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Our Active Features Test
Voice Assistant

Updated
What it is: Whether the speaker supports any voice assistant integration, either directly built-in on the bar or from a connected third-party device.
When it matters: When controlling the speaker using the vast array of features from any of the existing voice assistants.
Score distribution

If you're looking for a smart speaker that can help with your day-to-day tasks, you'll want to find one with a good voice assistant performance. More and more speakers on the market are integrating commonly-known voice assistant technologies like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa to help you get through your day more efficiently. Whether you want to know the weather forecast, catch up on today's news, or play your favorite tunes hands-free, a good voice assistant speaker can help. Some speakers even let you use your voice to control other smart home devices, which is handy.

In our tests, we determine which voice assistant technologies each speaker supports, whether you can activate it with your voice, and whether there's a dedicated button for muting the microphone when you don't want the speaker to hear you. We also determine how well it performs when you aren't very close to the speaker, and when you're in a noisy environment.

Test results

When It Matters

If you want a voice assistant speaker to help with your day-to-day tasks, you'll want it to be able to hear you clearly each time you make a command. Not all voice assistants offer the same performance, and some struggle to pick up your voice if you're far away or if you're in a noisy environment, which can be inconvenient if you want to use the speaker in a large space or during crowded parties. Also, if you're more privacy-conscious, you may prefer a speaker that lets you mute the microphone when you don't want it to listen to you.

Depending on your preferences, you may also want a speaker that supports a particular voice assistant. For example, if you already own a lot of products in the Apple ecosystem, you may find it more convenient to use a smart speaker that supports Apple's Siri, while those who own a lot of Google products may prefer to use Google Assistant instead.

Our tests

To measure a speaker's voice assistant performance, we start by determining which, if any, voice assistants it supports. Some speakers only support voice assistants through a paired smartphone, while others have built-in capabilities. We examine the speaker and read through the manual to determine whether or not there are specific buttons to activate the voice assistant or to mute the microphone. We also use recorded voice commands to determine how well the speaker can register commands from a distance and in a noisy environment.

For our voice assistant tests, we set the speaker on a table and use a laser measuring tool to ensure that it's 0.6m (2ft) away from the front wall of our testing room. Then, we connect our M-Audio BX8 and BX5 speakers to our Focusrite soundcard, which we use to play our recorded voice commands. The use of recorded voice commands ensures that the amplitude, articulation, and tone are consistent for all of our tests. We place the BX5 on a stool one meter away from the speaker we're testing, and we place the BX8 four meters away from the speaker we're testing.

As more and more voice assistant speakers come on the market, they're adding new features like the ability to control other smart home devices connected to your network or order products online hands-free. However, we don't test for these features. Instead, we focus on how well a voice assistant can register voice commands.

Alexa

What it is: Whether the speaker supports Amazon's Alexa voice assistant integration either directly built-in or from a connected third party device.
When it matters: When controlling the speaker with your voice, when asking it to play a specific song or answer a question, or when using any of Alexa's vast array of features.

Alexa is a virtual assistant technology developed by Amazon. It's built-in to Amazon's smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo Studio and the Amazon Echo Gen 4, and you can also find it built-in to other speakers like the Bose Home Speaker 300.

To determine whether a speaker has built-in support for Alexa voice assistant, we start by pairing our test phone to the speaker we're testing via Bluetooth. If it doesn't support Bluetooth, we pair them using a Wi-Fi connection. Then, we playback a series of recorded voice commands through the BX5. We note whether the speaker responds, and then we turn off the paired test phone and play the commands again. If the speaker only responds when the smartphone is turned on, we determine that it requires a smartphone to use Alexa voice assistant. If the speaker responds when the smartphone is turned off, we determine that it has built-in support for Alexa voice assistant.

Google Assistant

What it is: Whether the speaker supports Google Assistant voice assistant integration either directly built-in or from a connected third party device.
When it matters: When controlling the speaker with your voice, when asking it to play a specific song or answer a question, or when using any of Google Assistant's vast array of features.

