Best Smart Speakers Under $200
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Would you like to know a secret about smart speakers? The speaker itself doesn't have to be that smart.
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When you ask your speaker to mix the latest Taylor Swift album or tell you the capital of Bolivia, that artificial intelligence magic happens on the company's servers rather than in the speaker cabinet on your kitchen counter or on the shelf of the family room.
By outsourcing these functions to the cloud, a low-cost smart speaker can perform most smart functions in the same way as a more expensive top-of-the-line model.
However, research shows that most smart speakers spend most of their time simply playing music. That is why our testers attach great importance to the sound quality when testing these devices.
Here are eight affordable models that offer a balance between value and smart speaker performance, and with sound quality that ranges from acceptable to darn good.
To learn more about these high tech gadgets, check out these 21 smart speaker superpowers and learn how to set up your smart speaker for privacy.
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Amazon Echo (4th generation)
The latest version of Amazon Echo not only has a redesigned design (say goodbye to the old cylinder look), it also has better sound and new features.
The bass is strong but slightly booming, and the unit has enough volume to fill a medium-sized room. Our testers also find that two echoes sound great when paired in stereo, with a significant stimulus that you are there. As with all Amazon models, the new Echo can be used as part of a multiroom system with other Amazon smart speakers.
The new integrated Zigbee Smart Home Hub used to be exclusive to the Echo Plus. This feature enables the Echo to communicate directly with many ZigBee compatible devices such as Philips Hue smart lights and some Yale smart locks and Honeywell thermostats without using an app.
Amazon Echo Dot (4th Generation)
The newest Dot also features a brand new design that channels the spherical look of its bigger siblings. More importantly, it has better sound and remains the cheapest route into the Amazon ecosystem with an often discounted price of $ 50.
The sound quality of the latest Dot is still not great, but our testers find that it has been significantly improved over previous versions, some of which sounded a lot like a poor phone connection. The 4th generation model is good for listening to podcasts or low-level background music in a small room. However, if you spend a lot of time listening to music, consider the more expensive, but better-sounding, Echo. The Dot can also serve as an inexpensive way to place smart speakers throughout your home or to add smart speaker functionality to an existing Bluetooth speaker.
Note that there is also an Echo Dot Kids Edition that features a happy panda or tiger face on the fabric cover. However, consumer groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission arguing that the previous generation model violated the federal data collection law on data collection for children under 13, and those concerns remain an issue with the new version.
Google Nest Audio
The Nest Audio has undergone a visual transformation, with its new rounded rectangular shape replacing a predecessor that resembles an air freshener. Underneath this new surface is a completely new speaker design in which a separate tweeter and woofer replace the individual driver of the outgoing Google Home.
Some people prefer the Google Assistant to Alexa, but it comes down to personal preference. Alexa smart speakers have a wider range of capabilities. However, some users find that Google's search is smarter and its speech recognition features are more natural and easy to use.
Although the company has touted Nest Audio's sound performance, our testers find that the sound quality improvements have been modest. The Nest Audio is loud enough for a medium-sized room, but the midrange is a bit blurry and the high frequencies are a bit hissing. Overall, however, the sound is satisfactory, especially for the money.
Google Home Mini
If you're looking for an inexpensive entry into the world of smart speakers or a cheap gift, the Google Home Mini might be the ticket. For just $ 25, the Mini gives you access to the Google Assistant, which some users find a little more intuitive than Amazon's Alexa. Google Assistant has strong search capabilities, but it supports fewer third-party capabilities than Alexa, and its shopping features are less robust.
One place where the cost tradeoffs with the Home Mini become apparent is in sound quality. While the tiny speaker is fine for spoken word content like podcasts, our testers find that it's not good enough for enjoying music. One option: you can add smart speaker functionality to an existing wireless speaker by pairing it with a Home Mini.
From a privacy standpoint, there are valid reasons to think twice about having a smart speaker in your bedroom, especially if it's always on and waiting for a wake-up word that sounds remarkably similar to your pet's pussy's name.
But if you are not concerned, the iHome AVS16 is a legitimate alternative to a traditional clock radio. You can set the alarm using voice commands. If you have smart light bulbs and sockets, you can start your day by turning on the lights and starting the coffee maker on command.
Like most smart speakers, it also has a dedicated switch to turn off the microphone if you want extra privacy.
Our testers found the sound of the iHome to be decent, at least for alarm clock standards. The highs and lows are no exception, but the all-important midrange, in which most of the music resides, is the tonal strength of the AVS16.
JBL Link 20
If you're looking for a smart speaker for the outdoors, the JBL Link 20 might just be the new toy you're looking for.
Most smart speakers, regardless of their size or price, are designed for indoor use and must be plugged into an electrical outlet. Not the link 20.
Based on the company's wireless speakers, this JBL combines a rechargeable battery with the ability to weather a shallow water dunk using Google Assistant's smart assistant technology.
Note, however, that the Link 20 requires a nearby WiFi network to operate its smart speaker functions. If you only need to stream a few pieces of music on the go, the Link 20 can also be paired with your smartphone via Bluetooth.
Sonos One (Gen 2)
If you can't go for smart speaker assistants, the Sonos One is the place for you. It is platform-independent and therefore compatible with Alexa from Amazon, Google Assistant and Air Play from Apple, which can be controlled by Siri via your iPhone.
Sonos One offers a clean and articulate sound that allows you to hear details in a recording, from the shimmer of a cymbal to a singer taking a breath between verses.
The Sonos One also integrates seamlessly with the company's highly rated non-intelligent speakers and is part of a flexible multi-room system with voice command functionality. If you want to hear the latest episode of this podcast in the kitchen while the kids are streaming Ariana Grande on Spotify upstairs, all you have to do is ask.
The second generation version of the Sonos One has more processing power than the previous generation, although our testers find that it sounds and works almost identical to its predecessor. Sonos also makes a non-intelligent version of the Sonos One, the Sonos One SL, which is a bit cheaper but sounds the same according to our testers.
Ultimate ears MEGABLAST
Most smart speakers are pets, so to speak. They are designed for indoor use, plugged into an electrical outlet and connected to WiFi. The UE Megablast is a notable exception.
The design and functions are similar to those of a portable wireless speaker that you take to a patio, park, or pool. The device is waterproof (at least according to the information provided by UE). It is powered by a battery. Music can also be streamed via Bluetooth or WiFi.
Our testers found that the Megablast delivers strong bass and enough volume for even a large room. The smart functions powered by Alexa work as expected and allow voice commands for general functions such as finding a playlist, skipping a track or adjusting the volume, but only when the Megablast is connected to WiFi.
Although the list price for the versatile Megablast is $ 250, the speaker is often available for $ 200 or less.
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