Amazon doesn’t reach out too far to say that its voice-activated Echo speaker is an audiophile device, but it is undeniable how convenient the product is for any music lover or modern day tech geek. In practice, the interface does closely resemble a magical genie that pulls your favorite tracks out of thin air. While a few snags in that dream may occur if you have unusual or uniquely selective tastes, the AI dream of a personal musical assistant does work.
So what’s the big news? Generation two of the Echo lineup quietly slid out into the public this week and the updates are both somewhat expected and long overdue at the same time. But, most features are progressing in the proper direction. As in our review, the current gen options went for a slightly bifurcated approached. The launch-day Echo hit the market as a good kitchen supplement in a pinch, then later added the Dot as an even more compact solution. Now, much of the sound quality for the puck-size Dot has been unfortunately compared to that of a mobile phone, but it does have a 3.5mm line output and bluetooth out capabilities – making it an interesting choice as a voice-activated source. The bigger Echo’s intent is obviously less source, more endpoint in its approach.
For the latest gen Amazon has set to course correct some of that, all the while adding more tech features to satiate the hungry early adopters. First, the “traditional” Echo is a little more compact, Amazon has reduced the vertical size from 9.25″ to 5.9″, but also reduced the 2nd driver tweeter from 2″ to .6″. The sound from the old version is a little bass and treble emphasized, so hopefully this new augmentation doesn’t exacerbate the tendency for dry mids. Secondly (and perhaps more interesting for some) is the inclusion of a line out and bluetooth out for the 5.9″ Echo. The original Dot will remain as a purchase option for a little longer (its already on a gen two of its own) and is still probably a better choice for source-only parameters given the smaller size and cheaper pricetag. The top microphone array that collects the commander’s voice has been relatively the same between units, so don’t let that sway your decision if you happen to be on the fence. It is worth noting that the capabilities for picking up commands is startlingly good in terms of distance. Our experience with the device has been enough to collect requests from as far as a room or even two away. The flip side to that is that occasionally the AI assistant “Alexa” will miss her wake word even from a short distance away, but the cases are generally rare.
Those interested in less audio-oriented features can take a gander at the rest of the lineup. The Echo Plus looks a bit closer to its older brother on the outside, but contains a .8″ tweeter in addition to a built-in smart home hub. Hubs can be finicky, and also bulky and unreliable at times, it will be interesting to see how this internal module pans out. Progress is being made, but much of home security and DIY on this front could use a bit of improvement. The two new video products offer a bit more color to weather and news fictionality of the platform and also an audio line out (bluetooth only for the older Echo Show). If your network of friends all have the device the new Spot and the Show can act as a video phone of sorts, but the quick intercom “drop in” feature might make you think twice about installing one in your bedroom as an alarm clock. Privacy settings will tighten the security up a bit, but it is worth mentioning that Amazon does record everything you say after wake word “Alexa” and send it out to a server for processing. You can request that those recordings be purged, but there has already been a case where officials have requested data from Amazon, so you might want to mind your P’s and Q’s ’round the lady. All tin-foil-hat speculation aside, the ecosystem is quite magical for audio listening and is by far the most convenient way to listen around the house to date. The new devices hit October 31, just in time for the holidays.