Google Assistant is another popular voice assistant technology created by Google. You can find it built-in to Google speakers like the Google Home Max and the Google Nest Mini, and other speakers like the Sonos Move. Other speakers, like the Anker Soundcore Flare 2 and the DOSS SoundBox Plus, support Google Assistant through your paired smartphone.

To determine whether a speaker has built-in support for Google Assistant, we start by pairing our test phone to the speaker we're testing via Bluetooth. If it doesn't support Bluetooth, we pair them using a Wi-Fi connection. Then, we playback a series of recorded voice commands through the BX5. We note whether the speaker responds, and then we turn off the paired test phone and play the commands again. If the speaker only responds when the smartphone is turned on, we determine that it requires a smartphone to use Google Assistant. If the speaker responds when the smartphone is turned off, we determine that it has built-in support for Google Assistant.

Siri

What it is: Whether the speaker supports Apple's Siri voice assistant integration either directly built-in or from a connected third party device.
When it matters: When controlling the speaker with your voice, when asking it to play a specific song or answer a question, or when using any of Siri's vast array of features.

Apple users are probably familiar with the company's voice assistant technology, known as Siri. You can find it built-in to Apple's line of smart speakers, the Apple HomePod and the Apple HomePod mini. A lot of other speakers, including the Bose SoundLink Revolve and the Sony SRS-XB43, support Siri through your paired smartphone.

To determine whether a speaker has built-in support for Siri, we start by pairing our test phone to the speaker we're testing via Bluetooth. If it doesn't support Bluetooth, we pair them using a Wi-Fi connection. Then, we playback a series of recorded voice commands through the BX5. We note whether the speaker responds, and then we turn off the paired test phone and play the commands again. If the speaker only responds when the smartphone is turned on, we determine that it requires a smartphone to use Siri. If the speaker responds when the smartphone is turned off, we determine that it has built-in support for Siri.

Voice Activation

What it is: Whether the speaker's microphone is always listening for voice commands; this way you'd be able to use the voice assistant without pressing a voice assistant button and by just calling out "Alexa", "Hey Google", or "Hey Siri".
When it matters: When you tend to use the speaker at a distance and want to be able to initiate the voice assistant without the use of a button.

Some speakers with voice assistant capabilities are always listening to what's happening around them. That way, they're ready to respond to your commands ("Hey Siri, what's the weather today?" or "Alexa, skip to the next song!") as soon as you say them out loud. Other speakers come with a dedicated button that you have to press to activate the voice assistant.

If a speaker's voice assistant responds to our voice without any prompting, it's considered to be a voice-activated speaker. However, if you have to press a button to get the voice assistant to work, it isn't voice-activated. Speakers that only support voice assistants through a paired smartphone also aren't considered to be voice-activated.

Microphone Mute

What it is: Whether it's possible to mute the microphone of the speaker.
When it matters: When, often for privacy reasons, you want to be able to turn off the microphone of the speaker.

If your speaker supports voice activation, you may not want it to listen to you all the time. It can be handy to have a speaker with a dedicated microphone mute button, which you can switch on and off depending on whether or not you want the speaker to listen for your commands. If a speaker only supports voice assistants through a paired smartphone, it likely won't support this feature.

Some speakers, like the Apple HomePod, don't have a dedicated microphone mute button, but they let you turn off the voice assistant using your voice. However, we don't consider this to be a true microphone mute function.

Far-Field Performance

What it is: The ability of the speaker's voice assistant to understand speech at a distance. This test is performed by playing a series of pre-recorded voice commands in a quite room at different distances and noting the performance of the speaker. Our testing is stopped as soon as we get less than 3 good answers when increasing the distance.
Far-Field Performance Description
Bad Less than 3 good responses at 1m
Poor 3+ good responses at 1m
Mediocre Less than 3 good responses at 2m
Okay 3+ good responses at 2m
Decent Less than 3 good responses at 3m
Good 3+ good responses at 3m
Great Less than 3 good responses at 4m
Excellent 3+ good responses at 4m
When it matters: The ability of the speaker's voice assistant in a large room and at a distance from it.

