1. Amazon Echo (1st Generation)
The Amazon Echo is much more than a wireless speaker. In fact, playing music is something of a sideline. The core aspect of this device is the Amazon Alexa voice-assistant – and Amazon’s desire to get it into your home. Alexa is designed to answer your every beck and call. Whether it’s providing information such as the latest news and weather, adjusting your heating, or controlling your AV system, Amazon’s Echo speaker promises to do it all. The Amazon Echo is an upright, cylindrical speaker, available in black or white finishes, and while not exactly screaming high-end desirability, it is easy enough on the eye to merit a place in the average home. And it feels solidly built for a £150 wireless speaker. Inside are seven microphones, alongside a plethora of voice technology to make sure your commands are heard and also allow multiple speakers to work out which is nearer to you. Also inside is dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and two speaker drivers, a 6cm woofer and a 5cm tweeter. Amazon is keen to emphasize that this is a “great speaker” as well as a clever personal assistant, and it also promises 360-degree sound to give you plenty of flexibility in terms of placement. Amazon wants to integrate Alexa with more devices, but for now Amazon Music is the default service, though that can be changed to Spotify. Whichever service you use; you can see the track playing on the Alexa app. The Amazon Echo is much more than a wireless speaker. In fact, playing music is something of a sideline. The core aspect of this device is the Amazon Alexa voice-assistant – and Amazon’s desire to get it into your home. The Amazon Echo Show looks a bit like something you might find in a business conference room. It’s a squat little box dominated by a big screen and speakers. From head on, it might look like a tablet, but from the side, you can see its rounded triangular bottom jutting out. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, ask questions, make calls, send and receive messages, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more-instantly. The Amazon Echo Dot and the new Amazon Echo 1st Generation are the more popular Home Automation devices. The battery for the Echo gives you up to 18 hours. Making the Echo Dot and the Echo 1st Gen portable with the batteries allows you to bring it outside with you.
2. Amazon Echo (2nd Generation)
Amazon’s aim to put Alexa into pretty much everything has come home to roost this year, in the shape of any number of voice-controlled speakers. Google Assistant is available through myriad devices, Cortana is aboard one or two, and Apple’s Siri-powered Home Pod has now been available a good few months. It’s fair to say you may well be talking to your next wireless speaker – if you aren’t already.
It’s only natural Amazon itself has reinvigorated its Echo range. There are four new Echo devices now available in the UK, each promising better sound and upgraded features. As well as second-gen speaker tech, the new Echo also has the second generation of Amazon’s far-field microphone technology. The key upgrades are said to include better processing of your wake word, and improved noise cancellation – which should make it better at hearing your commands in noisy rooms. This new Echo may well deliver a little more bass and a beefier sound but, even compared to the original Echo, it lacks clarity. The overall presentation sounds muffled, with thick vocals and a generally cloudy midrange – as a result, detail is lost. The saxophone on Kamasi Washington’s Desire sounds a little raspy and thick, while the tippy-tappy drums lack the precision and insight you’ll hear from the larger Echo. Crucially, the microphone performance is notably better on this Echo. In our experience, not only is it more likely to understand your command but it’s also better at hearing commands in noisy environments. The new Amazon Echo is cheaper, looks smarter and is better at hearing your commands than the original, but the sound quality remains so-so. Provided you don’t expect more for your £90 – and considering there isn’t an alternative for the money – the second-generation Echo remains a good buy. This book was clearly thrown together with great haste with little or no proof-reading. It is rife with typos, incomplete sentences, words missing from sentences, paragraphs printed in the wrong place, and paragraphs duplicated under two different sub-headings with the intended paragraph missing. It refers to links, with instructions like “Click here,” as though you are supposed to click on a printed book. So it must have been copied from a web page, without bothering to customize it for print. The information is quite basic but that may be what you buy this type of book for. But with its sloppy editing, it is difficult to get at that information. Wait for the next edition and hope Mr. Wright has taken the time to read over the book and fix all his typos.
3. Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Generation)
The quality of the speaker has also been upgraded. It won’t beat larger speakers, but for the money it sounds pretty good, edging out Google’s Home Mini. The mids are punchy, the highs relatively crisp and while there’s no real bass to speak of, the new Dot sounds relatively rounded for a small speaker. Feed it guitars and vocals from something like the live version of Hotel California by the Eagles from Hell Freezes Over and you’re greeted with a warm, inviting tone. Classical tracks such as Jupiter from Holst’s the Planets sound fairly rounded too. The Dot struggles with bass-driven electronica, but coped better than expected with Dr Dre’s Still D.R.E. despite its pumping bassline. The Dot can also get pretty loud, although not quite as loud as Google’s Home Mini, and the audio starts to distort in high-energy tracks at maximum volume. The Dot’s Alexa performance is first rate, with its four-microphone array being able to hear you over things like the cooker hood going full pelt in the kitchen or when playing music at maximum volume even if you do have to shout a bit. Alexa also sounds good through the Dot’s speakers. But where Alexa was the only game in town, it’s now a two-horse race between Alexa and Google Assistant. For most things Alexa and Assistant are on a level playing field, particularly if you’re not entirely integrated into Google’s ecosystem already. Smart home control, music playback, podcasts, news briefings, playing radio stations, setting multiple alarms, timers and various other little bits like that all work great. Alexa has a lot of third-party “skills” (apps), including those from news publishers such as the Guardian, games such as Escape the Room, utilities such as National Rail app and silly things such Star Trek – Red Alert, so you can pretend you’re on the starship Enterprise. You can change Alexa’s wake word too, which is the word it listens out for when dormant before activating. “Alexa” is the default, but options include Echo, Computer or Amazon – helpful if you have anyone called Alex in your house and want to avoid accidental activations of either the Dot or the human. Amazon’s latest low-cost Alexa-powered smart speaker, the third-generation Echo Dot, looks better, sounds better, but still costs the same budget-friendly £50. When the second-generation Echo Dot launched in the UK it had very little in the way of competition. The Echo Dot 3 is slightly heavier than the Echo Dot 2, but in exchange you get better sound quality. This may justify an upgrade to some, but if you’re just after more powerful sound you might as well connect your Echo device to a larger speaker via Bluetooth or an audio cable.