Review: Amazon Echo 2nd Gen with Updated Audio

When a company announces that a new generation of a product is coming out, it’s assumed that it will be an improvement on the original. This is especially true when it’s a product as popular as the Amazon Echo with Alexa. Smart speakers are all the rage at the moment, and companies can’t afford to let customers slip away. I had a chance to check out the new Amazon Echo ($100, currently discounted to $80) complete with the updated software that improves audio performance.

Amazon has released a whole array of new smart speakers. The Echo Plus has a built-in hub for smart home devices.  The Echo Spot has a small round video screen, while the Echo Show has a larger screen better for watching videos.

The new Echo is shorter than the original Echo, and is certainly more style-conscious. It is available with a variety of fabric and wood sleeves, so you can match the decor throughout the house — the coverings are easy to slip on and off. The controls are on the top, along with a colorful LED ring that lets you know when Alexa is listening. Seven microphones are located on top, and replacing the volume ring are two buttons for increasing and decreasing level, along with a microphone mute and Bluetooth button. The power and audio connections are near the bottom of the speaker.

I recently had a chance to audition the Harman/Kardon Invoke with Cortana and the JBL Link 20 with Google Assistant, so I was really looking forward to trying the new Amazon Echo. While most people end up picking a product within a certain “family”, it’s good to compare options across all platforms. What is interesting is that since Apple is late to the game with a Siri-enabled speaker, many iPhone users will become hitched up to Alexa. And while we’re talking about the other systems, for fun, I tried to get them to talk to each other.  With the JBL Link (Google) and the Echo near each other, I said, “Alexa, who is Google Assistant.”  “Sorry, I don’t know that.” To which the JBL/Google Assistant replied with a slightly condescending tone, “It’s okay not to know that.”  Fun with speakers.

In picking a smart speaker, it’s important to consider how you will be using it. The sound quality of the Invoke and the JBL speakers were both superior to the Echo. However, neither of them have audio outputs, so you have no choice but to use the built-in speakers. For all the faults of the Echo, its audio output let me easily and permanently plug it into my home’s sound system, so I could use full-sized speakers throughout the house. The Echo features multi-room music, so it can control other Echo music devices around the house.

The microphones in the Echo also seemed to handle the acoustics of my home better than the others. In the large, very reverberant great room, I have to get right next to the Invoke to get Cortana to hear me, but Alexa hears and more importantly, comprehends my voice commands from across the room. As with all of the systems, it takes a little while to figure out how to phrase your questions to get them to understand your query.

Cortana has a great voice synthesis, as does Google Assistant, but Cortana seems to have the least-developed information system. Alexa’s skill set is quite extensive, but her voice isn’t as natural as Google Assistant.

Now about the sound quality issues. The new Echo has the same size woofer as the original Echo, but a smaller (0.6-inch) tweeter. However, the new Echo was tuned by Dolby, so the performance should have been acceptable. Early reviews complained about the sound of the speaker, and Amazon quickly issued a firmware upgrade that should have corrected the problem. So, how does it sound?

The 2nd-generation Echo sounds okay — it’s a small speaker, and has typical small-speaker issues. Many other systems are now available with stereo playback and larger, full-range speakers. The Echo is mono when using the built-in speaker. At moderate listening levels, the bass lacks the impact and punch that you get from a larger speaker. More problematic is a harshness in the upper midrange and treble. Female vocals — Adele and Pink have an edge that gets abrasive after a short while. Worse than that, Alexa’s voice itself is thin and lacks depth. As a main listening device, it may disappoint. In a noisy kitchen as background music, it is more than adequate.

Alexa and the Echo are extremely capable at finding music. It has access to Amazon’s own music service, Pandora, Spotify, and it’s one of only a few that can link to a SiriusXM online account. (The Sonos One can connect to SiriusXM as well.)

For anyone new to the smart speaker marketplace, the updated Amazon Echo 2 is a worthy contender. As a main music playback system, it may disappoint, but in a noisy kitchen as background music, it is more than adequate. Any problem with the built-in speaker is easily avoided by using the audio output to connect to your own speakers. The Echo would be great on the nightstand for a few relaxing tunes before bed and the weather report in the morning. Depending on your needs, the Amazon Echo 2 could easily be your chosen system.