Amazon Echo Buds review: Sound that rivals AirPods, plus Alexa on the go

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The Good The Amazon Echo Buds sound good, have hands-free Alexa and Bose noise-reduction technology. They're sweat resistant, fit comfortably and work well for making calls.

The Bad In noisier environments, you sometimes can't activate Alexa with your voice. You charge the Buds via Micro-USB instead of USB-C.

The Bottom Line The Echo Buds are likable earbuds with always-on Alexa and solid Bose-powered noise reduction -- just consider waiting until they're on sale before buying them.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Sound 7
  • Value 8

When rumors surfaced that Amazon had an AirPods ($129 at Amazon) competitor in the works, the chatter was it'd be priced at less than $100 and would have some fitness tracking features. Instead, Amazon released the Echo Buds, a pair of $130 (£120) true wireless earbuds that feature hands-free Alexa and Bose noise reduction. AirPod killers they probably aren't (especially not now that Apple has announced noise-cancelling AirPods Pro), but after using them for several days, I found a lot to like about them -- and a few things they could do slightly better. 

The Echo Buds nestled in their charging case.

Sarah Tew/CNET

From a design standpoint, there isn't anything special about the Echo Buds. They don't look much different from a lot of other true wireless earbuds you'd find on Amazon, with a charging case that's bulkier than that of the AirPods and the Anker SoundCore Liberty Air 2, but still small enough to fit a pocket without a problem. They struck me and a coworker as reminiscent of Bragi's earphones. That's not a bad thing -- they seem sturdily built and feel significantly more substantial than a budget model such as the EarFun Free -- but they have a Plain Jane quality to them that may or may not appeal to you. Also, this style of buds isn't for everybody and may be a bit too large for some ears. 

They fit me fine and felt similar to the Jabra Elite 65t ($72 at Amazon) in my ears -- they stick out a little but don't really bulge out, which is good. The Echo Buds come with three sizes of ear tips and three sizes of wingtips (the buds are IPX4 sweat-resistant so you can use them at the gym or for running). I went with the large ear tip with no wingtip and was able to get a secure fit and tight seal, which is essential if you hope to get the best sound quality out of these earbuds. If you don't get a tight seal, you'll lose some bass and the noise reduction won't work as well. 

I had a little trouble initially setting them up with an iPhone 11 Pro, but I've been having issues with other true wireless buds, so it's more likely an issue with iOS 13, which should get fixed in a subsequent update from Apple. Once you set the Echo Buds up through the Alexa app on your iOS or Android device, the headphones work just like an Echo speaker. To get all the Alexa features to work you do have to make sure to allow access to your location (via GPS), which may not be immediately evident to some people (I had to go into my iOS settings and set the "Allow location access" to the Alexa app to "Always" instead of "While using app."). 

What you get in the box.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm not going to get into all the privacy issues of Alexa, but -- as with any Alexa-enabled speaker -- you can opt to turn off the Echo Buds' microphones and stop the headphones from accessing Alexa when you say "Alexa" without pushing any buttons. Alas, hands-free Alexa was a bit hit and miss. It worked perfectly indoors in quieter environments but when I used the "Alexa" wake word while walking in the noisier streets of New York, the buds sometimes didn't hear me, even when I spoke loudly. (For the record, it's a little embarrassing to repeatedly bark out "Alexa" in public around other people.)

Luckily, you can access Alexa manually as a backup. The Echo Buds have touch controls and you can program the left and right buds to perform such tasks as advancing a track forward or back and accessing your phone's voice assistant or Alexa by double-tapping or tapping and holding. I found the touch controls responsive, but some people may be put off by the fact that there are no volume controls on the buds themselves. Like with the AirPods, you have to use voice controls to raise and lower volume or use the controls on your phone.  

As for sound quality, while it wasn't fantastic, it was good (again, a tight seal makes a big difference). There's a presence boost (treble push) at the default setting, but the earphones have decent clarity and Amazon says they're equipped with Knowles dual balanced armature drivers. It's not going to be a bass lover's headphone, but it had enough kick for my tastes. You can tweak the sound a bit with the EQ settings in the Alexa app -- I lowered the treble a bit and raised the bass -- and most people should find that the Echo Buds offer a pleasant listening experience. Not a wow, but certainly on par with other true wireless earbuds in its general price range and superior to the standard AirPods, especially in noisier environments.

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