Update, Nov. 12, 2021: Thanks to the Amazon Echo (2020)'s reasonable price, solid sound, upgraded smarts and new design, it remains an Editors' Choice as a top smart speaker for 2021. Our review, published last year, follows.
In a year both Google and Apple launched new $100 smart speakers, Amazon had to make its fourth-gen Echo smart speaker stand out. And at least in design, it did: the Alexa countertop device is shaped like a sphere, a striking departure from the soft-cylindrical speakers of past generations. Six years after the first Echo launched 10,000 (or at least a few dozen) smart speakers, a reimagined design was overdue.
Amazon has faltered recently with its core smart speaker, as the more budget-friendly Dot has become a better entry point to the market and 2019's Echo Studio offers higher-end sound for audiophiles. That left the $100 Echo as a sort of undefined middle child in the growing family of Alexa-powered speakers. But 2020's Echo is genuinely different, and it's not just because of the new spheroidal profile. This Echo has turned up the sound quality and added higher-end smarts than the competition, all for the same $100 price tag, leaving it one of the most forward-looking smart speakers released in years. It's also worth splurging for over Amazon's new, similarly ball-shaped Echo Dot.
Getting the ball rolling
Amazon's 2020 Echo boasts two important upgrades that should inform your decision to buy it or not: improved sound quality and smart home hardware.
When it comes to sound, the Echo represents a significant improvement over the third-gen speaker from 2019, likely in part to the fact that the third-gen Echo essentially copped its design almost wholesale from an older device. In addition, the Echo has adaptive sound, so it can adjust to the acoustics of the room in which you use it. I personally didn't notice dramatic differences in output from room to room, but the speaker sounded good in the various rooms and on the various surfaces I used for testing.
The Echo sounds better than the last generation, but how does it sound compared to the direct competition? Google's $100 Nest Audio, which dropped only a couple of weeks before the Echo, is a solid device. But the Echo simply boasts more power: the Echo's volume at 85% is about equivalent to the Nest's max.
What's more, between the Echo's 3-inch woofer and dual 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 recent Run the Jewels collaboration, Forever, the Echo keeps the low end thunderous even at high volumes, whereas the Nest Audio ends up feeling treble-heavy as the bass begins to drop out.
Watch this: Amazon's spherical smart speaker offers entertainment in the round
That said, if you prefer more acoustic music, the Nest Audio provides marginally better performance of complex, midrange-heavy songs. Both speakers, though, really capture the texture of vocal-heavy music. The Echo, with its slightly better low range, sounds slightly better to my ear when playing Johnny Cash's gravelly baritone in Hurt, whereas the Nest Audio sounds slightly crisper in its treatment of Lianne La Havas's subtle vibrato in No Room for Doubt.
As with Google's new speaker, a pair of Echoes can be set up to work in stereo format. The effect is great, particularly with songs that take full advantage of stereo panning or asymmetric sound, such as The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army or Pink Floyd's Money. Unlike the Nest Audio, the Echo has a 3mm line in/out port for connecting to other speakers.
Both Amazon's and Google's smart speakers offer great sound quality for the $100 price tag, but after side-by-side testing with dozens of songs, the Echo takes the prize by a small but significant margin. It's more powerful, and if you like hip-hop or trap music, the Echo will treat you well. Otherwise, they're fairly comparable, with the Nest boasting a slight edge when it comes to some acoustic and classical music.
A-round the house
The Echo's sound quality is admirable, but Amazon has distinguished its midrange smart speaker even more from Google's Nest Audio and Apple's HomePod Mini with its built-in hub, which features a Zigbee receiver and Amazon Sidewalk Bridge. If those things don't mean anything to you, don't worry. Essentially, Amazon has built in two new ways for smart home devices to connect to its smart speaker.
The Zigbee receiver lets the Echo connect with countless smart home devices, from lightbulbs to flood sensors, without the need for an additional hub -- the middleman device that translates various types of radio signals so your low-power sensors can communicate with your WiFi network. This small design decision has seriously broadened the range of gadgets Echo users can install in their house without the extra hassle and expense of a smart home hub.
I tried installing a couple of Zigbee devices and found the process to be totally painless. This isn't revolutionary -- in fact, Amazon included Zigbee receivers in their $150 Echo Plus and their $230 second-gen Echo Show -- but it is bringing better home connectivity to a broader audience, and that's a clear win for Amazon customers.
What's less clear is how Amazon Sidewalk, which Amazon says will launch later this year, will affect Echo users. According to a recent Amazon blog post explaining it, Sidewalk will allow users to "contribute a small portion of their internet bandwidth, which is pooled together to create a shared network that benefits all Sidewalk-enabled devices in a community."
Practically, that could mean a larger functional network for devices toward the edges of your property -- say, outdoor lights or Tile tracking devices -- or even beyond. It's a cool idea, though how much you benefit from it will largely depend on where you live, and how big of a change it will represent for most customers remains to be seen.
Home theater in the round
The other home feature I was excited to try with the new Echo was setting up a home theater group. Connecting a voice assistant to your entertainment system feels like a real improvement, if you haven't done it before. And the new Echo, using Alexa, works pretty well here.
I used a 4K Fire TV Stick to create the group, and it felt great to be able to simply say, "Watch The Boys," to Alexa, only to have your TV turn on and begin streaming the Prime show. The speakers worked fairly well, though I had one drop out of the group while I was testing it. If you have fast Wi-Fi, then it seems this setup would work well. In a house with multiple people streaming or using bandwidth in other ways, although relying on your Echoes for stereo sound might lead to more frustration than it's worth.
The other big problem I ran into was streaming music. I expected to be able to stream music as usual from the Echo speakers while the TV was off, then flip it on to stream video when I wanted. Alas, streaming music on the connected Echoes automatically turned on the TV, which scrolled lyrics to the songs. And when I manually turned off the TV, the music also stopped.
Using Alexa to control your TV and dual Echoes for stereo sound as you stream is cool -- it's much better than you could do a few years ago. But the kinks still aren't worked out to the extent I want them to be, so I still wouldn't recommend picking up new Echoes for your entertainment center unless you have fantastic Wi-Fi and don't plan to use the speakers for music, too.
Ball is life
The best changes to the fourth-gen Echo might be sound quality and home smarts, but the most obvious change is its spherical design. Of course, this design isn't some aesthetic revelation: Most smart speakers look basically interchangeable at this point, with a layer of fabric mesh over soft geometric shapes. Google's recent Nest Audio is vaguely rectangular, and Apple's soon-to-launch HomePod Mini is similarly spheroidal.
The ball-like profile, according to Amazon, enables the improved sound output, but it also comes with a few practical drawbacks -- chiefly a larger footprint. If you're planning to replace the third-gen Echo or an Echo Dot with this speaker, you'll probably have to slightly reorganize your shelf. It's a small complaint, but the kitchen countertop is some of the hottest real estate in many homes, and dedicating more of it to a smart speaker might not feel ideal for those of us with limited space.
The Echo comes in three colors: the standard charcoal (black) and glacier white, plus a muted twilight blue. That's a bit more conservative than Google's array of pastels, but again, many of these aesthetic distinctions feel like minor quibbles.
Those criticisms aside, the 2020 Echo feels like a much more worthwhile gadget than last year's third-gen Echo. The powerful sound and smarts distinguish it from the competition, and with an ever-improving Alexa, buying a smart speaker hasn't felt this good in years.