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A hockey-sized puck can be found in millions of homes now, obeying commands such as playing music or turning on the kitchen lights. It’s the age of the smart home hub.
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The best smart home hub combines a wireless speaker, voice-activated assistant and network capabilities to act as the ‘brains’ of your home. It can connect to other smart devices that you have, and lets you control them with just your voice. Some can even track when you’ve returned home and automatically turn the A/C and music on. Here’s what you should know before buying a smart home hub.
What to look for in a smart home hub
Size: For a hub that’s within a speaker, you want it to be visible, but not too visible. We prefer a size that lets the device blend in with the furniture and decor in the room it’s going to be sat in. We’re in an age now where size doesn’t matter for a speaker; the technology is at a point where loud volume can shine through small speakers, thanks to their onboard audio processors.
Compatibility: While some hubs are exclusive to their own devices (we’re looking at you, Apple), others are able to be used on third-party products, so it’s vital when looking for a smart speaker that it has the right assistant that’s also on your own mobile device. Having a Google Assistant-only speaker with an iPhone will be pointless.
The ‘Zigbee’ protocol is also a great example here; it’s an alliance agreed by many manufacturers where it makes it easier for users to have different smart home products work with one another. Apple and Google are not involved, so don’t expect your lightbulb to work with a HomePod or a Google Assistant anytime soon.
Sound quality: Without the voice assistant hearing your command, the experience could fail on the first go. We recommend looking for a speaker that has great sound quality, but also great microphone quality, so the assistant can hear you clearly, no matter where you are in the room.
The best smart home hubs in 2021
Amazon Echo Dot
The jewel in Amazon’s line of Echo products is the go-to hub for many as it’s compatible with many other smart home devices. That’s thanks to the Zigbee protocol, which lets it communicate – via Alexa – with automation-enabled devices such as the Philips Hue and digital security systems.
We like that the Echo Dot’s fourth and newest generation has been tweaked with a greater emphasis on sound quality, which is improved by the smart speaker’s new spherical design and dual front-firing tweeters for reproducing crisper audio.
Amazon Echo Show 8
This is the step up to the Echo Dot: you get all the features, but with a screen. The Echo Show 8 has an eight-inch HD display, which lets you make video calls thanks to its camera, as well as play shows on Amazon Prime Video.
Beyond binge-watching and calling far-flung friends, the Echo Show 8’s display means it can be deployed in rooms where a smart home hub may not be the best fit. Like a baby’s room – the Echo Show 8’s camera lets parents monitor their newborn. It can also be linked up to other Echo devices, so you can announce that dinner is ready for those in other rooms to hear.
The Echo Show is also compatible with Zigbee, so if you want to pair up a nightlight for your toddler, using Alexa to command it to switch on and off.
LG ThinQ Speaker WK7 with Google Assistant
Google Assistant has widely been lauded as the ‘best’ smart home assistant, and that’s predominantly because many third-party companies have included Google Assistant compatibility in their devices. Like this ThinQ Speaker by LG.
With the ThinQ Speaker, you’ll get LG’s XBoom technology, which reproduces stronger bass and greater clarity when listening to music and podcasts.
Its design means the ThinQ Speaker can easily fit into an office or the corner of a living room: the controls are on the top of the unit, so you can easily control the assistant or the volume if you wish.
Sonos One with Alexa and Google Assistant
The headlining feature of this second-generation speaker from Sonos is versatility: it’s compatible with both Alexa and Google Assistant.
The Sonos One SL is considered by many to be the best smart speaker for casual users. That’s thanks to its sophisticated aesthetics, loudness and user-friendliness. Sonos has improved the sound quality on this version, providing room-filling sound with tight bass and crisp trebles. Also note that Zigbee is compatible with the Sonos One when used with Alexa, so any devices that use the protocol can be connected, too.
At $/£179, the Sonos One SL isn’t the cheapest on this list by far. But for the quality of audio, the smart design and the wide compatibility, it’s worth the price tag.
Marshall Acton II
More retro-inspired wireless speaker than smart home hub, the Marshall Acton II wants to be a statement piece in your living room. Having Alexa built in really opens up the device to play any requested music or even shop for some goods on Amazon.
Besides its handsome good looks, the Acton II scores well in the audio department – no surprise there, considering Marshall has been synonymous with rock’n’roll for more than five decades. So, given its history, expect this speaker to really get loud. And we especially like the bass and treble knobs on the Acton II, something unique to Marshall’s speaker.
At just shy of $300, though, it is pricey, but if you want a device that disguises its ‘techiness’ with mid-century-inspired aesthetics, nothing else really comes close.
Wait, what about Siri?
Apple, a company known for building closed ecosystems, has unsurprisingly sparse smart home hub options for Siri.
While the Cupertino company entered the smart speaker market three years ago, the high price of the original model – the HomePod – put many customers off. However, Apple seems to have listened to feedback and, late last year, released a smaller variant, the HomePod mini, for a lower price of $99.
The HomePod mini works great with other Apple devices if you have them, so if you want to resume playback of a podcast you were listening to on your iPhone, you can ask the device to do just that. Alongside being connected to any smart home appliances through Apple’s Homekit protocol rather than something like Zigbee, it’s a great little assistant at an affordable price – but only if you’re dead set on sticking to Apple’s ecosystem.