(Pocket-lint) - It's fair to say that the original Amazon Echo changed the world when it launched in 2015. It introduced the notion of a smarter speaker, with Alexa offering voice control and smart skills that left traditional speaker and radio manufacturers falling over themselves to keep up. While Google had its own AI system that could rival Alexa, it's lacked the pace of launch for Echo devices.
The humble Echo is now in its third-generation format for 2019. Having dominated the smart speaker market for the last few years, the new Echo is perhaps the most important one that Amazon has ever announced. Here's why.
A plus design
- Dimensions: 148 x 99 x 99mm / Weight: 780g
- Colours: Charcoal, Heather Grey, Sandstone, Twilight Blue
It might be a bit of a strong statement to say that this is the most important Echo so far, but it's true. The design moves up in quality over previous devices at this price point, adopting the solidly-built 2018 Echo Plus looks, making it wider and more adeptly executed than the second-gen Echo.
The second-gen Echo tried to sell itself on changeable covers and coming in at a price point that was hard to ignore. It wasn't as compelling as the first-gen Echo or the Plus that it launched alongside for a number of reasons, all of which are now laid to one side.
The third-gen Echo comes in a range of colours - black, grey, white or blue (to not give them their overly fancy marketing names) - but the design is much improved, because it basically is the old Echo Plus. There is no rotation ring to change the volume like the first-gen devices, as Amazon now sticks to buttons on the top.
Those include a mute button - accompanied by a red ring of illumination so you can see that your privacy is being protected - and there's also an Alexa button you can use to trigger Alexa without using a spoken hotword, as well as for some manual functions, like triggering setup.
So overall, it's a big win - especially considering that the Echo Plus costs $149.99/£139.99 and the only difference is that the more expensive speaker has a Zigbee controller in it.
Audio and sound quality
- 3.0-inch woofer, 0.8-inch tweeter
- 3.5mm input or output
- Bluetooth connectivity
- 360-degree sound
Aside from the design, the biggest change to the third-generation Echo over the first and second-gen models is in sound quality. This new Echo has the same sound hardware as the Echo Plus (an 0.8-inch tweeter and a 3.0-inch woofer), the drivers arranged in a speaker housing that gives 360-degree audio, so you can place the Echo in any room, in any position, and benefit from its audio equally.
It's a big boost in the performance of the Echo, now delivering much richer and more powerful bass. It's no overbearing, but where the second-gen Echo could come across as a little thin, this new model is much more satisfying.
There are bigger and better speakers available, of course - and the Echo Studio is Amazon's new step-up proposition in this regard - but the Echo doesn't have to work in isolation. It can be grouped through the Alexa app for multi-device music and it can also be stereo paired and combined with the Echo Sub too, if you'd like.
This is where it gets a lot more interesting, because the third-gen Echo can be stereo paired with another third-gen Echo or with the 2018 Echo Plus. Yes, if you bought the Echo Plus, you'll now be able to add a stereo partner for not a lot of money. Basically, you can buy two Echo devices to stereo pair for about the same as you might pay for the nearest competitor, the Sonos One.
There's plenty of volume from the 2019 Echo - certainly enough to fill an average room - and fidelity is maintained at higher volumes. Yes, turn it up too loud and you'll get some distortion, especially when the bass starts to get a little forced, but for most people that's unlikely to be a problem.
There's also a 3.5mm input or output, meaning you can choose how to use your Echo - working as a speaker from an external input or to use its smart skills output to another device. It's an expensive way of doing the latter - the Echo Input is a fraction of the price - but such options add versatility that other speakers lack. Then there's Bluetooth, which essentially does the same thing: connects to another speaker but without the wires.
So that's great sound performance at a price that's hard to ignore, as well as the flexibility to choose how you setup or use your speaker. Consider too that the range of options for sources is also expanding. Not only do you get a great experience from Amazon Music or Spotify, but it supports Deezer, TuneIn and Apple Music, as well as many other services, like BBC Sounds.
We maintain that the Spotify experience is the best, thanks in part to how well Spotify manages itself across multiple platforms, but other services like Amazon Music or Apple Music have the advantage of allowing you to play different music on different Echo devices if you have family subscription, which is something to consider if you have a home full of music listeners.
Alexa, jump through hoops
- Alexa voice controls
Alexa has been the shining star of the Echo family for some time and continues to add functionality and options to what you can do with your Echo. While it's not always as smart as its closest rival, the Google Assistant, we do prefer saying "Alexa" to "Hey, Google" - because it just feels more natural.
As we mentioned, there's no Zigbee controller in the Echo, meaning that the Echo Plus has a skill that this device doesn't - and that's the ability to control a range of smart home devices (lights, plugs, heating, for example) without having to set them up with hubs and other apps.
It's perhaps a bit of a niche offering anyway, as it's far easier to setup those devices as the manufacturer intended and then connect them to Alexa using the appropriate Skill. We've used the Echo to work with Ring, Arlo, Hue, Hive and a number of other platforms and it all works wonderfully without the Zigbee controller - you just have to link things up via the Alexa app.
And it's that app that lies at the heart of the Echo experience. As the range of skills on offer has expanded over recent years, so too has the scope of the Alexa app. It's from here that you can use your phone to control the whole Alexa experience, using Alexa Calling, defining your preferences, linking things up with those additional Skills, as well as changing things like the hardware preferences.
The Alexa app isn't the fastest app on any smartphone and there is room to improve the experience here for those who are heavy users of the app. If you have a whole home setup with lots of Echo devices and lots of compatible smart home devices then that can get a little irritating, as it can take some time to load and move through the pages to things like settings. But generally speaking, once you're setup, you can get away with not using the app too often.
If music is the most important thing for you, then it's hard to ignore the boosted performance of the new Echo. Previous Echo iterations had limitations, but to have a great low price and pleasing sound quality means that the 2019 Echo sweeps those criticisms aside.
This Echo does now call into question the very existence of the Echo Plus though. Even though the Plus has the sell of a Zigbee controller, we think that's a questionable need even for a smart home fan. In short, there's now little reason to buy the Plus because the standard model is so good.
Sure, there will be those who says it's not the best speaker in the world, but it's hard to find anything under £100 that's better. And the 2019 model is easily the best Amazon Echo there's ever been.
This article was first published on the 25 September and has been updated to reflect its full review status.
Sonos has a couple of advantages over the third-gen Echo. Firstly, you get to choose whether you use Alexa or Google Assistant as your voice assistant. You also get access to Apple AirPlay 2 which brings flexibility for iPhone users, while there's also Sonos' own multiroom networking. On the downside, it's more than twice the price.
Google Home is the Google alternative, offering a direct route into the world of Google Assistant. This speaker is getting a little old, still in its original guise since its 2016 launch, but regular sales means it's often comparable in price to the Echo. It doesn't sound anywhere near as good, however.