Amazon Echo review: Alexa, is this the best smart speaker?

Nick Broughall 6 February 2018

Amazon’s original smart speaker has landed down under with an Aussie Alexa.

Quick Verdict
The Echo speaker may have been the first great example of a smart speaker, but it’s the ecosystem’s arrival in Australia that is much more exciting.

The Good

  • Impressive voice detection
  • Thousands of skills available
  • Decent audio quality

The Bad

  • Missing core functionality from overseas versions
  • No support for multiple voices

Amazon can take a lot of the credit when it comes to the smart speaker market. The original Echo leveraged the power of the cloud to deliver real-time information using natural language, a move that saw technology behemoths Google and Apple jump to copy.

While Google beat Amazon to launch in the Australian market, Amazon’s arrival has opened up the competition. With the launch of Alexa and Amazon’s skills platform, Amazon hopes to offer Australian companies a much simpler way of engaging with smart speaker users.

At the core of Amazon’s smart speaker family is the Amazon Echo.

Buy Amazon Echo from Amazon AU

The second generation Amazon Echo features a stronger speaker than its previous iteration while still retaining all the hands-free functionality that made it one of the most popular smart speakers around.

View details

Amazon Echo review

Design

The Echo has seen some minor design upgrades since it first launched in the US back in 2014, and the version that is now available in Australia is the sleekest version to date. Available in a choice of three fabric finishes (charcoal, heather grey and sandstone), the Echo is cylindrical in shape, standing 148mm high with a diameter of 88mm.

That makes it a bit taller than the Google Home, though narrower. With a similarly customisable design to Google’s Home speaker, it does have its own style and fits in nicely with lots of different decors from the bedroom to the kitchen.

The top of the Echo is where all the action happens. Four buttons intersect across the surface, offering volume control on the top and bottom, plus an activation button for when saying “Alexa” is inconvenient and the all-important "Privacy" button that mutes the integrated microphones.

Speaking of the microphones, there are seven of them, spaced around the top allowing the speaker to pick up commands from every angle. They are discreetly hidden inside the speaker, with nothing but seven pin-sized holes around the top to indicate their locations.

Surrounding the top rim of the speaker is a series of LED lights, which act as an essential visual indicator of the Echo’s current state. When the privacy button is pressed, the lights glow red, but when the activation keyword “Alexa” is spoken, they spin around blue to indicate that the speaker is listening.

Down towards the base of the speaker, the AC power connection and a 3.5mm stereo audio jack can be found hidden under a small, rubber flap, which allows you to connect the speaker to a more premium set of speakers. The Echo also offers Bluetooth for the same function, which you probably won’t need with the Echo itself, but is a perfect accompaniment for the smaller Echo Dot.

Amazon Echo review

Audio performance

While the Echo’s major attraction is Alexa and the power of voice interaction, it’s important to remember that at its core it is still a speaker.

Inside the $149 smart speaker, Amazon has packed a 2.5-inch subwoofer and a 0.6-inch tweeter. The end result is audio quality that feels about right for the price point.

At low volumes, the audio quality is fine, proving to be a gentle partner to an early morning wake up call, or an easy listening background music device.

But should you give the command to turn the volume up to 10, the speaker struggles to perform, losing out on bass and giving a tinny reproduction of your tunes.

On the upside, things don’t distort and the volume can crank fairly loud. And when it comes down to it, Amazon has given users the option to push out audio to a more premium set of speakers if the Echo’s tinny sound reproduction isn’t to their liking. And the microphones, frankly, need to be commended for the ability to pick up a quiet voice from across a fairly noisy room.

But as a speaker, the Echo is a little disappointing and a clear second fiddle to the Google Home in a direct comparison, especially as a music player. You can connect the Echo to Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio or TuneIn but there's no direct support for Apple Music, Google Play Music or Tidal from the speaker itself. You can set the default services as well, which means you don't need to dictate the service to play from with every command.

Amazon Echo review

Digital Assistant Performance

While the speaker in the Echo is serviceable but not spectacular, the real star of the show was never going to be the sound reproduction. It is Alexa, the digital assistant designed to answer your questions, control your home and keep you organised.

Alexa’s Australian launch sees a new Aussie accent, a heap of local jokes (A kangaroo walks into a bar. The bartender says, “I hope you like hops.”) and trivia about Australian icons (The Sydney Harbour Bridge’s elevation is 141 metres).

Connected to the Internet 24/7 (unless you mute the microphone), the Echo is a useful tool for everything from quick maths problems, getting answers to trivia questions and even translating phrases to other languages.

For cooks, you can set alarms (and name them to match the ingredient you’re timing, so you know the difference between your pizza timer and your garlic bread timer) or create a shopping list of ingredients for dinner.

Getting weather updates, creating to-do lists and, of course, listening to music are all super easy to do by asking Alexa. The Echo’s microphone array does an incredible job of picking up your voice over ambient noise, even when it’s playing music. For the most part, it does a great job of understanding the Australian accent, although on those occasions when it doesn’t understand you, no matter how many times you try, it struggles to comprehend that Australian drawl.

