The Amazon Echo is going on three years old, and even though it’s only been around for a short time, it has popularized the idea of a smart speaker in every home. Yet the competition is getting fiercer, and voice commands are no longer a novelty. So, how does the second-generation Echo ($99) stack up to the Google Home and other, newer smart speakers — not to mention its predecessor?
The Good: First, the price is awesome. Second, the previous generation’s volume control ring is gone now and replaced with the excellent, simplified Echo Dot four-button control interface (volume up/down, mute, command). The second-gen voice controls aren’t a remarkable improvement, but Alexa is still surprisingly good at hearing its wake word, even while music is playing. The variety of new Echo covers helps make the device blend more seamlessly into your decor. Alexa skills are also getting more robust by the day.
Who It’s For: It’s not for snobs. (You know who you are.) If you’ve thought about adding a smart speaker to your home, or an Amazon Echo, then the second-gen Echo is an easy enough purchase simply to try a smart speaker out. If you’re already on board with the Echo and you’re considering adding more of them to your home (with the ability to play music in a pinch), the second-gen Echo is cheap enough to avoid any buyer’s remorse. It’s also a truly excellent gift for people who want to improve their kitchen experience. (“Alexa, what is the right temperature for cooked pork?” 145 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Watch Out For: You’ll need to teach Alexa what you like through skills, which is easy enough to do through the Alexa app. The sound is just a notch above mediocre; better than those dinky years-old iHome clock radios in hotel rooms, but unscientifically speaking, about half the quality you’d get from a Sonos or Sonos One (which is worth considering, since the latter is compatible with Alexa). While the newly designed 2.5-inch subwoofer and 0.6-inch tweeter, paired with Dolby sound processing, improve the sound a bit, it’s still mediocre. Plus you’ll need an Amazon Prime Music Unlimited subscription ($4 per month) to take full advantage of the device as a music player; the good thing is, signing up is just a voice command away. Spotify and Pandora also work well. The upside is there’s also Bluetooth connectivity to other speakers and an aux-out. The decorative shells reek of Bed Bath and Beyond–grade goods, but they’ll work in a pinch. And no one’s complaining at this price.
Alternatives: At this price, there aren’t many. But when it comes to smart devices, you should pick the ecosystem you’re most invested in. The Google Home sounds better, and the Apple HomePod will be a different audio beast altogether. As a deeply invested Apple user, I still find Amazon Echo to be a positive addition to the home, and I’m constantly pruning my gadgets. If you like Amazon’s services and convenience (who doesn’t?), then you’ll love it. If you’re heavily invested in Google, then consider the Google Home. If you’re a fidelity snob, get the Sonos One. If you just need one for your kitchen to play ’90s pop music in a pinch, the second-generation Echo just works.
Verdict: At $99, the second-gen Amazon Echo is a no-brainer buy for those interested in getting their first (or second) voice-controlled device. The tech has gotten better and the price has come down. It’s also priced well enough that it’s easy to expand Alexa’s presence in your home with more Echoes, so that Alexa isn’t just bound to your kitchen. Amazon clearly wants everyone to go this route. With pricing like this, the strategy is clearly: flood the zone.
Pro Tip: The daily built-in Jeopardy function is actually pretty fun, if difficult, even if you’re not Austin Rogers. Just ask Alexa to play Jeopardy. And the “Short Bedtime Story” is surprisingly good if you need to occupy your kid without the use of a screen.
What Others Are Saying:
• “At $100, it’s hard not to see value in the Echo 2. For that price, you’re getting access to what is the best smart home platform right now, and using a device that comes with several outstanding features. There are cheaper smart home appliances, for sure, but the cost-to-feature balance in the Echo 2 is second to none.” — Don Reisinger, Fortune
• “It doesn’t improve the Echo’s rather poor audio quality, nor does it introduce any new, groundbreaking features. It just does the same things in a smaller, cheaper design. That’s enough to keep Amazon ahead of its competitors, which are all a step or two behind the Echo line-up.” — Dan Seifert, The Verge
• “Ultimately, the new Echo’s biggest drawback is subpar audio. Those who want a smart speaker with better sound have plenty of options, whether it is the more expensive Sonos One and Echo Plus or an Echo Dot that adds Alexa to an existing speaker. But for people who just want an Alexa-enabled speaker that looks good and does its job well, the second-generation Echo is a solid, affordable option.”
— Cherlynn Low, Engadget