1. Expert reviews

Test of smart speakers: 8 products tested

Daniel Hessel

Updated June 15, 2021

Smart assistants that take the form of a speaker or display in your home are becoming more popular. But which one is best – and which one suits your needs? Its many functions makes the Lenovo Smart Display the obvious choice as best smart speaker with a screen, and the Lenovo Smart Display is best in test for its neat format and great sound.

Test of smart speakers: 7 products tested

How we did the test

It isn’t easy to do consumer tests of smart speakers and smart displays with built-in voice assistants. Partly this is because their performance depends on your needs when it comes to questions, and the services you connect them to. And partly because it’s actually mostly about the product rather than the voice assistant. This is because in the voice assistants tend to be identical, with identical functions, regardless of the hardware you’re using to talk to them. So it’s more important to look at the hardware itself, and particularly to make sure the microphones are well positioned and pick up your commands.

That said, there are a couple of parameters that we’ve taken into account when we tested smart speakers both with and without built-in displays:

  • Microphone: A smart speaker continuously listens for its wake word or phrase. So it’s important that the microphones are good at picking up sound. Both to hear the wake phrases and to hear your commands, and in both quiet and noisy environments.

  • Sound: The actual speakers are very different depending on the type of product. Obviously a mini speaker not much bigger than a box of matches can’t be expected to deliver hi-fi sound. But it’s very important that the sound is appropriate for the product price and specialisation.

  • Design and user-friendliness: The speakers are designed to be visible for optimal performance. So it’s important that the speaker or screen fits into a normal home.

  • Hardware: Even if you primarily talk to the assistant, the hardware should be solidly built. If the speaker has a screen it needs to be of good quality, and if there are buttons or touch-sensitive controls they need to feel good to use.

We take all factors into account and the speaker's performance is weighed against its price. The product value determines the final score.

We tested a selection of the market’s most popular smart speakers. Compare prices for all smart speakers listed on PriceRunner.

1. Lenovo Smart Display – BEST CHOICE SMART DISPLAY

Tough to position well but intelligent

Type: Smart speaker with display Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 2x10W + 2 tweeters Screen: 10.1 inch (also available in 8 inch), 1920x1200 pixels Microphone: Yes Camera: 5 megapixels, 720p video Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 173.87x311.37x136.02 mm Weight: 1.2 kg Controls: Touch screen, microphone switch, camera switch, volume control

Lenovo Smart Display 10

The Lenovo Smart Display takes advantage of the new trend for smart assistants with screens This isn't new, either from Google or from its main competitor, Amazon's Alexa, but after a difficult start Google have relaunched their concept. In comparison to Google's own Nest Hub, Lenovo's solution feels more complete, and so we name it as best smart display just now, despite its problems.

Fiddly positioning

The Lenovo Smart Display is available in screen sizes of 8 and 10 inches, but the design and the majority of specifications are identical regardless of the size. The unit consists of a screen with speakers on the left-hand edge and a cheap feeling wood veneer-effect sticker on the back.

While a Google speaker can be tucked out of the way quite easily, the display unit is intended to sit on a kitchen worktop or similar, and in this respect it’s really not particularly attractive. On the back, about half of the unit is covered by a triangular bulge that houses the electronics and also means you can set the speaker up vertically. However, everything in the interface, except for video calls, is set up for horizontal mode. The slightly odd shape makes it tricky to position the unit well.

Platform under construction

If you're used to Google’s smart speakers, you’ll recognise a lot here. The voice control works well and all of these commands function exactly as they do in a normal Google speaker. The sound quality ends up somewhere between the small and large Google speakers. In other words, it’s fine for phone calls, recipe videos and a bit of background music, but can’t replace a bigger speaker. The difference is, of course, that the commands are all shown on the screen, which in some cases can also display supplementary text or images.

The big thing about this unit is that the screen can also be used for video calls (only Google Duo), videos (primarily YouTube) and can display a calendar or switches for your smart lamps. The screen can also be connected to Google Photos so that it displays a slide show of “your top moments” when it's in idle mode. It’s not clear how it chooses these top moments.

