think it resembles a doughnut-sized, fabric pebble that comes in Google’s trademark minimalist aesthetic.
Sound-wise, it only has one upward firing speaker so naturally, it doesn’t have the rich, high-quality sound of stereo speakers. And it’s unfortunate that there’s no 3.5mm audio jack for you to connect external speakers directly. But similar to the Google Home, you can connect it to external speakers via Bluetooth. Or if you already have a Chromecast Audio dongle lying around, just plug it into some really nice speakers, set the default audio output of your Home Mini to those speakers and… Boom. Best of both worlds.
Just remember to direct your commands to the Home Mini and NOT your speakers.
Oh, and one more thing. For owners of Google Wifi and Pixel smartphones, we cannot fathom why Google decided to power the Home Mini via micro-USB instead of USB-C.
Like the Echo Dot 3, you’ll probably purchase the Google Home Mini if you want the brains of Google Assistant and don’t really care about the sound quality it produces. Overall, the Home Mini really serves as a means to talk to Google Assistant more so than as a sound system.
It’s also perfectly sized to be placed on your bedside table or study, and most importantly it looks good.
Price: $58 on Shopee (up to 8% cashback)
Our Closing Thoughts
So there you have it. There isn’t one perfect smart speaker that is an insta-buy as it really comes down to:
- Which voice-controlled virtual assistant you want
- What kind of features you want with your smart speaker
- Which ecosystem are you already or wish to be invested in
- And most importantly, your budget
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Which smart speaker will you be getting? Let us know in the comments below!
Featured Image Credit: Wirecutter
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