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Choosing a smart speaker: 6 things to consider – Future News

Adam Molina / Android Authority

If you’re new to shopping for smart speakers, or coming back to them after a hiatus, the prospect can be a little intimidating. The tech industry is moving fast, and features that were state-of-the-art a few years ago can be mediocre or even outdated today.

Being in the midst of the smart home industry, we’re here to explain what to look for. Some things apply to shopping and choosing between any modern smart speakers, while others may not be on your radar.

Audio Specifications

Devialet Phantom I . subwoofer

Of course, your first consideration should be how powerful and quality the speaker is.

Matching the acoustic specifications to the intended use case. Products like the Echo Dot and Nest Mini, for example, may be affordable, but they aren’t powerful enough to beat the noise of a party, and even in quiet places, you’ll lack bass or vocals. It doesn’t sound terrible, but it’s really meant for smart home control, news, podcasts, and some occasional low-key music.

Many budget amplifiers use individual drivers to cover all sound frequencies. If you want true quality, you should choose a smart speaker that has at least a separate tweeter (for highs) and a tweeter (for low). Even better is adding one or more custom mid-range drivers. An example is the Echo Studio, which has three 51mm midrange drivers, a 25mm woofer, and a 133mm woofer.

Products like the Echo Dot and Nest Mini may be affordable, but they’re not powerful enough to beat the noise of the party.

Typically you’ll need 20 watts or more of power if you’re expecting a loudspeaker to loudly and cover a large room, but companies don’t always publish wattage, and design tricks can sometimes circumvent the limits. In fact, avoid getting caught up in the idea that more power is automatically better—yes, it can improve range, volume, and bass, but after a certain point, you’re ruining your ears and causing an earthquake. The advanced Devialet Phantom I meter reaches 1,100 watts, but at its maximum volume it outputs 108 decibels – enough to cause serious hearing damage after a few hours. Realistically, phantom owners’ voice volume will probably be 50% or less in most cases.

If you’re an audiophile, you’ll want to keep an eye on features like room tuning (like Sonos Trueplay) and Dolby Atmos. The former matches the equalizer settings to the acoustics of the room, while the latter immerses you in 3D surround sound. You may want to connect multiple Atmos speakers to get the full effect.

Voice assistants and platforms

Amazon Echo Dot Alexa Speaker With Light Ring On Photo Album 2

Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

The speaker doesn’t necessarily need a voice assistant to be “smart” – it can simply support automation-related standards like AirPlay and Google Cast – but that’s what people tend to think of. There is an undeniable convenience to ask the speaker to play a song, turn on the lights, or tell you the weather forecast.

There are three main voice assistants, each associated with the smart home platform: Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri (associated with HomeKit). Alexa is the most popular and best supported in terms of compatible speakers and smart home accessories. Google Assistant is reasonably comparable, and the only one that supports YouTube Music. Siri is exclusive to Apple devices, so much so that the only smart speaker it offers is the HomePod mini.

Whatever path you take, try to stick to one platform unless you have good reason to diversify.

There are also far fewer HomeKit accessories than those based on Alexa or Assistant, although this issue may become moot by the end of 2022, when Matter’s protocol will allow compatible accessories to work across all three platforms (see below). You may want to avoid buying speakers that do not have critical support in the cards.

Given current compatibility concerns, the platform choice for most people tends to boil down to Alexa versus Google Assistant. Both have their own set of pros and cons, which you can learn about in the linked comparison. No matter which route you take, try to stick with one platform unless you have a good reason – multiple platforms mean additional configuration work, not to mention the potential for other compatibility issues and forgetting which speakers control what.

Read: Smart Home Protocol Matter and why it is such a big problem

Wired power or battery?

Bose Portable Smart Speaker

Most smart speakers are equipped with wired power only. Saving a battery costs additional costs, and smart functions can bring a lot of energy. Wi-Fi alone is notorious for being power-hungry, and it doesn’t care about features like automatic room tuning or a smart home hub.

If you want the flexibility of traveling or listening outdoors, there are still a number of battery-powered models, such as the Sonos Roam and the Bose Portable Smart Speaker. Outside of Wi-Fi, they simply switch to Bluetooth pairing with a phone, tablet, or laptop. You’ll have to use cellular data for streaming, of course, and you’ll often lose smart functionality unless you’re willing to turn your phone into a hotspot. Sonos speakers include offline voice control, but this is limited to basic operating commands.

The choice of portable smart speakers is limited not so much. Think of a stupid bluetooth speaker instead.

We recommend choosing a wired smart speaker unless portability is essential. You’ll pay a premium for portability and quality, and you’ll sacrifice some features anyway while on the go. It might make sense to buy a “dumb” Bluetooth headset as a travel accessory.

