This is the first year that Amazon, Google and Apple all have a new smart speaker that costs $100 (give-or-take a buck). As usual, both Amazon and Google have released new-and-improved versions of their $100 smart speakers. And Apple has finally got into the action, releasing a smaller and more affordable version of its HomePod ($299), called the HomePod mini.
Both Amazon and Google have improved the audio performance of their flagship smart speakers, the Echo (4th-gen) and Nest Audio, respectively, but kept the $100 price. And while the Apple HomePod has been crowned as the best-sounding smart speaker for some time, the HomePod mini is much smaller and naturally doesn't sound as good. So the playing field is more level.
When it comes to choosing a smart speaker, there are bigger concerns than sound quality. Namely, whether it plays nice with the other devices in your house. Nevertheless, we pit the Echo (4th-gen), Nest Audio and the HomePod mini all against each other, tested by using Spotify (and Apple Music on the Homepod mini). I listened to each head-on so that they were on a level playing field, though Apple's Homepod has an objective edge when you're listing to it at an angle owing to its 360-degree audio design.
Lastly, if you're looking for the best possible sound any of these $100 smart speakers — buy two and configure them in a stereo pair. It's easy, simple and each of these smart speakers is capable of doing it.
Here's how they performed:
Amazon Echo (4th-Gen)
The fourth-generation Echo is my least favorite-looking smart speaker of the bunch, mainly due its cheap-looking volume control buttons on the top, but it sounds very good and gets surprisingly loud. Amazon gave decked it out with the same 3-inch woofer as the 3rd-generation Echo, but added a second tweeter to help it with mid-range and high frequency sounds. While this Echo gets just about as loud as the Nest Audio, it's able to create a more spatial sound — or stereo effect — that sounds lively.
The Nest Audio's sound is very comparable to the new Echo. The big difference is that the Nest Audio's sound feels more directional — like it's coming right at you — and it's not quite able to capture that same stereo effect. That, however, doesn't mean that it sounds worse. The vocals on a lot of songs (like London Grammar's "Rooting For You" or Pearl Jam's "The End") strike me as grittier and slightly more real-to-life.
The HomePod mini is definitely the outlier of the group because it sounds so different. It doesn't get nearly as loud as the Nest Audio or Echo — its max volume is probably 75% of those other smart speakers — so it may struggle to fill particularly large rooms. On the flip side, the HomePod mini definitely sounds better than the Echo and Nest Audio when playing slower tracks with strong vocals and instrumentals, which is a lot of what I listen to. There's a clarity and realism to its sound that's really quite striking.
And the winner is...
None of these options is a slouch, but if you were to twist my arm I'd tell you that the HomePod mini is the best. It's not the beefiest speaker of the bunch, but "louder" isn't "better." While it can't get as loud as the Echo or Nest Audio or deliver the same pump-up, bass-heavy sound that I crave when working out, it's clearly the best-sounding smart speaker for music with strong vocals and instrumentals and that's exactly what I like to most of the time.