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Amazon Echo (4th-gen) review: refreshing design, improved sound

The smart speaker market is going through its biggest evolution yet. Amazon has completely changed the design of its 4th generation Echo lineup. Google has ditched the air-freshener can design for Google Home, while Apple has finally launched a smaller yet likeable HomePod Mini. If you thought that smart speakers have reached stagnation, you’re mistaken.

Also read: Google Nest Audio Review: a well-priced smart speaker

I’ve been using the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) and Google Nest Audio for the better part of this week. While this review will look at Echo (4th Gen), I found using both the devices in tandem shows the real difference. It is subtle but noticeable. In many ways, that subtle difference highlights why Amazon is still the clear leader in the smart speaker market.

Design

Amazon Echo

The Echo (4th Gen) brings major redesign for Amazon’s mainstream smart speaker

Amazon Echo (4th Gen) looks unlike anything else available in the market. Sure, it is a sphere instead of a cylinder now, but that departure in design speaks volume about the change. As soon as I unboxed the smart speaker, I was taken aback by its size.

Despite its compact size, Amazon managed to fit two 0.8-inch tweeters and a 3-inch woofer. While the one half of the speaker is covered in fabric, the other half, including the base, is made of plastic.

Amazon Echo

The light ring turns red when you mute the microphone. It is stronger than orange used by Google

Amazon is using fabric to cover the top half of the sphere and it comes in three colours: white, blue and black. Our review unit is the blue one, but it is a pastel shade that seems to have been intentionally made to look understated.

At the top, there are four buttons: volume up, volume down, mute and the action button. This action button enables listening mode when you don’t want to say the wake word (Alexa). At the back, there is the power port and 3.5mm audio jack. It also features a temperature sensor for accurate weather reports and built-in Bluetooth. If you are wondering about the LED ring, it has been moved to the base of the device.

When the speaker is not in your direct line of sight, it is hard to see the LED ring. However, it effectively reflects from any surface and won’t be an issue for most users. I must say, the use of DEFCON 2 red to indicate the microphone is muted is aggressive.

Overall, the design is refreshing and ingenious in terms of implementation. The unique design doesn’t make it stand out as a smart speaker, unlike previous Echo devices.

Sound quality and smart speaker functions

Amazon Echo

The spherical design allows Amazon to house two tweeters and a subwoofer

Every consumer electronics device has a purpose. The purpose of the original Amazon Echo was to bring Alexa into your home. These devices were marketed as smart speakers because smartness was their primary nature. Sound was never the primary focus, but with Amazon Echo (4th Gen), that seems to be changing.

Listening to Amazon Echo (4th Gen) alongside the Google Nest Audio, it becomes clear that the new Echo speaker has a wider soundstage. With those two tweeters aligned left and right and placed directly in front of the user, the highs are crisp. The real achievement in terms of acoustic engineering is the ability to produce bass with the subwoofer placed at a 45-degree upwards angle.

Whether you are playing Paper Trails by Darkside or Solar Sailor by Daft Punk, the vocals are clear and the bass is effective. It is definitely not in the same league as my more expensive Bose SoundLink speaker, but it is a healthy sign of improvement. Amazon says the Echo (4th Gen) supports active room tuning that uses the built-in mic to listen to the room and adjust audio output accordingly.

I could not notice any audible difference in sound when moving it from one room to another. The Echo is also Dolby Audio tuned but it lacks Atmos. This could be the next frontier for Amazon and others to bring genuine 3D sound experience to the smart speaker. I could not pair two Echos and a Fire TV for a home theatre setup, but that is technically possible.

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo (4th Gen) has four buttons at the top: volume up, volume down, microphone mute and the action button

For audio, I used Spotify, but the lack of YouTube Music support baffles me. I think YouTube Premium is a useful subscription and YT Music is improving at a rapid pace. One area where the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) surprised me was with podcasts and audiobooks. I’m both reading and listening to Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land and this smart speaker seems made for his deep, pause filled and thoughtful voice.

When it comes to smart speaker features, Amazon is second to none. Amazon has upgraded the standard Echo with the addition of the Zigbee smart home hub, which was earlier reserved only for Echo Plus speakers. I’ve recently added smart lights from Xiaomi, Philips and Wipro to my home, and with Echo, I can easily control them or change colours. I found myself using Alexa to add things to my shopping cart, set reminders, listen to news often. If you have a child at home, Alexa also has a good set of skills aimed at kids.

You can even book an Uber, but since we are all staying at home that skill remains enabled but unused on my Echo. To summarize, I use Echo to play white noise before going to bed, wake up to cheerful music and listen to astrology and news first. During the day, I listen to Audible and turn to Spotify post work hours. If I add more smart home devices, the Echo could be even more useful.

With the new Echo, Amazon is definitely trying to check all the boxes. It uses a MediaTek processor and also includes Amazon’s own AZ1 Neural Edge processor. This will help speed up voice recognition when it is enabled later this year. I never found Alexa slow to recognize my voice but I want to see how fast it gets with a new neural processor.

Bottomline

Amazon Echo

There is a charging port and a 3.5mm audio jack at the back of the device

Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is the mainstream speaker in the company’s Alexa smart speaker lineup. The spherical design is remarkable and the sound output is much improved from its predecessor. Amazon has done that without increasing the cost. At Rs 7,999, Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is an excellent smart speaker and a great product overall.

If you have been holding out on a smart speaker investment, now would be a good time to take the leap. If you have a tighter budget, the Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) has a similar design and overall experience, but you will have to sacrifice on sound. Once you understand the ecosystem, you can get another one and build a stereo pair of Echo speakers.

Pricebaba’s rating: 9 / 10

What works:

  • Refreshing design
  • Improved sound quality with decent bass
  • Easy to use and huge Alexa skills library

What doesn’t:

  • Lack of YouTube Music support
  • Proprietary charging port
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