A new generation of smart speakers greatly improves on the device's sound quality.
A new generation of smart speakers greatly improves on the device's sound quality.
As the audio engineer for the Tiny Desk concert series, of course I obsess over how our concerts are experienced — so when I watch someone pull up a session on their smartphone, laptop or tablet, with those tiny and tinny speakers, my heart sinks a little. I'm thrilled people love these concerts as much as we love making them, but they sound so much better when played on a decent sound system, or on headphones. Sure, the concerts sound OK on a mono phone speaker, but you'd be amazed by what you're missing once you've heard the audio mix on a device that can actually reproduce the low and high ends of the frequency spectrum, where all the chest-thumping bass and shimmering cymbals live.
Thankfully, audio snobs need not look on in horror (as much) anymore: great-sounding, relatively affordable smart speakers are popping up everywhere. They're all convenient for barking questions at, like "What's the weather on Friday," or, "How many grams in a pound?" (454, as it turns out.) These are decidedly not the hockey-puck shaped smart devices — with no bottom end, muffled highs and a jarring mid-range — currently littering the homes of family and friends. After spending a bunch of time listening to each one, I frankly couldn't choose a clear favorite — I just know they all sound better than what most people have in their homes.
In addition to my own assessments, I asked a group of NPR audio engineers and producers to participate in a Pepsi Challenge, to help distinguish the sound between four of the latest offerings from Sonos, Apple, Google and Amazon.
I should note that it's possible to link any two of these units together to create a stereo pair, but I decided to test only one unit from each brand. After all, you may receive one as a gift, or buy one just to see if you like it. And not to fear, these companies make it easy to add more speakers later — though fair warning, I've learned that adding additional speakers is not only expensive, but habit-forming. (I mean if I'm honest, every room should have a speaker in it. And some rooms should have stereo pairs. And still others 5.1 surround. And I should be able to send any audio to any room all from my smartphone or tablet. Obviously.)
Now, the elephant hiding in the corner of the room and taking notes here is the issue of privacy; Google's head of devices recently recommended disclosing the presence of smart speakers to your houseguests, while concerns have been raised over the devices eavesdropping without permission. If you're worried about protecting your privacy but still intrigued, know that all of the device's have options for disabling their mics. You can also take a look at Mozilla's privacy-focused reviews of the devices. And Sonos makes options without a mic, controlled only by the app.
Let's dig in.
Sonos Move ($400)
The Sonos Move.
Sonos was the first company to convince me that wireless audio can rival a home stereo in audio fidelity. In 2005, they were way ahead of the competition when they released the ZonePlayer 100 — which could "wireless stream and amplify your digital music all over the house."
Now, with the release of the Move this year, Sonos continues their tradition of being in the tech-speaker vanguard. The Move's biggest appeal is right there in its name: It's the only speaker in this overview that is completely untethered from both audio and power cables, thanks to a built-in rechargeable battery.
I could start my day with the Move in the bedroom, waking up to NPR One, then lift it off its included charging base via built-in handle and move it to the bathroom for an underscored shower, move it over to the kitchen to make breakfast, then move it up to my building's rooftop to stream my yoga podcast via Bluetooth. It's kind of like getting four speakers in one — if you're willing, that is, to... you get it. Sonos can also play nice with both Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant, just not at the same time. Dedicated touch controls on the top of the speaker allow you to play/pause, swipe to skip forward or back and mute the mics. If you hold down the play/pause button on an inactive speaker, whatever is playing on another Sonos speaker on your network will magically start playing. Sonos supports countless music and news streaming services without playing favorites, unlike Apple, Google and Amazon.
The Move has a very balanced sound that comes from one mid-woofer and one downward-firing tweeter, with a wider soundscape than the (excellent-sounding) Sonos One —which is half the price, but tethered by its power cable. The Move uses Sonos' auto-tuning feature, Trueplay, automatically every time it's moved — with other Sonos speakers, you need the iOS version of the app to tune the devices, via your iPhone's mic. You can, however, adjust the treble, bass and loudness in the dedicated Sonos App for both iOS and Android on all of their devices.
If you already have a Sonos system, the Move is a convenient and portable addition to their lineup. The battery will last for about 10 hours and it's replaceable (huzzah!). It also supports Apple's AirPlay, so you can beam audio directly from your Apple device. And if you have a Bluetooth-streaming record player, you can play it through the Move too, like any other Bluetooth source. Alas, it's missing an aux-in jack, though does have a USB-C port for charging when the base isn't around. It comes in just one color, an industrial greyish black, and it's the only speaker on this list with a metal grill instead of fabric. It's built to take a beating, and get splashed on every now and again too, with an IP56 rating protecting against dust and water. All of this makes it the most expensive smart speaker on the list.
Apple HomePod ($300)
What distinguishes HomePod from the other speakers here is that it is idiot-proof: No matter where you place it in the room, you're guaranteed to be in the sweet spot. In fact, there is no sweet spot — even if you're behind it. HomePod tunes itself to its surroundings, so if it's in a corner, it retunes itself to fire sound in the opposite direction of the wall, automatically attenuating booming bass levels as well. It's HomePod's killer app.
