Amazon’s spherical fourth-gen Echo is worth the upgrade

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Amazon's new Echo smart speaker is a great buy.
Image: Amazon

Amazon’s lineup of Echo smart speakers contains some of the best devices on the market. They are easy to use, easy to set up, and are fairly cost-effective. The e-commerce giant recently unveiled its fourth-generation Echo with an overhauled design just in time for the 2020 holiday shopping season.

The smart speaker world has ditched the puck-like, tower-shaped designs it embraced for several years almost overnight. Amazon’s latest Echo speaker follows the new trend set by the Apple HomePod Mini with its spherical shape. That update affects not only the look of the device but also its performance.

The fourth-gen speaker offers notable improvements over last year’s Echo that consumers can look forward to. If you’re in the market for a new smart speaker, Amazon’s latest Echo is the one to beat.

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That’s No Moon

It’s hard to ignore the Death Star-like appearance of the fourth-generation Echo speaker. The device is essentially a sphere resting on a flat base to keep it from rolling off of the table. At its peak, the sphere is just over five inches and has a five-inch diameter in every other direction.

Notably, consumers will be able to get the new Echo in three colors—dark grey, light grey, and light blue. The top portion of the sphere is covered in a fabric that is very similar to what you’ll find on a Nest Home Mini from Google. Four buttons are laid out at the top of the speaker to give consumers an easy way to control what’s happening. There are volume up and volume down buttons alongside a microphone mute button and the “action” button. The latter triggers the speaker’s listening mode just like saying “Alexa.”

The back of the sphere houses a power port and a 3.5mm audio jack. This shouldn’t be surprising since every other Echo is designed that way, making it easy to hook the speaker up to a larger sound system.

Given the speaker’s new shape, its iconic blue light ring has been moved from the top to the bottom. The LEDs still light up when Alexa is listening for a command and the new placement doesn’t affect much. It is still very easy to see the light from almost any vantage point.

Aside from making the speaker look sleeker, the change to a spherical design has some advantages when it comes to sound quality. For one, the design gives the three-inch woofer more space so that it can deliver a better bass experience. Early reviews claim that you can feel the bass in the floor, which is an impressive feat for a speaker of that size.

Despite the fact that its shape indicates the fourth-generation Echo delivers a 360-degree audio experience, Amazon designed it to be directional. That’s a change from past models. The new speaker’s woofer and tweeters both face forward and slightly up, meaning that the speaker is designed to be listened to from the front.

That’s a bit strange considering its shape but it is far from being a deal-breaker. In all, the fresh design is a welcome change to the Echo lineup.

Improved Sound Quality

A fancy new shape isn’t the only advantage that the fourth-generation Echo has over its predecessors. The new speaker has tremendous sound quality relative to its size and price point. It also boasts features that are typically reserved for much more expensive models.

For one, it uses active room tuning to dynamically adjust its audio based on the size and shape of the room it is placed in. It’s worth noting that neither of the smart speakers positioned to compete with the fourth-gen Echo—Google’s Nest Audio and Apple’s HomePod Mini—offer this feature.

Although you can’t toggle the active room tuning feature on and off, the new Echo produces deep, rich sound for such a small package. The fact that it comes with Dolby Audio tuning also helps in that regard.

Once again, despite its size, the Echo gets surprisingly loud. The Verge’s Dan Seifert says that it was able to match the (much) more expensive Sonos One speaker in terms of intensity.

No one who needs the world’s best sound quality is turning to a smart speaker. However, for its price and size, the fourth-generation Amazon Echo delivers impressive audio performance.

The Smart Part

Much has been made of the new Echo’s audio capabilities. That’s because most of the speaker’s “smart” features remain the same. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it is already well-rounded.

Amazon has greatly improved Alexa in the past few years, making it easier to link the digital assistant to third-party services. You can do everything from controlling smart lights to searching for the latest weather forecast and setting timers to making a shopping list.

The latest model seems to be better at recognizing its “Alexa” wake word regardless of whether there is music playing or not. That’s a big plus considering that most smart speakers struggle with this.

The new Echo does benefit from an upgraded processor. It sports the new AZ1 Neural Edge chip for better voice recognition. However, that performance boost won’t be enabled until Amazon rolls out an update later this year. Nonetheless, it seems that the chip already allows Alexa to respond much faster than digital assistants do on other platforms.

Amazon also improved the new Echo’s capabilities in the smart home space. It features an integrated smart home hub for Zigbee devices. In other words, you don’t need to have a separate hub for those gadgets since the Echo can do it all. You can use Alexa to control the smart devices with your voice or do so using the Alexa smartphone app. As a bonus, the new Echo even has a temperature sensor so it can trigger things like a smart thermostat or a connected fan.

Amazon’s Echo smart speakers have always been quality products. However, the latest model easily beats them all. It also stands head and shoulders above similar devices from competitors like Google and Apple. If you’re looking for a new smart speaker to add to your holiday wish list, the fourth-gen Echo is the best candidate.

The speaker is technically available now and retails for $99.99. However, those who didn’t preorder one will likely have to wait a few weeks for the new Echo to be back in stock.

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