The original Amazon Echo was the best smart speaker, but man, was it scary-looking. It was an unfriendly, black plastic cylinder that looked like it came from the wrong side of the Force. And the later-released white version was only slightly better. The new Echo is a much more attractive speaker that will fit more effortlessly with your home décor, at a much lower price than the previous model. That’s a killer combination, but we’re withholding our final judgment until we test the Echo Plus next week, at which time we’ll assign this review a rating.

In 2017, your choice of Alexa speakers has really expanded. You can get a little $49.99 Echo Dot and pair it with a better speaker. You can get a $149.99 Echo Plus with a built-in home-automation hub, or a higher-end $199 Sonos One speaker for true multi-room audio and fantastic great sound quality. At $99.99 ($83.33 if you buy three at a time), the Echo is designed to be the workaday, every-room speaker for those who can afford a little more than the Dot, and want a better look and more volume.

Amazon also has the $229.99 Echo Show and the upcoming, $129 Echo Spot, which add screens. The Show is less of a voice-enabled speaker and more of a kitchen tablet with powerful audio, while the Spot looks like a voice-enabled alarm clock. Those two also have cameras, for video calling and showing smart-home video feeds, and they function as baby monitors.

If you aren’t familiar with Alexa and the Echo line, they’ve grown over the years from devices that let you shop and listen to music into all-purpose home assistants. Alexa’s big draw is the thousands of third-party ‘skills’ it enables, from controlling pretty much every smart home brand, to reading out AllRecipes recipes, to ordering you a Lyft or a pizza. You can see the incredible range of Amazon’s skill set in our article, Amazon’s Highest-Rated Alexa Skills in Every Category.

The new Echo is shorter and fatter than the old one at 5.9 by 3.5 by 3.5 inches, with six different sleeves to match your design tastes. The black, light gray, and dark gray fabric options don’t add to the $99.99 price; if you want oak, walnut, or silver plastic, that’ll be $20 extra. If you want to switch things up, additional “shells” cost $19.99 each for the fabric and $29.99 for wood or plastic. Amazon has neutralized the visual differential with Google here; the Echo now looks as good as, or better than, the Google Home.

On the top, a blue ring of light glows when the speaker is listening. There are also physical volume, mic-off, and action buttons. The physical volume buttons replace the rotating volume ring on the previous Echo. Around back, a new 3.5mm output jack joins the power connector.

Setup and App

You load the Alexa app on your smartphone and step through the pairing settings to configure the Echo. Once the speaker is set up, you don’t really need the app any more unless you’re connecting new smart home devices, changing device settings, or adding new skills. It’s handy to keep on-hand, though, because it gives you a list your past queries and answers. The app displays a history of all of the questions you ask Alexa, letting you scroll down and see when Alexa misheard you, and offering up Bing searches and Amazon links for further information about your requests.

Tapping the menu icon on the top left opens a menu to let you control settings for your Alexa and smart home devices, but also to manage your Amazon music and book libraries, and check lists, reminders, and alarms. You can set reminders and alarms in the app or by voice, and they’ll work on all of your Alexa devices.

Dual-band Wi-Fi range is as good as on the other midrange smart speakers. No surprises in testing so far.

Audio Quality

If you’re looking for audio quality, the Echo isn’t ideal. The new model sounds very similar to the old one, even if it’s much more attractive. That means a very crisp, treble-heavy sound that pushes voices, especially female voices, way to the front of the mix while sending the low-mids to the back. The Echo will pierce through a room, but it won’t shake it. Amazon shows off the Echo’s 2.5-incg woofer and 0.6-inch tweeter as if they mean something, but they don’t pay off in terms of sound quality.

That said, you’re going to get a lot more sound out of the Echo than out of an Echo Dot. At the very least, you can hear the Echo across a room, while an Echo Dot has the audio quality of a tinny transistor radio.

In a quiet room with only the usual ambient chatter, the Echo had no problem hearing me from 40 feet away. With music playing at 60 percent volume, that distance dropped to 25 feet; with music playing at 80 percent volume, it was 15 feet, which is still the size of most rooms. If you want to control the Echo over truly blaring sound, you can get a $29.99 microphone-equipped remote, which also has its own volume and play/pause buttons.

