Distorts at top volume
How does the latest Echo compare to other top smart speakers? Let's dive in.
About the Amazon Echo 4th gen
The newest thing about the 2020 Echo is its round design. In the box, we find the
ball speaker and a power adapter. As with all Echo speakers, you don't need any substantial directions to get it up and running. Just plug it in, open the Alexa app, and follow the prompts when, after a few seconds, the new speaker is detected and a pop-up appears asking whether to set the speaker up.
The new Echo also has a temperature sensor, which means you can open the Alexa app and see what the temperature is in the room where the Echo resides. In all my Echo-using days, I've never found this feature life-changing, but I'm sure it's useful for somebody.
An integrated Zigbee hub makes connecting to other smart home devices a snap, but we will dig into that more in a moment.
Here are the 2020 Echo's specs:
- Price: $99.99
- Colors: Charcoal, Glacier White, Twilight Blue
- Speakers: 3-inch woofer and dual front-firing 0.8-inch tweeters
- Connectivity: Bluetooth, WiFi (2.4 GHz and 5GHz), 3.5mm line in/out
- Special features: Dolby Audio, Zigbee, Sidewalk compatibility
- Smart assistant support: Amazon Alexa
- Weight: 2.14 lbs
- Dimensions: 5.7" D x 5.7" W x 5.2” H
What we like
It's pretty cool looking
It just doesn't get much more minimal than the Echo's new orb-like design. There are no contrasting colors or harsh lines, and the volume, mute, and assistant buttons are just out of sight at the top of the backside of the speaker. After years of cylindrical Echo speakers, this new aesthetic is a welcome change. The new Echo comes in three colors: Charcoal, Glacier White, Twilight Blue (which is gorgeous!).
It has more ways to connect to other devices
Taking a page from the Echo Plus playbook, the new Echo comes with a Zigbee smart home hub built in. Zigbee is a smart home protocol, or language, that allows easy connection to other devices. In practice, this means extremely simple set up for products like Hue Bulbs, Kwikset smart locks, and many other smart home devices.
Setting these products up with the new Echo speaker lets you control them by voice with commands like, "Alexa, turn on the living room lights,” control them via the Alexa App, and program routines involving all of your connected tech.
The new Echo also has a 3.5mm line in/out, so you can listen to your Alexa-powered music through headphones or use the Echo as a speaker for a non-Bluetooth device.
This year's Echo line also boasts compatibility with a new Amazon venture called Sidewalk. Amazon Sidewalk uses small bits of your home's WiFi signal and broadcasts it out over long distances. The idea is that, in places where there are a lot of Echo speakers in a neighborhood, they will create something like a mesh network that covers the entire area. A perfect example of Sidewalk's intended use case is our testing of the RecTeq smart grill. The grill resided on the tester's back patio, and the home's WiFi signal couldn't quite reach that far. The smarts wouldn't work without a WiFi connection, so a WiFi extender had to be purchased to get the grill's app up and going.
Once Sidewalk is implemented, this won't be a problem, as Echo devices in surrounding homes will be broadcasting slivers of their WiFi for long distances, for any smart device to use. It will likely be some time before you see Sidewalk in your neighborhood, but the new Echo line is an essential building block to make it happen. If you (rightly) think this technology sounds a bit iffy, privacy-wise, know that it can be disabled in settings.
What we don't like
The sound quality leaves something to be desired
I will admit, I tore into the new Echo box the moment it arrived at my door over the weekend. I put it on my dresser next to our top pick in the best smart speaker category, the Bose Home 300. I connected my tablet to the Echo's Bluetooth signal, and I connected my phone to the Bose. I played a variety of songs on both speakers, switching back and forth to compare the sound quality. I was disappointed.
At top volume, the Echo is not all that loud and begins to crackle and distort. At more middle-of-the-road volume level, the treble and midrange are respectable, but I found the bass to be seriously lacking for my preferences (I'm all about that bass, as it were). I was really hoping and expecting to be impressed, but on this point, I felt kind of, "eh." Admittedly, the Bose is slightly larger and twice the price, so I did expect some difference in sound between the two, but they were further apart than I expected.
The comparison to Google's new Nest Audio speaker is a little more reasonable, which makes sense as they are closer in size and the same price. The Nest Audio's sound feels more crisp to me, with less distortion at max volume, but it has Google Assistant and not Alexa, so there's still reason to opt for the Echo if your home is already full of Echo Dots or you don't want Google Assistant.
There's not much new to get excited about
Aside from the admittedly drastic design change and the Amazon Sidewalk integration, there's just not much new and exciting about the speaker. If the sound quality had blown me away, that would've been enough, as far as I'm concerned. But considering that the speaker performance was just OK, this feels a bit like a new speaker for the sake of having a new speaker.
A note about privacy and Alexa
It’s safe to assume that any time you invite a smart or connected device into your home, you’re sacrificing a portion of your privacy. There are, however, steps you can take to protect your privacy from Alexa. Your conversations won’t automatically be stored away for review unless you give your Echo permission to do so, so during the setup of your Echo speaker, make sure to poke around the settings and adjust the privacy controls to your liking.
There’s a mute button for the mic on the top of the speaker to prevent Alexa from listening when you don't want her to. You can also delete Alexa recordings that have already been stored.
Should you buy it?
If you're dying to have the newest Echo, or you love the new design, go for it.
The new Echo has improved sound from previous Echos, a built-in Zigbee hub, a temperature sensor, and a snazzy new look. If you're committed to the Amazon ecosystem, upgrading to this 4th-gen Echo is a solid choice, though temper your expectations of the sound quality. Amazon has discontinued the Echo Plus, so the 4th-gen Echo is probably the best Amazon-made Alexa speaker you can get right now, aside from the quite large Echo Studio, which is also twice the price.
Though Google Assistant is a different thing than Alexa (they have different abilities and integrations with other products, though there is a fair amount of overlap), the Nest Audio is certainly worth a look at this price point. Though we didn't find the aesthetic quite as pleasing as that of the Echo, we liked the sound quality a little better.
If you simply want the best smart speaker on the market, I would not hesitate to recommend the Bose Home 300 instead. It integrates with both Alexa and Google home ecosystems, the sound quality is impressive, and the Bose music app is a pleasure to work with.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
Meet the tester
Editor, Smart Home@sarahkovac
Sarah Kovac is an award-winning author and smart home editor for Reviewed. Previously, she worked with a multitude of outlets such as Wirecutter, TIME, PCMag, Prevention, The Atlantic, Reviews.com, CNN, GOOD, Upworthy, Mom.me, and SheKnows.
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