Amazon brings audio into the smart-home age with the Echo speaker. The Echo connects to the Internet and taps into Amazon's universe of services to become a personal assistant that helps you shop; a know-it-all with sport, traffic and weather info; and a DJ when you're not sure what to listen to. The Echo is getting smarter all the time, thanks to the ability to control multiple smart home products and a selection of more than 15,000 skills.
Amazon didn't skimp on the sound quality, either; the Echo compares favorably to other speakers that cost about the same. But with a few key features missing, such as a stand-alone battery, the otherwise impressive Echo isn't for everyone.
Editor's Note (11/2/17): Amazon has discontinued the original Echo, and released a second-generation model. Read our review of the all-new Echo.
With a sleek black design, the understated 9.25 x 3.27 x 3.27-inch Echo does its best to blend into the background. It's meant to be always on, and always listening for your commands, like a butler who emerges just when you call on him.
Don't let its appearance fool you, though; the Echo is much more than a Bluetooth speaker. The device's Wi-Fi capabilities allow it to tap into the Internet and channel Alexa, Amazon's cloud-based Siri competitor. Powered by voice commands, Alexa can do things such as play music, buy products through Amazon, get traffic and weather updates and control your lights and smart thermostat.
To start a task, you can say, "Alexa," or touch the Action button on the top of the speaker. The status ring along the top will turn blue as it interprets what you said and converts your command into an action. You can manually adjust the volume by turning the volume ring on the top — clockwise to raise it, counterclockwise to lower it. But it's much more fun to tell the speaker to lower or raise itself.
If you want some privacy, you can turn off the microphone by pressing the mute button. The status ring glows persistently red when the microphone is muted; the Echo really wants to listen to you.
In addition to its voice-recognition tech, the Echo features a 2-inch tweeter and a 2.5-inch woofer to produce well-balanced audio.
Almost as interesting as all the things the speaker can do is what Amazon left out. There's no speakerphone function, and there's no battery — it has to be plugged in to work. There's also no auxiliary input, so the speaker can only be used with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices. All three of those features are fairly standard on other wireless speakers.
As a virtual assistant, Alexa worked better for me than Apple's Siri usually does. Everything starts with the Echo app, a free download for iOS and Android devices. The app connects the device to your Wi-Fi network and then to your Amazon account. It also serves as a record of your interactions with Alexa; you can always look back to see what you asked before and how the assistant answered.
If Alexa doesn't understand you well, you can run voice training in the Echo app. This program asks you to say a predetermined list of things such as, "Alexa, what's the weather for Nashville today?" This teaches Alexa how to interpret your accent and individual speech patterns.
During normal use, the Echo app logs each inquiry you make, and asks if Alexa understood you correctly. You can also change the wake word from "Alexa" to "Amazon" if you, for example, have a child or ex-girlfriend named Alexa.
Alexa can handle a fair number of tasks: add reminders and to-dos; check your calendar; re-order things you've previously bought on Amazon or add new items to a shopping list; check news, traffic, sports and weather; set timers and alarms; and play music and Audible audio books.
When I asked the assistant to buy shampoo, it added the product to my Amazon shopping list so I could use the app later to pick the brand I wanted. It's not as intuitive as speaking to a person yet; for example, if you want to add multiple items to the shopping list, you need to say each one separately: "Alexa, add shampoo," and then "Alexa, add soap."
When I asked for the weather forecast in my town, Alexa told me the current temperature and conditions, then followed up with the forecast for the day. And it understands contextual questions, like, "What's the weather today?" and, "What about tomorrow?" After I asked who won the Yankees-Red Sox baseball game, Alexa told me the score and when the teams were playing next.
Alexa doesn't quite have Siri's sense of humor, though it will tell you a joke if asked. (Example: "Why do potatoes make good detectives? Because they keep their eyes peeled.") Ask Alexa what zero divided by zero is, and it tells you the operation is undefined; when asked the same question, Siri gives an example about cookies and how sad Cookie Monster is. However, I found the sound of Alexa's voice more realistic than Siri's.
The only difficulty it had was when I said, "Play the War on Drugs," and Alexa tried to find an audiobook of that name instead of music by the band. When I clarified that to, "Play music by the War on Drugs," the command worked.
I never needed to shout to be heard, even 15 feet away from the speaker. Even when I had music playing or the TV on, the speaker responded when called. If you want to control the Echo from another room, you can buy the $30 remote control.
