Amazon Echo review: the most well-rounded Alexa speaker yet, literally

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Amazon has made some pretty drastic changes with its fourth-generation Amazon Echo smart speaker. It has re-engineered its best-selling voice-controlled gadget so that it resembles a lawn bowl and offers dramatically improved sound. Amazon has also added a Zigbee hub inside the Echo, so that Alexa can control a truckload of popular smart home gadgets without the need to plug-in any extra hubs or dongles into your router.

Until now, the latter was an exclusive feature for the pricier Amazon Echo Plus. With the introduction of the fourth-generation of the Echo, Amazon has scrapped the £139.99 Echo Plus since all of its smarts are now bundled into the £89.99 Echo.

So, with boosted sound, a spherical redesign, and smart hub features baked-in for the same price… is this the most well-rounded Amazon Echo yet? And more importantly, is it time to upgrade the existing Alexa-powered speaker sat on your kitchen counter or bookshelf?

Express.co.uk has spent the last few weeks with the fourth-generation Amazon Echo, here are our in-depth thoughts on the latest generation of smart speaker…

Amazon Echo review: Price and Availability

The latest Amazon Echo is available to buy right now. Prime members will be able to take delivery of the new smart speaker on the next-day at no extra cost. Amazon sells the fourth-generation Echo in a Charcoal, Glacier White, and Twilight Blue finish.

It’s worth noting that “Charcoal” is pretty similar to the colour of the same name included with the previous generation of Amazon Echo — so if you’re looking to match your new Amazon Echo with any existing Alexa-powered gadgets in your collection, that’s the one to opt for. Unfortunately, most of the other colours used in the Echo range with the last refresh, including Red, Heather Grey, Oak, Sandstone, Silver and more, don’t make a reappearance this time around.

Priced at £89.99, the new Amazon Echo carries the same price tag as its predecessor. It’s worth noting that Amazon sold-out of Echo devices in the weeks before Christmas last year, with delivery dates slipping into the new year. So, you might want to add one of these to your basket sooner rather than later if you want it guaranteed beneath the tree.

Amazon Echo review: Design

There’s no getting around it, the R&D department at Amazon have really shaken things up this time around. Gone is the Pringles tube-like design used for the previous three generations of Echo, replaced with a spherical shape. There’s something quite charming about the rounded shape, although for our money, the smaller Echo Dot carries the look a little better than the bulkier Echo.

Amazon says the new shape has enabled it to improve the sound of the Amazon Echo. Borrowing from the Echo Studio, the first smart speaker from Amazon designed from the ground-up to focus on sound quality, the fourth-generation Echo is now able to automatically sense the acoustics of whatever room you’ve plonked it in and fine-tune audio playback.

This feature was supremely impressive in the Echo Studio. However, at £189.99, the Echo Studio is a bit more of a niche proposition than the standard Echo, so it’s great that more people will now be able to experience these sound smarts. Whether you’ve got the new Echo squeezed between books on a shelf, nestled next to a kettle on the kitchen counter, or pressed tightly against a wall in the living room… Amazon will ensure the sound is always firing in the right direction to get the best audio quality.

But it’s not all about the smarts, the new Echo also includes improved components too. Amazon has managed to include a 3.0-inch woofer with dual-firing tweeters, compared to the single 0.8-inch tweeter found in the previous version.

The new Echo also boasts Dolby processing support to deliver “stereo sound with clear highs, dynamic-mids, and deep bass,” Amazon says. This is another feature that debuted with the costlier Echo Studio, which now makes its way to the standard Echo.

What does that all of that mean? In a nutshell, the Amazon Echo sounds really good. Sure, Sonos One owners don’t have anything to be jealous of… but the fourth-generation Echo is more than capable of blasting your favourite tracks, streaming songs on the radio, or filling a room with the latest episode of your latest podcast obsession. The fourth-generation sounds noticeable bassier than earlier entries in the series, so those with a first- or second-generation Echo at home will really notice the upgrade with this new model.