In this test, we determine how well the voice assistant can understand you at a distance.

To conduct this test, we place the BX5 one meter away from the speaker we're testing, and we use the Focusrite to calibrate the volume level of the BX5 to 70dB. Then, we initiate the voice assistant if it isn't voice-activated, and we play a prerecorded voice command geared towards the particular voice assistant. If the speaker responds correctly, we move the BX5 to two meters away from the speaker and then play the next command. We repeat this process at three meters and four meters away from the speaker as long as the speaker responds correctly.

If the speaker fails to respond correctly at a stage, we play all of the prerecorded questions to see if we get any responses. We continue this process until we get less than three correct responses.

We keep the playback level of the recorded commands fairly low to challenge the speakers we're testing. We've found that some speakers, like the Sony SRS-XB12, perform poorly in this test as they fail to understand the recorded commands. They may still respond to normal speaking voices, but we don't test for this since we can't ensure consistency in amplitude, articulation, and tone across our tests like we can with recorded voice commands.

Ambient Noise Performance

What it is: The ability of the speaker's voice assistant to understand speech in a noisy environment. This test is performed by playing a series of pre-recorded voice commands accompanied by noise at different volumes in a room and noting the performance of the speaker. Our testing is stopped as soon as we get less than 3 good answers when increasing the distance.
Ambient Noise Performance Description
Bad Less than 3 good responses at 1m
Poor 3+ good responses at 1m
Mediocre Less than 3 good responses at 2m
Okay 3+ good responses at 2m
Decent Less than 3 good responses at 3m
Good 3+ good responses at 3m
Great Less than 3 good responses at 4m
Excellent 3+ good responses at 4m
When it matters: When you want to use the speaker's voice assistant in a crowded environment or when listening to music.

In this test, we determine how well the voice assistant can understand you if there's a lot of ambient noise. For example, if you host a party, there may be a lot of background noises that could make it difficult for the voice assistant to register your commands.

To conduct this test, we place the BX5 one meter away from the speaker we're testing, and the BX8 four meters away from the speaker. We use the Focusrite to calibrate the volume level of the BX5 to 70dB. We initiate the voice assistant if it isn't voice-activated. Then, we turn on a prerecorded "ambient noise" track through the BX8, and we use the BX5 to play a prerecorded voice command geared towards the particular voice assistant. If the speaker responds correctly, we move the BX5 to two meters away and then play the next command. We repeat this process at three meters and four meters away from the speaker as long as the speaker responds correctly.

If the speaker fails to respond correctly at a stage, we play all of the prerecorded questions to see if we get any responses. We continue this process until we get less than three correct responses.

We keep the playback level of the recorded commands fairly low to challenge the speakers we're testing. We've found that some speakers, like the Sony SRS-XB12, perform poorly in this test as they fail to understand the recorded commands. They may still respond to normal speaking voices, which can be a bit louder, but we don't test for this since we can't ensure consistency in amplitude, articulation, and tone across our tests like we can with recorded voice commands.

Conclusion

While many speakers support voice assistants, not all of them offer the same performance. Depending on your preferences, you may prefer certain voice assistants over others. Some voice assistants are built-in to the speaker, while others only work through a smartphone that you pair to the speaker via Bluetooth. Multi-taskers may prefer the hands-free convenience of a voice-activated speaker, while more privacy-conscious listeners will want to be able to mute the microphone. Also, some voice assistants can understand you more clearly if you're far away or in a noisy environment compared to the competition, which is really useful if you have a large space or if you want to be able to control the speaker during noisy parties.

Discussions