Amazon’s fourth-generation Echo Alexa smart speaker is a complete redesign in form and audio, with the popular device transformed into a ball of sound.
The Echo costs £89.99 and is Amazon’s mid-range speaker, sitting above the £49.99 Echo Dot and below the £189.99 Echo Studio.
The first smart speaker on the market, the original Echo set the standard in 2014 with a tall cylinder shape and 360-degree audio – resembling a Pringles can with a speaker in it. Six years later and on its fourth generation, Amazon has now broken the mould with a new spherical shape and directional audio.
The plastic and mesh fabric ball has one woofer and two tweeter speakers producing directional, stereo sound – and is designed to sit in the corner of a room rather than the centre of it. It is an unusual-looking object and bigger than you might think.
There’s a power and 3.5mm analogue audio socket in the back, but the Echo also has Bluetooth. The light ring – which shows when it is listening to you, the volume level and alerts– sits at the bottom of the speaker, making it look like it glows.
Dimensions: 144 x 144 x 133mm
Connectivity: wifi ac, ZigBee, Bluetooth, 3x mics
Controls: top-mounted volume, action and mic mute
Speakers: 76.2mm woofer plus two 20mm tweeters
The larger, rounder body and new speakers have had a large impact on the audio quality. The new Echo produces far more powerful and deeper bass that you can feel as well as hear, but still manages well-balanced mids and highs. It uses the mics to fine-tune the audio to your room too, similar to high-end speakers.
It produces room-filling sound that can get very loud indeed, but is just as good when played at 25% volume. It handles most music genres with aplomb with excellent separation of tones, instruments and vocals.
The baseline in Dr Dre’s Next Episode is punchy and precise while Snoop Dogg’s raspy lyrics come through nice and clear. Eric Clapton’s guitar strums are warm and detailed in the live version of Layla, while Darkside’s Paper Trails sounds sumptuous. The Echo is just as at home blasting out electronica as it with Britpop, and even manages to sound nice and expansive for grand orchestra scores.
It can’t quite produce the deepest of bass notes, sounding a bit muted in parts of Lindsey Stirling’s Crystallize. Those who aren’t overly keen on bass will have to tweak things in the Alexa app, where you can adjust the levels independently.
Overall, the Echo is the best-sounding smart speaker under £100, marking a significant upgrade over previous Echos and beating the recently released Apple HomePod Mini and Google Nest Audio. It isn’t so far off the Sonos One, which costs twice the price.
Alexa will be faster, eventually
Along with improved sound, the Echo now has Amazon’s new AZ1 Neural Edge processor, which allows some of Alexa’s functions to be recognised and activated without having to rely on Amazon’s servers to interpret. What this means in theory is that requests should be processed much faster and provide greater privacy as only requests requiring data actually leave the device. Google’s latest Nest devices have a similar chip.
However, the chip is only active in the US and Canada for US English, so I could not test the improvements based in the UK. Amazon said it was working on expanding the languages and regions but did not provide a timescale for rollout in the UK.
Alexa is a capable voice assistant and is due to receive some significant interaction and intelligence upgrades over the next year, along with new privacy modes – such as the ability to delete records of every interaction immediately after it has been processed.
The speaker is generally repairable. It contains 100% post-consumer recycled fabric, 100% recycled die-cast aluminium and 50% post-consumer recycled plastic. Amazon has also pledged to offset the electricity used by Echo devices with renewable energy. Amazon also offers trade-in and recycling schemes.
It has the ZigBee smart home wireless protocol built in for connecting devices such as smart bulbs directly to the Echo rather than through a hub.
It has a temperature sensor that can be used to trigger routines or activate smart home devices.
It plays BBC Radio, Tune In, Spotify, Apple Music and Podcasts, Deezer and Amazon Music natively, but does not support YouTube Music or Google Cast.
The Echo supports Amazon’s Sidewalk networking system, but it isn’t active in the UK.
Multiple Alexa speakers can be used for multi-room audio.
The Echo comes in four colours with an RRP of £89.99 – although it is frequently discounted.
Amazon’s fourth-generation Echo is a significant upgrade in all ways that count.
Its spherical redesign is interesting and easy to place in the home. It sounds fantastic for the money, supports many of the major music services, including BBC radio, and still works just as well as other Alexa speakers. At some point in the future it will also be faster to respond with greater privacy once the AZ1 chip has been turned on. It now contains a significant amount of recycled materials too.
Like any smart speaker, you have to trust the manufacturer with your data and privacy. It has an RRP of £90 but is frequently dramatically discounted.
The Echo is the best-sounding smart speaker you can buy for under £100.
Pros: bass you can feel as well as hear, great sound, Spotify, native BBC radio, Alexa, Bluetooth, 3.5mm input, made of recycled materials, interesting design, AZ1 chip.
Cons: potential privacy concerns of a smart speaker, Alexa-only, AZ1 chip not active outside US yet, general knowledge not quite as good as Google Assistant, wider footprint compared with cylinder design.