Best Smart Speaker: Echo vs. Sonos One vs. HomePod vs. Home Max
I’ve spent months researching and testing smart assistants and speakers.
First, I compared all of the Alexa devices. Echo and Echo Plus (with identical sound quality) are the best Alexa speakers, but they’re terrible in comparison to other speakers.
Second, I compared Google Home Mini to Amazon Echo Dot. Neither assistant plays nice with Apple products, but both do well controlling smart home devices.
Third, I compared all of the Sonos speakers. I love the Sonos’ collection. They sound fantastic and work with every music service.
Speakers with smart assistants have been out for two years, but sound quality hasn’t been a priority until recently.
Google released their premium version of Google Home, Google Home Max, earlier this year. Sonos released Sonos One, a revised Play:1 with Alexa support. And in February, Apple finally released HomePod after six years of work to make a speaker.
How did Apple do with their first attempt at a speaker? I bought several different speakers to see how it stacks up.
We’ll consider six categories: sound (most important), design, voice assistant, compatibility, software, and bonus features, and compare the best smart speaker each company has to offer: Amazon Echo vs. Google Home Max vs. Apple HomePod vs. Sonos One.
- HomePod, Home Max, and Sonos One are going after different markets than the original Amazon Echo and Google Home devices. You either want a premium speaker for music, or you want to make your home smarter. The people who prioritize smarts resort to the $50 subsidized devices, like Home Mini and Dot. Echo doesn’t belong in this comparison post. But it’s included because thousands of people are searching for Echo comparisons, and I want to set the record straight.
- Audio preferences are subjective. Some audiophiles on Reddit say HomePod sounds like a $1,000 speaker, while others say it’s overrated. Sound preferences even vary in blind tests.
- Unless you’re an experienced tech reviewer and have done side-by-side comparisons like I have, you won’t be able to distinguish sound quality between one system and another. HomePod, Home Max, and Sonos One sound great independently, and they’re 10 times better than the $100 smart speakers (Amazon Echo and Google Home).
- Home Max is my least favorite, but I only noticed its inferiority when I heard HomePod or Sonos next to it. You can’t go wrong with any of them. Whatever you choose, it’ll probably be the best speaker you’ve ever owned.
- All of these require power and WiFi to work properly. HomePod and Sonos don’t function without WiFi. Echo and Home Max have a 3.5mm jack line-in and Bluetooth, so you can play music without WiFi but will need to connect to use the full range of capabilities.
#4 - (Grade: F)
- It’s only six inches tall. That’s significantly smaller, and a notable improvement over the first generation Echo.
- Echo has changeable fabric covers that hide the unsightly speaker holes.
- The bright blue indicator light that illuminates when Alexa’s listening is helpful and can be seen from across the room.
- It’s made of cheap materials and nothing special to look at, but due to its size, it’s easily concealable.
Voice Assistant (B):
- It responds more efficiently than Siri, even though it can’t do multiple tasks at once or understand pronouns.
- You can set up multiple voices for personal requests, but it doesn’t work as well as Google’s.
- The simple wake-up signal “Alexa” is quick and easy.
- You can create “Routines” that are set phrases to perform multiple tasks at once.
- There are over 15,000 different skills in Alexa’s app store, making it the most widely-compatible smart assistant. Alexa will work with almost any smart home device available.
- You can control Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIN, Gimme Radio, and SiriusXM via Alexa.
- You can listen to any music service with Bluetooth, but you won’t have voice control.
- Music sounds thin and flat with no bass. For reference, I tried JBL Charge 3, and UE Boom 2 speakers that are in the $100 range, and those sound better than Echo.
- You won’t want to use Echo as your primary sound system or play music for extended periods, but it might work in a room you use less frequently.
- The Alexa app is a disaster. It’s hard to navigate, find skills and set up smart devices.
- Multiple voice setup doesn’t work well, and the voices you add must be in your “Amazon Prime Household.”
- Amazon doesn’t care about your privacy and will try to hard-sell constantly. Advertisements on Echo are coming, too.
