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Amazon Echo review:

The smart speaker that can control your whole house

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The Good Amazon's voice-activated smart home speaker is undeniably futuristic, but it's also practical and accessible. With a rapidly growing slate of features, integrations and use cases, it's easy to get excited about the Echo's potential.

The Bad The Echo's sound quality is slightly uneven at times, with weak bass at high volumes. It also can't distinguish between different voices like the Google Home smart speaker can.

The Bottom Line More than two years after its debut, the smarter-than-ever Amazon Echo remains one of the best connected home products money can currently buy.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.1 Overall
  • Features 9.0
  • Usability 8.0
  • Design 8.0
  • Performance 7.0

Editor's note (October 26, 2017):

The world has changed since Amazon introduced its first smart speaker in 2014. Back then, the Echo was something of an oddity -- a bookshelf speaker made interactive and, remarkably, truly useful through Amazon's voice-activated Alexa virtual assistant. Since then, the company has expanded its lineup of smart speakers to include a variety of specialties, while continuing to build out Alexa's arsenal of skills and integrations with third-party apps and smart home gadgets. And the world has caught up, too, pitting Amazon against an increasingly competitive market full of noteworthy rivals including Google, Sonos, and, soon, Apple.

Read: How all of Amazon's Echo smart speakers stack up

This fall, Amazon, which has continued to experiment with its smart speaker portfolio, released an update of its flagship Echo speaker. In our testing, the second-generation model delivered improved audio quality courtesy of a dedicated woofer and tweeter and Dolby sound. It also follows the lead of its Echo Dot sibling, providing an auxiliary jack and Bluetooth connectivity for hooking up to an existing speaker system. The first-generation Echo has been discontinued, and though Amazon still sells a certified refurbished version for $90, there's really no point. The superior Echo 2.0 costs only $100 (£90 or about AU$155), down from its original $180 price, and Amazon offers a $50 discount on a three-pack.

alexa-on-the-stove-1.jpg

The Amazon Echo, Tap and Echo Dot.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Editor's note: The original Amazon Echo review, originally published in July 2015 and updated most recently in July 2017 follows below.

I didn't know I wanted to talk to my house until I talked to my house. Now, after living with the Amazon Echo for more than two years, I talk to it every day.

I ask it for the morning headlines as I brew my 8 a.m. pot of coffee. I ask it to play the most recent episode of my favorite podcast while I work out. I ask it to set a timer when I throw a frozen pizza in the oven for dinner. I ask it to turn my lights out when I'm hitting the sack. It's always listening, and it always just works.

That's the true success of Amazon's likable smart speaker -- it fits in seamlessly with your daily routine. It doesn't ask you to change any of your habits, it just makes a surprising number of those habits better. It's the most futuristic product that I own, yet it's also right at place in my present.

After initially debuting as an invite-only beta-gadget for $99 (I was one of the lucky ones who bought in at that price), the Amazon Echo now retails for nearly twice that: $180. That price seemed fair to me when the Echo was a shiny, new curiosity, but I'm not sure that's still the case now that the Alexa lineup -- and the competition -- has matured. Take the Echo Dot: It's just as smart and as capable as the full-sized Echo at less than a third of the cost, and unlike the original Echo, you can connect it with the external speakers of your choice. It seems like the best Alexa starting point by a considerable margin. And though it's still playing catch-up, the well-reviewed Google Home smart speaker costs just $130.

Still, the Echo is more than a souped-up speaker with Siri-like smarts -- it's the connected home experience you didn't know you wanted. It's no longer the first Alexa gadget I'd recommend, but it's still a fascinating product and a worthy buy if you can catch it on sale during Prime Day or Black Friday.

Chris Monroe/CNET

How do I use it?

Take the Amazon Echo out of the box and plug it in, and you'll hear the sound of Alexa waking up. She'll say hello, then talk you through the setup process. You'll connect to the speaker's Wi-Fi network on your phone or tablet, then sync things back up with your home network in the Alexa app. Within a minute, you'll be up and running.

The speaker will light up whenever it hears you say its wake word, "Alexa" (or "Amazon," or "Echo," in case you don't want to anthropomorphize the thing. Or in case your name happens to be Alexa. If you're a Star Trek fan, you can also choose to wake it up by saying "Computer"). Once you have Alexa's attention, you'll tell the Echo what you want. Whether that's some light jazz, the latest headlines from NPR, a 20-minute kitchen timer, an especially corny joke or any one of the countless other things you might think to ask for is entirely up to you.

The Echo is a good listener. Hidden within are seven noise-cancelling microphones that use "far-field" voice recognition technology. All that really means is that it's good at hearing you even when you aren't next to it, and even when there's other chatter going on. In my home, the Echo can understand me just fine from several feet away, even when I've got the TV on. And, if you've got more than one Echo device in your home, only the one nearest to you should respond.

What can it do?

More and more all the time, it seems. Most recently, Amazon unveiled new tricks that let you call and message other Alexa users, along with new software tools that'll let Alexa control Amazon Fire TV setups, as well as select smart TVs.

Other core uses include:

  • Streaming music and podcasts from Amazon Music Unlimited, Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio
  • Adding items to your to-do list and shopping list
  • Setting kitchen timers and recurring alarms
  • Looking up facts and unit conversions
  • Playing a curated "flash briefing" of news headlines from the sources and topics of your choice
  • Controlling compatible smart home gadgets, including lights, locks and thermostats
amazon-echo-spotify.jpg

It's not just songs from the Amazon Prime Music library -- you can ask Alexa to stream music from Pandora, TuneIn, iHeartRadio and Spotify, too.

Chris Monroe/CNET

As for audio quality, the Echo features dual downward-firing speakers that promise 360 degrees of "immersive sound." Some of us at CNET, myself included, have noted that its bass tends to weaken or distort at maximum volume, but I haven't had a problem with that personally, since I rarely find myself needing to dial things up much higher than 60 percent or so. To my ear, the Echo does a fine job of filling a room with sound, especially with crisp speech playback, something you'll notice when you listen to a podcast or stream an audiobook.

Still, if it's audio quality you're concerned with, you can find better-sounding speakers at this price. The option to sync the Echo up with an external sound system and use it more strictly as a point of control would be a good fix, and a nice touch for the audiophiles out there. That's an option with the pint-sized Echo Dot, but not with the full-sized Echo. Amazon seems pretty committed to the idea of the Echo as an all-in-one device.

All of that said, the Echo is more than a music streamer, just as an iPhone is more than a telephone. The key is Alexa. She's helpful, she's capable and she's mostly good at understanding what I'm asking of her, enough so to put her right on par with Apple's Siri as far as virtual assistants go.

But unlike Siri, which is still secondary to touch as a means of interfacing with iOS devices, Alexa is essentially all the Echo has. It was critical for Amazon to get her right -- thankfully, she delivers (and yes, calling Alexa "she" feels more correct than calling Alexa "it," a testament to how personable she is).

At the Echo's launch, Alexa's native capabilities included reading off weather forecasts, setting timers and alarms, and managing your to-do list and shopping list (and, of course, crossing items off of that shopping list by making purchases on Amazon whenever you ask her to). One trick that I use almost every morning while I'm brushing my teeth is to ask her for the news. In response, she'll offer a curated list of the day's headlines and news blurbs from popular sources such as NPR, CNN, BBC News and Fox Sports Radio. You pick which sources you want to hear from and which categories you want to hear about in the Alexa app.

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As of now, the Echo is available in the US, Germany and the UK. One of the challenges in launching the Echo in a range of countries is making sure Alexa understands different accents and knows when words are used in different contexts.

For example, sports fans can ask for the result of the latest "Spurs game." The US version of the Echo will know you probably mean the San Antonio Spurs and give you a basketball result, while the UK version knows you mean Tottenham Hotspur and gives you a soccer result. The UK version also gives you British English spellings and jokey Easter eggs relating to British cultural touchstones like "Monty Python," among a number of other uniquely UK-focused features. Check out the video above to see some of those British features in action.

Since launching, the Echo has only gotten smarter. Most of what's new comes by way of Alexa's "Skills," which are essentially the Echo's apps. Whenever you enable one, you're basically teaching Alexa a new trick. And, thanks to Amazon releasing a software development kit that third parties can use to craft those Skills, the list of options is growing rapidly. As of July 2017, the number of skills is well above 10,000.

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