Before we dive too far into the details here, its important to acknowledge that of the love of fidelity is also a labor of love and love of labor. There is much self-inflicted busy-work associated with hifi listening, especially in the analog domain. The inverse relationship between convenience and sound quality strikes an interesting seesaw of importance. But what if we set aside the needle-dropping, track searching labor for one second and take a short look at pure convenience?
Amazon introduced a few new products that push this idea of listening convenience almost as far as it can go. The Amazon Echo combines an interface with playback so concentrated on ease-of-use that even a remote is considered too much of a bother (although one is available as an add-on accessory). Its also important to note that not much fidelity is going to be found within our take here, but if you are interested in listening to music with ease as a complement to your regularly scheduled programming, then something might spark some interest for you.
The Amazon Echo currently costs $179, and goes on sale very infrequently. Its is available through Amazon and other select retailers and is closely tied to the site’s Prime service. So much in fact, that most of its shiny bits start to get a little lack-luster if left out of the equation. For the full luxury experience, a sub is recommended but not necessary.
The Echo stands about as tall as a can of Pringles. The top section is adorned with an array of microphones and a LED ring that lights up when called upon. The action word can be changed to “Echo” or “Amazon” but the default is “Alexa”. Alexa is always listening unless you hit the microphone mute button located on the top of the device. To get things rolling you simply state “Alexa.. (do this)”. The applications of the voice activated interface are still growing, but things like recipes, ordering products from Amazon and home automation are currently a focus. There is an associated app for your mobile device that helps get you set up and also provides an additional interface for retrieving information such as songs played and shopping/to-do lists. After interacting with the speaker for a week, it was easy to see the open possibilities for the interface, but even more intriguing was how it flirts with the idea of AI in the home. The verbal success rate of Alexa appears to be much better than Apple’s Siri from my experience. Jokes are varied and news reports can tap directly into several preselected publication feeds, so your morning headlines aren’t read to you in some static robo voice, they sound like quality recorded podcasts from various personalities that get refreshed on the daily.
Music is obviously delivered via streaming services. Aside from the endemic PrimeMusic service, Alexa can also tap into Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Spotify. Simply asking for a particular song to play works shockingly well. The first line of defense is any tracks you may have purchased or uploaded to the Amazon Music server. After that Alexa checks Prime Music for the track. If Prime doesn’t have the track then a sample is played and you can choose to purchase the song from Amazon Music. Not every track in the world is available from Prime, but my personal requests have only been denied a handful of times. Your results may vary, especially if you have tastes that stretch out to rare or stream-adverse artists but I was very delighted to see how well this integration works. To jump into one of the other services, an additional phrase like “..from Spotify” needs to be added to the conversation.
The Echo seems best suited as a supplement to the kitchen, but could be utilized in any room with little physical intrusion. The vertical system includes a down-firing 2.5″ woofer and a 2″ tweeter. The company also touts some form of reflex port above the perforated driver section and below the microphone ring. The device is fairly heavy for the size, but can still be knocked over due to its high, narrow structure. Its not top-heavy by itself, but during cleaning its not that hard to hit it over with a significant smash. Even from a impromptu crash test, no cracks have appeared on my unit and everything still words fine, although I wouldn’t recommend being too careless around the plastic-cased radio. The overall volume for the Echo is actually enough for any kitchen, but two issues arise if you want to play music at full volume. The first is distortion. Normal playback is fairly clear all things considered, but setting 10 (top volume level for the device) takes a small hit in the clarity department. The second issue is that Alexa can barely hear you if the volume is turned all the way up, so good luck getting her to stop playing unless you yell close to the device. You can also turn down the volume from an adjustable ring located on the top of the device in a pinch. Alexa will provide suggestions. Simply asking her to “play music” gives varied results, from recommendations of diffrent playlists from Prime to a cross-section of owned music on the Amazon Music server.
The treble of the Echo also seems to rise a bit as you turn up the juice, and the bass remains mildly thumpy at any level. We have seen similar algorithms used in other devices and it appears to be a growing trend for desktop/wireless speakers that provide a themed bass response. The impact of the low end isn’t teeth rattling, but provides a little something something that you can still feel. The deviation between the two drivers is noticeable, as the bass doesn’t blend very well with the rest of the spectrum and the overall tone lacks a certain “fullness” to it, but its listenable to those who want an easy solution in a room that can’t handle the real estate implications of larger devices. The overall quality is a step up from most portable bluetooth speakers, including Amazon’s own Tap. The presentation is distinctly mono, but is projected with a 360 throw due to the downward firing position of both speakers. At $179 it feels like you might be paying a premium for Alexa somehow, but the results are still pretty good as a supplemental source of music.
