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Amazon Tap review: Amazon Tap's hands-free update makes a world of a difference

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The many hats of the Amazon Tap

In addition to playing music from your phone, the Tap can play music directly from Amazon Prime Music or other popular streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora as long as you're connected to Wi-Fi.

Besides music, you can enable a host of Skills through the Alexa app, which are basically apps specific to Alexa that you can control with your voice. These range from useful features such as ordering a ride on Uber or tracking your fitness goals to downright silly stuff such as offering up a random pickup line or a cat fact. Via the app, you can also sync the Tap to an ever-growing number of smart home devices and services, and use it as a central control point.

The smart home hat

Alexa is a great smart home assistant. It works directly with popular smart home platforms such as SmartThings, Wink and Insteon. It works with smart thermostats such as Nest and Ecobee3. Alexa even has a channel on IFTTT -- the online rule-making platform that ties together a large number of smart home devices -- letting you create custom commands.

The smart home platform built into the Echo devices is robust, mostly easy to use and responsive. It unifies diverse products so well that we've made it a central part of the CNET Smart Home. As a smart home assistant, Alexa is well ahead of Siri. The HomeKit software built into recent versions of iOS allows voice controls with the iPhone's well-known voice assistant, but HomeKit works with your phone, so it's a pain for multiple users to interact with your smart home that way.

Since the Amazon Echo acts as an always listening control point, everyone in your family has equal access once it's set up. Here's where the main area where the Tap used to fall short of its predecessor. The Tap can now do everything the Amazon Echo can do, and you can take it with you as you move from room to room.

The speaker hat

From left to right: The UE Boom 2, the Amazon Tap and the Bose SoundLink Color II.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When I first took the Amazon Tap on an expedition to a nearby park, I was disappointed to find out that the voice commands don't work at all when you're not connected to Wi-Fi. Without an Internet connection, it becomes just a simple Bluetooth speaker. You can't even issue basic media control commands via voice. Fortunately, the top of the Tap has buttons for those basic functions, which jut out slightly so you can feel them in the dark.

The Tap will work with a Wi-Fi hotspot. When I put this feature to the test, it connected to our hotspot fairly easily and there wasn't much of a delay between giving a command and receiving a response. If Alexa voice input is important to you when you're on the go, the Tap can make it happen.

As an audio device, the Tap delivers sound that's fairly typical of a compact portable wireless speaker, the majority of which stream audio over Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi (we mainly tested the Tap over Wi-Fi because it's supposed to offer better streaming performance than Bluetooth). By that we mean that the Tap sounds decent with less demanding tracks -- such as ballads and easy listening music -- but falls down significantly with more complicated tracks or bass heavy material.

That's because the Tap, not surprisingly, is all about the midrange, where voices live. It's clear and forward sounding, which allows Alexa to come across with a lot of presence. Her voice is clear and loud.

There's a little treble push that makes the speaker sound a tad bright, but the lack of bass is the bigger issue. It's not completely devoid of bass, but the Tap's sound is fairly thin.

We played tracks from Amazon Music and Spotify and thought the speaker did well with material like Dave Matthews Band's "You & Me," Sting's "August Winds" and Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity."

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Press the bottom button if you do want to use the Tap as a Bluetooth speaker.

Chris Monroe/CNET

But it sounded pretty crunchy with Chairlift's "Show U Off" and "Ch-Ching" and The Smashing Pumpkins' "Being Beige." At about 60-70 percent volume, the speaker got overloaded whenever a lot of instruments were playing at the same time or any deep bass was introduced. The on-board digital processor (DSP) ratcheted back the bass and volume to keep things from distorting too badly, but it tended to be a losing battle, particularly with hip hop and techno tracks.

Again, this is typical of very compact wireless speakers, but even Bluetooth speakers such as JBL's older Charge 2+ sounded better, and that originally cost about the same as the Tap. The JBL has significantly better bass and sounds richer and smoother. It wasn't really a contest, even though the JBL was streaming over Bluetooth not Wi-Fi.

Of course, Amazon isn't marketing this speaker to audiophiles and critical listeners (we still have to review it with a critical ear, however). It's marketing it to people who want something to use to play background music and sound "good enough."

Still, aside from making the Tap sound very good, the audio doesn't distinguish itself from the multitude of moderately priced portable wireless speakers on the market.

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Press the button on the front of it and the Tap's lights turn on to let you know it's listening.

Chris Monroe/CNET

You'll also need to be cautious if partying with the Tap nearby. Unlike all of the competing JBL, Bose and UE speakers described here, the Tap isn't water resistant.

The verdict

The newly updated $130 Amazon Tap almost makes the excellent $180 Amazon Echo obsolete. You get all of the advantages of Alexa with both, but the Tap is cheaper, lighter and portable. Thanks to the "hands-free" update, the only reason to go with an original Echo over a Tap is for a slightly better native speaker. The $50 Echo Dot is the best choice if you have a speaker system of your own or you don't care about music.

Whereas the Tap was once the Echo device we were hesitant to recommend, it's now an equal member of the trio at the very least and the best Echo device if you value portability. For instance, if you often find yourself wanting to talk to Alexa in the far corners of your house, go with Tap. If you like the idea of a digital assistant and also want a bluetooth speaker you can take to the park, go with the Tap. It's a battery-powered Alexa device with none of the trade-off that used to imply.

If you're just interested in a compact speaker, you're still better served looking elsewhere. Even then, take a look at everything Alexa can do before ruling out the Tap. It has fine sound quality and is now, without a doubt, the most versatile bluetooth speaker on the market.

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