Three years after the debut of the original, Amazon decided the time was right to refresh its flagship smart speaker, the voice-activated Amazon Echo. It arrives to find a landscape littered with new competitors — not just the, but also Apple’s upcoming , the platform-agnostic , the Cortana-powered Invoke from Harman Kardon and countless others.
At $100 — nearly half the cost of the original — the new Echo seeks to undercut all of them. Like its predecessor, it doesn’t offer premium audio quality, but it’s still strong enough to fill a room with decent sound. If you like, you can connect it with your existing audio setup using either Bluetooth or a 3.5mm cable, something you can’t do with the original. It also now comes in an attractive and compact design, with a variety of new, interchangeable “shells” to choose from to tweak its outward appearance.
To be clear, the new Echo isn’t any smarter than before — it does, and the original does everything it does, save for connecting with external speakers. That considerable list of capabilities continues to grow, though, thanks to a regular roll-out of skills, software updates and integrations with third-party gadgets and services.
It’s the same Alexa speaker that quickly became a dominant smash hit, only now it’s cheaper and nicer-looking. And here come the holidays.
Alexa’s new look
The new Amazon Echo is shorter than the original, and it comes in a variety of new “shells” that each give it a unique look. By default, you get a grey fabric shell in your choice of shades: sandstone (light), charcoal (dark) or heather (in between). Spend an extra $20, and your Echo can come in a hard-bodied silver shell, or a woodgrain shell in oak or walnut.
For my tastes, the woodgrain shells clash with the black plastic top and blue indicator lights, so I’d probably just stick with fabric. That said, if I changed my mind down the line, I could mix things up and swap that fabric shell out for a different one just as easily as swapping out the case on my phone.
To do so, you just push up through a hole in the bottom of the shell to force the inside of the speaker out — sort of like a Push Pop. Then, you slide the speaker down into its new shell and twist to lock it in.
The new Echo’s squat stature and interchangeable shells seem largely aimed at shoring the product up against the Google Home, its chief competitor. The two speakers are roughly the same size, and the Home features interchangeable base coverings of its own. Matching it on both fronts makes it tougher for customers to pick Google over Amazon because they prefer the design.
Here’s the other interesting design note on the second-gen Echo — it’s almost more of a follow-up to thethan anything else. Not only does it borrow the Echo Dot’s aux out jack and emphasis on compact design, but it also ditches the original Echo’s volume ring in favor of the Echo Dot’s volume buttons, almost certainly in an effort to get the cost down as low as possible.
Don’t forget thatcost $90 before Amazon cut the price to $50 for the follow-up. With its price cut from $180 down to $100, the new Echo is following the exact same formula — and why wouldn’t it? The second-gen Echo Dot is Amazon’s best-selling Alexa gadget — for now, anyway.
So how’s it sound?
Compared to the original? To my ear, it sounds about the same — maybe a bit less tinny.
Setting aside theand the oddball third-party devices like , we’ve seen three tiers emerge in the smart speaker category. The first, which includes the and the , is made up of pint-sized, low-cost speakers that focus on the smarts and leave sound quality as an after-thought. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got premium-priced smart speakers like the and the that promise high-fidelity audio above all else.
Like the original, the Echo sits right in the middle, squarely between bad and great. Casual listeners will likely call that good (or good enough, at least). If you’re an audiophile, you’ll want something richer-sounding, but you also probably already have a setup you’re happy with. If that sounds like you, just get an Echo Dot.