It’s not just Google with a new smart speaker this year, as the 2020 Amazon Echo gen 4 keeps the sound competitive, and almost everything else, too.
Smart speakers aren’t exactly a new thing, but several years, they’re getting seriously compelling, coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes, not to mention the price points that accompany them.
There’s your standard speaker from Sonos, not to mention an elongated soundbar that you can talk to in the Arc, plus the flattened softened box of a thing Google did this year, and there’s plenty of smart displays around the place as well. You can even find Bluetooth options that you can take with you, meaning a smart speaker isn’t just set for the home, but anywhere where you want to control things using your voice.
But at home is where most smart speakers are going to live, and while there are lots of price points, the mid range between $100 and $200 seems to be the spot where so much of the competition is. It’s an area Amazon has been playing in for a few years with its standard Echo, and this year in the fourth generation, the speaker stands out in almost every way possible.
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Design and features
The first of Amazon’s shift to a different design, the Echo gen 4 looks a little different from what Amazon has offered in the past. What are we saying: it looks totally different.
Previously a cylinder of sound, the 2020 Amazon Echo shifts shape into something different: a sphere, or as close to one as it gets. If you can picture a sphere with a flat bottom, that’s basically what Amazon has made, with this new shape offering a 3 inch woofer inside and two tweeters along the front, plus some hardware processing to handle Dolby sound, and a 3.5mm jack on a back, all in a device that comes in at $149.
That $150 price tag seems to be the sweet spot for speakers this year, and Amazon is hitting it with a smart speaker that isn’t much bigger than a small ball that you might play with your kids on. This one doesn’t roll though, and stays tethered to the wall, so don’t go playing with it beyond talking to it, or using the app to drive it.
They’re both methods of control for the Amazon Echo 4, as they are with any of the Echo speakers, because you need to connect it to your WiFi using the Alexa app, connect services as skills, set up custom Amazon Alexa routines if you like, and then start talking or triggering things via the app controls.
It’s easy enough for the most part, the Amazon’s included microphones are handy, able to get you from close up or a little further away, though dependent on how far you are, you may need to shout or take a step closer.
Controlling music can be a little iffy, and depends on your music service. We found Spotify worked the best, likely because the Spotify app plays so well with speakers and you can control the music from inside the already solid Spotify app, while Amazon’s Alexa app offered ho-hum integration, and acted more like a simple remote control for previous songs and playlists, with volume control, pause, and play.
There are also four controls on the top acting as volume, a trigger for the speaker’s microphone, and a cut off switch for the mic, which also lights up red and leaves a red ring lit up at the bottom of the speaker, almost like a warning light. When you talk to Alexa, that light is a calm and friendly mix of light blue to dark blue, flashing in a way that makes it seem like the speaker is a little bit alive and talking back to you, or at least thinking about it.
Once you’ve started your conversation with the speaker, you can get into how it sounds, something we tested using tracks from the Pickr Sound Test, which you can test for yourself on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, and Tidal.
As usual, that starts with electronic, with some bright and not overly harsh highs from Tycho in “Glider”, plus some solid punch from the excellent bass and percussion in Daft Punk’s “Contact”. Not to use the pun too much, but the first contact you have the Echo 4 is a good one, delivering more sound that you might feel should be possible from a speaker not much bigger than a small children’s ball. It’s loud and proud, and it doesn’t care what you think.
We’re fine with that, and started dancing in front of the new Echo, jumping into the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut To The Feeling” and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”, celebrating what can feel like an impossibly balanced amount of bass, that happily travelled through the bookcase it was resting on nearly a metre up, and shaking the floor below. It seems crazy a speaker of this size can do that, but here we are.
There are some catches to this otherwise decent sound, and you may pick up on them depending on the type of songs you listen to (which is also why our sound tests cover so many varieties).
Switching over to rock, we found the mids of our test tracks could feel a little lacking, and while the highs of the guitars and the lows of the bass line and drums made an impact, some of the sounds of the vocals and other instruments would lose a little. The processing helped deliver a sound that worked in line with the rest of the Echo, but the depth of tracks like Muse’s “Madness” or Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” can feel punchy but lacking in complexity, and hardly driving the total balance you may expect in these songs.
