Last year was a busy year for smart speakers, with Google unveiling the Nest Audio, while Apple finally showed off the highly anticipated HomePod Mini. Amazon also announced the 4th Generation of their Echo lineup last year, which saw both the Echo and Echo Dot speakers get a new spherical design, and updated internals.
The 4th Gen Echo and Echo Dot are on-sale from retailers, including the Amazon Australia store with the Echo priced at $149, while the Echo Dot is priced at $79 – although you can get a version with an LED clock on the front for $99.
Amazon has loaned both an Echo and Echo Dot for review. I’ve been using the Echo and Echo Dot around the house and it’s time to see whether they’re worth checking out.
Hardware and Design
For those who’ve used Amazon Echo speakers previously you’ll be familiar with the column like design that Amazon has stuck with since the speakers launched. For their 4th gen however,Amazon went with something a little different, opting for a spherical design.
The new design looks pretty good, and while Amazon sent over an Echo and Echo Dot in Charcoal, they’re also available in Twilight Blue and Glacier White, and that Twilight Blue is looking pretty good.
The new spherical design includes a flat bottom so they won’t roll off the table, with the Echo also getting a ¼ 20 thread screw on the base so you can put it on a tripod mount.
The speakers are made of plastic, with a fabric cover over the speaker portion. There’s four buttons at the top of the Echo and Echo Dot – volume up, volume down, microphone mute, and an ‘action’ button, which summons the Assistant without having to say ‘Alexa’. The positioning is good, and the controls are mostly there, except for a play/pause button, which would be nice for controlling music when within arms reach.
The Echo and Echo Dot do take up a little more bench space, and while the Echo is shorter than the 3rd gen, the 4th gen Echo Dot is a lot taller than the hockey puck like design of the 3rd gen.
One of the things I like about the new design is the downward facing LED notification ring. The light reflects off the table or bench with a nice glow, with different colours letting you know when Alexa is listening (Blue) or Muted (Red), when you’re in a call (Green) or when a notification (Yellow) is available.
The Echo and Echo Dot both use a barrel power connector, 15W for the Echo Dot and 30W for the Echo. It’s nitpicking, but I’d love to see colour matched power cables, the white is fairly neutral, but it does clash with the charcoal.
Amazon also includes a full Zigbee hub in the new Echo, which lets you natively connect to a wide variety of smart home devices without needing to use an additional controller. You don’t get that function with the new Echo Dot, so if you use Zigbee devices it may be worth checking out the Echo.
The sphere design of the 4th gen Echo saw Amazon include the same 3.0” neodymium woofer as last gen, though it now has dual 0.8mm tweeters tuned with Dolby Stereo Sound.
The sound quality of this new setup on the Echo is much improved over the last generation with a really nice full sound including excellent bass and a decently tuned mid-range sound. It’s possibly a little too powerful on some songs, but overall most people will be very impressed with the tuning of the speaker and value wise, for $149 it packs a big punch.
The Echo Dot has the same 1.6-inch speaker as the 3rd Gen, but it sounds a little better, at least to my ears, possibly due to better acoustics inside the new spherical shell. There’s still no stereo sound on a single Echo, but you can pair them for stereo sound in the app.
Amazon includes a 3.5mm connector on both the new Echo and Echo Dot, though only the Echo allows for line-in. Both the new Echo and Echo Dot do let you connect them to a larger speaker though if you want some added oomph.
Setup and App
Setup for the Echo and Echo Dot are both delightfully simple. You unpack them, plug them in and you’re onto the software setup. For this component you’’ll need an Amazon account, and the Amazon Alexa app for your smartphone which is of course available for Android and iOS.
Once you’re logged into the app, adding a new device is as simple as tapping devices and then the plus sign (top right of the app) and following the bouncing ball for setting up a new Echo.
Using the Echo and Echo Dot is simple. You can simply talk to the speaker with the ‘Alexa’ wake word, or use the app to type commands or talk when you’re away.
For those not familiar with Alexa, the smart speaker will answer a huge array of questions, or perform tasks like set timers, or interact with your smart home devices. Amazon also has fun features like games you can play, and loads more.
The Amazon Alexa app is really nicely laid out, and straightforward. Adding new devices like smart globes, a new video doorbell or anything else and integrating their service is just delightfully easy.
Amazon has also made creation of routines both simple and reliable, something Google Assistant has been getting a little lax on lately.
I’m still waiting on Amazon to bring their hunches feature which lets Alexa take a few liberties with commands – say if you say ‘Goodnight Alexa’ and she notices you’ve got lights left on, she may offer to turn them off. If you keep saying yes, Alexa even works out that these should be turned off every time you say goodnight.
Music and Services
As a speaker, you’ll obviously be playing some type of audio on it, be music, podcasts, audiobooks or just the radio.
Amazon integrates a number of music services with Alexa including the big ones like Spotify, Apple Music (and Podcasts), Deezer and Vevo. Amazon throw in access to their Amazon Music services as part of your Prime Membership which is a bonus and you also sync iHeartRadio and TuneIn for listening to your favourite radio stations.
The integration with Audible is also excellent for audiobook fans, though it comes down to whether you use Audible or not. I do, so it works for me, but there are other services out there and few ways to play them on your Echo.
One thing I note when using the Echo speakers is the lack of ‘cast’ from apps to Echo devices. Spotify users can control the speaker playback but it’s a rare thing for third party apps to have this sort of control.
What it comes down to is if your services are supported then the Echo and Echo Dot are great, but if you’re using a service that isn’t, then you will have issues.
If you’re just after an Echo to use as an interface for Alexa, then you won’t have issues and there’s a good number of services you can get.
Should you buy it?
As far as smart speakers go, the Amazon Echo line is one of the best around and the 4th generation improves on the previous generation with improved sound and faster responses.
The Echo sounds substantially better with the addition of stereo speakers and Dolby Stereo Sound tuning, while the Echo Dot isn’t quite as dramatic an improvement, but still manages to sound a little better.
The new form factor is quite nice, though the larger Echo Dot design may give pause to those wanting the more compact form factor. Thankfully you can still purchase the 3rd gen Echo Dot, and you’re not losing a huge amount in terms of quality.
I like the new spherical look of the speakers, especially the notification LED at the base. I’d prefer some sort of play/pause control on the front of the unit, but it looks good and mostly fades into the decor.
As far as hardware goes, the Echo speakers are an excellent choice and it more comes down to If you use Amazon services, or the supported third party services. If you do it’s very hard to go past the Amazon Echo speakers to support your smart home or just play some music.
You can check out the 4th generation Echo and Echo Dot on Amazon Australia now.