At the same time, it's clear that the screen is a new area for Google’s voice assistant. Nor does it currently offer services like Netflix. The games you can play with your voice so far have no equivalents that use the screen, which otherwise seems to offer great potential. This isn’t Lenovo’s fault, but it means it feels a bit like a first generation product that needs time to mature.

Better privacy control

A single swipe dims the screen, which then just shows a digital clock. The screen itself does its job regardless of lighting, even though it could have reduced the brightness a bit better in dark rooms.

One major advantage compared to the Nest Hub, Google’s own speaker with a screen, is that there are two switches on Lenovo’s screen – one for the camera and one for the microphone (Google’s version only has one for the microphone). This gives more control over when the unit is allowed to see and hear things.

The Lenovo Smart Display does its job, even if the design makes it feel both bulky and hard to position. Just like the voice part of Google Assistant, the screen part needs to mature quite a bit. But if you have the need and can live with the shortcomings we’ve mentioned, the Lenovo Smart Display isn’t a bad choice.

Switch for both camera and microphoneeasily good enough soundgood screenmajor potential with a more mature platform
Design makes it difficult to position

Price Comparison

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2. Google Home – BEST SMART SPEAKER

Reliable and enough sound for music

Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 2X4.5 inch woofer, 2x0.7 inch treble Screen: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 96.3x96.3x142.7 mm Weight: 477 g Controls: Microphone switch, touch controls

Google Home

Google Home is the original smart speaker from Google. It’s the same age as the Mini edition, but with a better foundation that means it still stands up today.

The speaker is relatively small. We’d describe the design as minimalist, stylish and functional. The top of the unit is a touch display. One tap on it pauses whatever you’re listening to, a longer press starts the assistant function and by swiping in the middle you increase and reduce the volume.

On the back of the unit is a button that allows you to switch off the microphone if you don’t want it to listen all the time.

Listens well in quiet environments

Overall, it’s a really good listener. It understands our commands correctly and the range of things it can help with is large and growing all the time.

One major disadvantage is that it has difficulty hearing instructions when there’s background noise, for example if there’s music on or somebody’s talking in the background. But it does really well in quiet environments, even if you’re far away and talking in a normal conversational tone.

If you’re several rooms away, you can use the Google Home app on your phone to communicate your voice commands.

Not brilliant as a speaker

Google Home performs OK on the sound front. It certainly can't match the slightly better dedicated Bluetooth speakers in the same price range, but still produces quite good pressure in the sound.

Unfortunately the bass drowns the mid-range at slightly higher volume, and the sound instantly becomes more shrill when there’s only treble and bass coming through. You have to play on medium volume to get reasonable sound quality. But it doesn’t sound like it costs in excess of £100 – more like a good bit less.

As a speaker, it works best if you connect it to a slightly higher quality wireless speaker system. Now you can also connect multiple speakers in a group. This allows you to enjoy multi-room audio with Google speakers, even though the app isn’t the most convenient way of controlling speaker groups.

Overall, Google Home is a great assistant for anyone who’s started expanding their smart home. And it’s also a reasonable speaker. But it’s the smart functionality and Google’s really great assistant that’s the big advantage. Being able to turn on and off lights or turn the music down with your voice and also get voice notifications are all really useful. The price tag feels perfectly reasonable. Google Home is a good buy.

Copes with lots of commands & dialectsfunctional designlots of functions
Could have had better sound qualitystruggles with background noise

3. JBL Link Portable

Smart speaker you can carry around with you

Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: No information Display: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 88x170 mm Weight: 730 g Controls: Microphone switch, Bluetooth button, on/off Miscellaneous: Built-in battery, IPX7

JBL Link Portable

The JBL Link Portable is a gadget with a difference – a wireless smart speaker with good sound quality – and it’s weather-resistant too. It’s positive that you can take the Link Portable to the beach or keep it on the patio without having to keep the charger plugged in. The battery will last approximately seven hours. However, when you use it at home, you should always leave it sitting on the wireless charging station, otherwise it will discharge itself, whether or not you switch off the microphone.