Those who still want the best sound that Amazon offers will be better plumping for the £189.99 Echo Studio or buying a Sonos One, which has built-in Alexa support — as both of these boast a more full-throated sound, especially if you’re trying to annoy the neighbours by cranking up the volume.

But for £89.99, the Amazon Echo is impressively capable. And if you’re only planning to listen to a playlist or two while washing-up, or tune-in to the radio when preparing breakfast in the morning, you’ll have no complaints about the Amazon Echo’s sound quality.

Despite the improved sound, one complaint we have about the new design is that it means the new Amazon Echo doesn’t always fit as snuggly around the home as its predecessors. While the previous cylinder shape had a whiff of function-over-form, it was able to squeeze onto bookshelves, between cereal boxes, beside tellies, and more.

The new spherical shape takes up more volume — and you might struggle to squeeze this new model into the same nooks and crannies as your existing model. Given the improved sound, it might be a trade-off you’re willing to make, but we’d recommend dusting off the tape-measure before adding the fourth-generation Echo to your basket.

Amazon Echo review: Features

Despite the radically redesigned exterior, the fourth-generation Echo is still an Echo. That means it can handle all of the usual questions and commands, from dishing out the latest news and weather reports, prompting you with reminders, finding out answers to any general knowledge queries that pop into your head, order takeaways, control playback on any Fire TV streaming dongles in your home and adjust smart lightbulbs and thermostats.

If you’ve never owned a smart speaker before — trust us, it’s great. Playing your favourite albums, finding out when a new movie will be playing at your local cinema, setting timers while cooking, turning on the lights, and checking the closing time of your local supermarket all works phenomenally well with Alexa. It also saves you constantly reaching into your pocket to pull out your smartphone.

There are thousands of extra apps, which Amazon calls “Skills”, for the talkative voice assistant, but there’s are often less useful. Some are comically niche, like one that enables Alexa to play cat sounds, while others will require you to fit your requests into a pre-set formula. For example, the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner Skill requires you to say “Alexa, ask Roomba to start vacuuming” or “Alexa, ask Roomba to stop vacuuming”, rather than “Alexa, start my Roomba” which would be more natural.

As mentioned above, the fourth-generation Echo includes a baked-in Zigbee hub, so you’ll be able to set-up Hive smart plugs, Philips Hue connected lightbulbs, and Osram light strips, to name a few, with plugging in additional hubs or dongles into your router. If the Echo is your first foray into a smart home set-up, this is a hugely useful feature and makes adding new accessories in the future a doddle.

Amazon Echo review: Final Verdict

  • Pros: Sound Quality Is Great, Works With A Truckload Of Smart Home Kit, Alexa Is Really Smart
  • Cons: Round Design Is A Little Bulkier, Colour Options Aren’t As Fun As The Last Redesign

With the latest refresh, Amazon has brought a number of features from its pricier gadgets to the Echo that most people will buy. From the intelligent audio-tuning from the £189.99 Echo Studio, to the baked-in Zigbee smart hub previously only found in the £139.99 Echo Plus.

Coupled with improved sound quality, the Amazon Echo is a great buy for anyone who wants to start building a smart home set-up and a worthwhile upgrade for those with a first or second-generation Echo in the house. If you are upgrading, just make sure that the bulkier spherical design will fit into the small spot as the old Echo, which was noticeably svelter.

With any luck, Amazon will bring back some of the flashier colours found on earlier entries, but that’s a small nitpick. Alexa remains one of the most personal AI assistants on the market. While it can’t always match Google Assistant’s infallible knowledge, it comes close. And it has all of the charm and personality of Apple’s Siri. Amazon is quietly adding new features all the time, from topical jokes to genuinely new tricks like the burglar alert system recently rolled-out in the US, so the Amazon Echo is sure to only get better as time goes on.

This is easily the most well-rounded Amazon Echo we’ve used.

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