Just like sound bars, the sweet spot for Wi-Fi speakers are at the budget end. In this case, it’s under $200.
Sure, paying up to $500 will get you a bigger cabinet and better sound, but at that point you are probably better off with a sound bar or stereo system. And plenty of options cost less than $200, but the ones we’ve heard just don’t sound as good. If you’re shopping in that range, you might as well get a Bluetooth speaker.
I recently listened to eight Wi-Fi speakers under $200 and most were surprisingly capable. And if your focus is on listening to music rather than the voice of a digital assistant, all sound better than the Google Home or Amazon’s Echo speakers. Of the models I tested, however, only one combined the best of both worlds: excellent sound and voice control. That’s the Sonos One.
But first: Wi-Fi or Bluetooth?
In our comparison of Bluetooth versus Wi-Fi I evaluated various flavors of music streaming methods and found that the Wi-Fi protocol Chromecast, followed by AirPlay, was the best option. But if you need more convincing, here are the pluses and minuses of both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
- Good: Convenient, excellent compatibility, doesn’t require a specific app.
- Bad: Compressed sound, limited range, calls and alerts interrupt music streaming.
- Good: Can play in more than one room at once, cost-effective (Chromecast Audio starts at $35), you can turn the phone off and music keeps playing.
- Bad: Not very portable, limited to supported apps.
Apple vs. Sonos vs. Google: The best (and worst) Wi-Fi speakers
Which speaker should you get? Not Google or Amazon
Whether you’re building a multiroom system from the ground up or simply want a speaker for your kitchen, the best device is the Sonos One. It offers voice control — with Amazon Alexa now and Google Assistant coming in 2018 — plus the best sound quality of any sub-$200 speaker. It’s great now, and it will only get better.
If you don’t want to be locked into buying Sonos, then the next best option is the JBL Playlist. It may not have the fancy features or build quality, but it works well and sounds very good.
You’ll notice that neither Google Home nor Amazon Echo speakers appear. The main reason is that they just don’t sound very good with music. Everything on the list below blows them out of the water for sound quality. Additionally, while Google Home can be used as part of a multiroom system, the Echo only recently added multiroom capability. There are more established systems for whole-home audio.
Best for: Well, everyone
This is it, the all-dancing, good-for-everything “smart speaker“. The Sonos One is a new breed of device that incorporates a voice assistant into a multiroom speaker. At $200, there is really nothing else to compete with it. Though the latest Sonos app is a little disappointing, the ability to stream directly from Spotify, Pandora and Tidal means you probably don’t need it anymore anyway.
Best for: Flexibility
Not the most polished of products but the JBL Playlist is nevertheless the best value Chromecast built-in speaker on the market today. It bucks the idea that a small box speaker needs to sound like one, and particularly flatters orchestral or acoustic music. Sure, it doesn’t rock as hard as the Sonos, but it’s great for plopping on your kitchen counter and listening to the radio.
Best for: Bose users
While it’s now pretty far behind in terms of features — it doesn’t have voice or Pandora integration, for example — there is still a lot to like about the Bose Soundtouch 10. It has shortcut buttons on top for your favorite playlists or radio stations, which means you don’t need to find your phone to play music. The ability to play via Bluetooth also means your friends can use it without the need to download an app. Most important of all? It sounds really good.
Best for: Portability
There are number of portable Wi-Fi speakers on the market including the Riva Arena and the Vizio SmartCast Crave Go, but our top pick is the elegant Denon Heos 1. With excellent sound quality, built-in splashproofing and a slick design, the Denon is an excellent value. Yes, adding the $99 battery pushes the Heos over the $200 mark, but the resulting package is so good that I’ll let it slide this time.
Best of the rest
If you want to sit and listen to music, then a speaker that radiates 360 degrees is a terrible idea. It’s too much like listening in an elevator to really appeal to audiophiles. But if you want something to provide the soundtrack to your next board game night or dinner party, the Samsung is the way to go.
Play-Fi is one of the oldest — and biggest — of a relatively young field of Wi-Fi speaker conventions. But the majority of its products skew toward the more expensive end with speakers like the Definitive Technology W Studio sound bar and the Wren V5US tabletop. The Polk Omni S2 is one of a couple of more-affordable Play-Fi speakers, and it offers genuinely engaging sound quality.
A little more plasticky and arcane to set up than its competitors, the Yamaha WX-010 is nonetheless a playful performer and fairly affordable as well. If you already have a MusicCast-capable Yamaha receiver, then adding a WX-010 or two for other rooms makes a lot of sense. In addition, it’s one of the few speakers that’s also AirPlay compatible
Conclusion: Just get the Sonos
Two hundred dollars can buy you a lot these days, and for that money the Sonos One knocks it out of the park in terms of both useful features and amazing sound quality. Even if you don’t want a Sonos-based system, its ability to control either an Alexa or (soon) Google Home setup makes it more useful than any of the others here. It sounds good too, so if you have $200 to spend on a Wi-Fi speaker, you really should just get One.