Getting started with the JBL Link Portable is quite easy. You turn it on, wait until you hear a sound, and then find the Google Home speaker.

Good for its size

The sound quality is really good for a speaker of this size. The manufacturer, JBL, is known for its more bass-rich sound, and this also applies to the Link Portable. But not so much that it disturbs or takes over. However, if you increase the volume to maximum, the mid-range will disappear a fair bit, and the bass and treble will take over instead.

The build quality is good. The device is easy to carry, yet stable and robust with a textured finish that gives it a touch of premium feel even though the price tag says budget. Sound spreads at 360 degrees so you don't have to worry about how to point the speaker.

The built-in microphone that listens for commands from you will hear well even if you're in another room. However, if you’re playing music from the speaker it will struggle to pick up the fact that you’re talking to it. From this respect, Google’s same-size speakers (Google Home) are better, although they do have significantly lower sound quality when playing music.

Charging station included

The Link Portable charges through a charging station where you simply place the speaker on a flat surface. Attractive and convenient. You can also charge it directly via USB-C, a type of cable that many people already have at home thanks to their computer, mobile phone or similar.

The main drawback with this speaker is that it takes so long to start up and doesn’t always respond when pairing via Bluetooth. Apart from that, however, it has many advantages. As a pure Bluetooth speaker, it would have had no chance in the competition precisely because of the above-mentioned disadvantages. But in this segment, speakers with good sound quality are scarce.

The JBL Link Portable is ideal for anyone looking for a smart speaker with good sound quality and high volume. The portability is an extra bonus.

Good sound qualityportable & water resistantwell built
Slow to startsometimes sluggish Bluetooth response

4. Lenovo Smart Clock Essential

An uncomfortable mixture of old and new

Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speakers: 2x4.5 inch woofer, 2x0.7 inch treble Screen: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 96.3x96.3x142.7 mm Weight: 477 g Controls: Microphone switch, touch controls

Lenovo Smart Clock Essential

The Lenovo Smart Clock Essential is Lenovo's second attempt to combine a classic clock radio with smart speakers.

Attractive clock radio

The device itself is a small, funnel-shaped affair with a simple screen on the front, a night light at the back and an extra USB connector on the back to charge your phone (clever!). The sides are covered in grey fabric, which is only interrupted on the top by the control buttons. Very attractive, in fact.

The screen isn’t much more advanced than you can find on a standard clock radio. However, around the clock you'll find small icons for the alarm, date and even the expected weather. Simple – and simply everything you need.

Lenovo smart clock essential

English-speaking voice assistant

In terms of size, the unit is about the same as a Nest Mini, but with a display. This means we don’t expect the sound quality to be all that good. A Nest Mini sounds a lot better, but for speech and wake-up music it’s OK anyway.

What is a little disturbing, however, is that neither alarm nor night light is linked to Google’s assistant. These are operated directly on the device, except when you need to silence the alarm, which you do with your voice… Alongside this, of course, you can set normal alarms via Google’s assistant, but there’s no connection between the two.

Most of the time, the assistant hears what we want to say and obeys just as well as a normal Google speaker. But when it comes to switching off the alarms we’ve set on the clock, a rather peculiar bug appears when we try out the support for other languages. In the beginning, we can use another language (in this case, Swedish) to ask it to shut up. After a week, it starts to protest in English, and after two weeks it only wants to turn off the alarm in English. The rest of the assistant, however, is still alert to Swedish commands.

Lenovo smart clock essential

The Lenovo Smart Clock Essential is one of those things that does exactly what it says on the tin. While we’d have liked to see a better connection between the assistant and what we set on the clock, that’s a minor concern. In terms of what it is, it does its job perfectly.

