Amazon Echo review

Amazon’s smart speaker just got a whole lot smarter… in looks at least

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Our Verdict

While the smarts stay the same, the new Amazon Echo has been given a much-needed makeover with a price just too compelling to resist.

For

  • New look
  • Low price
  • Great new Alexa features

Against

  • More of the same
  • Alexa app could be better
  • No more rotating dial

If you want a smart speaker that is affordable and sounds good enough to work well as a music play, you've come to the right place. 

The Amazon Echo sounds far better than the Amazon Echo Dot, but is much cheaper than the Echo Plus or the Apple HomePod. It may not be ready to replace your hifi, but is a great place to start if you want to try out the smart home life. 

Amazon has also softened the Echo's look since the first version released in 2015. Fabric finishes will suit many living rooms better than the brushed aluminium Amazon used to favour.

What's wrong with the Echo? It doesn't have the neat volume dial of the Echo Plus and its Alexa digital assistant often doesn't seem quite as intelligent as Google Assistant. At the price, though, we're very happy with this smart speaker. 

[Update: Our new guide to the best Amazon Echo speakers ranks this Amazon Echo, the mid-range model, as the best of the bunch. Check out the guide for our full rankings]

US and UK price and availability

The Amazon Echo is one of the most accessible smart speakers around. In the US you’ll pay $99 ($AU149), or £89.99 in the UK. 

It’s a far more appealing impulse buy than the original Echo was at launch. It cost $180 (£150). 

You’ll often find smart speakers on sale as Amazon and Google really want us to buy them right now. However, without a discount the arch rival Google Home doesn’t get below the magic $100/£100 barrier. It costs $129 (£129, $AU199). 

Even third-party Alexa speakers can’t compete. The Kitsound Voice One ($179, £129.99) is pricier and doesn’t sound amazing, and most lower-cost units are simply speaker sleeves for an Echo Dot.  

In other words, the Amazon Echo is a good deal. 

Design and features

The Amazon Echo is the least techy-looking of the Amazon family of digital assistant speakers. A fabric grille wraps around its sides, rather than the brushed aluminium of the Echo Plus. 

Amazon may have done this to cut costs, but it gives the speaker more of an "interior design" flavour. This is an important change as smart speakers become mainstream, rather than early adpoter gadgets.

The upgraded Echo is smaller and wider than its predecessor, which means it’s steadier on its feet. While we always felt that an accidental nudge would topple the original Echo over, the new Echo’s sturdier footprint means it isn’t going anywhere.

Its design is more in keeping with the current crop of smart speakers, like Google Home and the Apple HomePod

We have no issue with this. The style is more desirable than the original Echo and Amazon has decided to combine elements of the Dot with the full size device, switching up the volume dial for a pair of buttons. These are joined by a mute button to stop Alexa hearing everything, and a button to summon Alexa if you’re too busy to say its name out loud. 

This does mean the nice ergonomic experience or rotating a dial rather than tapping the buttons on the top is missing, which is a shame. 

The design isn’t all that’s changed in the latest Amazon Echo. Alexa has been through a number of updates, gaining new Skills and routines, as well as improved voice recognition and understanding. (You can check out our selection of the best Alexa Skills in our comprehensive rundown, as well as some fun Alexa Easter eggs here.)

But now that Alexa is built-in to other devices, like the Sonos One, and the design of the Echo is more understated, does Amazon’s smart speaker run the risk of blending in a little too much? 

This is how we got on when we used the Echo's younger brother, the Echo Dot, for a week. 

The all-new Amazon Echo’s exact measurements are 148 x 88 x 88mm. Compare this to the original’s 235 x 84 x 84mm and it’s plain to see the height loss and waist gain. Weight-wise it’s a solid 821g.

The Amazon Echo we tested came in the color Charcoal Fabric but there are a number of other colors to choose from. That’s right, Amazon has stretched beyond black and white with its color palette, as well as the material it is using to cover the Echo’s innards. 

There are three fabric options: Charcoal, Heather and Sandstone. There are also three ‘finish’ offerings; Oak, Walnut and Silver. Their names (apart from the last) may conjure up wood but it’s worth noting that the shells are made from plastic and are £10/$10 more expensive than the fabric versions. 

The shell is interchangeable, too. If you change the decor in your living room you can buy a new shell for your Echo to match. These are available separately for £20/$20 for the fabric versions and £30/$30 for the rest. This does feel a touch expensive given it means you are paying around a third of the price for a shell when most of the money has surely gone into the internals of the Echo machine. But the option is there.

You can also connect the Echo to a larger speaker or hifi if you like. It has Bluetooth for a wireless connection, and a 3.5mm output socket on the back.

Performance

The Amazon Echo (2nd Generation) is a breeze to set up but you so have to use the Amazon Alexa app on your phone to get it started. 

