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Amazon Echo review: Betcha can't buy just one of these voice-activated connected-home controllers

Michael Brown | Aug. 3, 2015
Amazon's Echo is the best voice-controlled product that I've seen at the consumer level. It's versatile, powerful, and amazingly quick to recognize your speech and then do something, whether that's answering a trivia question, playing music, giving you the weather forecast, or controlling your home's lighting.

The Echo is a good, but not great audio system. Amazon's objective was to provide non-directional 360-degree sound, so its engineers stacked two down-firing speakers in its 9.25-inch-tall cylindrical enclosure: a 2.5-inch woofer on top of a 2.0-inch tweeter. Despite the size of that woofer--and the reflex port sitting above it--the Echo's bass response lacks the oomph that I crave. It's not a wimpy speaker by any means, it came close to filling my small (247 square feet) home theater with sound, but it distorts when cranked, and there is no audio output or headphone jack that would allow you to plug it into another speaker system. The Echo definitely suffers in comparison to the smaller but very slightly more expensive Sonos Play:1 speaker, which itself is no audiophile-class device.

And unlike the Sonos, the Echo is not designed to operate as a multi-room audio system. You can set up multiple Echos in the same home and stream music to each of them, but the device lacks the powerful networking chops that keep multiple Sonos devices playing so tightly in sync with each other.

Sonos components, of course, can't do any of the many other sophisticated tasks that the Echo is capable of.

An Echo feature called "Flash Briefing" lets you set up various audio news sources, including NPR News, BBC News, ESPN Radio SportsCenter, and more. Say "Alex, Flash" or "Alexa, headlines," and the Echo will play pre-recorded updates from the services you've enabled.

As I've already mentioned, the Echo's speech synthesis is excellent most of the time, but it sounds much more robotic when it's not speaking short responses to your commands. It sounds particularly awkward and artificial when using its text-to-speech converter to read short synopses of the news based on topics you choose: Top News, U.S. News, Politics, Business, Science, and so on) These blurbs are listenable, but I expect most Echo users will prefer the pre-recorded segments.

Connected-home control

Amazon positions the Echo as a connected-home device rather than a digital assistant. It connects to your home Wi-Fi network using an integrated dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11n adapter with MIMO. There is no Ethernet port.

The Echo is outfitted with seven microphones arrayed around and on top of its enclosure, so it can detect your voice no matter where you are in relation to it. A ring of LEDs provides visual feedback, including which microphone received the strongest signal. I found that I could be as far as 10 feet from the Echo and it would respond to my voice even while it was playing music.

It performs less well with high-pitched voices, as my grandchildren discovered while asking it to play a different song while it was playing another. Amazon also offers a dedicated remote control, with an integrated microphone so that you can use voice commands from another room, but Amazon didn't send one that I could test.

 

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