- I like the simplicity of a one syllable wake word, “Alexa” but there’s a caveat. Because of its simplicity, it produces way more false alarms than “Hey, Google” or “Hey, Siri.” Conversation between individuals or TV audio sets it off a few times per day.
#3 - (Grade: C)
Google Home Max
Voice Assistant (A+):
- “O.K. Google” and “Hey, Google” are wordy, and it can’t hear with loud music playing, but it’s a fantastic smart assistant overall.
- Google can answer almost any search, regardless of the search engine used. It can even handle follow-up questions and multiple requests at the same time. Google’s been a search engine for 20 years. It’s what they do, and their assistant has the highest potential of them all.
- Google can answer up to six different voices, and apply preferences (calendars, reminders, music, etc.) based on who asked the questions. The setup is seamless.
- Home Max doesn’t have as many integrations as Alexa, but it has everything most people need and more integrations than HomePod. (Here’s a list of partners).
- You can’t play Apple Music, but YouTube Music, Spotify, Pandora, Google Play Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIN are available.
- The initial setup process, as well as adding multiple voices, setting your preference and configuring smart devices are miles ahead of Alexa.
- I like everything about the Google Home app.
- Home Max is the loudest. Above 80% volume is uncomfortable to my ears if I’m listening in the same room.
- It provides extra bass and treble, but the mid-ranges are funky and can’t be changed with the equalizer.
- It doesn’t sound as crisp as Sonos or HomePod. Music sounds like it’s softened or as though there’s a filter over the speaker.
- “Smart Sound” is a machine learning algorithm that automatically adjusts the bass and treble depending on the environment. To me, it seems like a gimmick because the bass was overpowering wherever I put the speaker.
- The consensus is that Home Max sounds worse than HomePod and a pair of Sonos One speakers. I agree, but that doesn’t mean Home Max is bad.
- You may prefer Home Max because it’s a crowd pleaser. It would work well for parties with its extra bass and loudness.
- It’s 12 pounds, bulky and awkward. It’s too big to place in the kitchen or on many bookshelves.
- It’s a rip off Sonos Play:5’s sleek design. It looks fine from afar, but it’s made out of cheaper materials. I’m fine with the Play:5’s bulk because of the superior sound.
- You can’t see the touch controls on top, and they don’t work well.
- You can flip the speaker to stand vertically, but it looks awkward, is easy to knock over and only plays mono-sound.
- Home Max can control your Chromecast well, but it can’t be used as your TV speaker unless you go 3.5mm to 3.5mm. You’d sacrifice audio quality, convenience, and need to set a sync delay on your TV if you do this.
#2 - (Grade: A)
- There’s no better-sounding speaker than HomePod in its size. And it gives more expensive speakers a run for their money.
- HomePod is a computer with its A8 Chip (the same chip in iPhone 6). This is the first speaker to have a legitimate brain, which lets Apple get the most out of HomePod’s hardware. It takes the data it gets from the microphones and makes a model of the room in real-time, then adjusts the sound accordingly.
- HomePod calibrates itself after a couple of minutes of playing a song and tunes correctly based room conditions. There’s no setup for this.
- Speakers typically sound different when you move around the room, but if you close your eyes, you won’t know HomePod’s location.
- Usually, audio distorts once a speaker’s volume goes past a certain point, but HomePod sounds crisp, lifelike, and excellent at every volume level. The clarity at 10% volume is the same as 100%.
- For full omnidirectional sound, there’s a seven-tweeter array and a six-microphone array that listens for sound bouncing off of walls and furniture.
- There’s an accelerometer that helps HomePod recognizes when it’s been moved and will re-adjust its sound.
- It looks and feels amazing. It’s seven inches high, six inches around and surprisingly heavy. This size is the sweet spot for smart speakers.
- It comes in White and Space Gray.
- You can put it anywhere without drawing attention, but it’s not so small as to sacrifice sound quality.
- No details were overlooked. For example, the power cord is made of the same mesh material to match HomePod, and it’s the nicest power cord I’ve ever seen.
- The display includes touch play, pause, and skip buttons.
- The colorful LED lights on top to let you know it’s listening look cool and are visible from everywhere.
