The smart speaker competition this year is the hottest it’s ever been. Google has finally refreshed its midrange smart speaker with the impressively good Nest Audio. Apple has seen the error of its HomePod ways and is coming out with the much more accessible HomePod mini.
And Amazon, naturally, is not standing still. It has a brand-new Echo with the biggest overhaul in design and sound quality since the first Echo surprised the world back in 2014. And it’s all for the same $99.99 price as last year’s 3rd Gen Echo, the Nest Audio, and the HomePod mini.
Amazon also has a brand-new Echo Dot lineup that, well, echoes the design of the larger model, shrinking it down and bringing it to an even lower price point. I’ll be covering the Echo Dot in a separate piece, but if it’s anything like the larger Echo, it’s going to be impressive.
Because the new 4th-Gen Echo sounds incredible.
The Echo’s design has been completely overhauled — the cylindrical shape is out, everything is about spheres now. The new Echo is essentially a 5-inch ball with a flat side on the bottom, so it doesn’t roll off the table. It’s vaguely melon-like in appearance, though I also can’t deny the Death Star vibes it projects.
According to Amazon, the ball shape is meant to improve the speaker’s acoustic properties and allows for more flexibility with the placement of the drivers inside. It also offers a fuller cavity behind the woofer for better bass response.
And sure enough, the Echo is physically deeper than the Nest Audio, which is a little bit taller. That depth allows Amazon to use two tweeters (each 0.8-inch) compared to the Nest’s single one, while still fitting in a 3-inch woofer and enough space for it to radiate bass.
The net effect is the Echo has a greater sound stage than the Nest and fills larger rooms better with sound. It also has noticeably better bass — you can feel it in the floor as well as just hearing it. That’s something I haven’t experienced from a $100 smart speaker before.
The top half of the ball is covered in fabric, and you can get it in dark gray, light gray, or a new light blue. At the very apex are four buttons: volume up, volume down, microphone mute, and the “action” button, which puts the speaker into listening mode without you having to say “Alexa”. Around back you’ll find the power port and the same 3.5mm jack that’s on all of the other Echo speakers for hooking it up to a larger sound system. There’s also a built-in Bluetooth radio for connecting directly to a device and playing whatever audio source you want.
Alexa’s signature LED light ring is now on the bottom
This new shape necessitates moving the signature LED light ring that lets you know when Alexa is listening for a voice command, when it’s muted, when you have a notification, or the volume level of the speaker. It’s now on the bottom, which might be harder to see from a distance. But in my experience that was a non-issue: the light ring’s glow reflects off the surface of whatever you put the Echo on and it’s bright enough to see from across the room.
Lastly, the design is also much more directional than the prior models. Instead of trying to splash sound in all directions, the Echo’s woofer is pointed towards the front at a 45-degree upwards angle, while the two tweeters are below it, facing slightly left and slightly right. It’s clear that you are meant to face the speaker when listening to it, and it isn’t expected to be placed in the center of a room.
In all, the design is a radical departure for both Amazon and what we’ve collectively come to expect a smart speaker to look like. I like it.
I also really like the sound that comes out of the new Echo. As mentioned, it sounds better than the Nest Audio thanks to its larger physical size and unique shape. It also utilizes the same kind of active room tuning that is typically found on more expensive speakers from Sonos, Apple, Google, and even Amazon itself.
The new Echo will use the mics built into it to listen to the room and continuously gauge its size and shape. It will then adjust its audio output accordingly. This isn’t a feature that’s been available on speakers at this price before — neither the Nest Audio nor the HomePod mini have it.
It’s hard to quantify the difference this room tuning makes, especially since I can’t turn it on or off at will. But in combination with the three drivers and larger size, the Echo produces an impressively full sound. It appears that Amazon designed it for slightly larger rooms — the company recommends sitting ten feet away (and no closer than six feet) from it for the best experience. If you’re in a smaller space, the Echo Dot’s more compact, yet similar, design is likely a better fit.
Amazon also claims that the Echo benefits from Dolby Audio tuning, but it stops short of supporting the 3D Atmos audio that the larger and more expensive Echo Studio is capable of (no big loss there).
In general, the Echo has a wide soundstage, deeper bass than typically found on speakers at this price, and some stereo separation thanks to those two tweeters. It also gets loud — when I compared it side by side with the Sonos One, a speaker that’s twice as expensive, the Echo was able to go toe-to-toe with the Sonos in terms of output.