It spells out how to get the Echo on to your network, though, and takes just a couple of minutes. Head to Settings and Set up a New Device and then just choose the right Echo for installation (they are handily shown as icons) and follow the setup instructions. 

The real learning curve of an Amazon Echo is elsewhere: knowing what to ask Alexa, what works and what doesn’t. And then diving into Echo Skills to add abilities. These are a little like apps for your smart speaker, and there are now over 30,000 of them. 

Check out TechRadar’s handy best Alexa Skills guide, but Amazon includes a little booklet with some starter ideas. These are pretty simple but effective. 

You can ask Alexa what the time is, what the weather is like (you will have to input where you actually live for this), for a flash news bulletin, ask it a joke, to set a timer… there’s a whole host of things you can do without setting up a Skill.

But to really make your Echo sing (and it does sing, just ask it) you will want to dive into the Skills and modify the Echo to work for you. 

Again this is a simple process (head to the All Skills part of the app) but it’s a quality minefield. There are thousands available but only a small percentage of these are actually worth bothering with depending on what other ‘smart’ things you have around the house.

In our tests, we hooked the Echo up to the following Skills: Amazon Music, Spotify, TuneIn Hive thermostat (and smart lights), a Sonos system, our Just Eat account and Google Calendar. 

On the whole the Echo managed to work well, although it did occasionally trip itself up and get confused. Asking for 6Music (the UK radio station) would sometimes take us to a devilish playlist of 666 music, while we would eventually get to the radio station we wanted by sometimes saying BBC 6Music to avoid confusion. Other times we would have to add “on TuneIn” to the end of what we asked Alexa. 

You need to do this if you have two or more music accounts linked up to it as well, but that makes sense. In the app you can choose, say, Amazon Music as your primary music service to avoid having to repeat commands over and over. 

Other teething issues include some content being played on another Echo device not in the same room as us when we wanted it to be played on the new Amazon Echo. We tried out Alexa reading aloud one of our Kindle books and its voice sounded distant - it took us a few seconds to realise that it was because the book was being read in the upstairs bedroom, where our 1st gen Echo resides. 

But these are only occasional glitches with what is a simple and smooth service. Echo and Alexa have made controlling your home smart so much easier and these devices have to be applauded for that. 

Sound quality on the Amazon Echo (2nd generation) is crisp. Every time Alexa speaks she's clear and the Echo’s seven-mic array means it always picks up when you say to her. And Alex, much to the annoyance of our friend called Alex. 

To test out what music is like through it we chose a mixture of tracks. Four Tet’s excellent New Energy hit the bass notes well, with the Echo coping to a point. That said, if you want a sound upgrade then it’s best to look at the Amazon Echo Plus. The new Amazon Echo is more than passable with its sole 2.6-inch woofer and single 0.6-inch. The inclusion of Dolby processing does offer a more expansive sound but it wasn’t as warm as we would have liked. Crank it up and it the sound quality also starts to break up a little. 

The twang of Weezer’s guitars in Pacific Daydream were picked out well, however. In the lower frequencies is where the Echo starts to strain. 

Comparing it to the original Amazon Echo and the new model easily competes, which is fantastic considering the radically lower price point.

Although not exclusive to this model of Amazon Echo, Alexa has been given some significant upgrades in recent times with some great new features. 

The ability to take calls through the Echo is a nice addition, as is the Drop In feature - essentially an intercom for your home between Echo devices. This has cut down the ‘shouting upstairs that dinner is ready’ din no end in our home. 

The Routines feature is welcome, too. This bunches a number of smart things together that can happen with one command. You can now turn on lights and get a morning briefing just by saying, “Alexa, start my day”. It’s a fun feature and one that will grow and grow when more Skills are added. Like other elements of Alexa, it's a work-in-progress.

The grouping of smart home devices has also been improved, which makes it a lot easier to control multiple devices (from multiple manufacturers) with just one command. Again, if you want to smooth out your smart home then you may want to opt for the Amazon Echo Plus, which offers even more simplified smart device discovery and essentially does away with many a smart device hub, thanks to its ZigBee integration. 

Final verdict

The latest Amazon Echo (2nd generation) smart speaker is a refreshing update to the Amazon range. Its price is lower, the design more appealing and Alexa gets better with each passing month. 

Because many of these changes aren’t particularly huge, the arrival of the latest Amazon Echo didn’t have the heft or ‘wow’ factor of the original Echo.

It’s also clear that Amazon is up against tough competition with the Google Home, Apple HomePod and even the Sonos One thanks to its superior sound quality.

It is still too early to tell if one of these systems will come to dominate smart home control. However, all reports suggest Amazon Echo devices outsell those of the Google Home range and Apple HomePod.

And even if you don't fall in love with the idea of smart home tech, you can still use the Echo as a pure Bluetooth music speaker.