Attractivesimple and clear displayneat format
Not the best world’s best sound

5. HK Citation Oasis

Not real HK sound quality, but lots of features

Width: 14 cm Height: 18.8 cm Depth: 14 cm Weight: 2 kg Connection: DAB antenna, USB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, AUX 3.5 mm, Chromecast, Airplay (2) Drivers: 1 x 20 mm tweeter, 1 x 89 mm woofer. Battery capacity: Battery life: Noise level: - Miscellaneous: Multi-room function, Google Assistant, built-in Qi charging

Harman Kardon Citation Oasis

The basic idea is fantastic: Harman Kardon's excellent Citation series plus a clock radio plus Google Assistant. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Admittedly, our judgement is based in part on what we’ve come to expect when it says HK Citation on the box, namely gorgeous design, easy operation, and – perhaps above all – crisp and elegant sound.

It's hard to find many clock radio-like smart speakers that tick all these boxes in a good way, but we hadn’t expected HK to miss the target with this device.

Rather smoothed out

No, it doesn't sound bad. But it doesn’t sound that good either. The sound is markedly tinny, with a smoothed out treble and a definition that isn’t even close to what the Citation One speakers are capable of, for example. OK, so maybe we’re being a bit fussy. After all, this is a smart clock radio. Not a fully-fledged Sono competitor to replace a proper hi-fi speaker in a multi-room solution. This is just a complement. But all the same.

HK-Citation-Oasis-01

There’s a nice tension in the bass, although it’s not very deep. This can be put down to the form factor and of course isn’t a problem in the true sense, because this is just a clock radio replacement. It’ll primarily be played at moderate volume, and function is more important than bass. But we would at least have liked to see a clearer treble and a much less hollow mid-range.

HK-Citation-Oasis-03

So isn’t it at least attractive, then? Weeell... Same thing here. It's not ugly, exactly, but the Oasis is by no means as stylish as the Citation One speakers. It’s oval and chunky and has a fairly large display on the front. But it’s not very futuristic or "Danish furniture trend" in its visual style (even if it has woollen fabric from the Danish brand Kvadrat on the outside). It feels very much like… well, yeah… a clock radio.

Fiddly connection

We also experience a lot of problems when we try to connect the speaker via the Google Home app. Exactly why is difficult to say, but only after the fourth attempt does the speaker finally connect to our Wi-Fi, which otherwise works flawlessly. Although we named the speaker “Dining Room” (we’re testing it in the kitchen), it’s still called HK Citation Oasis in the list. We repeat the installation a couple of times and have the same problem, no matter where we place it. We try out connecting it via the Google Home app both on a Huawei Mate 20 Pro and via an iPad. And we get the same result, no matter where we place the Oasis.

It finally works as it should and has all those smart functions that make it really helpful as a clock radio. It has everything from DAB support to Google Assistant and wireless charging (place your phone on it overnight), with all that means in terms of convenience in this context (“Hey, Google… set the alarm for 06.30”). But given that it says Harman Kardon on it and costs the best part of £200, we can’t give it more than an average score.

For a higher score, it would have needed significantly better definition and treble, and a cooler appearance. A little disappointing, at least by HK standards. But that still goes a long way.

Lots of finesse and lots of features
Hollow mid-rangethin treblea bit dull looking

6. Google Nest Hub

Pared down and rather limited smart display

Type: Smart speaker with display Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 1.57” woofer + 1 treble Screen: 7 inch, 1024x600 pixels Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 178.5x118x67.3 mm Weight: 479 g Controls: Touch screen, microphone switch, touch control

Google Nest Hub

The Google Nest Hub is the smaller of two smart displays from Google.

Attractive and easy to position

Just like everything from Google Nest, the device comes with an oversized and really rather bulky mains adapter. Apart from that, you get a long cable and a well-designed product that’s easy to position.

The 7 inch screen rests on a rounded foot housing the speaker and electronics. The entire construction is as stylish and discreet as other gadgets from Google’s flora of smart devices.

