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Amazon Echo (2nd gen) review: smaller and cheaper, but mostly the same

The new Echo’s best feature is its price

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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For the past three years, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has been invading homes inside the case of the Echo smart speaker. Alexa has been answering questions, turning on smart lights, adding things to shopping lists, ordering things from Amazon, and playing music for millions of people. The Echo essentially established the smart speaker market, which now has entries from Google, Microsoft, and soon, Apple.

After expanding the line with the smaller and super-popular Echo Dot, the portable, battery-powered Tap, and the more expensive, but ultimately less thrilling, Echo Show, Amazon has finally gone back and updated the original Echo. The new Echo, which is heretofore known simply as the “All-new Echo,” as the original Echo no longer exists in Amazon’s world, comes with a smaller, simpler design; better aesthetics; supposedly improved audio; and, most importantly, a significantly lower price of $99.

The lower price is the new Echo’s main draw

That lower price is the main draw for the new Echo. If you’ve been holding off on buying one because the original’s $180 cost kept you away, or you are looking for a second Echo for yourself or as a gift, the new Echo is a much easier purchase to make.

But aside from its smaller design and new, customizable appearance, the new Echo isn’t hugely different from the first model. It still performs all of the same tasks, can still hear its wake word from across the room, and still doesn’t have great audio quality for listening to music. If you already have a first-generation model, it doesn’t make much sense to replace it with the new Echo — you don’t gain much with it and in some instances, you give up some.

Still, thanks to that new, lower price, the new Echo should be just as enamoring and appealing as the first Echo and will likely keep Amazon at the forefront of the smart speaker world.

The most obvious visual difference between the new Echo and its predecessor is the device’s size. Where the first Echo’s size and shape was akin to a can of Pringles or tennis balls, the new model is more like a can of Foster’s beer. It’s short and stout, about two-thirds as tall as the first model, but with a slightly larger diameter. That should make it a little easier to tuck into a shelf or hide away in a corner of your living room or kitchen.

The Echo’s new swappable decorative shells are also designed to make the device blend in with your home better. The first model’s black (and eventually, white) plastic finish gave the device an ominous obelisk vibe that didn’t do anything to diminish the Big Brother feelings that come along with an always-listening internet-connected device in your home. In contrast, the new model comes with a fabric cover in a variety of grays (basically, dark, medium, or light gray) that’s both more appealing to look at and should fit better in modern decor.

You can also purchase various shells to change the look of the Echo, including a silvery gray, walnut, or oak finishes. But since the shells are just plastic and not actual wood or metal, none of the optional decorative covers look as good as the standard fabric one to me.

The simplified design of the new Echo trades the rotating volume ring for plus and minus buttons, like found on the Echo Dot. They work just as well, and since most of the time I adjust the Echo’s volume with voice commands, I don’t miss the ring at all. The new Echo has the same number of far field microphones to pick up voice commands (seven), but Amazon says it has second-generation technology that’s improved over the first model. I haven’t noticed a significant improvement in my testing however, the new Echo hears me just about as well as the prior model did. Most of the time, it hears me on the first try, even when it’s playing music, though occasionally I have to repeat the “Alexa” wake word. It is no better or worse than the Google Home or Harman Kardon Invoke in this regard.

The other new feature with this Echo is the ability to output its audio to a larger speaker or stereo system over a 3.5mm auxiliary cable or Bluetooth. This works the same as it does on the smaller Echo Dot, and makes it easy to add voice control to your existing stereo equipment.

On the inside, Amazon has added Dolby sound processing in an effort to make the Echo’s 2.5-inch subwoofer and 0.6-inch tweeter sound better. But in side-by-side testing, I didn’t find the new Echo to sound any better than the prior model, and for listening to music, I actually preferred the first Echo’s sound.

Better sound quality was the obvious improvement to make, but the new Echo doesn’t deliver

The new Echo’s sound is sharper, with more treble than the first model. That’s good for hearing Alexa speak back to you, or for cutting through the din of a running faucet if you’re using the Echo in a kitchen. But for music, the sound is thin and flat, with even less bass than before. The old model had a softer sound with just a little bit more bass that’s much more pleasant to listen to.

It almost goes without saying, then, that the new Echo doesn’t sound as good as the Google Home or anywhere near as good as the Harman Kardon Invoke or Sonos One. It’s not even as powerful or fun to listen to as some portable Bluetooth speakers, such as the JBL Charge 3 or UE Boom 2. That’s a little disappointing, given that Amazon itself admits that the most common thing people do with the Echo is listen to music. Most people will be content with the Echo’s sound quality for casual listening, but given that it is the one area most often complained about with the first model, I’d have to liked to have seen more improvement here.

Amazon has added a number of new features to Alexa, the smart assistant inside of the Echo, including control of Fire TV set top boxes and improved smart home controls. Since Alexa runs entirely in the cloud, it doesn’t matter which Amazon Echo device you own, it performs all of the same functions on all of them. You don’t need to buy a new Echo to get the latest Alexa features on your first-generation model.

And the new Echo performs all of those voice-controlled functions just as well as its predecessor. I use an Echo in my kitchen to add items to a shared grocery list that my wife and I both have access to on our phones; I use one to turn on lights throughout my house; I use an Echo Dot to control the Fire TV box connected to the TV in my play room; and I use another Dot as an alarm clock next to my bed each morning. Once you have Alexa in one room and have configured it to do more than just play music, it becomes the type of thing that you want in every room of your home

Amazon’s clearly tapped into an alluring idea with the Echo, and even though the company won’t admit how many it’s sold so far, by all accounts it’s a successful product. In light of that, the latest version doesn’t rock the boat too much. It doesn’t improve the Echo’s rather poor audio quality, nor does it introduce any new, groundbreaking features. It just does the same things in a smaller, cheaper design. That’s enough to keep Amazon ahead of its competitors, which are all a step or two behind the Echo line-up.

Amazon didn’t have to do much to make people want the new Echo

In all honesty, Amazon really didn’t have to do much to the Echo to make it more appealing. It just had to make it less expensive, which is exactly what Amazon did here. The real product Amazon is selling is Alexa, and for an in-home virtual assistant, Alexa is very good. And if you want the best way to use Alexa, the new Echo is it.