The smart speakers market, though still small, is a promising one. Last year we only had Amazon selling its first-gen Echo devices. This year, Google joined the bandwagon with its dated 2016 models. It’s still a start nonetheless. More importantly, other mainstream audio experts like Harman and Bose have started to incorporate virtual assistants in their speaker designs. We tested Smart speakers for their overall performance, which included audio quality, microphone sensitivity, and software efficiency.
Because of logistical issues we were unable to include several smart speakers in our list this year, including Harman Kardon’s Allure, and Bose’s Home Speaker series, both of which included Amazon Alexa. Unfettered by the non-availability of these models, we carried on. We decided to choose between the current flagship models sold by Google and Amazon in India—Google Home and Amazon Echo Plus. Had Amazon decided to commence sales of its other global Echo models like the Echo Sub, we’d have included them in our evaluation. Nonetheless, the winner of this year’s Digit Zero1 award for the title of Best Smart Speaker is…
2018 Zero1 Award Winner: Amazon Echo Plus
The second-generation Amazon Echo Plus was launched this year along with ten other Echo devices, of which only this and the Echo Dot made it to India. Inside its cylindrical fabric-finished body it has a 0.8-inch tweeter and a 3-inch neodymium woofer. It has a seven-microphone array to listen actively for wake calls. To report ambient temperature the Echo Plus employs a dedicated temperature sensor, apart from relying on popular weather feeds. The Echo Plus has a single 3.5mm audio jack on the back that works as not just line-out (like in the first-gen model) but as line-in as well.
The sound is clear with low and high-frequencies sounding sharp, even if mids are a little weak. Alexa wakes up to wake calls easily from most parts of a large bedroom even when music is playing. Like last year’s model, it can connect to smartphones like any other portable speaker via Bluetooth for audio streaming. The Echo Plus can turn connected lights and air purifiers on and off because it doubles up as a Hub device with support for ZigBee-enabled equipment.
With its more-than-agreeable sound output, multiple connectivity options, and Alexa’s skillfulness, the 2018 Amazon Echo Plus wins the Digit Zero1 award for the title of Best Smart Speaker.
Runner-up: Google Home
Google launched the Home smart speaker in 2016 globally but decided to bring it to India only this year. Inside its plastic body, it houses a 2-inch driver for vocals and dual 2-inch passive radiators for low-frequency thumps.
The sound is not particularly great, but it’s not shabby either. The setup works fine for vocals and string instruments but fails to deliver thump when the beat drops. The microphone setup works well enough in closed office spaces but misses the mark amongst background sounds in larger spaces. It misses out on necessary connectivity options like line-in and line-out, which confines audio playback to its inbuilt speakers. Though it’s got the popular Google Assistant behind the wheel, it comes second because of its modest hardware and sound output.