- Setup takes a minute and is similar to AirPod’s setup. Because your iPhone already has your iCloud settings, you don’t enter any information, just wait for HomePod to set up on its own.
- Adding smart home accessories, like lights is a breeze. Smart home devices and automations are controlled in the Home app.
- Multiple room setup is coming with AirPlay 2 later this year.
- My iPhone and Apple Watch rarely pick up “Hey, Siri” when I say it. BUT, HomePod’s voice recognition uses some kind of wizardry. You can have HomePod’s volume at 100%, and Siri understands you in a normal voice. If the speaker’s not playing, you can almost bring your voice to a whisper, and it’ll still understand. Siri hears me from a room away without the need to yell.
- While you can’t control Apple TV with your voice yet, you can AirPlay the TV’s sound from Apple TV to HomePod. I love using HomePod as my TV speaker in my bedroom (like a soundbar) because it works wonderfully for movies. AirPlay stays connected to your Apple TV unless you break the connection by playing music, but it’s easy to reconnect by holding down the play button on your Apple TV remote.
- If you’re worried about privacy, HomePod is your best bet. Why? Apple makes most of their revenue from selling hardware (iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac, etc.) Amazon and Google make money through advertising and harvesting your data. Amazon and Google need your data, but Apple doesn’t. Everything you say before “Hey, SirI’ is processed locally on HomePod and isn’t sent to Apple. Once you ask Siri to do something, it creates a tokenized ID that’s encrypted end-to-end. In simple terms: Apple can’t see what you’re asking, and they don’t care.
- Because Siri has access to your phone, it can send, receive, read iMessages. This won’t be possible for other digital assistants.
Voice Assistant (C):
- Siri does a brilliant job of comprehending what you’re asking (better than Alexa and Google) then performs HomeKit tasks and plays Apple Music flawlessly. But Siri can’t do nearly as much as Alexa and Google Assistant.
- Don’t bother asking Siri tasks that you’d typically ask a search engine because it won’t know.
- Simple tasks like phone calls, multiple timers, and checking calendars can’t be performed, even though iPhone’s Siri can do these.
- Siri says, “I can’t do that on HomePod.” but then doesn’t hand off the task to Apple Watch or iPhone. You’re left with no help.
- Siri can’t recognize different people’s voices like other voice assistants, even though iPhone can. It hurts with messaging and notes. Your roommates can send and read your messages because Siri can’t recognize who’s talking. (You can disable “Personal Request,” but that means YOU can’t send messages using Siri either.)
- You can’t setup or use HomePod with an Android device.
- Apple Music & Podcasts are the only services that Siri can play using your voice.
- Apple hasn’t done a great job of showing you can use services other than Apple Music, but you can use AirPlay with any music service and it sounds great.
- However, there are issues with AirPlay.
- If you’re on your phone and browsing the Internet and a video shows on the screen (it doesn’t have to be playing), your music stops playing and the video starts on the HomePod instead. It happens every time I use Twitter.
- You lose Siri control during AirPlay. Siri knows it’s playing music (it can skip, pause and control volume), but it doesn’t understand what’s playing.
- The music randomly skips or stops playing.
- Siri can only control HomeKit devices (see list here). Big names like Philips Hue, Ecobee, WeMo, and August are HomeKit compatible, but Nest, Harmony, Roomba, Arlo and Ring aren’t compatible. I’m an Apple guy, so I’ve been buying HomeKit products exclusively for the last three years, but you’re in trouble if you already have non-compatible products in your home.
#1 - (Grade: A)
- Sonos One offers a crisp and rich sound with less bass than HomePod or Home Max.
- I prefer the clarity of one Sonos One over Home Max. (And it’s half the price.)
- Like HomePod, Sonos speakers sound good wherever you are in the room with their Trueplay technology. If you can get past the wonky setup of Trueplay, you’ll love it.
- HomePod’s sound is more robust than one Sonos One. (Trueplay isn’t as good as HomePod’s A8 Chip technology. Plus, Sonos One speakers face forward.)