Related: In the age of smart speakers, sometimes bluetooth is still king

smart home hubs

Homepod Mini window sill 3 scaling e1630529304391

Sam Smart / Android Authority

A range of products, such as the HomePod mini and the 4th gen Echo, could act as a hub for their smart home platforms. Hubs allow accessory automation to run without internet access, and may be required for remote control of a smart home in the first place.

If you’re building a HomeKit setup, a compatible Home Hub (like HomePod) is practically mandatory for both reasons. With other platforms, speaker-based hubs are rare and usually just a luxury. That’s because any accessories that require a hub tend to ship with one, or work with third-party hubs based on standards like Zigbee or Z-Wave. The fourth generation of Echo supports Zigbee-based accessories such as light bulbs.

Expect more speakers to act like the interviewer once Matter takes over.

Expect more speakers to act like the interviewer once Matter takes over. Specifically, many of them will offer Matter over Thread, the latter being a wireless protocol that creates a low-power disconnected mesh network. Companies including Amazon, Apple, and Google already support Thread and are waiting for Matter to run.

privacy protection

Amazon Echo 4th Generation Mute Switch

Adam Molina / Android Authority

The primary and standard inclusion now on any smart speaker is the microphone mute switch. Although some people are overly paranoid about speakers recording everything they say, it is true that smart speakers need to upload most commands to the cloud for processing (after you have said their wake word), and a small portion of these recordings can be used sparingly. Anonymous Improved voice assistants. In a few cases, clips from Amazon Echo speakers have been used in criminal cases.

If you want stricter controls, your best bet is Apple.

You can read more in the privacy guide below. Here, suffice it to say that it only hurts to use the mute switch in terms of convenience. Arguably the most practical reason to mute the speaker is because he’s being turned on a lot — say because he’s misinterpreting something as a wake-up word, or your four-year-old won’t stop asking for Elmo.

If you’re buying a smart monitor, make sure it has a physical switch to disable any cameras it might have. This is a common occurrence, so don’t worry about it too much. Some displays, such as the second generation Nest Hub, omit the camera by design. This product has an optional sleep sensing feature that relies on radar, light, sound, and temperature sensors.

You will need to check the privacy policies before committing to the platform. If you want the most strict controls, your best bet is Apple, which has tight restrictions on both Siri and HomeKit. It’s worth noting that Google doesn’t save your recordings by default, and Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant all have options to delete recent voice requests.

We see: Smart Home Privacy Policies of Amazon, Apple and Google

Home theater support

Picture of the Black Sonos Beam speaker on a TV stand.

If you want to use your chosen smart speaker for TV sound, there are specific requirements you should be aware of.

In general, it is best to purchase a purpose-built speaker system or speakers such as the Sonos Beam. These have perfect connectivity options like HDMI or optical, while many regular smart speakers even lack a 3.5mm stereo jack. The mentioned regular products can be paired wirelessly in some cases, but if you have Echo speakers, your only option is to pair two of the same type with the Amazon Fire TV interface. Likewise, Apple forces you to use two HomePods that are identical to your Apple TV, although you can AirPlay to external speakers if you want to re-pair every time you sit down.

Google is actually the worst of it right now that you can’t (officially) pair your Nest Audio speakers with a TV or Chromecast. Rumor has it plans are underway, just don’t hold your breath.

In general, it is better to buy a system or speakers designed for this purpose.

If you’re interested in surround sound, choose products with Dolby Atmos technology, as this really replaces outdated standards. Stereo speakers can still be great, often saving you hundreds of dollars. It’s better to have a high-quality stereo setup rather than a medium setup with Atmos. You might consider investing the saved money in a subwoofer like the Echo Sub or Sonos Sub.

Finally, we’ll note that Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant all offer varying degrees of control over compatible TVs and media streaming devices. With Alexa for example, you can ask it to power up or play, browse genres, or play an app, movie, or show. Regardless of the platform, you’ll need to check if your TV or streaming device is compatible, and then link to the speakers through the platform’s mobile app.

What is the most important thing you might think about when shopping for a smart speaker?

3 votes

last thoughts

Nanoleaf panels shapes in the bedroom

There is no smart speaker option that works for everyone. As we pointed out towards the beginning, it’s really all about identifying the features you need and want, and then squeezing as many of them into your budget as possible. The Echo Dot might not be powerful, but it could be great as an alarm clock or a kitchen companion, and it would be crazy to leave a $1,000 speaker on your nightstand.

While we’re on the topic of money, don’t be too ambitious when you’re just starting out. If you have several hundreds (or thousands) of dollars, it can be tempting to buy speakers for the whole house at once. However, even when well reviewed, there can still be platform quirks that end up pissing you off. Try a single speaker for a few weeks and then expand from there.

We’ll finish emphasizing the importance of material and thread. It might seem like a feature today, but a few years from now you’ll be annoyed if you don’t have it, especially if you want to switch platforms. In the smart home space, installation mostly benefits manufacturers.

Complete: The best smart speakers

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