What Is a Smart Speaker?

Getting started with smart speakers: Google vs Apple vs Amazon

A smart speaker is a device that plays your favorite music, provides answers from verbally introduced questions, and controls parts of your home using a built-in virtual assistant feature. A smart speaker expands what we normally think of as a music playback system.

A smart speaker can serve as a central information source that offers the weather, a dictionary, traffic conditions, directions, and more. It's also a home assistant that controls common household tasks, such as environmental control (thermostat), lighting, door locks, window shades, security monitoring, and more.

Apple HomePod

Smart Speaker Core Features

There are no official industry standards on what qualifies a product as a smart speaker. Still, the label is applied to standalone audio devices that incorporate the following core features:

Compact Size

A smart speaker is compact and placed anywhere around the house. The small size allows you to place the speaker anywhere (for example, a nightstand, a kitchen counter, or a bookshelf).

Music Playback

Smart speakers can play music like any other speaker but aren't designed in the same way. Unlike the speakers that connect to a stereo or home theater receiver, these are self-contained powered speakers.

You can place multiple same-brand smart speakers around the house so that the music playing on one can also play in additional locations simultaneously. This is similar to how dedicated wireless multi-room audio systems operate, such as MusicCast, Sonos, Play-Fi, HEOS, and others.


A smart speaker can connect to the internet from a Wi-Fi home network. Initial setup may require the use of a smartphone or PC, which downloads an app that guides you through the setup process.

Music Streaming

As a result of network and internet connectivity, smart speakers can stream music from online sources supported by the specific brand and model.

Bluetooth (Optional)

In addition to internet connectivity, a smart speaker may provide Bluetooth support. This allows you to stream music from compatible smartphones and tablets (without depending on your Wi-Fi network).

Bluetooth support on smart speakers is optional, but it's included with Google Home and Amazon Echo. Plus, you can stream music playing on an Amazon Echo to additional external Bluetooth speakers.

Voice Control

A smart speaker has one or more built-in microphones that allow you to speak commands that the speaker will follow (based on its functionality). So, with an internet connection, you can get the temperature, hear the weather forecast, raise the volume, and more.

Virtual Home Assistant

In addition to voice recognition and control, a smart speaker can function as a virtual home assistant. Home assistant features may include access to local over-the-air radio stations, TV and lighting control, message dictation, audiobook playback, language translation, shopping (including ordering take-out and delivery), and hands-free phone calling.

Those added features are provided at the manufacturer's discretion, and none, one, or more, may be built-in. Some features may need firmware upgrades or integration with external devices that require an additional purchase (such as a smart plug that connects to your lights).

Google Home and Amazon Echo work with some third-party control devices. Apple HomePod only works with Apple Home Kit compatible accessory control devices.

When shopping for a smart speaker, make sure that it performs the tasks you desire. Also, find out if you need to purchase additional peripheral devices to make some features work.

Why You May Want a Smart Speaker

In today's world, there are some good reasons to buy a smart speaker.

  • Flexible music listening: Replace your clock radio, alarm clock, and compact music system. You won't run down your smartphone battery while you're at home to stream music to a Bluetooth speaker or home audio system. Just listen to your smart speaker.
  • Convenience: You can place a smart speaker anywhere in your house. All you need is your voice to operate it. You don't have to search for a remote control or smartphone. Also, you don't have to pick up the newspaper, hop onto your PC, or grab your smartphone or tablet to get the latest news, weather, sports scores, or other information that may be important to you.
  • Interaction with other devices: Depending on the brand and model of the smart speaker, it may provide control integration with other devices around the house that can be controlled with voice commands. Although not as comprehensive as a custom-installed system, using a smart speaker for home control activities is less expensive.
  • Sound quality: Some new smart speakers (such as the Apple HomePod) rival traditional compact music systems and other types of home speakers in terms of audio playback quality.

Why You Might Not Want A Smart Speaker

Here are a few reasons why you might not want to use a smart speaker in your home:

Your Speaker Is Listening

Similar to a camera and voice-equipped smart TV, your smart speaker may be listening to more than your commands.

Talking to an Electronic Device

Many people are accustomed to using voice commands to perform web searches on a smartphone or smart TV. If you haven't experienced that yet, the idea of talking to an electronic device and having it talk back to you may be unnerving.

The Cost

As with most electronic devices, there's a cost factor. Manufacturers draw you in with what seems to be an inexpensive smart speaker. However, once you get hooked, you might spend money to add more speakers to put in other rooms of the house. You might also decide to spend more to add peripheral devices to control different parts of your home environment.

You Only Want to Listen to Music

Suppose music is your primary use, and the added features, such as control of other devices around the house, aren't important to you. In this case, the option to buy an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker or a jump into a multi-room wireless audio system platform may suit your needs better.

Although a multi-room audio system can balloon your budget, it is focused solely on your music listening needs.

Smartphone and Smart TV vs. Smart Speaker

You may have a smartphone and smart TV. Although a smartphone can interact with a smart speaker, several apps are available that enable your smartphone to perform many of the home control functions provided by a smart speaker.

If home control is your desire, some smart TVs (such as models offered by LG and Samsung) use downloadable apps to interface with the same control systems as a smart speaker. Plus, smart speaks can add some video control to the mix, such as baby or security monitoring.

The Bottom Line

Smart speakers add another dimension to home entertainment and home control. Combining the ability to listen to music with the ability to perform other personal and household tasks changes how we assess the need for traditional clock radios, alarm clocks, and compact mini audio systems.

Whether you choose to take the plunge is up to you. Just like it's hard to find a TV that isn't smart, the smart speaker might eventually push traditional compact music systems off store shelves.

There are more unusual things than speakers on the smart home market that are turning into must-haves for consumers.

  • Do smart speakers require Wi-Fi?

    Yes. Google Home devices and other smart speakers with a virtual assistant need Wi-Fi to work. If you have Bluetooth speakers primarily for transmitting audio, you don't need a Wi-Fi connection.

  • Can you set up a smart speaker without a phone?

    No. You need to use a phone or tablet to set up the device. Once it's connected to Wi-Fi, you can control the device with your voice.

  • Can smart speakers spy on you?

    Yes, but it's unlikely. Like all smart devices connected to a Wi-Fi network, smart speakers can be hacked, but there have been no reports of smart speakers being used to spy on people.

  • Which is better, Google Home or Alexa?

    Both smart speaker brands are equal in almost every way, so choosing between Google Home and Alexa devices is a matter of personal preference. For example, the Google Assistant can answer some questions that Alexa can't, but Alexa has jokes and skills for playing games, automating your routines, and more.

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