But to be honest, these functions are par for the course. What makes Amazon’s ecosystem stand out is the availability of third-party skills – apps that integrate with Alexa to give you even more functionality.

Some of these skills are global – things like a Philips Hue integration to let you control your smart light globes from your speaker or being able to order an Uber with a simple verbal command.

But Amazon launched in Australia with over 10,000 skills, and there are quite a few locally produced efforts that make the speaker much more entertaining, if not useful.

For example, thanks to AGL’s skill, I can get a quick update on my gas bill simply by asking Alexa about it. Or if I’m in the kitchen, I can ask Taste.com.au for a recipe for barbecue pork ribs and get step-by-step instructions on how to cook them.

Australian news organisations like Network 10, the ABC and SBS have all released news skills that can give you the latest news whenever you ask for your Flash briefing. And in almost every case, the system worked well.

And as a massive coup over the likes of Google, you can make and receive phone calls and send text messages with the Echo speaker easily, once you’ve set the service up in the Alexa mobile app.

But where the Echo, and Alexa as a whole, disappoints is in the features that haven’t launched in Australia, despite being available overseas.

Support for multiple voices is at the top of that list – I’ve got Alexa partnered with my calendar, and if my wife asks what her day has in store for her, she’ll get my calendar as the only option.

Similarly, being able to check the status of her frequent flyer points using the Qantas skill is impossible thanks to the lack of support for multiple users. It will inevitably arrive, but you have to wonder why it’s not available now.

Similarly, you can’t set a nice, gentle music alarm to wake you up in the morning in Australia, despite the fact you can do that on a US Amazon account.

Then there are the things that simply haven’t launched yet. Amazon’s Routines – grouped instructions under a single activation instruction – are extremely limited at the moment. You can’t get the speaker to give you a rundown of your daily calendar when you say “Alexa Good morning”, you can only control what Alexa says back to you (from a pre-selected series of options, control elements of your smart home (like turn on the lights), and get updates on the weather, news or traffic.

Even music integration is missing from routines – who wouldn’t want their speaker to give them a quick update first thing in the morning before launching into a series of uplifting songs?

Which just highlights that, as impressive as the Echo is already, it’s still got a long, long way to go before it truly acts like a real personal assistant in a digital body.

Amazon Echo review

Smart Home control performance

Given Amazon’s history as one of the pioneers of the smart home speaker, it’s no surprise that actually controlling the smart home is a key component of the Echo.

To get started, you need to download the appropriate skill – I downloaded the Philips Hue skill to connect to the network of lights I already have installed around the house. From there, you can create custom names for the rooms they are in, as well as specific commands to control each light or multiple lights at the same time.

For example, I created a routine called Story Time, that turned both my kids' Hue globes on and to the “read” scene when I say the command, “Alexa, story time”.

But as with the general Alexa controls, you’re limited to the skills available in your country. As someone who has invested big in a Sonos ecosystem, I was excited to test out the Sonos control via Alexa, but it’s not currently available in Australia.

Similarly, I’m testing a heap of Elgato Eve products at the moment, but they only integrate with Apple’s HomeKit, so I can’t use them with Alexa.

I expect this list will grow with time as more companies invest in smart home technology, but for now, it feels like the actual marketplace for smart home skills is a little thin on the ground.

Verdict

While Amazon gave its early mover advantage to Google by not launching the Echo in Australia until early 2018, Alexa does feel to be a much more developed platform for voice control than Google’s voice assistant.

As a hotword, Alexa rolls off the tongue in a way “Hey, Google” doesn’t, which immediately makes it more approachable as a device. This may sound ridiculous, but the simple truth is that if you truly expect to start talking to a speaker in your home when there are other people around, you need the process to feel accessible, and Alexa is the best we’ve tested so far.

Sound quality isn’t spectacular, but it’s also not the main selling point for a speaker like this. Alexa doesn’t yet do everything you might want it to, but it does an impressive job of understanding you, and with a wide range of skills on offer.

From a privacy perspective, the mute button is easy to access and obvious when it is activated thanks to the light ring.

Overall, the Echo is probably the best example of what Amazon has achieved in the smart speaker space so far. The Echo Dot sounds terrible, and the Echo Plus doesn't quite balance that price for extra features or sound quality.

But the truth is that it’s only going to get better with time. And that makes it worth checking out.

Amazon Echo review

Pricing and availability

The Amazon Echo is available now from Amazon Australia, JB Hi-Fi, Telstra, Myer and other leading retailers for an RRP of $149.

Buy Amazon Echo from Amazon AU

The second generation Amazon Echo features a stronger speaker than its previous iteration while still retaining all the hands-free functionality that made it one of the most popular smart speakers around.

View details

Amazon Echo Specifications

Size
148 mm x 88 mm x 88 mm
Weight
821g
Speaker
2.5" woofer + 0.6" tweeter
Wi-Fi
Dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac @ 2.4GHz/5GHz
Microphone
7-microphone array

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