Sufficed to say, the sound is quite good, but not necessarily all-encompassing and entirely balanced. We’d call the Echo 4th gen bright and boomy, and very, very loud. That last point is definitely one worth paying attention to, because Amazon has equipped this speaker with so much sound, you might think the speaker ball is bigger than it actually is.
The performance is jam packed, and the price isn’t bad, either, arriving in Australia for $149, though we’ve seen Amazon selling the Echo 4 for less, hitting closer to $129 at points in Australia.
That’s a pretty stellar deal for the amount of sound available in the Echo 4, and makes it hard to look past, for sure.
What needs work?
With solid sound and a fairly wallet friendly price, not to mention a spherical design that stands out, it can seem like Amazon’s 2020 Echo is a total win. Frankly, it’s not far from that, though there are some things that feel like could be improved.
For one, there are the controls. On the top of the Echo 4, you’ll find two obvious buttons for volume — the plus and minus — and then a circular button and another for do not disturb, which switches off the mic. Three of these are obvious, but the circular button, less so. It feels like it should pause music, but all it seemed to do is act as a trigger for Echo to talk to it some more, which means if you want to pause your music, you need to talk to the Echo: “hey Alexa, pause this song” or “hey Alexa, stop”.
If you’re using any music service other than Spotify — simply, if you use the Echo with Apple Music — you may need to rely on your voice to get things done on the Echo 4, because the app control for other music services just isn’t fantastic. Spotify users can control their speaker using the Spotify app, something that works remotely, as well, but Apple Music customers, and of nearly every other supported service will either have to use the meh Alexa app to trigger recent songs and pause and play, and talk to the speaker, which doesn’t always get it right. We tried for ten minutes to get it to recognise our Pickr 2019 Sound Test, but nothing worked:
- “Hey Alexa, play the Pickr 2019 playlist”
- “Hey Alexa, play our Pickr 2019 playlist”
- “Hey Alexa, play the Pickr 2019 playlist on Apple Music”
- “Hey Alexa, play our Pickr 2019 playlist from Apple Music”
Nothing worked. We eventually opted to call out the tracks one by one to test the Echo speaker. Some playlists with more direct naming had no problems, but sufficed to say, the lack of external speaker control in the Apple Music app — something Apple hasn’t quite caught up with — plus a lack of deep integration in the Alexa app — something Amazon hasn’t really made work, either — means Spotify customers get the best deal, and we suspect Amazon Music Unlimited customers, though we didn’t try Amazon’s music service for this test.
The other little bit that needs work is the sound, which is actually great, but not quite as fully 360 as Amazon’s spherical shape may lead you to believe. It’s great at the front, loud and proud, but the speaker doesn’t really cover the back, and so while the Echo 4 looks as omni-directional as its spherical sibling, it actually doesn’t have that going for it.
The rear of the speaker kind of misses out, getting the sound of the front bleeding, but losing the quality at the back. It’s not a 360 degree sound, despite looking like it should be, with the rear a touch shallow.
That’s not to suggest the back isn’t getting sound — it is — it’s just not as solid a sound as the rest of the Echo 4 package.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
But provided you’re always at the front of the Amazon Echo gen 4, it’s a solid little smart speaker, offering a sound that’s sharp, a price that’s perfect, and a design that’s different. The Echo 4 stands out amongst the competition. Frankly, it’s a little beauty.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t terribly fond of the design when I first saw photos of it, and felt largely like it wouldn’t work as a product. Yet the more time I’ve spent with the Echo, the more its take on a circular speaker has grown on me. Not only is this speaker a bit of a talking point, but it’s one that delivers such a burst of sound, and a pretty sizeable bump of bass, too.
This is a speaker that begs you to leave it out so people can remark, “what’s that thing there”, and for you to show them, for them to be surprised at what its doing, and that nearly a metre off the ground, can deliver a rather astounding amount of bass through furniture into the floor below. It’s not a speaker that sits in the background, but rather one that makes itself known. “Look at me,” it says in its design. “I’ll reward you with the music you love and the skills you want.” Like Google’s Nest Audio, it’s loud and proud. Unlike the Nest, this speaker stands out.
There are lots of smart speakers out there, for sure, and certainly ones that offer a better sense of 360 degree sound, but at $150, the 2020 Amazon Echo delivers so much that it’s hard not to recommend, so we are.