The size of the screen is as much an advantage as it is a disadvantage. It makes it easy to position, but a 7-inch screen needs to be quite close for you to actually see what’s going on in a YouTube video, for instance. But it’s excellent for reading recipes on.

Few functions but good sound

Unlike the 10 inch Nest Hub Max model, this one doesn’t have a camera. This is an advantage if you don’t want a camera where the screen is going to be positioned, but it’s also a disadvantage because a smart screen is perfect as a device for video calls in your home. Video calls work, but only in that you can see the person you’re talking with, and not the other way round.

One advantage is that a Nest Hub can easily replace a Nest/Google Home Mini, for example in the kitchen, and with significantly better sound into the bargain. It’s still not quite as good as Google’s normal Home speakers, but you won’t be ashamed of playing background music on the Nest Hub.

The actual installation as straightforward as ever. Once it’s going, you have far more choice in terms of the settings. You can set Google Photo to display images on it, like a photo frame, and also choose various settings for how the screen should save power. The screen adapts to the ambient light and actually looks really good in most circumstances.

The Google Nest Hub suffers from not having a camera for video calls (with a shut-off button like the one for the microphone, of course). Other than that, it’s a really attractive and competent smart display for the home.

Convenient and easy to position formatgood displayamazingly good sound
No camerabulky mains adapter

7. Google Nest Mini

Small but good updates to Google’s smallest speaker

Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 1x40 mm Screen: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 42x98x98 mm Weight: 173 g Controls: Microphone switch, touch controls

Google Nest Mini 2 Gen

The Google Nest Mini is a second generation, or update, to the Google Home Mini. Google is now grouping everything within the smart home under its Nest subsidiary, which also explains the name change.

Lots of small upgrades

In terms of size and appearance, it looks like its predecessor. The most obvious thing on the outside is that there is no USB port for power – instead there’s a normal power adapter. This is explained by the fact that the power consumption has almost doubled, from 9 to 15 watts. We’d have rather had a USB-C connector.

On the back is another new addition that was previously a popular accessory for the Google Home Mini – a bracket to simplify wall-mounting the device.

After an installation that's as exemplary as always with Google's smart speakers, we find the next new feature. There are now touch controls on top of the speaker (hidden under the speaker fabric) to activate the assistant and change the volume. A convenient solution, but at the same time maybe not something you’re going to use very often because you still primarily talk to the speaker.

More sound for your money – but not enough

The main reason to get excited about the Nest Mini is on the inside. It now has an extra microphone, which makes quite a difference to the assistant hearing pretty much everything we say and reacting to almost every “Hey Google” we use to activate it.

It also has better sound, primarily in the form of more bass than before. It’s a good upgrade from the previous one, but at the same time you’re never going to fool yourself that this speaker will replace a dedicated larger one. At low volume you can have it as a radio in the background, but beyond that the sound quickly becomes far too limited.

It also has an AI chip to handle some of the voice searches locally, which is meant to speed them up. During our test period, we didn’t notice any difference in terms of speed, but according to Google your most common questions should get faster answers.

At the same time, we can’t get away from the feeling that the Nest Mini really should have had siblings. The competing Amazon system has a range of small speakers in different price classes and with different special functions. Google’s speaker would have benefited from this too, because as it stands this is still a high entry price for the ecosystem.

But the Google Nest Mini is a relatively complete and well-equipped entry level speaker for Google’s voice assistant, which is improving all the time. The upgrades here aren’t reason enough to get rid of your earlier Google Mini speakers, but this is certainly a worthy successor.

Good voice pick-upbuilt-in wall mounting bracketbetter sound than predecessor
Uses more powerno USB power connector

8. Google Home Mini

Convenient assistant with thin sound

Type: Smart speaker Supported voice service: Google Assistant Speaker: 1x40 mm Screen: No Microphone: Yes Camera: No Connection: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Dimensions: 42x98x98 mm Weight: 173 g Controls: Microphone switch

Google Home Mini

The Google Home Mini microphone switch microphone switch is the smallest of Google’s smart speakers, and it’s about the same size as a doughnut (a jam one without a hole in, of course). The size makes it very easy to position almost anywhere in your home without it having to be visible or take up space.