Seven "beamforming" tweeters are evenly spaced out on the bottom perimeter of the speaker, which allows sound to bounce off whatever surface it's on. The "high-excursion" — again, their word — woofer is on top, thus avoiding the possibility of rattling anything nearby.
But the tradeoff with Apple's intuitive setup is — and this may not come as a surprise — a lack of customization options. There's no way to adjust bass or treble, though HomePod sounds balanced no matter where you place it. If you like Siri as a virtual assistant and you're entrenched in Apple's unrivaled digital "ecosystem," this is a great-sounding, no-fuss speaker. And, being from Apple, it looks great; HomePod is elegant and blends in well, especially in white.
The touch controls on the top of HomePod are intuitive. Tap once to play/pause, double tap to skip forward and triple tap to skip back. There are dedicated volume buttons, but there's no hardware option to disable the mics (you can disable Siri in the Home app). The power cord isn't replaceable, like the other speakers on this list. Most unfortunately, there are no Bluetooth or line-in options either, so getting your growing vinyl collection to play through the HomePod isn't an option. Also Android users also need not apply, though there is unofficial software available that supposedly works for Airplay (I didn't test this software). And speaking of Airplay, you can stream any application running on iOS to HomePod, like Spotify or Tidal, but having an Apple Music account is essential for barking musical requests at the smart part of this speaker.
Google Home Max ($250)
Google's Home Max.
Two woofers and two tweeters make this thing sound as big as it looks — which is saying something, since it's about twice the size and weight of the others we tested. You can feel the low end in your gut and there's decent stereo spread if you position yourself a few feet in front of it. It ships in white ("chalk") and black ("charcoal") and uses lights under the grill to indicate volume and that it's listening to commands. Around back, there's a dedicated switch to mute the mics and a USB-C port that can charge any device. You can also connect to the speaker via aux-in or Bluetooth, though it (unsurprisingly) stops short of integrating support for Apple's AirPlay.
The device uses smart sound to calibrate itself, just like HomePod and Move, so room placement isn't super critical. Thankfully, this massive speaker can be placed vertically (mono) or horizontally (stereo), and its clever touch-activated surface knows which way is up. The audio sums to mono when the speaker is vertical due to the position of the four drivers inside. When horizontal, there's some stereo spread, and you can slide your finger across the top to adjust volume. Slide left, the volume lowers, and the lights under the speaker grill show you how much. It sounds minor, but it's so nice to have a visual representation of volume right on the front of the speaker. (It also made this Gen X-er nostalgic for Kit, the car from the '80s TV show Knight Rider, co-starring David Hasselhoff.)
When it comes to smart assistants, you can use... Google. That's it — Siri and Alexa won't help you here. Streaming service setup is easy enough, though: Once you're logged into your accounts, you can ask the Max to natively access Google Play Music, YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn and iHeartRadio. Apple Music on the Google Home Max? You're out of luck. But with the inclusion of Bluetooth and aux-in, it's possible — you just can't ask Google Assistant to play it for you.
Amazon Echo Studio ($200)
Amazon's Echo Studio.
The first time I played around with an Amazon Echo, I remember thinking Alexa was a very cool party trick, but thought it would never catch on. As a self-proclaimed audio snob, I just couldn't get past the subpar sound quality. Enter Echo Studio.
What's surprising is that Amazon has upped the sonic ante, too, with "3D Music." With a subscription to Amazon Music HD ($13-15 per month), you get access to countless songs remastered for Dolby Atmos, and what they've achieved from a single box seems impossible, with sound seeming to come from an entire wall rather than a single point source. I'm very curious to learn what mixing a Tiny Desk concert for this system might sound like in the future, but I'm a sucker for tried-and-true stereo and turned off Echo Studio's enhanced sound setting for this review.
There are five directional speakers inside the Echo Studio: one on top, two on either side firing out, one facing front and a subwoofer firing down. What does that get you? Stereo separation! Of all the speakers I tested, none could reproduce stereo imaging like the Echo Studio. However, there was a dead zone directly behind the device — I'd love to see a sixth speaker added in the back to fill that space. The speaker also features "Automatic Room Adaptation," Amazon's version of room calibration, which uses the mics to automatically tune the speaker. Just like the others.
In addition to Wi-Fi, you can stream audio to the Echo Studio via Bluetooth, or connect a device via aux input. AirPlay is not supported; however you can summon Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Siriusxm, iHeartRadio, Pandora and Tidal with your voice. If the Echo Studio had AirPlay, a built-in battery and a handle (like the Sonos Move) plus a sixth speaker around back (like the HomePod), it would be the ultimate smart speaker.
