Amazon Echo 2020 Review
Quick verdict: Amazon's updated Echo speaker has a cute spherical design and great microphone pick-up.
- Cute sphere design
- Unobtrusive activity lighting
- Zigbee ready
- Good microphone pick-up
- Despite shape, highly directional audio
- Nest Audio has better output
In the smart home speaker space, and especially at the more affordable end of the sector, it's largely a choice of either Google's Assistant or Amazon's Alexa to control your smart home devices. The chances are that you're already bedded in one of the two primary camps, although we could see more of an effort to push Apple's HomeKit/Siri with the cute little HomePod mini on the horizon.
Where we've seen a lot of movement of late has been with cheaper speakers being relaunched with the claim of massively improved audio. Google has had its crack with the generally impressive Google Nest Audio, and Amazon has responded in turn with a highly redesigned take on its Amazon Echo speaker.
The end result is a nice upgrade if you're already in the Amazon ecosystem and use Alexa a lot, especially thanks to some sharp microphone pick-up, but if you're on the fence, the Nest Audio's superior audio output makes it our preferred low-cost pick.
- Sphere shape is décor friendly
- Glowing base ring is easy to spot but simple to hide
Amazon has certainly gone back to the drawing board when it comes to what it wants the Echo range to look like. The previous generation of Echos were all cylinders that very much revealed their speaker status, but in 2020, cylinders are out and spheres are in. With its top volume, mute and action buttons, the Amazon Echo 2020 looks rather like a bowling ball with one flat side. It's not a complete sphere, and while you'll spot its fabric cover first, even that doesn't wrap around the whole body of the Echo 2020.
Instead, the "back" of the sphere is a simpler plastic construction, where you'll also find the power connector and 3.5mm line in/out socket. It's a nice and very welcome redesign if you're after a home smart speaker that doesn't automatically scream out that it's a speaker at all.
The big challenge for Amazon with a sphere-shaped speaker was where it would place the activity lights that indicate that Alexa's working on a task or if it's muted. This is located at the plastic base of the speaker, and it's an inspired bit of design. It's very easy to see from across the room, whether you're waiting to see if Alexa has heard you via the spinning light or checking if it's muted, at which point it lets off a simple red glow.
Amazon sells the Echo 2020 in a choice of three fabric finishes; I tested with the Glacier White, but you could opt for the darker Charcoal or brighter Twilight Blue if that's a better match for your style.
- Despite sphere shape, audio is distinctly directional
- Great microphone pick-up
- Zigbee for home control
- Basic Amazon Music is limited
As with any other Alexa-based speaker, installation is a matter of setting up the Alexa app on a compatible device and then linking the Echo 2020 to your existing Amazon account. From there, you can then set up any number of compatible IoT smart home devices, either as you normally would with Alexa skills or via the integrated Zigbee hub built into the Amazon Echo 2020.
Amazon used to only offer Zigbee on the Echo Plus, but it's now a standard inclusion in the basic Echo. That does make some device discovery simpler, but not always. In theory, the integrated Zigbee controller should be able to automatically scan its environment and manage connections to compatible devices, but I found it struggled to pair to some Philips lights specifically, even though in prior tests, we've seen those precise lights work.
That being said, you can always manually configure individual skills for other Alexa-compatible devices through the app anyway, and the huge market share that Amazon enjoys in the US means that a large number of devices are already Alexa-ready.
There's no doubting that Amazon has upped its game in the audio space with the Amazon Echo 2020 either. That ball shape houses a pair of 0.8-inch tweeters and a 3-inch woofer that can put out some genuinely solid output. The one catch here is that despite that round shape – and the fact that the prior Echo generations were pretty happy to sit in the middle of a room – the Echo 2020 has very directional audio indeed. The speaker array is tilted upwards and outwards from the fabric "face" of the speaker, and that means that unless you place it near a wall, you can pretty quickly spot sonic differences.
That's no different from rival Google and its Nest Audio speaker of course, and I put the two head to head to see which worked better across a range of music. The Echo's improved woofer does give it a slight edge on bass-heavy tracks as you'd expect, but I generally found that the Nest Audio delivered a more pleasing sound, especially if I was moving around the room as I listened. Again, that's likely down to the very directional nature of the Amazon Echo 2020's speaker array.
One area where the Echo 2020 did outperform the Nest Audio speaker was in microphone pick-up and smart home control responsiveness. It was only by a beat or two, but I found I could generally get Alexa to decipher my commands and act on them a little faster than a Nest Audio speaker working with the same hardware in the same Wi-Fi environment. Neither was terrible for the most part, although voice assistants of any stripe do still make mistakes with the Australian accent from time to time, but Alexa was undeniably faster.
The other challenge here is that in terms of the embedded and default Amazon music service, here in Australia, there are effectively two tiers. If you've got a basic Amazon Prime subscription, you get Amazon Music with a limited subset of the full Amazon Music Unlimited Service, which requires a subscription.
I was testing based on a simple Amazon Prime subscription, which all too often meant that when I'd ask Alexa to play a track, she'd tell me that it wasn't available to me – but could be if I wanted to take up a paid subscription. It gets more than a little annoying to be constantly pestered to upgrade and give you more money, Amazon! Isn't Jeff Bezos rich enough already?
Should you buy the Amazon Echo 2020?
- Buy it if you want a good audio upgrade and you're already in the Alexa ecosystem.
- Don't buy it if you want the best overall audio output or you're not using Alexa.
Smart speakers are no longer a new phenomenon, and that means for many users, the question of whether to buy the Amazon Echo 2020 will come down to where they have already invested their money.
If you've got an older Echo speaker and you want better audio, the Amazon Echo 2020 will give that to you, along with potentially faster Zigbee device discovery and control as well as a nifty new design that should fit more cleanly into most home décor.
If you're already in the Google Home or Apple HomeKit camps, it's a harder sell; for the former, the Nest Audio offers better overall audio output, but frankly just changing camps doesn't make much sense. While Apple's HomeKit has rested on the premium-priced HomePod speaker to date, the HomePod mini could change all of that rapidly.
If you're on the fence, it's a question of priorities. If you want a smart speaker for audio output and music playback, the Nest Audio has an edge and is the speaker you should buy. However, if you're never going to listen to that much music and you want fast microphone pick-up, the Amazon Echo 2020 is a great option.
Pricing and availability
PriceThe Amazon Echo 2020 is available in Australia in Charcoal, Glacier White or Twilight Blue finishes for $149 plus delivery.
Where to buy
Images: Alex Kidman
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