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 HomePod, the platform-agnostic Sonos One, the Cortana-powered Invoke from Harman Kardon and countless others.
The Amazon Echo is frequently discounted from its standard $100 price. Check our list of Amazon device deals to see if it's on sale now.
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. If you're interested in bringing voice controls into your home, smart or otherwise, the Echo still offers the most bang for your buck.
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.
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 still Amazon's best-selling Alexa gadget.
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 and pipe it through.
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.
Alexa, what's new?
That's another interesting thing about the new Echo: It doesn't feel all that new, at least not as far as features are concerned -- and not when you compare it to more creative Alexa offshoots like the fashion-focused Echo Look selfie camera and the Echo Spot touchscreen alarm clock.
Those offshoot products reflect Amazon's eagerness to make Alexa relevant to as many people as possible. With the Echo, Amazon just wants to be sure it doesn't "fix" what isn't broken. The result is a cosmetic and conservative step forward.
Aside from the aux-out jack, the new Echo doesn't boast any new hardware capabilities, nor did it launch with flashy new software or new, marquee skills. Even now, more than half a year since its arrival, the new Echo hasn't acquired any extra features that don't apply to the old one. Ask the new Echo and the old Echo the same question and they'll each give you the same answer.
To borrow some Apple parlance, think of the new Echo as an "S" model: a refinement, for sure, but not a redefining one.
Instead, Amazon points to the past year's worth of big additions, including calling and messaging, smart entertainment controls, voice recognition, the ability to ask Alexa to remember things for you, music alarms and the fact that you can synchronize music playback across multiple Echo devices. The point isn't to get existing Echo owners to upgrade, but to sweeten the deal for anyone who hasn't bought in yet (and to keep the existing userbase engaged with the platform -- after all, if doesn't cost much to switch over to Google).
Amazon did take the occasion to give Alexa a tune-up, with a refreshed app and refined smart-home controls that let you control devices such as lights and locks directly from the Alexa app. You can also turn your Alexa-compatible smart switches on and off, or adjust the color of any Alexa-compatible color-changing bulbs.
Those controls also let you create "routines," where a single Alexa command can trigger a series of actions in your home. For instance, saying "Alexa, goodnight" could lock your smart lock, turn the lights and the TV off, and fire up a bedroom space heater you've plugged into a smart switch.The best part is that you create your own custom Alexa command to trigger the routine. Power users should have a field day with that.
If you'd prefer, you can also schedule your routine to run automatically at a specific time, no Alexa command necessary. More than anything, that feature reflects Amazon's attempts to position the Echo lineup as bonafide smart home hubs -- particularly the $150 Echo Plus, which uses a ZigBee radio to quarterback lights, locks and other smart home gadgets.
Here's another improvement for anyone who owns Alexa-friendly smart lights: You can now add each Echo device to a single, default group of lights. To control those lights, just tell that Echo device to "turn the lights on."
Grouping your lights and Echos by room is an easy way to make things a little more intuitive. If you tell the Echo in your kitchen to "turn the lights on," it'll turn the lights on in the kitchen. If you tell the Echo Dot in your bedroom to "turn the lights off," it'll turn the lights off in the bedroom.
That's a good, common-sense step in the right direction, but it isn't specific to the new Echo. Again, like all of the new software features, it applies to the entire Echo lineup, including the original. That means that there's very little reason to upgrade to the new Echo if you're already happy with the old one.
Keep an eye on this space -- I'll be sure to update it regularly as new features arrive.
Let's talk about privacy
Nothing gins up privacy concerns faster than the phrase "always listening," and that's fair -- Alexa is, indeed, always listening for the wake word. The same goes for your phone if "Hey Siri" or "OK Google" voice activation is turned on, by the way.
The important thing with Alexa is that Amazon insists that it only records and uploads audio when it hears the wake word and thinks that you're actually talking to it. Whenever this happens, the blue light around the top of the device will light up as an indicator. And yes, you can still tap a button on top to mute the microphone and keep Alexa from listening at all (the Echo's ring will glow red whenever you do this, and you'll still be able to activate the speaker by pressing the activation button and then saying your command like normal.)
Beyond privacy concerns, always-listening devices like the Echo raise new security concerns, too. What happens if a would-be burglar whispers "Alexa, unlock the door" through your window? What happens if your kid asks Alexa to order a new Playstation via your Amazon account? And can those microphones be abused?
Amazon has a couple of answers to questions like these. With voice shopping, you can restrict Alexa's purchasing power by blocking them outright when she doesn't recognize the voice as yours, or by locking purchases with spoken PIN code. That PIN code approach is a requirement if you ever ask Alexa to unlock a smart lock.
As for other abuses, Amazon doesn't like to talk about the specific security measures it takes to keep devices secure, but a company spokesperson tells CNET, "Amazon takes customer security seriously and we have full teams dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of our products."
At any rate, we're keeping an eye out for any potential vulnerabilities, too (we already uncovered that a talented imitator can fool that voice recognition engine, for instance). If any new threats come to our attention, we'll update this space.
It's been fascinating to watch Alexa's story unfold. With good AI and great product strategy, Amazon has managed to do more than any other company to make voice controls meaningful in our homes -- more than even Apple, which introduced us to Siri years before Alexa came around. And, if the three-year drumbeat of new Alexa features and the slew of new arrivals to the Echo family are any indication, that story is far from finished.
With the Amazon Echo, you get to watch that story play out under your roof. Even at three years old, it's a legitimately futuristic product -- a voice-activated computer that turns your home into your very own Star Trek ship. The competition is finally getting interesting, but Amazon is still the one driving the conversation. At its new price of $100, the Echo will be awfully tough to beat.
And who knows -- maybe the Echo is obsolete in five years. Maybe smart speakers are just a fad, or a stepping stone to whatever the next big thing is. Who knows. Who cares? Right now, the Echo is a useful, versatile device that does its job well, and Amazon clearly has some pretty big plans for it. Sometimes in tech, it's just fun to be along for the ride.