Amazon's second-gen Echo Buds have improved in several ways, including their design and noise canceling, and now cost a little less.
Updated May 13, 2021 6:00 a.m. PT
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David CarnoyExecutive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
Improved design with more compact earbuds that offer a more comfortable fit
Improved noise canceling
Sound better than the originals
Slightly improved headset performance for making calls
Sports fins included
Sound quality is good, not great
Noise reduction when making calls in noisy environments could be slightly better
The true-wireless earbud arena is a crowded market these days. So what do Amazon's second-gen noise-canceling Echo Buds ($120, £120) bring to the table that would make you buy them over competing models in their price range? Frankly, they don't necessarily have much of an edge, if any. But here's the thing: They're an appealing set of earbuds that have a relatively premium design and are all-around good performers with the added benefit of featuring hands-free Alexa, Amazon's popular voice assistant. That makes them a good value, particularly when they go on sale for $100, which should happen more than a few times this year. (Friendly reminder: Prime Day 2021 is coming in June.)
Improved design, more comfortable fit
Unlike some Amazon devices that have received small upgrades over time, the second-generation Echo Buds are indeed completely new and cost $10 less than the original Echo Buds. The Echo Buds 2, in black or glacier white, feature a smaller, more polished design, improved sound and noise canceling and slightly better voice-calling performance. It's also worth noting that they have a shorter nozzle, so the tips don't dip into your ear canal as deeply as the original Echo Buds. I like the shape of the tips, which are are more convex and similar in style to those found on the Jabra Elite 75t. A version with a wireless charging case costs $20 (£20) more.
I also appreciated the smooth matte finish on both the buds and their compact charging case -- it's 40% smaller the charging case for the original Echo Buds, which had a tendency to show scratches. While the buds have a fairly standard, slightly bulbous design, they did fit my ears well, even without applying one of the three different sizes of sport fins that are included. I usually go with a large ear tip but for these the medium tips fit me best. Like Apple, Amazon has a fit test in its companion Alexa app for iOS and Android that lets you know how good a seal you've achieved.
I had a little trouble pairing the earbuds with my iPhone 12 Pro, but I was told that may be because I have too many devices saved to my Bluetooth list (the hazards of being a wireless headphone and speaker tester). I didn't have any trouble pairing them with a Pixel 4 XL that only has a handful of Bluetooth devices saved to it. The pairing process should work smoothly for most people, but note that the Echo Buds do not offer multipoint Bluetooth pairing, so these headphones can't be simultaneously paired with two source devices, say, a phone and a laptop.
You have to use the Alexa app for pairing to enable the hands-free Alexa feature. Simply say the Alexa wake word and Amazon's voice-assistant will be all ars, ready to accept your voice command (one of the many it understands, anyway). I've had mainly good experiences with the Alexa app but it isn't without its snafus.
The only other problem I encountered -- I'll get the small criticisms out of the way early -- was that when I put one of the silicone sport fins on and put the bud back in the charging case, the left bud didn't quite make contact with the charging pins (there's a magnet in the case that draws the bud to the charging pins) so the bud ended up not charging. Also, if the bud isn't sitting right on the charging pin, the bud won't turn off and will stay connected to your phone. You can use a single bud, left or right, in mono mode if you want to leave one ear open.
I couldn't figure out why the buds were still connected at first because they were in the case, but then I realized the bud wasn't really making a connection with the charging pin. So just make sure the sport fin isn't interfering with charging. It takes a little finesse to get the sleeve on correctly.
In the end, I decided to forgo using the sport fins because the buds stayed in my ears securely without them, even when I went running, but it's good that Amazon includes the fins because they may help some people get a more secure fit. The earbuds are IPX4 water-resistant like the AirPods Pro, which means they're splash-resistant but not fully waterproof.
Solid all-around performance
The Echo Buds may not blow you away with their sound quality, noise-canceling or call quality, but they generally measure up well against other noise-canceling earbuds in this price range and perform well. The 5.7-millimeter drivers are new and Amazon's using a Realtek chipset with Bluetooth 5.0.
