Technology

Amazon Echo (2020) review: Fourth-gen Alexa smart speaker is a ball to use — literally

The brand new Amazon Echo boasts a placing spheroidal design.


Chris Monroe/PJDM

oct 2020 ec

Amazon’s 2020 Echo good speaker, its fourth-gen Alexa countertop gadget is shaped like a sphere, a placing departure from the soft-cylindrical audio system of previous generations. Six years after the primary Echo launched 10,000 (or at least a few dozen) good audio system, a reimagined design was overdue.

The massive query for Amazon and its new Echo is, properly, how reimagined is it? Voice assistants are growing and changing on a regular basis, however for essentially the most half, they do what they’ve been doing for years already: reply questions, set timers, management your good dwelling devices, play music and so forth. So why purchase a brand new Echo?

Amazon has faltered just lately with its core good speaker, because the extra budget-friendly Dot has develop into a greater entry level to the market and 2019’s Echo Studio provides higher-end sound for audiophiles. That left the $100 Echo as a type of undefined middle child within the rising household of Alexa-powered audio system. However 2020’s Echo is genuinely completely different, and it is not simply due to the brand new spheroidal profile. This Echo has turned up the sound high quality and added higher-end smarts than the competitors, all for a similar $100 price ticket, leaving it some of the forward-looking good audio system launched in years.

Like

  • Improved sound high quality and highly effective bass
  • Higher good dwelling connectivity
  • Straightforward and high quality stereo pairing

Do not Like

  • A cumbersome design
  • No revolutionary upgrades

Getting the ball rolling

Amazon’s 2020 Echo boasts two necessary upgrades that ought to inform your resolution to purchase it or not: improved sound high quality and good dwelling {hardware}.

In relation to sound, the Echo represents a major enchancment over the third-gen speaker from 2019, possible partially to the truth that the third-gen Echo basically copped its design nearly wholesale from an older device. As well as, the Echo has adaptive sound, so it will possibly alter to the acoustics of the room through which you employ it. I personally did not discover dramatic variations in output from room to room, however the speaker sounded good within the varied rooms and on the varied surfaces I used for testing.

The Echo sounds higher than the final technology, however how does it sound in comparison with the direct competitors? Google’s $100 Nest Audio, which dropped solely a few weeks earlier than the Echo, is a stable gadget. However the Echo merely boasts extra energy: the Echo’s quantity at 85% is about equal to the Nest’s max.

What’s extra, between the Echo’s 3-inch woofer and twin 0.8-inch tweeters, bass and lower-range mids are richer and stronger. Listening to bass-heavy music, like Lil Wayne’s A Milli or Travis Barker’s current Run the Jewels collaboration, Forever, the Echo retains the low finish thunderous even at excessive volumes, whereas the Nest Audio finally ends up feeling treble-heavy because the bass begins to drop out.

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That mentioned, in the event you favor extra acoustic music, the Nest Audio gives marginally higher efficiency of advanced, midrange-heavy songs. Each audio system, although, actually seize the feel of vocal-heavy music. The Echo, with its barely higher low vary, sounds barely higher to my ear when enjoying Johnny Money’s gravelly baritone in Hurt, whereas the Nest Audio sounds barely crisper in its remedy of Lianne La Havas’s delicate vibrato in No Room for Doubt.

As with Google’s new speaker, a pair of Echoes may be set as much as work in stereo format. The impact is nice, significantly with songs that take full benefit of stereo panning or uneven sound, reminiscent of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army or Pink Floyd’s Money. In contrast to the Nest Audio, the Echo has a 3mm line in/out port for connecting to different audio system.

Each Amazon’s and Google’s good audio system provide nice sound high quality for the $100 price ticket, however after side-by-side testing with dozens of songs, the Echo takes the prize by a small however vital margin. It is extra highly effective, and in the event you like hip-hop or lure music, the Echo will deal with you properly. In any other case, they’re pretty comparable, with the Nest boasting a slight edge in terms of some acoustic and classical music.

A-round the home

The Echo’s sound high quality is admirable, however Amazon has distinguished its midrange good speaker much more from Google’s Nest Audio and Apple’s HomePod Mini with its built-in hub, which includes a Zigbee receiver and Amazon Sidewalk Bridge. If these issues do not imply something to you, don’t fret. Basically, Amazon has inbuilt two new methods for good dwelling gadgets to connect with its good speaker.

