Amazon’s original smart speaker has landed down under with an Aussie Alexa.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.Back to top
Amazon Echo at a glance
What is the Amazon Echo? The Amazon Echo was one of the very first smart speakers, using the power of cloud computing to deliver real time information.
When did the Amazon Echo come out? The Amazon Echo originally launched in the US in 2014, but arrived in Australia in early February 2018.
How much does the Amazon Echo cost? The Amazon Echo has an RRP of $149, though you can pick it up on sale if you time your purchase right.
What is Amazon Echo?
Amazon Echo is a voice-controlled smart speaker created by the online retailer Amazon. Like other smart speakers, Amazon Echo serves as a hands-free hub for a variety of household functions, from playing music to checking the weather to controlling other smart devices like Wi-Fi-enabled air conditioners and lights.
Using Amazon Echo involves speaking commands to Alexa, Amazon's virtual personal assistant. Alexa processes these commands through a cloud-based voice service, which means Amazon Echo requires a constant wireless Internet connection in order to function. On the upside, this also means Alexa's accuracy in voice recognition is constantly improving and new features are regularly being added to Alexa's repertoire.
To further enhance its speech detection, Amazon Echo sports a seven-microphone array capable of far-field voice recognition that can hear you ask a question even while music is playing. And for those late-night movie marathons where you don't want to wake up your housemates, you can control Amazon Echo via a traditional remote.
What can Amazon Echo do?
Designed to be the centre of your smart home, Amazon Echo can perform a variety of different functions ranging from the informative to the entertaining. First and foremost, Alexa can answer a wide range of fact-based questions, pulling information from sources like Wikipedia and Amazon's own databases. Alexa can also read you the latest news, sports scores and weather forecasts as well as report on current traffic conditions.
Music is another of Amazon Echo's key features. By linking your Pandora, Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn and, of course, Amazon Music accounts to Amazon Echo, it can play music from these services through both its own speaker and through other connected audio devices. It can also stream tunes from Apple Music and Google Play Music as well as from a phone or tablet. Amazon Echo can also read audiobooks from your Audible library. And thanks to its omnidirectional speaker setup, Amazon Echo can ensure your music reaches all four corners of a room.
Amazon Echo also supports hands-free voice-calling to anyone with their own Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or the Amazon Alexa app. Best of all, this service is entirely free.
As the world's biggest online retailer, it's no surprise that Amazon built shopping functionality into Amazon Echo. Not only can you tell Alexa to order you the coffee you forgot to pick up last time you went grocery shopping, you can also have Alexa instantly add it to your shopping list so you won't forget next time. The only catch is that you have to be an Amazon Prime member to have Alexa place an order for you. Regular Amazon members can only add items to their shopping carts for later checkout through the Amazon website or mobile app. The shopping list functionality is available to both Prime and non-Prime members, however.
Finally, Amazon Echo's capabilities are constantly growing thanks to the Alexa Skills Kit. This open development platform allows anyone to build tools to expand Alexa's functionality and share them with other owners of Alexa-enabled devices. These tools grant Alexa a range of new abilities, from answering more questions to ordering pizza to organising an Uber. New skills are always being added, too, giving Amazon Echo the means to evolve faster than competing devices.
What other devices is Amazon Echo compatible with?
Amazon Echo works with a large library of smart home devices, from lights and ceiling fans to thermostats and security cameras. The number of compatible devices is constantly growing, but the following are some of the most popular product lines:
- Philips Hue lights
- LIFX LED lights
- Nest Thermostat
- Ring Video doorbell
- Nest Cam IQ
- Wink Smart Hub
- Samsung SmartThings Hub
- Arlo Pro security system
- TP-Link smart plugs
Other Alexa-powered Amazon devices will also work in conjunction with Amazon Echo to provide voice-recognition and audio playback throughout multiple rooms of a house. These devices include Amazon Tap, a portable version of Amazon Echo; Amazon Echo Dot, a smaller version of Amazon Echo with a lower-quality speaker; Amazon Echo Look, a camera that adds outfit recommendations to Echo's capabilities; and Amazon Echo Show, a version of Echo that includes an LCD screen.
How to buy the Amazon Echo in Australia?
After much delay, Amazon opened pre-orders for Amazon Echo in Australia on 18 January 2018. The device itself began shipping to customers from early February 2018. You can buy the Echo from Amazon's website, as well as retailers like JB Hi-Fi, Officeworks and Myer.
How much will Amazon Echo cost?
Amazon Echo retails for $149 here in Australia, though keep an eye out for discounted pricing on Amazon Australia's website.Back to top
|Name||Amazon Echo (2nd gen)|
|Wireless Network||802.11a/b/g/n (2.4GHz/5GHz)|
|Speaker Information||2.5" woofer + 0.6" tweeter|
|Min. Frequency Response (Hz)|
|Max. Frequency Response (Hz)|
- Impressive voice detection
- Thousands of skills available
- Decent audio quality
- Missing core functionality from overseas versions
- No support for multiple voices