The Smart Speaker Pepsi Challenge
I like the sound coming out of all these speakers, and I'm relieved that tech companies are making strides to improve fidelity. But sound quality is subjective, so I sat down with four NPR producers and engineers in front of these smart speakers for a blind listening test:
- Natasha Branch is a broadcast recording technician, who engineers NPR radio news programs and occasionally assists me on Tiny Desk sessions.
- Suraya Mohamed is a former audio engineer and a producer for NPR Music, including the influential program Jazz Night In America.
- Bob Boilen is the host of NPR Music's All Songs Considered (and his desk is tiny).
- Kevin Wait is my mentor — he recorded the first 450 or so Tiny Desk concerts.
What follows are the unedited first impressions of these NPR staffers after listening to 30-second-long clips of the following audio:
- NPR's morning program Up First, to get a sense of how news and podcasts will sound.
- The Jupiter movement of Gustav Holst's The Planets, to analyze how they perform under the weight of a full orchestra (as suggested by NPR's resident classical music expert, Tom Huizenga)
- "Money," by Pink Floyd, for amazing stereo imaging and a sense of how they handle the sound of rock.
- "Tempo," by Lizzo. Because it's Lizzo and the song slaps.
No. 1: Sonos Move
Natasha: Overall, nice tonal balance, if a little mid-forward. Great for dialogue-heavy listening. No stereo soundstage, but good separation of elements, nonetheless.
Suraya: Up First — boomy mids. Jupiter — mono, dull, mid-range-y, with harsh highs. "Money" — needs a better bottom. "Tempo" — low-end is not good.
Bob: Quite clear. Nice highs. Not enough depth on classical. Average sound, musically. Nice highs, mids just okay.
Kevin: This thing gets loud! No distortion noted. Good low-end/frequency response. Mono. Still a little boxy-ness.
No. 2: Apple HomePod
Natasha: The lower to mid-range frequencies (where bass and floor toms live) sound muddy to my ears. It's all a bit of a wash, with no depth or separation between elements. Though there's no stereo spread here, it is nice that elements don't drop out as you move around the room.
Suraya: Up First — I like the sense of space. Jupiter — not bad, pretty good frequency response. "Money" — warmer low-end, but I might want to EQ it. "Tempo" - mid and high frequencies too prominent.
Bob: Very natural sound. Good bass balance. Good top end. Nice depth. Bass not as deep as others, but that wasn't a minus. Rock sounds great.
Kevin: Not as loud as No. 1. No distortion noted. Not boxy, but not crisp. Mild stereo separation on "Money."
No. 3: Google Home Max
Natasha: The highs and lows are emphasized too much for my taste, but this could be exciting for movie viewing or casual listening. I'm happy to hear a stereo image, but it's quite narrow, and there's really only room for one person in the sweet spot.
Suraya: Up First — almost phase-y [Ed. note: Meaning washed out and hollow sounding] Jupiter — crispy high end. "Money" — decent left-right imaging, pretty smooth frequency response. "Tempo" — vocals too prominent, bass decent.
Bob: Not well-balanced. Big bottom. Spatially, not much separation. Classical sounds good. Rock sounds very good. Lizzo sounds good.
Kevin: As loud as No. 1, no distortion noted. Not as good a frequency spread as No. 1. Mild stereo separation, a touch wider than No. 2.
No. 4: Amazon Echo Studio
Natasha: Enjoyable tonal balance here, and I'm hearing low-level details, like reverb tails, for the first time. Greater stereo spread than No. 3, but the center image sometimes seems to emanate from the back of the device.
Suraya: Up First — too much midrange. Jupiter — best stereo separation. "Money" — best left-right imaging. Needs a cut at 400 hz [Ed. note: you can use EQ to cut out the tubbiness at 400 kHz] "Tempo" — decent low end, voice too loud.
Bob: Sounds good — voice is natural. Classical had a good, big sound. Stereo sound welcome! Very balanced. Good bass.
Kevin: Louder than No. 3, no distortion noted. Sounds like mono sound is coming out of the side. Mild stereo separation, widest of the bunch. Frequency response flat like No. 2. Not as good as No. 1.
Josh Rogosin: My take? The Google Home Max and Amazon Echo Studio make valiant attempts at stereo in one package, but I'd personally rather have a Sonos speaker that just does mono well. When I can afford it, I can always add a matching paired speaker for an authentic stereo experience.
Sound quality aside, the most important factor in buying or gifting one of these products is the ecosystem you're joining, or forcing someone else to join. Choose the speaker that works with the services that you use. If you don't have a preference and are entering the market for the first time, then consider budget and, if you can afford to, set up two speakers as a stereo pair. Willing to ditch the mics and voice assistants? A pair of Sonos/Ikea bookshelf speakers only costs about $200. (But at half the price, they won't sound quite as full-bodied.)
Smart speakers have made big strides in sound quality with this current crop of offerings. While there are certainly cheaper options available, I would encourage anyone to spend the extra money on one of the better-sounding devices. And there's certainly no shortage of quality audio content available, much of it offered for free and/or ad-supported, from great organizations. Like NPR.