The Amazon Echo has been a break-away hit over the past couple of years. The at-home voice-assistant has forged a new category, leaving rivals to catch-up. It's done more to bring order to the chaos of smart home control than any other product. And it has universal appeal, with gadget fans, the young, the old, and those with physical or visual impairments.
It was no surprise that Amazon announced a refresh of its Echo line-up, resulting in a cheaper Echo and a tweaked Echo Plus, to stave off Google and the onslaught of Alexa-powered speakers now launching from other manufacturers.
But has the second-gen Echo cut off its nose to spite its face? There's more to this story than just a cheaper price...
Designed for better looks
- 148 x 88mm cylindrical design; 821g
- Loses volume ring of original model
- Choice of covers
The original Echo was a black or white monolith, finished in plastic. It was never the best-looking speaker, but it wasn't without its charms, thanks to Alexa's glowing light ring at the top and the convenient dial that encircled the top (allowing volume changes without having to speak to it).
Seeking out a more compact form factor, the second-gen Echo is shorter, but is still a cylindrical design. It's a better-looking thing now, too, but that very much comes down the covers (or "skins") that are available. These can be changed, with a choice of fabric and wood designs.
The aim is to give you something that will fit into your home's décor and, daresay, it could start a third-party accessories market, because it's very easy to slip the Echo out of its skin and into a new one.
The loss of the top volume ring is a real shame though. It's a part of the Echo experience that the new model loses, replacing it with buttons on the top instead. The top is busier as a result, not only carrying four buttons - volume up, down, mute and the action button - but also seven holes for the mics.
The original Echo and new Echo Plus looks cleaner up top, with a central hole and perforations around the edges. Although credit where credit is due - the new Echo feels more substantial when you touch the top, whereas the old one rattles slightly, as well as creaking through the body, which the new Echo models do not.
While we rue the loss of volume dial, we think that the new Echo looks better than the bigger models. Certainly, it's less of a lump when you add it to your home, so if style matters, then you're well covered.
But is the new Echo style over substance?
- 2.5-inch woofer, 0.5-inch tweeter
- 360-degree sound
- Multi-room audio
- Bluetooth and AUX out
The Amazon Echo has never been known for its sound quality. When the original launched, many jumped at the chance to point out that it wasn't the best sounding speaker on the market. What those critics failed to realise was that the Echo wasn't just a speaker, it was a revolution. It's a smart home assistant, so runs rings around the features of the best speakers out there.
We didn't fully share the opinion that the original Echo was a bad speaker. It won't appeal to audiophiles, but nestled into a kitchen, it was the sort of device that would banish your kitchen radio: it was as good as it needed to be for the job it was tasked with.
Sadly, this new smaller format of Echo sounds worse than the model it replaces. Specifically, the sound is thinner, it lacks the warmth and roundedness of the older model. At higher volumes the performance gets worse, so we struggle to say that it's good as it needs to be. Amazon has updated the Echo to improve the bass delivery, but we still think it sounds a little weak even with this software update.
Seeing as we started this section saying that sound quality isn't the most important thing, this performance needs to be taken in context. If you're an existing Echo owner, you'll be disappointed with the sound quality of the new model and you'll be better getting old stock of the original or buying the Echo Plus, both of which sound a lot better.
But if you don't plan on playing music, just using it for the voice control and conversational fun, perhaps listening to Audible or Talk Radio, then it might suit you fine. But you might also suffice with the Echo Dot in that regard. If you have any notion of regularly playing music, then the old Echo or Echo Plus is a much better choice for you.
One addition to the Echo experience is multi-room audio. To set this up you'll have to head into the app, where you'll find the ability to create groups and give them names. If you have more than one Echo (and all models will work with this), then you can have them work as a multi-room group. There are limitations - you can only play Amazon Music or TuneIn radio, for example - and you can't be connected to a Bluetooth speaker either, although you can include devices connected through the AUX out.
But as a way of creating a multi-room experience, it is very easy, meaning you can synchronise music around parts of your home, which is perfect for parties.
The music experience through Alexa
- Spotify integration and Spotify Connect
- Amazon Music
- Lots of other apps and services
With that caveat out of the way, it's time to progress onto the main event, which is Alexa. The Amazon Echo is designed first and foremost as a voice-controlled speaker, using Alexa to deliver a range of experiences.
At the 2015 launch of the Echo, this experience was very much about playing various songs and asking fairly basic questions, with the artificial intelligence (AI) pulling out the information from a range of sources. Over the past two years, Alexa has evolved into the dominant force in AI: it wrong-footed Google and stamped on Apple's Siri. It's only really Google that has reacted with enough pace to be considered a rival, while Apple's own home offerings seem to be taking a long time to make it to market.
The answer is a lot. The Echo offers the full Alexa experience which other devices don't and at a price that those others won't stoop to.
On the music front that means that this speaker works seamlessly with Spotify (which those others at launch don't), while also working as a Spotify Connect speaker (so you can control it directly from your Spotify app), although there's a preference for Amazon Music within the device.
Some Amazon Music you'll get free if you have a Prime subscription, about enough to see you listening without too many barriers. It's also worth saying that the Amazon Music experience is better than Spotify: even if you've set Spotify as the default service, Alexa will tend to grab something from Amazon Music. Ultimately, you only need one music service and it's best to pick the one that fits your needs across all your devices.
The Echo can also connect to Bluetooth speakers, as well as featuring a line-out so that you can connect it to an existing hi-fi system if that's what you want to do - although you might also want to consider the Echo Dot if that's your aim. With that in mind, there's a slight difference in the experience between the second-gen Echo and the Dot: when connected via 3.5mm to other speakers, the new Echo doesn't dip the music to let Alexa speak, so voice gets lost. The older Dot manages to balance the two much better. We can only see this as a software issue, so hopefully that'll be rectified in the future.
