What is a smart speaker and how do they work?

A guide to intelligent speakers and their voice assistants

Smart speakers have exploded in popularity in recent years, with around half of UK homes now owning one. But what exactly are they? And what can they do?

In short, a smart speaker is a device that uses voice commands to control your music, get information, and automate your home. They are powered by virtual assistants, which can understand and respond to your spoken requests.

Smart speakers are incredibly versatile. You can use them to play music, get news and weather updates, set timers and alarms, control smart home devices, and much more. They can also be used to make hands-free calls, send messages, and even order food.

A smart speaker sat on a coffee table next to a phone and a plant to illustrate what is a smart speakerCredit: Shutterstock
A smart speaker connects to the internet and can be controlled by a voice assistant

The first smart speaker, the Amazon Echo with its Alexa voice assistant, arrived in 2014. Essentially a search engine controlled with your voice, Alexa can answer general knowledge questions, read out the weather forecast, play music, and much more. 

The Echo range has since grown to include several models of the Echo smart speaker, from the small Echo Dot and the latest Echo Pop, to the larger, louder and more expensive Echo Studio.

Similarly, Google has its own range of smart speakers under its Nest brand, powered by the voice-activated Google Assistant.

Lastly, Apple has its HomePod smart speakers and a voice assistant called Siri. 


What is a smart speaker?

More than just a way of listening to music

A smart home speaker is a speaker that connects to the internet and can be controlled by issuing spoken commands to its voice assistant, or by using a smartphone application.  

Each virtual assistant has its own set of capabilities and integrations with various third-party services and smart home devices, which means they can tell you what the weather will be like in your area and even add items to your online shopping bag.

Smart speakers are constantly listening for is their “wake word”, which is the word or phrase used to get their attention.

Only after hearing that do they react to what is being said. Depending on the make of smart speaker you have, wake words include “Alexa”, “Hey Siri” and “Okay Google”. 

Did you know that you can change the wake word on any Amazon smart speaker? There are five other command words you can choose – Alexa, Amazon, Computer, Echo and Ziggy. This can be useful to change if you have more than one smart speaker in your household or someone has a similarly sounding name to Alexa!

Unfortunately, you can’t change the Google command word.

Worried that you’re being listened to?

Smart speakers can occasionally mistake other sounds for their wake word and start listening by accident. One report by Northeastern University found that smart speakers may be accidentally set off by certain TV shows, with The Office and Gilmore Girls being the most popular shows for waking them up.

Thankfully if you’re worried about privacy, all smart speakers come with a mute button so you can switch off the microphone.

“Some people are worried about privacy issues with smart speakers, so the ability to switch off the microphone is really useful,” explains Jayne Cherrington, senior editor for Home Tech at Saga Exceptional.

“Just remember to switch it back on if you do want to tell your smart speaker to do something. They’re clever, but not that intelligent!”

Woman turning off a smart speaker in a living roomCredit: Shutterstock
You can mute the microphone on smart speakers if you’re worried about privacy issues

Bluetooth speakers and smart displays

Other options to consider

Bluetooth speakers

When it comes to Bluetooth speakers vs smart speakers, it’s all down to the voice assistant.

Bluetooth speakers connect directly to devices like smartphones and simply act as a loudspeaker. They also don’t generally connect to the internet and of course don’t have a voice assistant, although there are some exceptions such as the Sonas Roam speaker.

Featured product

Sonos Roam speaker

RRP: £179.99

Sonos Roam speaker

Bluetooth speakers are definitely better for music lovers. Our product tester, Philip Sowels, says these will generally have a better sound quality, representing the music as it’s meant to be heard, whereas some smart speakers can make music sound “flat or squashed”.

If the lure of the virtual assistant is too much, most smart speakers can be wirelessly connected and turned into a stereo pair for improved music quality. This will though make for a more expensive option.

A Google Nest hub sat on a sideboard in hallway to illustrate what is a smart displayCredit: Google
A smart display gives you more options than a speaker, but they are pricier

Smart displays

There are also smart displays which, as the name suggests, are smart speakers with a screen attached. As well as replying audibly, they can show extra information to answer your questions.

Some smart displays also have integrated cameras and can be used for making video calls. Others offer touch controls for smart home systems. 


How do smart speakers work?

The future of voice-activated technology

Smart speakers are powered from a plug socket and connect to the internet using wi-fi. This is how the speaker’s voice assistant answers your questions – it performs a web search to understand what you asked, then finds the answer and says it aloud. 

