Amazon Echo (2017) Review & RatingJune 26, 2018 0 By admin
The original Amazon Echo was the best smart speaker for over two years, but man, was it scary-looking. It was an unfriendly, black plastic cylinder that looked like it came from the wrong side of the Force. And the later-released white version was only slightly better. The new Echo is a much more attractive speaker that will fit more effortlessly with your home décor, at a much lower price ($99.99) than the previous model. That’s a killer combination, and it’s worth our Editor’s Choice for voice assistant speakers.
World of Echo
Your choice of Alexa speakers has really expanded. You can get a little $49.99 Echo Dot and pair it with a better speaker. You can get a $149.99 Echo Plus with a built-in home-automation hub, or a third-party Alexa speaker like the higher-end $199 Sonos One for true multi-room audio and fantastic sound quality. At $99.99, the Echo is designed to be the workaday, every-room speaker for those who can afford a little more than the Dot, and want a better look and more volume.
Amazon also has the $229.99 Echo Show, and the $129.99 Echo Spot, both of which add screens. The Show is less of a voice-enabled speaker and more of a kitchen tablet with powerful audio, while the Spot is like a voice-enabled alarm clock. Those two also have cameras for video calling and showing smart home video feeds, and they function as baby monitors. The Fire TV Cube, meanwhile, is part media streamer, part speaker, and uses your television to display any relevant information.
If you aren’t familiar with Alexa and the Echo line, they’ve grown over the years from devices that let you shop and listen to music into all-purpose home assistants. Alexa’s big draw is the thousands of third-party skills it enables, from controlling pretty much every smart home brand, to reading out AllRecipes recipes, to ordering you a Lyft or a pizza. You can see the incredible range of Amazon’s skill set in our article Amazon’s Highest-Rated Alexa Skills in Every Category.
A New Look
The new Echo is shorter and fatter than the old one, at 5.9 by 3.5 by 3.5 inches (HWD), with six different sleeves to match your design tastes. The black, light gray, and dark gray fabric options don’t add to the $99.99 price; if you want oak, walnut, or silver plastic, it’s $20 extra. If you want to switch things up, additional “shells” cost $19.99 each for fabric and $29.99 for wood or plastic. Amazon has neutralized the visual differential with Google here; the Echo now looks as good as, if not better than, the Google Home.
On the top, a blue ring of light glows when the speaker is listening. There are also physical volume, mic mute, and action buttons. The physical volume buttons replace the rotating volume ring on the previous Echo. Around back, a new 3.5mm output jack joins the power connector.
Setup and App
You load the Alexa app on your smartphone and step through the pairing settings to configure the Echo. Once the speaker is set up, you don’t really need the app any more unless you’re connecting new smart home devices, changing device settings, or adding new skills. It’s handy to keep on-hand, though, because it gives you a list of your past queries and answers. The app displays a history of all of the questions you ask Alexa, letting you scroll down and see when Alexa misheard you, and offering up Bing searches and Amazon links for further information about your requests.
Tapping the menu icon on the top left opens a menu to let you control settings for your Alexa and smart home devices, and also to manage your Amazon music and book libraries, and check lists, reminders, and alarms. You can set reminders and alarms in the app or by voice, and they’ll work on all of your Alexa devices.
Dual-band Wi-Fi range is as good as on the other midrange smart speakers, but it’s worth pointing out that at the very edge of coverage range, the Echo Plus is able to eke out better performance. While the Echo seems to have the same older, 802.11n Wi-Fi chipset as the original Echo and Google Home do, the Echo Plus uses a newer 802.11ac chipset.
Comparing the Echo’s audio quality with the Echo Plus divided our panel of listeners. The Echo’s sound is very crisp; the guitar strings on Yes’ “Roundabout” and the hi-hats on Matt & Kim’s “Daylight” really pierce through the mix, and voices have a space and shape that steps out in front of the instrumentation. The Echo Plus, meanwhile, has a bit more bass in electronic songs like The Knife’s “Silent Shout” and Grimes’ “Be a Body,” but at the cost of crispness on the higher end. I prefer the Plus, but our other two listeners, who have younger, sharper ears, said music sounds more precise and clearer on the regular Echo.
You’re going to get a lot more sound out of the Echo than out of an Echo Dot. At the very least, you can hear the Echo across a room, while an Echo Dot has the audio quality of a tinny transistor radio.
In a quiet room with only the usual ambient chatter, the Echo had no problem hearing me from 40 feet away. With music playing at 60 percent volume, that distance dropped to 25 feet; with music playing at 80 percent volume, it was 15 feet, which is still the size of most rooms. If you want to control the Echo over truly blaring sound, you can get a $29.99 microphone-equipped remote, which also has its own volume and play/pause buttons.