Large power pack

The cable included is also a good length to allow for easy positioning. Unfortunately, something that's the hallmark of all Google's home gadgets is a ludicrously badly designed power adapter that takes up far too much plug space. Fortunately, this speaker is energy-efficient enough to be run on pretty much any USB charger – but it would be nice to include that in the package.

At the same time, there’s only one button – to switch off the microphone – on the speaker. If you want to wall mount it you need to buy the accessories separately, and you can only control it via your voice or with the app. In other words, there are no volume or other buttons. Then again, it is a speaker designed for a voice assistant, so perhaps that’s not so important in this context.

Sound for speech

Installing the Google Home Mini is very simple. Plug it in, start the Home app and add it – that’s it. Beyond that, there isn’t much you can do with it. You can change the settings for volume, bass and treble.

But then, as we’ve already said, you don’t need more than that. This part usually works really well, and at least 9 out of 10 times we say “Hey Google” the speaker picks it up. This is even true if we put the speaker on top of a cupboard or something.

The sound when the assistant talks is really good. It’s clear and with surprising depth in the voice.

Of course, it’s not so impressive when you try to play music. In purely physical terms, a jam doughnut-sized speaker doesn’t offer much when it comes to sound resources, and you can hear that regardless of the musical genre. On low volume as a desk radio it’s OK, but no more than that. But the Google Home Mini still represents a simple first step into the world of Google smart speakers. During the year we’ve been testing it, the assistant has developed enormously, as have the accessories that support the system. The Google Home Mini is a really good voice assistant in a relatively OK speaker – but not such a good choice for anyone looking for a really good speaker with built-in voice assistance.

Easily placedsimple installationmicrophone switch
Sound only suitable for speechbulky power adapter

All about smart speakers

In recent years, digital assistants in the form of smart speakers in the home have become increasingly popular. But what do they actually involve? What’s available? How do they work, and do they really listen to everything you say? Let’s start from the beginning.

Smart speakers, smart assistants, voice assistants, smart monitors… what's the difference? All of the different terms in this area can be confusing to start with, and it can be hard to know what means what. But if we start from the basics, the whole thing is quite simple.

The foundation is a smart assistant, digital assistant or voice assistant, which are different terms for the same thing. This is essentially a computer system that can process questions and look for the answers, and may have several parts connected to it. What the system looks like depends on how you interact with it.

The method that gets all the attention is, of course, voice control. You say a command or ask a question and the system gives you an answer depending on what it knows or the services you’ve connected to it. You can achieve the same result by typing on a keyboard or touching a screen.

For example, you can ask a question: “What will the weather be like on Sunday?” The question is sent via the internet to the servers and data centres that contain the assistant system. There it’s interpreted and processed and the answer comes back to you in the blink of an eye. The speaker's voice assistant might answer something like: “On Sunday it’ll be sunny and 20 degrees”. It’s just like searching on Google but using voice communication.

Another example is linked services. For instance, you might have remotely controlled lights in your home that you’ve connected to your digital assistant. When you say “turn on the kitchen light”, the command is sent in the same way but also goes to the light you've designated as ‘kitchen light’.

All of the above involves the assistant, whether it's Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or whatever.

The next issue is how you access the assistant, and that’s where smart speakers come in.

Because you have almost exactly the same assistant with almost exactly the same features regardless of whether you're talking to your phone, TV, bedroom speaker or anything else, as long as they communicate with the same assistant. So if you have Google Assistant on your phone, it's the same

Google Assistant with the same features as the Google Assistant on your smart speaker. That's why it's important to know which assistant you want to use – or maybe even already use – and which devices can interact with that assistant.

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