The hardware of a smart speaker is often very simple, with the product housing one or more individual speakers, microphones for the voice assistant to hear you, buttons for adjusting the volume, and a status light to indicate when the assistant is listening, thinking or has a problem. 

Mature black man listening to music on headphonesCredit: Shutterstock/Prostock Studio
You can connect other devices, such as headphones, to most smart speakers

Some voice-controlled speakers can also be connected to other devices like phones and other speakers or sound systems, using a 3.5mm (1/8in) auxiliary audio cable. 

Smart speakers are usually set up using a smartphone application. Amazon’s setup process is one of the simplest and is especially slick if you already have the Amazon or Alexa app on your phone. Once you have gone through the setup process once, adding a second or third Echo speaker takes just a few seconds. 

What can smart speakers do?

It’s like having your own personal assistant

As well as answering questions by scanning the web, smart speakers can play music from streaming services like Spotify, set alarms and timers (especially handy in the kitchen), give you some cooking inspiration, make phone calls, add items to your shopping list and, one of our favourite Alexa skills, get some fashion advice!

“Smart speakers really can be a help in busy, modern households,” says Cherrington-Cook.

“Some voice assistants, such as Alexa, have a wider variety of things they’re able to help you with, so it’s something to research before deciding upon what smart speaker to buy.”

Amazon Echo Dot sitting on a kitchen counterCredit: Amazon
Smart speakers can do so much more than just streaming music, such as setting timers or even making phone calls

They also work well in pairs and groups. For example, it’s possible to create a home intercom system using a pair of Amazon Echo smart speakers in different rooms, or to play music throughout your home with a set of Apple HomePods.  

Some smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo Dot can also be used as a smart hub, allowing you to control smart home devices like light bulbs (such as Philips Hue), plugs, security systems and thermostats with just your voice.

Again this might sway your choice as to which model to purchase.

“If you love all things Apple and are heavily invested in that eco-system then the HomePod is definitely the one to choose, whereas those with an android phone for example, might prefer Google’s selection of smart speakers,” advises Cherrington-Cook.

Current models

Smart speaker choices for 2023

Not sure what the best smart speaker is for you? Think about price, whether you have other tech from that same brand and what you want to use it for. When you know that, it’s easier to choose the right smart speaker for your household.

Amazon smart speakers

Amazon’s smart speaker range begins with the compact Echo Pop and Echo Dot extends to the larger and more acoustically impressive Echo, and is crowned by the Echo Studio flagship.

Crucially, while their maximum volume and sound quality differ, all models have the same Alexa voice assistance. 

Featured product

Echo Pop (2023)

RRP: £44.99

Echo Pop (2023)

Featured product

Echo Dot (5th Gen, 2022)

RRP: £54.99

Echo Dot (5th Gen, 2022)

Featured product

Echo (4th Gen, 2020)

RRP: £109.99

Echo (4th Gen, 2020)

Featured product

Echo Studio (2020)

RRP: £219.99

Echo Studio (2020)

Google smart speakers

Through its Nest product range, Google offers the Nest Mini and larger Nest Audio smart speakers.

Featured product

Nest Audio

RRP: £89.99

Nest Audio

Featured product

Nest Mini

RRP: £49.00

Nest Mini

Both have a living room-friendly fabric finish available in several colours, and both work with the voice-activated Google Assistant. 

Apple smart speakers

Apple takes a similar two-pronged approach with its HomePod and HomePod Mini.

Featured product

HomePod Mini

RRP: £99.00

HomePod Mini

Featured product


RRP: £299.00


More expensive than its rivals, these smart speakers use the same Siri voice assistant as the iPhone and are best for buyers who already own other Apple products. 

Other brands

Other smart speaker brands include Sonos, Bang & Olufsen and Bose. While they also use Alexa and Google Assistant, they don’t have all the features offered by smart speakers from Amazon and Google themselves. 

Alistair Charlton

Written by Alistair Charlton he/him


Alistair has been a technology and automotive journalist since 2011. He specialises in smart home tech, from speakers and displays, to smart lighting, plugs, audio systems, security cameras and TV streaming devices.

Alistair has tested hundreds of products during his career and as a freelancer he currently writes for Wired, T3, Forbes, The Independent, TechRadar, BBC Science Focus and Grand Designs, among others.

When he’s not installing smart lighting and configuring home automation systems, he’s testing out some of the world’s most desirable cars and interviewing the people behind them.

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