- For the same price as one HomePod, a pair of Sonos One speakers sounds better than one HomePod.
- If you want to go big, Sonos Play:5 beats all of these smart speakers for $500.
- It’s aesthetically pleasing, feels well-built, and it’s touch-controls are conveniently located on top.
- Sonos One comes in white and black. The black looks amazing because it’s one shade, while the grill on the white makes it look two-toned.
- It’s four pounds, six inches high, making it the perfect size to put anywhere in your home.
Voice Assistant (B):
- Sonos has an open platform and doesn’t play favorites.
- Currently, Sonos uses Alexa as their voice assistant. It works almost as well as a native Echo (some Alexa’s skills like calls aren’t available yet).
- Google Assistant is coming to Sonos in 2018 and should the perfect combination of smarts and sound.
- The smart devices that work with Echo, work with Sonos One because it has Alexa’s brain.
- Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIN, Gimme Radio, and SiriusXM can be played via your voice.
- Although you can’t play every service using your voice, you can stream any popular music service available wirelessly to Sonos inside the Sonos app. Sonos wins total music integrations compared to other smart speakers in a landslide.
- Sonos has no preference in the music services or smart assistants that you use.
- You can control any Sonos speaker with your voice by having one Sonos One. You don’t need a Sonos One to get the Alexa and Sonos combination though because all Alexa devices work with Sonos.
- If you want a multiroom setup, Sonos is your best option. You can pair together as many Sonos as you’d like, and unpair them at any point. A Playbar is your best bet if you want a speaker for your TV.
- Sonos’ setup and app are excellent. They have every popular music service, and they are all managed in a universal queue. My friends and I have been using the Sonos app and lining up the queue with songs for years. Giving everyone on your network control of the music is fun. Sonos is in the “hate” section because of Alexa.
- Setting up Alexa is brutal and doesn’t always work. Once Alexa is synced with Sonos, smart home integrations and other Alexa settings are changed inside the Alexa app, not the Sonos app. The Alexa app is not a pleasant experience. The good news is that if you already have your smart home device setups figured out from a previous Echo, you won’t have to do it again.
- Alexa’s hearing sensitivity can be shaky. When I first got mine, Alexa couldn’t hear me well. Sonos updated the firmware, but others report that it’s overly sensitive. Sonos will figure it out with an update.
- It’s hard to see if Alexa is listening because there’s only a tiny LED that lights up. To compensate, One plays a loud and annoying chime after you say “Alexa.” There should be a way to disable or make the chime quieter in the settings. I’m not the only one saying this!
- Trueplay is great, but it’s hard to set up. You have to walk around your room while holding your phone upside down and wave it, while loud laser sounds shoot at you. It only takes three minutes, but sometimes it fails. If you move the speaker, you’ll have to reset Trueplay and do the process again. Sonos doesn’t automatically adjust to surroundings like HomePod.
Which one is for you?
Forget Amazon Echo. I don’t recommend it because its sound quality doesn’t justify its price. If you don’t care about sound, just get an Echo Dot.
It’s not a worthwhile investment to change your music service to cater to one of these speakers because Google Play Max, Apple HomePod, and Sonos One sound excellent! It comes down to which company’s ecosystem you’re comfortable with.
If you’re heavily invested in Google, you’ll like Home Max’s sound and the amazing assistant that comes with it.
For now, HomePod is just an Apple Music speaker and doesn’t work well unless you’re highly embedded in the Apple ecosystem. But if you’re an Apple Music subscriber or worried about your privacy, go with HomePod.
Apple needs to open up Siri to third parties and it will, but Apple wanted to get everything smooth on the first run. HomePod does everything perfectly that it’s supposed to.
If you’re a Spotify user, or you don’t want to be locked into one ecosystem, Sonos One is your best bet. To get a comparable sound to HomePod, you’ll need two Sonos One speakers. Luckily, a pair of Sonos One speakers is the same price as HomePod.
If you’re on a budget and want great sound, you can get by with one Sonos One. It sounds 10 times better than Amazon Echo or the original Google Home. Plus, you can add more Sonos speakers to your collection later.