Each bud has three microphones, which is supposed to help with noise reduction during calls (it's good but not top-notch) as well as voice pickup when you're issuing Alexa commands. And these also have a sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice inside the earbuds as you're talking, so you can modulate your voice and don't end up shouting.
The noise canceling isn't on par with that of top noise-canceling earbuds like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds or quite at the level of Apple's AirPods Pro, but it's much improved over the noise canceling in the original Echo Buds. Amazon reps told me the new noise canceling cuts out twice as much noise as the previous Echo Buds. It does a decent job of muffling ambient sound.
I thought the pass-through mode that allows ambient sound in from the outside world is actually better than most (Apple calls its pass-through mode "transparency") and sounds fairly natural. The buds are also vented like the AirPods Pro to help prevent that feeling of occlusion you can get from noise-isolating in-ear headphones.
The Echo Buds have programmable touch controls, so you can toggle between noise canceling and transparency model by tapping and holding on either bud, or program that same gesture to raise or lower volume instead. A double tap advances tracks forward, a triple tap takes you back and a single tap pauses or plays your audio.
To adjust volume you could also just tell Alexa to raise or lower the volume. It may seem like your music is playing loudly, but the buds' external microphones can hear you just fine. Compare that with an Echo speaker: If you play loud music, your voice has to compete with blaring audio so you can end up having to raise your voice to activate Alexa. That's not necessary with the Echo Buds unless you're in a noisy environment.
The earbuds sounded a touch bright when I first put them on (there's a bit of treble push, or presence boost as it's sometimes called). But the Alexa app does have an equalizer, so I turned down the treble about 30% and raised the bass by about the same and that helped take the edge off. Their sound grew on me over time and I think most people will think they sound quite good, but I get a little spoiled from reviewing high-end buds like Master & Dynamic's MW08 ($299), Bowers & Wilkins PI7 ($400) and Sennheiser's Momentum True Wireless II ($250). The Echo Buds simply aren't in the same class as higher-end buds that offer richer, more refined sound with a wider soundstage.
A tight seal is crucial to maximizing bass performance, and the Echo Buds' bass has some punch to it, but on tracks like Rag 'n'Bone Man's Fall in Love Again or Travis Scott's The Plan (from the motion picture Tenet), the bass just doesn't have quite the heft or definition of the bass from premium earbuds like those I mentioned. And the sound from those earbuds just sounds more accurate and natural. But they cost a lot more.
A more apt comparison is something like Anker's Liberty Air 2 Pro buds, which feature active noise canceling for $130 (they were recently on sale for $100). Their bass goes a little deeper and is little plumper. Overall, they sound a little better than the Echo Buds. And although the Echo Buds perform well as a headset for making calls, the Ankers perform a little better, with slightly better noise reduction in noisier environments. When I made calls in the streets of New York, callers told me that while some background noise was muffled, they could still hear a fair amount of street sound. They don't have the always-on Alexa feature and have some minor flaws, but they're pretty stiff competition for the Echo Buds and include a wireless charging case for $130 (as noted, the wireless charging version of the Echo Buds is $20 more or $140).
If you wondering about battery life, it's similar to the original Echo Buds' -- about 5 hours with noise canceling on or 6.5 hours with it turned off. A 15-minute charge via the USB-C connection will give you 2 hours of battery life.
While we're seeing elevated battery life numbers for some true-wireless earbuds -- some new buds are topping the 10-hour mark -- many noise-canceling true wireless earbuds remain stuck in the 5-to-6-hour range. That includes the AirPods Pro.
Echo Buds 2: Final thoughts
Like a lot of Amazon devices, the Echo Buds are hard to put a firm rating on because Amazon tends to discount its devices fairly regularly. While the Echo Buds list for $120, Amazon already had them on sale for $100 leading up to the May 13 ship date as part of its preorder sale. I suspect we'll see that price again on Prime Day this summer and at various points later in the year.
They're a good value at $100 and significantly improved over the originals, particularly in terms of their design, fit and noise-canceling performance. At $120, I'd still recommend them as a decent value. But as I said, they face stiffer competition from models like the Anker Liberty Air 2 Pro and older premium models like the Jabra Elite 75t, which are also frequently discounted.