Calling to the Echo while it played music at top volume from 15 feet away, I often had to call two or three times before Alexa recognized me. But it still beats the pants off the old Echo, which had trouble hearing its wake word over top-volume music even when I was right next to the speaker. If you’ve been frustrated by wake word recognition on your old Echo, the new model will help.

Google’s Home speaker, as we found before, has a much more balanced sound, with at least some mid-bass and richer voice tone. Google Home also had no problem hearing ‘OK Google’ from across the room, with music playing at top volume. If you want both Alexa and sound quality, either plug your Echo into another speaker through the 3.5-mm out jack, or get a Sonos One, whose sound quality blows away both the Echo and the Home. Amazon offers you options, which I think earns the company extra points.

That 3.5mm jack highlights how Alexa devices, including the Echo, are more flexible than other smart speaker setups when it comes to connecting with both content and devices. Only Amazon lets you plug directly into another speaker or use standard Bluetooth to control another speaker, or play your own music files out of a cloud-based locker instead of a subscription music service or your phone (both of which you can also do). Google Home requires Chromecast attachments to control other speakers; the Cortana-based Harman Kardon Invoke can’t control other speakers at all.

Echos make good components of a multi-room audio system. The “echo spatial perception” feature means that only the nearest one responds when you call, and unlike their competitors, they can be switched to respond to one of four different wake words: Alexa, Amazon, Echo, and Computer. This is very nice when you have a family member named Alexa.

Amazon Echo Colors

Voice Assistant Features

Alexa-wise, the Echo doesn’t differentiate itself from other Amazon products currently on the market. There are some Alexa features, most notably drop-in calling, which are exclusive to Amazon and don’t work on third-party Alexa devices like the Sonos One. But all the Amazon devices have the same Alexa features.

Alexa syncs with your Amazon music library and, if you have Amazon Prime, all of Prime Music. You can also add any of your own MP3s to your Amazon music library, and play music from iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, and TuneIn. Alexa will read your Kindle books or Audible audiobooks, and it’ll sync up your last-read locations with your other Kindle devices.

Echos can now make outbound phone calls, but can’t receive calls or act as a speakerphone for your smartphone. The $35 Echo Connect accessory, coming out on December 13, will hook up to a landline or VoIP phone and let you make and receive phone calls on your home number through your Echo speakers. However, the Echo doesn’t work as a Bluetooth speakerphone out of the box like many other speakers its size do.

For smart home, Alexa controls pretty much all of the brands you’ll find. Be aware that the $149 Echo Plus includes a Zigbee hub for various smart home devices, so if you don’t have an existing automation hub, you’ll probably want to have one Echo Plus in your home.

Alexa’s real strength is in its thousands of third-party skills, with more arriving each day. You have to be a little smarter about your information sources with Alexa than with Google Home, but it pays off. With Google Home, you just ask for a ‘recipe’ and get whatever source it decides to provide. With Alexa, you can specify AllRecipes, or Betty Crocker, or Hellman’s, or smaller independent providers. Amazon offers a full directory of skills on its Web site, so fortunately you can poke through. You should look up sites, brands and apps that you regularly use; they’ll probably have a skill associated with them.

As for Alexa versus Google Home, Cortana and Siri, we go into some detail on that in the recent Google Home Mini and Cortana-powered Harman Kardon Invoke reviews. Apple’s HomePod isn’t out yet, so we don’t have an opinion on that one yet. To make a long story short, Alexa can be annoying needing specific wording for queries, but plugs into the most third-party services and Web sites. Google is catching up and is better with natural language questions, but still doesn’t support quite as many big-name third-party services. Cortana, for now, is way behind the pack.

Amazon Echo in Bedroom

Comparisons and Conclusions

Alexa is still our preferred voice assistant, especially for smart homes. Google Assistant is good, but hasn’t quite caught up on third-party services, and Cortana is just hopelessly behind.

The second-generation Echo doesn’t offer much for existing Echo owners, as its features and audio capabilities are about the same besides some improved voice detection. This Echo is about enticing in folks who didn’t buy one before, whether it was because it was too ugly or, at $180, too expensive. The better look and steep price cut make it much easier to bring the Echo into your home.

We are not rating the new Amazon Echo yet because we want to get the Echo Plus in and compare them. For $50 more, the Echo Plus integrates a smart home hub and has a slightly larger, 0.8-inch tweeter. We’re getting one next week, and we’ll be able to tell you then.

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