Amazon Echo (Gen 2) Review: Update Brings Better Sound

It's been two years since Amazon's revolutionary Echo appeared and kicked the smart-home speaker industry. Now, there are more than a dozen Alexa speakers on the market, with more on the way. And while Amazon has launched plenty of other Alexa-enabled devices since then, it hasn't touched the original, until now. The second-generation Echo is not only $80 less than the first-gen Echo, but it looks and (arguably) sounds better, too

Editor’s Note (11/3/17): Amazon is rolling out an update to the Echo to address concerns we and others had about the audio quality. Amazon sent us a unit with the new firmware to test the differences ahead of the release. We have amended this review, and increased its rating from 7 to 8 stars.

Design

Amazon hasn't really placed a premium on making its devices stylish -- just look at its phones, tablets and first-generation Echos. That's (hopefully) changing with the second-generation Echo. Not only is it more compact than the original, but it looks better, too.

Cedit: Shaun Lucas/ Tom's GuideCedit: Shaun Lucas/ Tom's GuideRather than an industrial-looking cylinder whose lower half is perforated with holes, the all-new Echo has a soft, fabric-colored exterior that blends better into your home decor. Yes, Amazon may be ripping off Google and Apple, but if you can't beat em….

Credit: Mike Prospero/Tom's GuideCredit: Mike Prospero/Tom's GuideIf the fabric look (which comes in three colors) isn't for you, the second-gen Echo's cover is removable (just like the Google Home); you can swap it out with other skins, including walnut, oak and a metallic silver.

At 5.9 inches tall and 3.5 inches in diameter, the second-gen Echo is slightly wider, but several inches shorter than the original, which stood at 9.25 x 3.3 inches in diameter. Size-wise, the newer Echo is very similar to the Google Home, which measures 5.62 x 3.79 inches around.

Like the original, there's an LED ring around the top edge of the Echo that turns blue when it's listening, and red when the microphone is off. On the top of the second-generation Echo is a button to activate Alexa and one to mute the microphone. However, instead of a twist dial to control the volume, the second-gen Echo has two buttons, like the Echo Dot. More functional, but not as fun. Around back, next to the power port (yes, you have to plug it into an outlet), is a 3.5mm audio out jack, in case you want to attach a better speaker. It also has Bluetooth, so you can connect to a speaker wirelessly, too.

MORE: 49 Best Amazon Alexa Skills

Audio Performance


When I originally tested the second-gen Echo, I was disappointed with its audio quality, which Amazon was touting as having "improved sound." In fact, it sounded worse than the original Echo. However, Amazon worked on a firmware improvement which it said would fix many of the issues I, and others, experienced.

After testing the Echo with the updated firmware, I heard a marked improvement that brought it up to, if not better than, the same level acoustically as the original Echo. As long as you don’t expect too much, the new Echo will suffice for someone looking for a single smart speaker for their living room.


Credit: Shaun Lucas/ Tom's GuideCredit: Shaun Lucas/ Tom's Guide


While both the first- and second-generation Echoes have a 2.5-inch woofer, the second-gen Echo also has a much smaller tweeter - just 0.6 inches, compared with the 2-inch tweeter on the original. The difference with regards to higher tones was less pronounced, but was still noticeable.

Coming soon, not just to the Echo but to all Alexa devices, is the ability for the devices to recognize what room they’re in.


On Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days, the midtones and vocals were a bit compressed, but there was a definite improvement in the bass on the second-gen Echo. On the original Echo, there was a little more resonance in the bass, and the vocals were a bit brighter.

When playing the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, again I felt the midtones were somewhat compressed, but there was a lot more definition in them. The bass was also much stronger, too.

Credit: Shaun Lucas/ Tom's GuideCredit: Shaun Lucas/ Tom's Guide

Rhapsody in Blue reinforced my opinions. Here, I slightly preferred the original Echo, as the piano solos were clearer, and the speaker sounded less muddy than the second-gen Echo when the entire ensemble blared out Gershwin’s masterpiece.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised at the higher quality of the audio coming from the second-generation Echo. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson showed a definite improvement--there was a nice driving bass line, and the King of Pop’s vocals, while somewhat muddy, weren’t as tinny as on the original Echo.

MORE: How to Use Amazon Alexa’s Drop In Feature

Microphone

The all-new Echo has seven microphones arrayed on its top, and uses beamforming technology and noise cancellation to hear your voice, even with music playing. Even so, I found myself raising my voice to a near shout when I wanted to be heard from about 10 feet away.

Alexa

As with other Alexa-enabled devices, you can use the Echo to interact with Amazon's voice assistant, which means everything from streaming music to controlling your Amazon Fire TV to playing cat sounds. There are thousands of third-party "skills" that enable more features for Alexa; after going through a lot of them, we have a list of our favorites. You can also use Alexa to control smart-home devices, such as lights, locks and garage door openers.

Credit: Mike Prospero/Tom's GuideCredit: Mike Prospero/Tom's GuideComing soon, not just to the Echo but to all Alexa devices, is the ability for the devices to recognize what room they’re in. You’ll no longer have to say "Alexa, turn on the dining room lights," merely "Turn on the lights" once you're in the dining room -- if you have an Alexa device there.

Routines will also let you group a number of devices together into a single activity, so you could say "Alexa, good morning," and have your lights turn on and the coffeemaker start percolating.

MORE: How to Use Multi-Room Music with the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Show

Bottom Line

With the updated firmware, the all-new $99 Echo is a step up aesthetically and on a par acoustically as the original. While not the best-sounding smart speaker—the $199 Sonos One takes that crown—it's a great option for those who are looking for an Alexa-enabled speaker that can hold its own as your primary music player.

However, if all you want is Alexa, and don't plan on using the speaker for listening to music, then you're better served with the $45 Echo Dot. And, if you’re planning to make it the centerpiece of your smart-home system, the $149 Echo Plus delivers comparable audio quality to the second-gen Echo, and has a smart-home hub built in. But, for those who want a simple smart speaker for $100, the all-new Echo is your best bet.

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