Calling to the Echo while it played music at top volume from 15 feet away, I often had to speak two or three times before Alexa recognized me. But it still beats the pants off of the old Echo, which had trouble hearing its wake word over top-volume music even when I was right next to the speaker. If you’ve been frustrated by wake word recognition on your old Echo, the new model will help.
Google’s Home speaker, as we found before, has a much more balanced sound, with at least some bass and richer voice tone. The Google Home also has no problem hearing “OK Google” from across the room, with music playing at top volume. If you want both Alexa and sound quality, either plug your Echo into another speaker through the 3.5mm out jack, or get a Sonos One, which blows away the Echo and the Home in terms of sound quality. Amazon offers you options, which I think earns the company extra points.
That 3.5mm jack highlights how Alexa devices, including the Echo, are more flexible than other smart speaker setups when it comes to connecting with both content and devices. Only Amazon lets you plug directly into another speaker or use Bluetooth to control another speaker (you can also connect your phone to the Echo via Bluetooth and use it as a standard Bluetooth speaker, itself), or play your own music files out of a cloud-based locker instead of a subscription music service or your phone (both of which you can also do). The Google Home requires Chromecast attachments to control other speakers; the Cortana-based Harman Kardon Invoke can’t control other speakers at all.
Echos make good components to a multi-room audio system. The “echo spatial perception” feature means that only the nearest one responds when you call, and unlike their competitors, they can be switched to respond to one of four different wake words: Alexa, Amazon, Echo, and Computer. This is very nice if you have a family member named Alexa.
Voice Assistant Features
Alexa-wise, the Echo doesn’t differentiate itself from other Amazon products currently on the market. There are some Alexa features, most notably drop-in calling, that are exclusive to Amazon and don’t work on third-party Alexa devices like the Sonos One. But all the Amazon Echo devices have the same Alexa features.
Alexa syncs with your Amazon music library and, if you have Amazon Prime, all of Prime Music. You can also add any of your own MP3s to your Amazon music library, and play music from iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn. Alexa will read your Kindle books or Audible audiobooks, and it’ll sync up your last-read locations with your other Kindle devices.
Echos can now make outbound phone calls, but can’t receive calls or act as a speakerphone for your smartphone. The $35 Echo Connect accessory hooks up to a landline or VoIP phone and let you make and receive phone calls on your home number through your Echo speaker, but it didn’t work very well in testing.
For smart home, Alexa controls pretty much all of the brands you’ll find. The $149 Echo Plus incorporates a Zigbee hub for various smart home devices, but that hub and the Alexa app aren’t quite as capable as brand-specific hubs and apps. For now, the best home voice control solution is still a standard Echo, paired with the appropriate hub for your home devices.
Alexa’s real strength is in its thousands of third-party skills, with more arriving each day. You have to be a little smarter about your information sources with Alexa than with Google Assistant, but it pays off. With Google Assistant, you just ask for a recipe and get whatever source it decides to provide. With Alexa, you can specify AllRecipes, or Betty Crocker, or Hellman’s, or smaller independent providers. Amazon offers a full directory of skills on its site, so fortunately you can poke through. You should look up sites, brands, and apps that you regularly use; they’ll probably have a skill associated with them.
As for Alexa versus Google Assistant, Cortana, and Siri, we go into some detail on that in our Google Home Mini and Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke reviews. To make a long story short, Alexa can be annoying with the need specific wording for queries, but plugs into the most third-party services and sites. Google is catching up and is better with natural language questions, but still doesn’t support quite as many big-name third-party services. Apple’s HomePod sounds great, but Siri is far behind Alexa and Google Assistant in terms of functionality. And Cortana, for now, is at the very bottom of the pack.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Alexa is still our preferred voice assistant, especially for smart homes. Google Assistant is right up there, Siri has some work to do, and Cortana is just hopelessly behind.
The second-generation Echo doesn’t offer much for existing Echo owners, as its features and audio capabilities are about the same besides some improved voice detection. This Echo is about enticing folks who didn’t buy one before, whether it was because it was too ugly, or at $180, too expensive. The better look and steep price cut make it much easier to bring the Echo into your home.
We’re rating the $99 Echo a little bit ahead of the $149 Echo Plus, because we feel the Plus’ built-in hub doesn’t quite live up to its promises, and two out of three of our listeners prefer the sound on the Echo. At $99, with better sound than the Echo Dot, this is clearly the Echo that most people should have in most rooms. That makes it our Editors’ Choice.