The Zigbee receiver lets the Echo join with numerous good dwelling gadgets, from lightbulbs to flood sensors, with out the necessity for an extra hub — the intermediary gadget that interprets varied kinds of radio alerts so your low-power sensors can talk along with your WiFi community. This small design resolution has severely broadened the vary of devices Echo customers can set up of their home with out the additional trouble and expense of a sensible dwelling hub.

I attempted putting in a few Zigbee gadgets and located the method to be completely painless. This is not revolutionary — in truth, Amazon included Zigbee receivers of their $150 Echo Plus and their $230 second-gen Echo Show — however it’s bringing higher dwelling connectivity to a broader viewers, and that is a transparent win for Amazon prospects.

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Loads of window, flood and movement sensors depend on low-power communication protocols like Zigbee to increase their battery life.


Chris Monroe/PJDM

What’s much less clear is how Amazon Sidewalk, which Amazon says will launch later this 12 months, will have an effect on Echo customers. In accordance with a recent Amazon blog post explaining it, Sidewalk will enable customers to “contribute a small portion of their web bandwidth, which is pooled collectively to create a shared community that advantages all Sidewalk-enabled gadgets in a group.”

Virtually, that might imply a bigger purposeful community for gadgets towards the sides of your property — say, outside lights or Tile tracking devices — and even past. It is a cool concept, although how a lot you profit from it’s going to largely rely on the place you reside, and the way huge of a change it’s going to characterize for many prospects stays to be seen.

Residence theater within the spherical

The opposite dwelling function I used to be excited to strive with the brand new Echo was establishing a house theater group. Connecting a voice assistant to your leisure system looks like an actual enchancment, if you have not finished it earlier than. And the brand new Echo, utilizing Alexa, works fairly properly right here.

I used a 4K Fire TV Stick to create the group, and it felt nice to have the ability to merely say, “Watch The Boys,” to Alexa, solely to have your TV activate and start streaming the Prime present. The audio system labored pretty properly, although I had one drop out of the group whereas I used to be testing it. When you’ve got quick Wi-Fi, then it appears this setup would work properly. In a home with a number of individuals streaming or utilizing bandwidth in different methods, though relying in your Echoes for stereo sound would possibly result in extra frustration than it is value.

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Amazon’s Hearth TV Stick can be part of two Echoes in a house theater group within the app in underneath a minute.


Sarah Tew/PJDM

The opposite huge downside I bumped into was streaming music. I anticipated to have the ability to stream music as standard from the Echo audio system whereas the TV was off, then flip it on to stream video once I wished. Alas, streaming music on the linked Echoes robotically turned on the TV, which scrolled lyrics to the songs. And once I manually turned off the TV, the music additionally stopped.

Utilizing Alexa to manage your TV and twin Echoes for stereo sound as you stream is cool — it is significantly better than you could possibly do a number of years in the past. However the kinks nonetheless aren’t labored out to the extent I need them to be, so I nonetheless would not advocate selecting up new Echoes to your leisure middle except you’ve incredible Wi-Fi and do not plan to make use of the audio system for music, too.

Ball is life

The perfect adjustments to the fourth-gen Echo is perhaps sound high quality and residential smarts, however the obvious change is its spherical design. In fact, this design is not some aesthetic revelation: Most good audio system look mainly interchangeable at this level, with a layer of material mesh over gentle geometric shapes. Google’s current Nest Audio is vaguely rectangular, and Apple’s soon-to-launch HomePod Mini is equally spheroidal.

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The brand new Echo has a bigger footprint, which is not ideally suited for kitchen countertop utilization.


Chris Monroe/PJDM

The ball-like profile, in accordance with Amazon, permits the improved sound output, however it additionally comes with a number of sensible drawbacks — mainly a bigger footprint. In case you’re planning to interchange the third-gen Echo or an Echo Dot with this speaker, you may in all probability must barely reorganize your shelf. It is a small criticism, however the kitchen countertop is a few of the hottest actual property in lots of houses, and dedicating extra of it to a sensible speaker may not really feel ideally suited for these of us with restricted area.

The Echo is available in three colours: the usual charcoal (black) and glacier white, plus a muted twilight blue. That is a bit extra conservative than Google’s array of pastels, however once more, many of those aesthetic distinctions really feel like minor quibbles.

These criticisms apart, the 2020 Echo looks like a way more worthwhile gadget than final 12 months’s third-gen Echo. The highly effective sound and smarts distinguish it from the competitors, and with an ever-improving Alexa, shopping for a sensible speaker hasn’t felt this good in years.

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Author

David Priest