Amazon Echo Pop Review: A Pared-Down, Pretty Echo Dot
Amazon's first truly stylish smart speaker includes all the Alexa goodness you'd want, but most people are better off with the Dot.
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
ExpertiseTy has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast.Credentials
Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
The Amazon Echo is a great smart speaker, especially for $100, and it's easily able to fill a room with rich-sounding music. Amazon makes a bunch of cheaper speakers too, including the new Echo Pop, and though the Pop isn't very musical, it does have its strengths.
There's no doubt the $40 Pop is the best-looking smart speaker for the money, with its funky cone shape and clean lines. It also manages to be a little cheaper than most of its competition -- including Amazon's own Echo Dot -- and it does this with a judicious bit of feature cutting. It's a great digital assistant, too, with a snappy processor, sensitive microphones and intelligible dialogue.
Of the three speakers I tested at this price, the Nest Mini, the Echo Dot and the Echo Pop, it was the Pop that came out on top for audio performance. But the difference was marginal. If they were deli sandwiches, layered with cold cuts, the Pop would have one more slice of ham than the others. It may offer a little bit more, but it still tastes the same.
In other words, buy the Echo Pop because you want a voice assistant that's more style-centric (and if you'll use it to control a soundbar, for example). But is looking good enough? The Pop may be cute, and it's fun, but it really does need to do more to differentiate itself from the more talented Dot. As a result, the Amazon Echo Dot is the better buy right now.
Dotting the i's
The Echo Pop is a smart speaker that Amazon says is designed for small rooms. It's definitely compact, at only 3.9 inches wide, 3.6 inches high and a shallow 3.3 inches deep. Imagine the Echo Dot cut diagonally in half -- in a little bit of symbolism -- or the Google Nest Mini when tilted on its side. The Pop features a natty border around the speaker, with the activity light at the very top. The back of the unit is conical. The speaker comes in a choice of colors: black, off-white, light purple and dark teal.
The Pop is front-firing, unlike most smart speakers, and features a 1.9-inch woofer, which is a little bigger than the Dot's. Behind the light bar at the top of the unit are three buttons: mute and volume up and down. That's right, it's missing the action button that enables you to physically activate Alexa instead of saying the wake word. Some people may miss that capability in the Pop, but anyone who uses Google speakers regularly won't notice it missing at all.
The Pop features Amazon's AZ2 Neural Edge processor, which Amazon says is 20% faster, and the device can also extend a home mesh network, with Eero capability built in. However, for an extra $10, the Dot includes indoor temperature detection and a proximity sensor, which is most useful for banging your hand down on it to stop the speaker like an alarm clock.
Setup and performance
That this speaker is really a pared-down redesigned Echo Dot became obvious as soon as I opened the Amazon Alexa app on an Android phone. The setup app recognized the Pop as a Dot, and I found this initially confusing, as we do have a number of Amazon devices dotted around the office. Apart from that, the setup process was just as simple as setting up any other smart speaker with a step-by-step guide -- the routine will even use the Wi-Fi password saved in your phone if you want.
Smart speakers around $40 have always done one thing well: listen for your questions and then answer them. But they're also acceptable for listening to podcasts in a pinch. I peppered the Pop and the Dot with questions and found they were both able to answer most queries instantaneously, whether it was for the weather or a podcast. Alexa's responses were clear and not congested-sounding, even at maximum volume.
Meanwhile, at home I use Google Home speakers, and I tried testing those speakers with a specific request. I'm not much of a podcast listener, but I couldn't get Google to recognize the "Play Smartless" command. It kept wanting to play "spotless," even when I was talking directly to the speaker. This happened with the Nest Mini, the Home Mini and a Lenovo smart clock. It's definitely a problem with my Australian accent -- rounding my r's worked, but the Echos didn't have an issue at all in the same environment.
As I mentioned before, devices like the Pop are also great when used to control a separate speaker, whether it's a soundbar, a "dumb" tabletop or a stereo system. If you want to listen to music on the cheap, then buy anything else. A Bluetooth speaker at the same price will blow the Echo Pop away. On that point, my own mother uses a Google Home Mini as her main music speaker -- despite owning a respectable stereo system -- and the whole idea gives me the heebie-jeebies.
I've never been a fan of music listening through either the Google Home Mini or the Nest Mini. I tested the Amazon Echo against these as well as the Amazon Echo Dot. The Echo Pop sounded a little bit better than all of the above, and even a little better for voices. None of them get very loud, and though the Dot was able to push the midrange to get a little more volume at the highest level, it was distorted -- particularly with the Hives' track Tick Tick Boom, with noticeable compression coming and going in waves.
I also compared the Pop with the more expensive HomePod Mini, and though it isn't as room-filling as the Amazon Echo Dot, it's definitely better at music than the $50 speakers and has the same footprint. For example, the Pop struggled to reproduce bass of any kind, and it sounded small playing back my usual test track, Yulunga (Spirit Dance) by Dead Can Dance. The Apple speaker was better able to reproduce the deep bass notes of the song as well as make the hall where Lisa Gerrard is singing on the recording come alive.
Should you buy it?
The Amazon Echo Pop is cute as a button, and I can see it gracing many a teenage bedroom. It offers almost everything you want from a voice assistant: excellent microphones, quick responses and clear diction. However, apart from the pretty coat of paint, I'm left wondering why this speaker exists. It does less than the Echo Dot and isn't that much cheaper, and unless you have a problem with the look of the little puffball Dot, you should buy that instead.