As a standalone music device, the Echo's shift to a new design sees the loss of that volume ring as we mentioned above. It's in music that you really feel this, forcing you to change the volume by pressing the buttons which is a lot less satisfying than a quick twist of the knob. Of course you can use your voice as well.
But listening to music isn't always plain sailing: the new Echo just doesn't seem to be as reliable as the older model. We've been using the original for the last year and we've experienced more frequent drop-outs with the newer, replacement model.
One particular problem which we've experienced on two different second-gen Echo models is the total loss of audio. You'll ask it to play something, and it will go silent. It seems to think it's playing - with the command registered in the Alexa app - but there's no sound. The old model did not do this.
We've also found the new Echo stops playing. This might be related to the issue above, but we often leave the Echo playing the radio for the dog (hey, dog owners do things like this) when we're out of the house. With the old model, we'd come home and it would be playing. With the new model 75 per cent of the time we get back and it's stopped for no discernible reason.
Maybe the dog has learnt to control Alexa, but we're not convinced.
We also found that the second-gen Echo would refuse to stop playing music on occasion. It would do other things, like mute, but not cease playing. It seems to be an intermittent problem and we presume it's software related.
- Controls most smart home devices
- Huge range of app integration
- Services added weekly
With voice being a core part of the Echo experience and the principal method of interaction with Alexa, the Echo's microphones need to work really well. They are designed to be able to hear you over the top of the music and detect where the sound is coming from.
We've found them to be similar in performance to the older model, however, when we put old and new together in the same room. It was often the older model that heard and responded better - although in isolation, we haven't noticed any problems with voice control on the new Echo, per se.
All the Echo devices seem to have the same problem with voice, particularly when trying to cancel a timer. The loud alarm seems reluctant to stop, so you really have to shout at the speaker. There seems to be a disparity here to normal commands, which often work first time as you'd expect.
The new Echo also retains the mute button on the top to stop Alexa listening. If you find it's being accidentally triggered - perhaps because your friends Alexia and Alexis have popped in for tea - then you might want to tap this. It's also useful when you're talking about Alexa to friends - something that's commonplace for anyone who has an Echo in their house, because everyone wants to know about it.
But Alexa also opens the door for voice control over a lot more than just the Echo's native features. This is thanks to a growing selection of skills that Alexa offers. It's here what the Echo's appeal really lies, because there are so many apps and services that want to play nice with Alexa, from basic things like weather or cinema listings, through to complete smart home control of your lighting, thermostat, and so forth.
While the Echo Plus is designed to directly control various smart home devices, there's no shortage of control you'll get from the regular Echo. Once you've scanned for devices, you'll be able to control them (if they're already setup), with the ability to group them and create routines to give you some home automation.
This is perhaps the most exciting thing about the Echo. It's a gateway to complete home control, and once equipped with the right skills, you can have it turning your lights on and off, changing the temperature or activating your home security cameras and a whole lot more.
Once grouped together you can easily control different brands of smart devices - for example, you can group lights from Philips Hue with a plug from Hive and then turn them on or off together. This saves having to mess around with multiple smart home apps on your phone. In fact, once setup, you barely need your phone at all.
This is one area where the Echo Plus looks to differ from the skills of the second-gen Echo. Thanks to the integrated Zigbee controller, it can control some smart home devices directly, meaning that setup for those should be even easier, cutting out the need to use the manufacturer's hub or app.
Overall, it's really in the Alexa skills and the AI experience that the Echo still shines. Syncing with your calendar, checking the traffic, calling friends and families all fall into the Echo's remit thanks to Alexa. It's here that the Echo has real appeal, because once you're all setup with Alexa doing so much for you, you'll wonder why you struggled in the way you did before.
The second-gen Echo steals headlines with a more compact design and a cheaper price point. It's difficult to ignore the £90 price, especially compared to the £149 of the original. But comparing the new to the old, the experience also feels cheapened. The new Echo is not as good as the old Echo, it's as simple as that.
The sound quality drops off and the performance - in terms of connectivity and reliability - isn't as solid as the older device. We're not alone in experiencing this, reviews on Amazon are saying exactly the same thing. And we've tried out two new Echo devices just to make sure it's not a one-off issue.
But the core Alexa experience still shines. To pull together the world of connected devices, Alexa, through the Echo, makes sense of this brave new world and gives it order. That was the case with the old devices, but it's equally as applicable to the new devices too.
If you want to dip your toe into the world of Alexa, then the Echo will get you there. But it feels like the new model has been engineered to a price and while you'll revel in the smart Alexa experience, the second-gen Echo isn't the best way to enjoy it.
Alternatives to consider
Amazon's direct competitor and, we suspect, the very reason the second-gen Echo came to be - in order to match price and some more suitable design options. Google's solution doesn't offer Alexa, rather Google Assistant, which is a robust solution with fewer bugs at present - but it can't offer the wider level of integration as per Alexa. Oh, and there's no AUX out, which might limit the appeal.
Read the full article: Google Home review
Amazon Echo Dot
Hear us out here: Dot isn't part of the new range, and it's not as good looking, but as a cheaper-still alternative to "full-on" Echo, it offers an AUX out which makes it an ideal pairing partner with a larger stereo system. That means it's great as a home voice assistant for those who don't want the music, or great as a home voice assistant paired with an all-powerful stereo for excellent sound too.
Read the full article: Echo Dot review