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Amazon Echo (2017) review:

Amazon Echo: New look, new price, same Alexa smarts

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The Good With a variety of new designs, the new Amazon Echo is better-looking than the original, just as smart and a lot less expensive. The addition of an aux-out jack lets you connect it with your existing audio setup. It's also a slightly better listener than before.

The Bad Though fine for casual listening and strong enough to fill a room with music, the Echo still doesn't sound as good as premium, high-fidelity speakers. The volume ring of the original is gone, replaced with the cheaper volume buttons of the Echo Dot.

The Bottom Line Alexa is still the most compelling voice control platform, and the new and improved Echo should only boost her momentum. It's well worth $100.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.5 Overall
  • Design 8.5
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 9.0
  • Sound quality 7.5

Three years after the debut of the original, Amazon decided the time was right to refresh its flagship smart speaker, the voice-activated Amazon Echo. Generation two arrives to find a landscape littered with new competitors -- not just the Google Home, but also Apple's upcoming HomePod, the platform-agnostic Sonos One, the Cortana-powered Invoke from Harman Kardon and countless others.

At $100 -- nearly half the cost of the original -- the new Echo seeks to undercut them all. Like its predecessor, it doesn't offer premium audio quality, but it's still strong enough to fill a room with decent sound. And, if you like, you can connect it with your existing audio setup using either Bluetooth or a 3.5mm cable, something you can't do with the original. It looks better than before, too, with an attractive and compact new design and a variety of new, interchangeable "shells" to choose from.

To be clear, the new Echo isn't any smarter than the first one -- it does everything the original does, and the original does everything it does, save for connecting with external speakers. That list of capabilities continues to grow, though, thanks to a regular roll-out of skills, software updates and integrations with third-party gadgets and services. 

In short, it's the same Alexa speaker that quickly became a dominant smash hit, only now it's cheaper and nicer-looking. And here come the holidays.

Alexa's new look

The new Amazon Echo is shorter than the original, and it comes in a variety of new "shells" that each give it a unique look. By default, you get a grey fabric shell in your choice of shades: sandstone (light), charcoal (dark) or heather (in between). Spend an extra $20, and your Echo can come in a hard-bodied silver shell, or a woodgrain shell in oak or walnut. 

The new Echo's interchangeable shells and compact design should help it compete with the Google Home smart speaker.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For my tastes, the woodgrain shells clash with the black plastic top and blue indicator lights, so I'd probably just stick with fabric. If I changed my mind down the line, I could mix things up and swap that fabric shell out for a different one just as easily as swapping out the case on my phone. 

To do so, you just push up through a hole in the bottom of the shell to force the inside of the speaker out -- sort of like a Push Pop. Then, you slide the speaker down into its new shell and twist to lock it in.

With its newly squat stature and interchangeable shells, Amazon's new speaker seems aimed at shoring up the Echo's pitch against Google Home, its chief competitor. The two speakers are now roughly the same size, and you can swap out the base coverings on each of them. Matching it on both fronts makes it tougher for customers to pick Google over Amazon because they prefer the design.

Here's the other interesting note on the second-gen Echo -- it's almost more of a follow-up to the Echo Dot than anything else. Not only does it borrow the Echo Dot's aux out jack and emphasis on compact design, but it also ditches the original Echo's volume ring in favor of volume buttons, just like the Echo Dot did (if you have a strong preference for that volume ring, you can still get it with the $150 Echo Plus).

Don't forget that the original Echo Dot cost $90 before Amazon cut the price to $50 for the follow-up. With its price cut from $180 down to $100, the new Echo is following the exact same formula -- and why wouldn't it? The second-gen Echo Dot is Amazon's best-selling Alexa gadget -- for now, at least.

So how's it sound?

Compared to the original? To my ear, it sounds about the same -- maybe a bit less tinny.

The important part is that the new Echo hits a sweet spot between affordability and sound quality. Setting aside the portable, battery-powered offshoots and the oddball third-party devices like GE's Alexa lamp, we've seen three tiers emerge in the smart speaker category. The first, which includes the Google Home Mini and the Echo Dot, is made up of pint-sized, low-cost speakers that focus on the smarts and leave sound quality as an after-thought. At the other end of the spectrum, you've got premium-priced smart speakers like the Google Home Max and the Apple HomePod that promise high-fidelity audio above all else.

Like the original, the Echo sits right in the middle, squarely between bad and great. Casual listeners will likely call that good (or good enough, at least). If you're an audiophile, you'll want something richer-sounding, but you also probably already have a setup you're happy with. If that sounds like you, just get an Echo Dot.

The new Echo compares favorably against other speakers that sit in that same middle ground. The main competitor is the Google Home smart speaker, and for my money, the new Echo sounds noticeably more powerful. Competitors from that premium tier like the HomePod, the Google Home Max, the Sonos One and the Invoke from Harman Kardon will all likely offer a noticeable uptick in sound quality -- but all of them also cost at least twice as much as the new Echo.

One other note on sound quality: in November of 2017, Amazon issued a firmware update that tweaked the new Echo's equalizer settings to give it deeper-sounding bass. Some users report fuller-sounding music playback since the update, while others think that the boosted bass might be muddying the mix a little bit. As for me, I ran my tests again and really couldn't hear much of a difference at all. At any rate, your mileage will vary based on what music you're listening to, and how loud.

I also made sure to test out the new Echo's microphones. Amazon tells us that they're better than before, with second-gen far-field technology, better wake word processing and enhanced noise cancellation. I didn't notice much of a difference between the two Echoes when I tested them out. Both struggled as expected to hear me over loud music, and both occasionally needed me to raise my voice when music was playing at more moderate volumes (the same can be said of the Google Home). The new Echo did seem noticeably better at hearing me from a distance in quiet conditions, though.

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