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Hands On With Amazon’s Echo Speaker: Hey, This Thing Is Remarkably Smart

This smartly designed, easy-to-use wireless speaker has artificial intelligence built in. Is it worth $180?

Hands On With Amazon’s Echo Speaker: Hey, This Thing Is Remarkably Smart

For a moment, it almost seemed like Alexa was getting frustrated with me. To be fair, I just unpacked this artificially intelligent robo-speaker this morning and already I’m throwing it curve balls.

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Amazon already showed off most of what the Echo–the new voice-controlled Bluetooth speaker in which the “Alexa” voice assistant lives–is capable of. So I’m testing out its artificial intelligence the best way my mushy human brain knows how: by slinging as many different commands and questions its way as I can. (The speaker, which is available for preorder now, ships next month.)

All things considered, the Echo is remarkably smart. Sure, its A.I. has its limitations–even more so than Siri or Google Now, since those services are designed to do so much more than the Echo ever will. Then again, a product like the Echo is about so much more than the futuristic wow factor of A.I. For the average consumer, things like user-experience design, ease of use, and sound quality matter most. Across the board, the Echo gets pretty high marks.


A Speaker With An Invisible Interface

So how intelligent is this speaker? Like Siri, the Echo’s Alexa has advice on where I could hide a dead body. But beyond that–and presumably a few other Easter eggs I have yet to uncover–Alexa’s vocabulary is limited to the Echo’s relatively narrow scope of functionality: playing music and podcasts, setting alarms, reciting a weather forecast, querying the web for basic trivia and math and shopping on Amazon. It does all of those things elegantly. But the promise of a product like the Echo goes beyond what it does out of the box: As developers start digging into its SDK, this thing is set to get a lot smarter and more useful.

From a design standpoint, the Echo is sleek and minimalist. The speaker itself has only two buttons–one that manually activates Alexa, and another that mutes the Echo’s seven always-on microphones–with a ring around the top of its cylindrical body, doubling as a camouflaged volume knob. Around the top of the device is a blue ring of light that illuminates when it’s listening (saying “Alexa” alerts the device to your needs, just as “OK Google” wakes up Google Now). When Alexa is listening, this light travels around the circumference of the Echo in an animated flow reminiscent of Kit from Knight Rider. The light gets concentrated in lighter hues along the part of the edge that’s closest to you, indicating that the Echo knows where your voice is coming from. It’s a subtle detail that makes the Echo feel like an intelligent presence in the room without creeping anywhere close to the uncanny valley.

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Instead of packing an array of buttons and knobs onto the Echo, Amazon offloads the user interface to two places: its built-in voice control and the Echo app for smartphones and tablets, which lets you take control of the device using more familiar, visual interface paradigms, should you ever get tired of barking orders at an inanimate object. Amazon also sells an optional $30 remote control with a microphone and basic controls.

It’s a good thing that the Echo’s interface is split into multiple places. Because as solid as its voice-recognition technology is, the Echo’s designers realized that people don’t want to use voice control as the only means of input. It’s one thing to say “Alexa, play Madonna.” It’s another to say “Alexa, turn it down” and then repeatedly shout “Alexa, skip!” across the room when the playlist isn’t going your way, followed by “Alexa, play Beyonce instead,” and so on. After shouting commands at a black cylinder on the other side of the room, you start to feel slightly insane. Sometimes, you just want to hit a skip button without saying a word.

The voice input is pretty accurate, but it does periodically misunderstand requests. And while it’s good at picking up and differentiating voices, you do sometimes have to compete with other sounds to get Alexa’s attention. At one point, I asked Alexa to turn the volume up on a song. With the music on full volume, I then had to shout to get Alexa to turn it down, and I felt like the lamest dad in the world.

One noteworthy perk of Alexa’s voice recognition is that you can train it. Siri and other voice-control systems will learn from your speech over time, but they do so quietly in the background. With the Echo, you have a more direct influence over how the product learns. The Echo app shows you a detailed history of your interactions with Alexa and allows you to rate whether it understood you correctly. The app also has an option to train Alexa on your voice specifically. By selecting “Voice Training” under the app’s main menu, you can read a series of 25 sample prompts, which allows Alexa to get more familiar with the nuances of your voice.