The Echo isn’t quite able to match the Sonos on sound quality, and I do prefer the sound of the Sonos overall. But the differences are small: the Echo can sound more “processed” at times and it lacks the warmth in the midrange that the Sonos is so good at.
Those differences did not stop me from enjoying the music coming out of the Echo, however, whether that was the acoustic home recordings on the recent rerelease of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers; the driving, harmonized guitar riffs on Spirit Adrift’s Enlightened In Eternity; or the ambient Tycho beats I typically listen to while working. (I used Spotify for my testing, but the Echo supports all of the major music services, save for YouTube Music.) The Echo is good at allowing each instrument in the mix to shine, something prior models were horribly poor at, without drowning out vocals or mids with too much bass. I wouldn’t call the trebles “sparkly”, but they are pleasant and never grating, even at high volumes.
I’ve come to not expect much bass from smart speakers, especially at this price, so the fact that I could feel the bass drum in the floor was a nice surprise. It’s not going to replace a subwoofer at a house party, but it’s definitely more bass than the Nest Audio provides, even though both it and the Echo have the same size woofer.
It’s possible to pair two Echo speakers into a stereo configuration, and doing so produces a wall of sound that you’d expect to come from much larger or more expensive speakers. It also provides a much more obvious stereo separation than the two tweeters in a single Echo are able to manage on their own.
But I don’t think most people will find it necessary to buy two and use them in stereo — a single Echo gets plenty loud enough on its own, even in my open-concept living room with a high, sloped ceiling. (Two Echo speakers in stereo definitely makes more sense if you pair them with a FireTV for a home theater setup.)
The Echo also sounds good for spoken word audio, whether that’s a podcast playing through Pocket Casts or an Audible audio book. It remains a versatile speaker for a wide variety of uses.
As a smart speaker, the new Echo is capable of all the things that Echo speakers have been doing for years. You can ask Alexa to control smart home gadgets, set timers, give weather reports, add things to a shopping list, and so on. The list of things that Alexa can do continues to grow by the day, but most people still use smart speakers for the basics — music, alarms, timers, etc — and the Echo is very good at all of those.
It’s also very good at picking up the “Alexa” wake word, and I don’t have to raise my voice for it to hear me even when music is playing. That’s not something I can say about the Nest Audio, where I have to consciously speak over the music to skip a track or adjust volumes. We’ll have to see how the HomePod mini fares in this regard when we’re able to test it.
The Echo is good at picking up voice commands even while music is playing
Amazon is using its new AZ1 Neural Edge processor in the new Echo, which is designed to speed up voice recognition. Unfortunately, that won’t be enabled until later this year, so I haven’t been able to test it. In general, Alexa on the Echo responds relatively quickly and faster than Google tends to on the Nest Audio. Siri has traditionally responded quicker than either Alexa or the Google Assistant on the original HomePod — again, we’ll have to see how the HomePod mini does when we get a chance to test it.
As if Amazon didn’t stack enough into the new Echo to make it a compelling option against the competition, it’s also included a full smart home hub inside of it. You can connect Zigbee devices such as lightbulbs, door sensors, and more right to the Echo without the need for a secondary hub, and then manage and control them through voice commands or via the Alexa smartphone app. There’s even a temperature sensor in the Echo, which can be used to trigger Alexa routines such as turning on a fan or air conditioner.
The Echo also supports Amazon’s new Sidewalk network, but until that actually launches, it’s hard to say what it will mean or how important it will be.
The progression of Amazon’s mainstream Echo speaker has been a long journey, from an odd, Pringles-can shape with admittedly terrible sound, to better-looking and sounding cylinders, to what we have now, a spherical speaker that legitimately sounds good. For a long time, if you wanted a smart speaker but cared even a little about sound quality, your choices have been to pay more for a Sonos One, a HomePod, or Amazon’s larger Echo Studio.
A new bar for sound quality at this price point
But now Amazon has brought excellent sound quality and a ton of features to a price that’s much more accessible. That price is likely to get better once Amazon’s frequent and aggressive discounts are available for the new Echo. If you already have Alexa speakers in your home, whether that’s a cheap Echo Dot or an older Echo model, the new Echo is a noticeable upgrade to throw into the mix.
And if you have been eyeing the smart speaker world for the past half-decade but haven’t jumped in yet, the new Echo is an excellent place to start. It’s a great-sounding speaker that also happens to do a million other things.
Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge