Fabriq's smart speaker packs Alexa into a brand new package

It's been over a year since Amazon offered up its voice-activated virtual assistant "Alexa" to third-party developers. With just a few lines of code, any gadget that features a microphone, speakers, and an internet connection can be an Alexa gadget.

Enter Fabriq, the maker of a new, small-sized smart speaker with Alexa functionality built right in. At just $50 (£40/AU$65), it's the same price as the Editors' Choice-winning Amazon Echo Dot, but it comes with a few additional advantages. For starters, it's a more powerful speaker than the Dot, and it features a built-in battery, too, letting you unplug the the thing and take it with you for up to 5 hours on a charge. You can also sync multiple speakers together over Wi-Fi for simultaneous playback -- the Echo Dot can't do anything like that.

It's not a slam dunk, though. Unlike the Echo and the Echo Dot, the Fabriq speaker isn't an always-listening device. That means you'll need to press a button in order to activate Alexa. You also can't connect it with an existing audio setup like you can with the Echo Dot. And, as far as Bluetooth speakers go, the sound quality is pretty average.

Still as an Echo-alternative, there's an awful lot to like here. With almost all of Alexa's smarts -- everything from music and news to third-party skills, smart home control, and yes, terrible jokes -- Fabriq offers plenty of tech appeal in an attractive little package. If you're intrigued by Echo, but want something a little more portable, it's definitely worth a look.

Design and features

Fabriq is about the size of a baseball, and it comes in your choice of three designs: "Earl Grey," "Jack Plaid," and "Splat." All three make for a good-looking little speaker, and each gets complemented by a ring of LEDs around the base capable of flashing out a rainbow pattern in sync with whatever song you're streaming.

Those LEDs will also light up when you press the microphone button to talk to Alexa, Amazon's cloud-connected virtual assistant. She's just as smart here as she is in Amazon's own smart speakers, with features that include:

  • Streaming music on demand from Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, Pandora or Amazon Music Unlimited
  • Playing podcasts from iHeartRadio and TuneIn
  • Reading off news, sports, weather and traffic updates
  • Looking up facts and calculating figures
  • Setting timers and recurring alarms
  • Controlling Alexa-compatible smart-home devices

In addition to those core capabilities, Fabriq also has access to Alexa's growing library of third party "skills." Essentially the apps of Alexa, these extras can add all sorts of tricks to Alexa's toolkit, everything from hailing an Uber and ordering a pizza to playing interactive voice games and running advanced smart home controls. None of them cost anything, and you can enable each one simply by asking Alexa to do it.

Sound quality

So the smarts are sound, but how about the speaker? To my ear, it packs a more powerful punch than the Echo Dot, but falls somewhere short of the Amazon Tap. In other words, it'll fill a small to medium-sized room with plenty of sound, but it isn't loud enough to play DJ at a noisy party -- though, in fairness, I can't imagine expecting much more from a $50 Bluetooth speaker.

Then again, the sound quality could stand to be a bit sharper. At loud volumes, things get just a touch "fuzzy," with some slight clipping whenever the speaker tries to punch above its weight. The sound quality wasn't bad by any stretch, but I'd hesitate to classify it much higher than "average."

Chris Monroe/CNET

Outlook

As of writing this, Fabriq doesn't show up in the Alexa app as a supported device, which means I wasn't able to use that app to tweak any of the speaker's Alexa-specific settings. That kept me from doing things like customizing what news sources it pulled from for flash briefings, viewing my voice input history, and selecting a default music streaming service.

I suspect that this will change by the time Fabriq officially launches on October 30, and I've asked Fabriq's team to confirm as much. When I hear back, I'll update this piece accordingly.

Shortcomings aside, Fabriq proved to be a capable Alexa gadget. It did a nice job understanding my voice commands, and though it sometimes needed to think a second or two longer than the Echo Dot before pulling up a song I had requested, I came away satisfied with the user-friendly smarts. At just $50, it shows a lot of promise.

I'll be spending some more time with Fabriq, and keeping an eye out for any updates as it gets closer to launch. I'm also hoping to get my hands on a second speaker so I can test out synchronized playback. That'll be a nice feather in Fabriq's cap if it works as promised, since neither the Amazon Echo nor Amazon Echo Dot currently offer anything like it.

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