They lack some pizzazz, but the Echo Buds are likable true wireless earbuds with always-on Alexa and Bose noise reduction.
When rumors surfaced that Amazon had an AirPods 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.
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 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.").
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.
The Buds' wireless performance was good, with almost no dropouts or interference issues. They use Bluetooth 5.0 and also have accelerometer and proximity sensors so they can detect when you take a bud out of your ear and will pause your music when you do (you have to tap the bud to resume playing). You can use one bud independently of the other -- left or right -- which some people like to do when making calls.
And where the Echo Buds do better than some competing models is with their call quality, which is quite good. These have three microphones on each earbud (two are external beamforming mics, one is internal) and that Bose's noise-reduction technology. It's not called noise-canceling -- it doesn't seem to be as strong as the noise-canceling effect you get with Sony's WF-1000XM3, for example -- but if you activate it while listening, you'll notice the ambient noise around you is muffled while listening to music (it helped on my subway rides). When I made calls, callers said they could still hear some background noise, but it wasn't as intrusive as it can be with some other earphones and they said they could hear me well.
There's also a sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice inside the earphones so you can modulate your voice better. You can adjust the amount of sidetone in the Alexa app, as well as the amount of "passthrough" noise you hear in the transparency mode that's activated when you turn off noise reduction.
As I said in the intro, there's a lot to like about these earphones. They have similar features to higher-end models like the new AirPods Pro, sound decent and cost less. With around 5 hours of battery life on a single charge (with noise reduction on), up to 2 hours with a 15-minute quick charge, and three extra charges from the carrying case, the battery life is also on par with the AirPods and AirPods Pro, though several new true wireless models offer superior battery life.
Alas, they charge via Micro-USB instead of USB-C. Anker's Soundcore Liberty Air 2, which sounds arguably as good, has better battery life and better call quality, and includes USB-C charging for $100. And that's the only rub with the Echo Buds. The $130 price is reasonable -- this isn't a bad deal at all -- but they could cost a little less. After all, you can now get the AirPods for $144 and sometimes less.
At some point, they probably will cost less. Like with other Amazon consumer electronics products, it's safe to assume we'll see these discounted in the not-so-distant future. And that's probably when you want to nab these -- when these presumably land right at that rumored $99 sweet spot.
Editor's note (January 17, 2020): This review was originally published on October 29, 2019 with a slightly higher rating. We decided to lower our score for the Echo Buds after reviewing other new true wireless models that arrived subsequent to the Echo Buds' release. That said, our views on the product remains unchanged.