The Echo Is Incredibly Easy To Set Up And Use

Pack all the features and gee-whiz technology into a product you want: The true test of its mass-market appeal will always be how easy it is to unpack, configure, and use. If it requires a Bible-sized user manual, there’s always going to be a huge swath of the non-geek masses that won’t bother.

Fortunately for Amazon, the Echo nails this part of the experience. Setting up the speaker is a painless, five-minute process. It’s a matter of plugging the device into a power outlet, installing the Echo app on your phone or tablet, and then walking through a few steps to get it connected to your Wi-Fi network.

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Like a Kindle, the Echo comes tied to your Amazon account, ready to tap your credentials for content and making purchases. That means you can plug it in, set it up, and then immediately ask it to play music in your Amazon account, be it from Amazon Prime’s mini-library of free songs (not quite a Spotify-sized selection, but still about a million tracks to chose from) or anything you’ve purchased through Amazon. This includes physical releases that support Amazon’s AutoRip feature, which will automatically give you a free digital version of an album you purchase on vinyl or CD. Delightfully enough, digital versions of Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers and Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker I bought on vinyl from Amazon two years ago were both waiting there for me in a library of digital music I didn’t even realize I had. Amazon will also let you import other music you may already own from other sources.

One significant shortcoming of the Echo is that, at launch, it doesn’t have integrations with streaming services like Spotify, Rdio, and SoundCloud. But at its core, the Echo is still a Bluetooth-connected speaker, so you can pair it with your phone and play any audio you like. You just won’t be able to search and control those services using Alexa until Amazon formally supports them.

The Echo does have support for Pandora and TuneIn, which means you can ask Alexa to play your favorite artist or song-based Internet radio stations or pull up popular podcasts. I didn’t even need to connect a TuneIn account, and Alexa knew exactly what I meant when I said “Alexa, play On the Media‘” or “Alexa, play 99% Invisible.” Similarly, asking Alexa to “play NPR” will load a livestream of your local affiliate station via TuneIn. Within minutes of unpacking this device and plugging it in, I was listening to Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

How Does It Sound?

For a $180 speaker with an artificial being living inside of it, the Echo sounds pretty decent. We’re not talking Sonos-level quality here, but it sounds as good as most small-to-medium sized Bluetooth speakers, with pretty solid bass response (although it would be nice to be able to adjust the bass). For the same price, you could pick up a Bose Soundlink Mini, which sounds about as nice, but doesn’t have a robot inside.

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Because of its acoustic design and round form factor, the speaker does a pretty solid job of filling a reasonably sized room with sound. If you live in an apartment or otherwise place the Echo in a room that isn’t too cavernous, the device’s sonic reach will probably be plenty.

If you’re a hardcore audiophile, the Echo isn’t going to be your go-to device for music listening. But for certain at-home contexts, it will be perfectly sufficient. If nothing else, you’ve got yourself a really nice, futuristic alarm clock that plays podcasts and audiobooks and answers simple questions.

The Echo Use Case: What Is This Good For?

The Echo may be a Bluetooth speaker at heart, but it’s not battery powered, so you can’t take it on a picnic or a camping trip like you would with a Bose SoundLink or Jambox speakers. And while you can easily move it from room to room, it’s designed to be more or less stationary.

This is the sort of device you might keep in the kitchen so you can listen to music and quiz it about recipe ingredient measurements. Or perhaps it could replace your alarm clock in your bedroom: After its gentle, ambient tone wakes you up, you can ask it for the weather and a newscast. Really, any scenario in which you’d want to listen to music or podcasts and find out basic information without fiddling with your phone would be ideally suited for the Echo.

The ideal use case will vary from household to household. One feature I wasn’t able to test was the Echo’s ability to control smart home gadgets like Philips Hue lights or Belkin’s WeMo home automation devices. But if your house is rigged up with smart objects like these, that will likely inform where your Echo lives and how it’s used.

The Echo isn’t going to replace your stereo system or end your relationship with Siri or Google Now, but for most people, it will nicely supplement an in-home listening experience. If developers get cracking on more third-party integrations, it also has the potential to unglue us from our smartphones, if even just for a little bit.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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