Smart Speakers: How to choose the right ones for you?

December 8, 2023

Have you ever been to a house and someone randomly screams “Alexa/Hey Siri/ Ok Google, play music!”, and all of a sudden, an unfamiliar voice yells back “Here’s a playlist you might like!”? Music is starting and you’re still wondering what’s happening here. If you’re the person who yelled the command in your house, maybe this particular article is old news for you and you can go on and read some other genius insight. We’ve talked about hubs and how they centralize as many smart devices as possible, so that everything can be controlled from your smart device. But now you’re ready for the next step: not having to open your smartphone to turn off the lights. Now you want to control everything with your voice. Sorry folks, at the time this article was redacted, Alexa does not bring you a cold beer to the couch (Genius Idea though!). Let’s look at smart speakers!

Smart speakers are not the latest and greatest development, but are a great gateway device to get you started. These speakers essentially have two main interactions with their environment: they have audio (hence the name “speakers”) and an integrated microphone system. What makes it smart? As with everything smart, it is interconnected with other devices via Bluetooth or WiFi, or other technologies and enables voice controls. This is a great device for places like living rooms and bedrooms. Keep in mind, smart speakers do not have touch-screens (those are devices for another article). So why the fuss about these genius devices?

For one thing, these devices are pretty useful. When you program devices around your house to complete actions, they perform! For example, you may set it up so that when you say “Good Morning”, the device dictates the weather, gives you quick news headlines, and plays your favorite morning playlist. Or you can say “Good night” and the device turns off the main lights, turns off your smart TV, arms your alarm system and starts your white noise playlist in your bedroom device. These automations go by many names, like routines or scenarios depending on the brand. 

So how do you choose the right smart speakers? There are many factors to look at, specifically looking at how you want to use them in your house. 

  1. First off, virtual assistant (VA) brand selection. It’s important to buy devices that are compatible with your VA, as this may mean that you’ll have to move to a new platform if you already have devices installed, or potentially lose the money invested in an incompatible device. There’s two approaches here:
    1. Identify all the smart devices that you’d like to install in your house, even if you’re not going to buy them now. This approach may be important if you’ve identified very specific applications that are only compatible with specific VA’s.
      If that’s the case, you can check if these assistants have some sort of third-party integration. In the case of Amazon’s Alexa, they have skills available for many things, like games, information and other functions, but specifically for this case, many brands have developed skills to enable compatibility between their products and Alexa. Typically, the skills are an exchange of information between the VA app and the device app. In the case of Amazon specific devices, they are directly programmed through the Alexa app.
    2. Select a VA brand and stick to devices that specifically state that are compatible with it. This is a common approach if you’re not sure of how you’ll use IoT (Internet of Things) in your home. In my experience, when you don’t know enough of the subject, you go with a brand that will cover many if not all of the mainstream devices. The devices usually list the compatible brands, may include their logo, and say something along the lines of “Works with Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, etc.”
  2. Now that you’ve identified the VA brand, let’s look at specs. In this case it’s fairly simple since these devices have limited functionality: audio output (speakers, tweeters, woofers), and audio input (microphones).
    1. As for audio output, many brands offer many options. You may find Amazon’s brand is very useful if you’re looking for the best compatibility with Alexa, but many other brands also are compatible. For speakers, Bose, Sonos, JBL and many other companies sell smart speakers that are compatible with Alexa or Google Assistant. Apple has its own line of smart speakers and they come in a wide variety of options to meet room requirements.
      What to look for? Depending on where you want to use the speaker, you may require quality of sound. For example, if you want the speaker to fill up the living room with high definition sounds, you may want to have a larger smart speaker with multiple speakers, some tweeters, woofers and multi-directional sound. However, if you’re looking for a speaker that will mostly turn out the lights when you’re going to bed, you may opt for a smaller, cheaper speaker. In this case, you may consider less individual speakers, no tweeters or woofers, and single direction sounds. The good news is that you don’t need to sacrifice good sound quality for functionality, as many top brands are more often than not offering smart speakers. Even companies that do not specialize primarily on speakers are picking up the slack to provide high quality sound.
    2. In terms of how the speaker listens to you, you may again evaluate how big the room is. In this case, you can consider how many microphones and if they’re facing a specific direction or have some wider coverage. In a restroom, you may not need as many microphones as a larger room, such as the living room or your cozy igloo/cave.

At the end of the day, smart speakers come to user preference. Where is the device going to be? Is the main function music or just a VA giving weather, news highlights and other details or a combination of features? Do you prefer a specific brand of speaker? These questions can help you determine what’s the best speaker for your home, but if you still have questions, we’re here to help. Stay Genius!