The Amazon Echo and its Amazon Alexa voice-control system has been a break-away hit for smart home speakers over the past few years.

When it launched - way back in 2014 in the US - the at-home voice-assistant forged a whole new category, leaving rivals to catch up. Even in 2018 Google is trailing with its Home system, while Apple barely off the starting blocks with its HomePod.

The Amazon Echo and Alexa has 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. 

Things have moved on since launch, too, with the latest Echo model arriving alongside the Echo Plus, screen-based Echo Show, and video alarm clock-style Echo Spot.

Is the Amazon Echo and Alexa still king (and queen)?

Designed for better looks

  • 148 x 88mm cylindrical design; 821g
  • Loses volume ring of launch model
  • Choice of covers

The Echo's cylindrical design is almost iconic, plus you can jazz it up with a choice of covers (or "skins") which can be changed, including a choice of fabric and wood designs, from about £15 on Amazon.

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. A summer jacket and a winter coat, if you like.

Unlike the original model, the latest Echo doesn't have a physical volume ring at the top, which is a shame - but that's in the interests of keeping it affordable. There are buttons on the top - volume up, down, mute and the action button - along with seven holes for the mics, so you can use physical controls rather than asking Alexa to do things for you all the time.

Is it 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 best-in-class sound quality. When the original model launched, many jumped at the chance to point out that it wasn't the best sounding speaker on the market.

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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. That's still true in the age of the Apple HomePod - a wonderful speaker - but Siri can't hold a candle to Alexa.

While the Echo won't appeal to audiophiles, pop one onto a kitchen surface and it's the sort of device that can perfectly banish your kitchen radio. Sure, it's not the fullest or warmest sound and struggles at higher volumes, but it fulfils what it needs to be. After launch, the Echo did have some software released to help improve the bass delivery - but we still think it sounds a little weak in the low-end department.

But let's back up a moment. We started this review section by saying that sound quality isn't the most important thing; the Echo's performance needs to be taken in context. And a big part of the Echo puzzle is Alexa voice control. So if you're just using one for conversational fun, controlling third-party devices, or perhaps listening to Audible rather than music, then it might suit you fine. But you might also suffice with the Echo Dot in that regard.

Another way of looking at it: if you have any notion of regularly playing music, then the Echo Plus is a much better choice for you.

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If you do have more than one Echo product then there's multi-room audio, too. To set this up you'll have to head into the associated app, where you'll find the ability to create groups and give them names. There are limitations - you can only play Spotify, 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.

The music experience through Alexa

  • Spotify integration and Spotify Connect
  • Amazon Music with Alexa Cast
  • Lots of other apps and services

The Amazon Echo is designed first and foremost as a voice-controlled speaker, using Alexa to deliver a range of experiences. And over the years Alexa has become the dominant force in artificial intelligence, wrong-footing Google and stampeding over Apple.

However, Alexa can be found beyond Amazon's own hardware in a wide range of other devices - like the Sonos One or UE Blast speakers - so it begs the question of how much appeal the specific Amazon Echo devices still have?

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We still think the answer is "a lot". The Echo offers the full Alexa experience - which most other devices don't - and at a price point that those others often won't match. It will also be the first to offer new features, without more work in integration.

On the music front that means the Echo works seamlessly with Spotify (which others took a while to adopt), while also working as a Spotify Connect speaker (so you can control it directly from your Spotify app).

Some Amazon Music content you'll get free if you have a Prime subscription and there's also an Amazon Music subscription specifically for the Echo, with a healthy discount. The Amazon Music experience on Echo is better than Spotify, too. 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.

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The Echo can also connect to Bluetooth speakers, while its AUX line-out means 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 or Echo Spot if that's your aim.

Are there any Echo glitches?

When we first received our Echo sample, listening to music wasn't always plain sailing. We had some connection drop-outs, random muting/not listening and even the total loss of audio. We'd ask it to play something and it would go silent, thinking it was playing something without any sound coming from the device.

We also had issues with music stopping playing. We would often leave the Echo playing the radio for the dog (hey, dog owners do things like this) and come home to silence for no discernible reason. Maybe the dog didn't like the station and has learned to speak English, but we're not convinced.

However, in a more recent sample that we've received - and the subject of this updated review - we've had no such issues at all. We've kept mention of the previous issues above for historical purposes, but it seems more recent software pushes have aided the Echo in a better overall experience.

And software changes are an ongoing feature of the Echo - there's now Alexa Cast for music, for example, and the ability to change the sound balance your Echo via an equaliser.

Voice-controlled everything

  • 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. In isolation, we haven't noticed any problems with voice control, it easily hearing our commands.

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However, all Echo devices seem to have the same problem with voice: when something is being played loudly - be that music or a timer alarm - you really have to shout at the speaker.

If you don't want Alexa to be always listening then there's a mute button on the top of the Echo. This is handy if you find the voice assistant is being accidentally triggered - perhaps because your friends Alexia and Alexis have popped in for tea. 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 where 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.

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.

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This is one area where the Echo Plus looks to differ from the skills of the Echo. Thanks to the integrated ZigBee controller, it can control some smart home devices directly, meaning that setup for those devices is 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.

And once you're all setup with Alexa doing so much for you, you'll wonder why you struggled in the way you did before.

Verdict

The Amazon Echo with Alexa voice control is difficult to ignore thanks to its £90 asking price - remember, the 2014 model was £149! - and bevy of features. 

It's the core Alexa experience that really shines. Especially if you have third-party smart devices - lights, a thermostat, and so on - then Alexa makes sense of this brave new world and gives it order. It's a wonderful thing indeed.

That said, the principal Echo product isn't the most adept of the bunch. If you're all about music then the Plus sounds a lot better, while the Show and Spot handle visuals thanks to their screens - the latter available to be plugged into a hi-fi system via 3.5mm if you really want to amp up the sound proposition.

If you want to dip your toe into the world of Alexa, the Echo will get you there. But it feels like this model has been engineered to a price a little too much. So, while you'll revel in the smart Alexa experience, it's Amazon's other Alexa-enabled devices that are the slightly better way to do so.

First published September 2017.

Price when reviewed:
£89.99

Alternatives to consider...

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Amazon Echo Plus

That biggun on the left is the Echo Plus, showing off its grander figure for grander sound quality. If music is what you want to use Alexa for first and foremost, without spending too much cash, then it's the one to go for.

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Sonos One

Sonos added smart connectivity to its speakers and came up with the Sonos One. It is, basically, a Sonos Play:1 under the skin, but with the added benefit of Alexa voice control. That means that this speaker works both within the Sonos system, as well as standalone as an Alexa speaker. Sonos sound quality and substantial design means it trumps the Echo and Echo Plus, but it's also twice the price. Some Alexa features aren't as smart: Spotify integration isn't all there yet and there's no Alexa calling offered. The Sonos One is really for those who want to put sound quality first.

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Google Home

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.

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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.