Apple HomePod, Amazon Echo, Google Home and more: We put 7 speakers to the test

From BBC - March 12, 2018

For the last four weeks, I have been living in an Orwellian nightmare. One in which I have to watch every word I say because "they" are always listening. And by "they", I mean Alexa, Siri and Google.

It seemed like a good idea - get seven smart speakers and test them in a real house to see how they affected our listening habits and daily routine.

At times, they have been pretty helpful. If we are running low on biscuits, one of us can bark, "Hey Siri, add Hob Nobs to the shopping list" and a reminder appears on our phones.

During Storm Emma, Google kept me up-to-date on train cancellations, while our kids amused themselves for hours by asking Alexa what noise a cat makes.

Thankfully, none of the devices started spontaneously laughing in the middle of the night - but they were all prone to bouts of madness.

I once asked Alexa "what's the weather in Yemen" and got the reply: "'Das wetter' is German for 'the weather'."

And when I told Google to "play music in the kitchen", it responded by streaming Lee Brice's Songs In The Kitchen to a speaker in the dining room (congratulations, Lee, on your new royalty stream).

To find out which smart assistant was the smartest, I put each of the speakers to the test - posing 50 random questions on music, sport and general knowledge. Like all good quiz show hosts, I only accepted their first answer.

Alexa fared best, with 37 correct answers, followed by Google on 32, and Siri, which scored a lowly 27.

Apple's assistant was hobbled by its lack of integration with other apps - meaning it could not read my calendar or look up recipes.

When it came to music-related queries, however, Siri had more success.

For instance, the HomePod was the only speaker that could parse the command "play the James Bond theme next". Its competitors all tried to find a song called "James Bond Theme Next", failed, and gave up.

You can find the full list of questions, and how the speakers responded, here.

As you will see, none of them are perfect - but smart speakers look set to replace the smartphone as the tech giants' biggest growth products.

Choosing the right one can be tricky. So here's our guide to the speakers, and how they might fit into your lifestyle.

Apple HomePod (319)

Apple has arrived late to the smart speaker market, but not through laziness.

The HomePod has been in development since 2012, and boasts a unconventional design - with seven tweeters (the speakers that produce treble) arranged in a circle to project music into every nook and cranny of your house. The bass is also punchy and well-balanced, even at low volumes.

I found it worked better with acoustic, singer-songwriter material. Playing Regina Spektor's Samson, the HomePod championed the singer's vocals without losing the detail in her piano work. On a busier song like Stevie Wonder's Superstition, however, it struggled to pick out the star's intricate drumming.

It's also an incredibly insistent speaker - demanding your attention with a very "forward" soundstage. We found that was great in the hustle and bustle of a family kitchen, but less attractive when listening to music in bed at night.

One important note: You ca not set up the HomePod unless you have an iPhone or an iPad. The speaker is then tethered to that device and certain functions, like updating your shopping list, only work when they can "see" each other.

HomePod is also completely loyal to Apple Music. You ca not ask Siri to stream from Spotify or Deezer - although you can access them on your phone and beam them to the speaker.

Best for: Apple enthusiasts; audiophiles

Amazon Echo Plus (139)

If you want a speaker that comes with a free light bulb, then Amazon's Echo Plus is your only choice.

The speaker aims to be a "home hub", controlling all sorts of connected devices, from your lights to your kettle. I was not able to test those abilities, though, as the BBC budget did not stretch to buying me remote control curtains.

As a music player, the Echo Plus is competent but unspectacular - but it'd make an ideal replacement for a kitchen radio.

Alexa will happily stream from Spotify and Deezer, as well as Amazon's own Music Unlimited service - which you get at a discount if you purchase an Echo device.

It's particularly good at finding the music you want, even if you have a terrible memory. I managed to get Alexa to cue up Girls Aloud's Love Machine by asking, "What's the song that goes, 'Let's go, Eskimo?'"

But now that Amazon has leased Alexa to other speaker manufacturers, there are better devices in a similar price range.

Best for: Casual listening, smart assistant abilities

Ultimate Ears Megablast (199)

The Megablast is a long, tall cylinder, available in a range of colours (our review unit was a lurid yellow, which I became weirdly fond of).

It gives out a pretty bassy, fulsome sound; which goes up really, really loud. You can use Alexa to play songs from Amazon Music Unlimited (but not Spotify yet), or simply use it as a bluetooth speaker to stream music directly from your phone.

Best of all, you can unplug it and take it to a party, with a generous battery life that means you wo not be left tuneless when the clock strikes midnight.

Sonos: One (199)

Google Home (129)

JBL Link 300 (249)

Amazon Echo Show (199)

Secret option eight: Do not buy any of them


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