Question: We are still in possession of our old three-in-one sound system bought in the 1990s. But a belated New Year's resolution is to replace this with a smart speaker. We are a couple in our fifties with two young adults still living at home. We are not particularly tech savvy and not currently subscribed to any music apps. We are looking for a good-quality sound speaker that all the family can use and which will be simple to set up and operate. We have a maximum budget of €200. We like the idea of being able to request the speaker to play specific songs and also to be able to ask for more broad music requests. We are also seeking advice on the best-value music app to sign up to, as this will be an ongoing outlay on top of the purchase of the smart speaker.
- Marie Murray, via email
Answer: You have two basic choices: Amazon or Google. They dominate the smart speaker market because they're the easiest, most accomplished all-in-one smart speaker systems.
I have both in my home, although I use the Amazon speakers a little more because the audio quality is slightly better and I can also connect them (by simple headphone wire) to larger, older speakers I have for a bigger hi-fi option if there's a party.
Amazon's smart speakers are called 'Echo' speakers and generally vary from about €50 to €300. Google's speakers are called 'Home' or 'Nest' speakers and have the same general variation in price. Some other speaker manufacturers also use one or other of Amazon or Google 'smart' technology, which is why you'll often see them advertised as being 'smart' speakers in this way.
But I'm going to stick to the two main brands, especially as you set your budget at a maximum of €200, which would rule out the best alternative hybrid smart speakers, such as the Sonos One (€220).
The one I'd recommend on your budget is Amazon's Echo Plus (€169) because its audio quality is a little bit deeper and better than the standard Echo (€109) model.
If you like the idea of a display to go with your speaker, Amazon's Echo Show 8 (€150) is probably the best all-rounder you can get, although Lenovo's Smart Display 8 (€190 including delivery from Komplett.ie) is also pretty good, using Google's Assistant instead.
The advantage of a screen is that it can show you short news video clips as well as doing everything the other smart speakers can do. The Echo Show 8's audio quality is excellent for its size.
You say you already have a stereo system. If it's a good one, you may want to consider buying a cheaper smart speaker and plugging it into your current stereo. That way, the smart speaker acts as the microphone, but everything gets played through the bigger, better speaker. I've done this in one room with a large speaker system I previously had but wasn't using anymore, and the results are very good. An Amazon Echo Dot (€60) will do this job just fine, although you'll also need a 3.5mm chord (about €5) to connect the two.
To hear music on demand, you will (as you guess) have to set up an online music account. Spotify costs between €10 (for one person) and €15 (a family account for up to six people) per month. There are alternatives in Apple and Amazon Music, but Spotify is the most versatile between alternative hardware platforms in case you want to change your speaker system after a while. There's no 12-month contract, just a monthly credit card debit that you can cancel at any time. Alternatively, listening to radio on it is free.
I should add a bit for total beginners on why they're called 'smart' speakers. Both Amazon and Google have developed voice-recognition technology for speakers, which are always connected to your home Wi-Fi. Amazon's voice system is 'Alexa', while Google's system is its Assistant. The idea is that you can 'speak' to (or command) the speaker to do something instead of walking over and twiddling a knob or pushing a button.
So if you want to listen to a radio station on an Amazon Echo speaker, you simply say, "Alexa, play Radio One" or "Alexa, play Lyric FM", or whatever station you want (domestic or international).
But instead of using an FM radio signal like a normal radio, it's going straight to the internet to get the 'stream' there.
It's the same for music apps. If you sign up for an app like Spotify, you can ask it to play almost any single song or album you like. You literally say "Alexa, play 'Clair de Lune'" to which it will answer back, "Playing 'Clair de Lune' by Claude Debussy on Spotify" and then will instantly play one of the dozens (or hundreds) of versions there.
That's not all smart speakers do, by the way. They can also perform a number of handy everyday tasks, from switching on lights and heating systems to setting basic cooking timers or asking what the weather is going to be like.
Recommendation: Amazon's Echo Plus (€169)
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