Amazon has greatly expanded Alexa's capabilities since launch, and you can expect more. One notable example is Yelp integration, which allows you to ask Alexa for information on the restaurants and pubs around your neighborhood.
Smart Home Services
The Echo can link to a large number of smart-home devices and appliances. In addition to WeMo, Wink and Philips Hue lightbulbs, you can connect it to the Samsung SmartThings Hub, and Lightify Smart Connected LED. Amazon also released an Alexa Lighting API to allow developers to teach the Echo how to control other cloud-controlled devices. When I ran setup, the Echo found my WeMo Switch on my network; after that, I could turn on the lamp that's connected to the switch by asking Alexa to do so.
The Echo also works with smart thermostats like the Nest and Ecobee, so you can change the temperature in your home just by speaking to Alexa.
Through the app, you connect your Echo to your Amazon account. Any music you've purchased through Amazon is available to stream, and if you have Amazon Prime, you can access the 1-million-song library that comes with Prime Music. You can also play Audible audiobooks you've purchased.
In addition, the Echo app ties into Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more using just your voice. For each service, you just follow the steps in the app to connect your existing accounts.
If you want Apple Music or your own local files, you need to use Bluetooth. To pair your device with the Echo, say, "Alexa, pair Bluetooth," and follow her instructions. Alternatively, you can open the Echo app, touch Settings and then select the Echo you're pairing. Then tap Bluetooth, and finally touch Pairing Mode.
Overall, the Echo did a good job balancing treble, midrange and bass. It sounds very similar to the well-regarded $180 Ultimate Ears Boom. On Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk," the horns sounded bright, and the speaker produced enough bass to drive the rhythm — but not nearly as much as the JBL Charge 2+.
Taylor Swift's voice on "Bad Blood" came across clear above the keyboards and thumping bass drum. The opening chord of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" rang crisply, and John and Paul's harmonies resonated well.
The speaker performed impressively on acoustic music, too. The saxophones on Charles Mingus' jazz classic "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" sounded warm, while Lindsey Buckingham's fingerpicking on Fleetwood Mac's "Never Going Back Again" was crisp and full.
The Echo integrates with Amazon's Audible audiobook service, which made it easy to listen to Neil Gaiman's reading of "Neverwhere." I said, "Alexa, play Neil Gaiman's audiobook of Neverwhere," and the assistant found the song in my Audible library. Gaiman's voice resonated well, neither too trebly nor too bassy, and he was easy to understand even with his British accent.
The Echo can get loud enough to fill a large room. I measured it at 90 decibels, and it didn't suffer from distortion as much as many Bluetooth speakers do at that level.
Alexa vs. Google Home
Amazon's Echo isn't the only in-home voice assistant. The $129 Google Home offers many of the same features in a less expensive, and more attractively designed speaker. Like the Echo, Google Home needs to be plugged in to work, and will respond when you say "OK, Google." In head-to-head tests, both performed well, picking up our voice from across the room. The Echo delivered more balanced sound when playing music, but Google Home integrates with Google Cast products, letting you start playing music and YouTube videos on connected devices using just your voice. For a more detailed comparison, check out our full review of Google Home.
Echo vs. Echo Dot vs. Echo Show
If you're looking for a less expensive version of the Echo, the Echo Dot ($49) offers all of the features of the Echo, but without the larger built-in speaker. The Dot is meant to be plugged into a larger speaker (if you want to play music), or to be placed in locations where you want Alexa, but don't have enough space for a full-size Echo. Additionally, the Echo Show ($229) is pricier, but comes with a 7-inch touchscreen, and offers audio on a par with the Echo. If you're having trouble deciding, check out our guide to which Alexa device is right for you.
The Amazon Echo adds functions to a wireless speaker that we've never experienced before. It can tell you the weather, add items to a shopping list, search local businesses through, alert you to traffic Yelp and even turn on the lights. The way it ties into Amazon Music, Pandora and other services is similar to a Sonos system, but Sonos lacks voice control.
You can emulate many of the Echo's voice functions by using Siri or Google Now, but having the speaker always ready to respond is more convenient. And Alexa, while not as witty as Siri, understood me better than Apple's virtual assistant did. Add in very good sound quality, and the Echo is a compelling wireless speaker if you don't need to take it anywhere.