A great voice assistant that doubles up as a 360-degree Bluetooth speaker, Amazon’s Echo shows Siri and Cortana how it’s done
- Great design and clever voice-recognition software
- Great sound quality
- Compatible with smart home kit
- Works best with an Amazon Prime membership
- Occasionally mixes up words
I’ve never been particularly trustworthy of digital voice assistants. Whenever I’ve used Siri, Cortana or Google Now, they either don’t work properly or they’re not quite useful enough to really become an integral part of my life. Ultimately, they’re a bit of a faff, and it’s usually quicker for me to type a query into Google or open up a relevant app. It doesn’t help that I feel like an idiot barking orders at my phone.
Truth be told, I still feel a bit of an idiot talking to the Amazon Echo, a new type of voice assistant powered by the company’s own Alexa engine. And yet, this is the first time that I’ve been convinced by any voice assistant, as it not only works well, but does so much more than its phone-based rivals.
Rather than relying on the microphones inside your phone, Echo is a proper, 360-degree speaker that uses Amazon’s far-field voice-recognition technology to help listen through the noise of everyday life. It intelligently filters out general household chatter to deliver news, calendar updates, music, traffic information, sports results and answers to various questions on demand. It can struggle with loud background music or when the phone is ringing (although it heard me once I raised my voice), but for the most part, it responds quickly, and on the first time of asking.
^ You can also control Echo via its rotating volume ring and two physical buttons (one to put it on mute, and another to start listening)
This is no doubt due to the Echo’s seven dedicated microphones. Six are placed at equal intervals around the top of the speaker and one in the middle so it can hear you from every direction. This allows you to place it in the centre of a room or off to the side without jeopardizing its listening abilities. You can tell it’s working, too, as the blue light ring along the top will change to a lighter shade of sky blue around the relevant microphone when it’s listening to you, giving you a neat indication that it knows where you are.
It’s easy to setup, too. While you’ll mainly be interacting with Echo with voice commands, there’s also an Alexa app that acts as Echo’s main control centre. Here, you’ll be able to connect Echo to your home network and set your wake word, which you’ll need to say every time you want to interact with it. It’s ‘Alexa’ by default, but you can also switch it to Amazon or Echo if you prefer.
The app also gives you a complete rundown of each and every request you’ve asked Alexa, as well as several different menu screens for managing Echo’s various functions. There’s a Now Playing list for when you’re listening to music, a Music and Books tab for setting up Prime Music, Spotify (Premium members only, I’m afraid), TuneIn Radio and Audible, options for setting a timer and alarm, a Skills list (more on that shortly), and a Smart Home menu. You can also peruse the Shopping and To-Do lists which you’ve dictated to your Echo.
The Smart Home menu can be used to control compatible smart thermostats and smart light bulbs, and there’s suppor for Nest, Netatmo, Samsung SmartThings, Honeywell, Hive, Tado, TP-Link’s Kasa, and LIFX lightbulbs. I haven’t been able to test Echo as a smart home controller yet, but I’ll update this review as soon as I’ve had a chance to put it through its paces.
Even if you don’t have any smart home gadgetry, Echo still has a pretty impressive feature-set, and its Skills list allows you to further expand its abilities. Think of these as additional apps it can use. You’re limited to what’s available in Amazon’s Skill store, of course, but there’s still a decent selection available.
For instance, the National Rail skill will let you check in on your commute, while the Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sky News will be able to give you brief new headline summaries from your favourite newspaper. There’s also a Radioplayer skill, recipe tutorials from Jamie Oliver, and Just Eat support, where you can ask Alexa to simply re-order your last Just Eat meal. There’s also a Skyscanner Flight Search for checking flights, Laundrapp and Uber to name just a few.
It’s not completely perfect, though, as it’s still missing support for a few key services in my eyes. Avid Evernote or Google Keep users, for instance, will be disappointed to learn that you can only use Amazon’s shopping and to-do lists. There’s always hope a Keep or Evernote skill might become available in the future. After all, if it can tap into Google Calendar as your main schedule and appointment tool, then hopefully Keep integration won’t be too far behind.
Echo is also a competent 360-degree Bluetooth speaker. Its sleek, cylindrical design lends itself well to projecting music around the room, and its 2in tweeter and 2.5in woofer work well together to produce a clean, balanced sound. It can be quite neutral in tone, but that’s no bad thing. It’s neither too warm or too boomy in rock and pop songs, voices are clear and intelligible, and music sounds pleasingly crisp and detailed.
Busy orchestral works didn’t fare quite so well, with instruments becoming muddled at higher volume levels, but it’s certainly no worse than other £150-£200 Bluetooth speakers I’ve listened to, such as Panasonic’s £170 SC-All05. Likewise, Lang Lang’s rendition of Lizst’s Liebestraum No. 3 was perhaps a touch restrained at times, sounding a little soft in places as opposed to being tight and controlled, but this is a solid performance for the money.