The Amazon Tap is true battery-powered bluetooth speaker that comes with a little more resilience and a lot more portability. While a silicone harness/sleeve is available for an additional layer of protection, some reports have surfaced stating that their use prohibits the unit from resting fully in the included charging cradle. The implementation here is slick. Just grab the device from its usb-powered seat and you can take music with you anywhere around (or outside) the house for up to 9 rated hours of continuous use. If you are within wifi distance, you can still access full Alexa privileges and streaming services uninhibited. Two metal points on the charging station allow for a power connection without having to plug anything in, and the rubber base protects the recessed contacts on the Tap from getting too dirty. The Tap is not always listening. While the Echo is always on, the Tap requires a push of the microphone button to wake. This also saves you the trouble of addressing Alexa in your command prompts, cutting right to the chase without mincing words. There is also a bonus set of controls on the top that let you navigate the scene without raising your voice at all. The unit weights 470 grams and is covered with what appears to be a durable mesh netting. It feels sturdy enough in the hand for portability and the rubberized controls on the top offer up a resilient yet responsive interface.
In the case that you are outside of a wifi network, the Tap will still connect to a phone via bluetooth or hardwire 3.5mm jack. Can’t figure out how to connect your phone to the speaker? Just ask Alexa, she can turn on a bluetooth scan for you. Amazon claims “dual 1.5 inch drivers and dual passive radiators for bass extension” however any hope of decent imaging is pretty dampened by the idea of a singular distribution point. Worthy of note, on paper the Echo is full mono where the Tap still claims stereo reproduction. Listening to some test tracks from the mainstream band Maroon 5 left me with a little left/right indication from the high hat placement when staring directly at the microphone wake button. The idea seems a little redundant given the tubular design of the unit, but a few sonic tricks can still be discerned from the little guy. Bass response is significantly less for the Tap, but still identifiable as a slight vibration when placed on a desk. There isn’t nearly as much of the thumpyness found in its big brother. The overall sound quality of the Tap next to the Echo starts to waver a little and begins to lean on its convenience factor a bit more. Still, its more robust than any cell phone speaker, fully equipped with more volume and bass by comparison. The treble sparkles less than the Echo and its dimensionality takes a small hit in turn. Overall volume output feels like it is lower as well, perhaps a result of the lower bass response. Full volume on the Tap sounds pretty tinny and mid-forward but is still enough to fill a moderate-sized room. The response at close range with moderate levels is much more linear and digestible, enough to “make due” in a pinch for many, especially considering the mainstream market the product is aimed at. Those looking for a portable bluetooth loudspeaker solution with a little more in the SQ department should point their toes in the direction of the the [Riva line] of products. But for $129, the feature set and the oh-so-addicting Alexa interface make the little guy shine for poolside parties or situations where a bigger bass response might not be as welcome.
The 3.5mm jack in the back of the Tap is input only, neither it nor the Echo harnesses the capability to output their audio to an external device. To cover that base Amazon created a small hockey puck-shaped device called the Dot ($90) that is similar to just the very top section of the Echo, but with an 3.5mm analog output and small, cellphone-quality speakers (in stereo). The device also does bluetooth in and out. Given the obvious overlap for people who want a cheap solution to the Echo, Amazon has made the device incredibly hard to order. For a time it was available for purchase only through Alexa, implying that the privilege would be extended to individuals who already bought into the ecosystem. However as of this post Alexa’s response for a purchase is simply “The dot is currently sold out. Stay tuned, we are always up to something new”.
Like the Echo, the Tap fills a demand (other than audiophile sound quality) with flair and residual benefits. Its does much more than the product category alludes to. For those accepting of a “make due” sound, the convenience of truly on-demand music in any room or area around the house can be a tempting offer and those already invested in Amazon’s Prime reap twofold. While I usually shy away from any type of numerical ranking system for audio quality, given the mainstream appeal of the product I find it fitting to award these products with a mainstream rating. Echo – 6, Tap – 4. This will undoubtedly translate to “its sounds good” for most of the earth’s population. For some audiophiles, it will translate to an equivalent score out of 10. Perhaps for some of the more finicky of our hobby, the scale might be better placed out of 100. But I’m sure both marketer and consumer will agree, this product wasn’t really designed for them. For the rest of us, there is still hope.
Amazon Echo: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00X4WHP5E/
Amazon Tap: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01BH83OOM/