November 2, 2017
After all the negative reviews and feedback on the poor sound quality of the 2nd generation Echo it appears that Amazon has taken quick steps to help remedy the issue. I spoke with an Amazon representative on the phone who confirmed that there has been a software update which is rolling out to Echo devices. After getting the update my Echo does indeed sound better! I still wouldn't call it audiophile-quality by any means, but the bass is fuller and the sound is less "tinny" overall.
To check which software version you have, select "Settings" on your Alexa phone app, choose your Echo device, then scroll down the page to where it says "Device software version." The updated version (as of 11/4/17) is 592452420 (previously it was 592452320).
You don't have to do anything to get the update; it will be sent automatically by Amazon. You may see the indicator light on your Echo will pulse blue as the update is installed. The representative I spoke with said you may get it more quickly by not using your Echo for several hours. I hit the mute button on mine and received the update within a few hours. I'm very impressed by Amazon's quick response to this issue!
As a very happy owner of three Echo Dots (2nd generation) I was glad to see Amazon release a 2nd generation of the Echo as well. After using it for several days I can say I'm quite pleased with it, and even though it doesn't have any radical new features compared with the 1st Generation Echo or the Echo Dot, there are some notable improvements. I'll summarize these differences first and then describe the new Echo in a bit more detail.
Improvements over the Echo 1st Generation:
- More color and texture choices
- A swappable outer shell
- Ability to output audio to another device or stereo system via Bluetooth or an auxiliary cable
- Dolby-powered speakers
- Significantly lower price!
Differences from the Echo Dot (2nd gen):
- Larger size and swappable outer shell (these are probably obvious)
- 2 speakers (tweeter and woofer) vs. 1
- Power adapter sits flatter against the wall
I purchased the "Heather Gray Fabric" version. The cloth is a polyester woven fabric made up of lighter and darker shades of gray which certainly gives it more visual interest than if it were just a solid, uniform gray. The neutral color blends in with nearly any decor, and the cloth gives it a softer look which is great for areas of your house where you don't want something that screams "I'm a device!"
In terms of size, the Echo 2nd Generation is almost the same diameter (3.5") as the 1st Generation Echo (3.3"), but it is several inches shorter. To me the original Echo looked like a tower; this shorter version is much less ostentatious.
The top of the device is identical to the 2nd Gen Echo Dot: it has four buttons (volume up, volume down, microphone off, and an "action" button), a multi-colored light ring around the edge that tells you about the Echo's status, and seven tiny holes below which the microphones sit.
A new feature of this Echo is its swappable decorative shell. Simply press a button on the underside of the device and the shell slides right off, allowing you to replace it with any of the other shells that Amazon sells. I'm not sure how many people will take advantage of this feature given that additional shells are $20-30, but it could be useful if you want to change your Echo's look to match a different location in your home.
A final note on appearance: the power adapter for the Echo sits fairly flat against the wall, protruding maybe 1.5". By contrast, the Dot's adapter sticks out from the wall 2-3 inches. The flatter adapter of the Echo is nice if you want to plug it into an outlet that is behind a piece of furniture.
I did a side-by-side comparison of the 1st and 2nd Generation Echos, and despite the new Dolby-powered speakers I did not notice a significant difference in sound quality with either music or spoken text. I certainly wouldn't call it "room filling sound" in any case. Clarity isn't bad, but bass is nearly non-existent. However, the real potential improvement in sound quality comes not from the speakers themselves but from a new feature for 2nd Generation Echo devices: using Bluetooth or a 3.5mm auxiliary cable (not included), you can play the audio through a nearby speaker or stereo system. Yes, this does means you are using two devices to accomplish one thing, but in a sense it's no different than plugging any other sound source into your stereo system. To be honest, I don't generally think of the Echo primarily as a music playback device anyway other than for very casual listening (but I realize that puts me in a minority... admittedly I'm a bit of an audiophile).
Compared with the Echo Dot, however, there IS a noticeable difference in sound. This shouldn't be a surprise given that the Echo has two speakers (a tweeter and a woofer) while the Dot has only one. To my ear the difference isn't so much in clarity but rather in fullness. With two speakers and a bit more acoustic "heft," the Echo's sound has more presence than the Dot's, which to me makes it more tolerable to listen to for a period of time. The difference is even more appreciable with music than with newscasts or other spoken text.
This is one area where I must confess I'm disappointed. Like the 2nd Generation of the Dot, the Echo 2nd Generation uses seven microphones beneath its top surface to recognize voice commands spoken from any direction. My wife and I both found this Echo to be slightly LESS proficient at detecting our voices and recognizing vocal commands than our Dots are. We did side-by-side comparisons of the Echo and the Dot in several locations around our house and the Dot was nearly always better at picking up our voices (and yes, we only had one plugged in at a time!). I'm not sure why this would be since both devices use similar technology, but the difference was pretty consistent. One possible explanation I can think of is this: Both devices have their microphone openings on their top surfaces, effectively pointing upward. Because the Echo is taller than the Dot, if you put both devices side by side and speak to them from several feet away, your voice will hit the Dot's microphones at a slightly more downward (i.e., direct) angle than the Echo's, which may help the Dot pick up your voice better. Obviously I'm only speculating here, but in support of this theory I have noticed that both devices have difficulty detecting my voice if I speak from below them (for example, if I'm sitting on the floor and the device is on a table).
The bottom line is that overall functionality -- what the Echo 2nd generation "does" -- is nearly identical to the 1st generation Echo and the Dot. Keep in mind that the Alexa assistant software on which all Echos operate is run on Amazon's cloud, not your individual device. This means that as Amazon adds features to Alexa they automatically become available on all Echo devices. So, you can use any of them to:
- Stream music via WiFi from multiple sources
- Control smart home devices
- Make hands-free calls to other Echo devices or phone numbers in North America
- Make purchases from your Amazon Prime account
- Listen to news feeds, podcasts, etc.
- Do anything else in Alexa's ever-growing skill set, such as make shopping lists, set timers/alarms/reminders, play games, tell you your daily schedule, and any other skills Amazon dreams up for Alexa in the future.
Personally I have two favorite Alexa skills: the Flash Briefing and the drop-in feature. The flash briefing is fully customizable daily "digest" of news and other information which you can hear any time by asking "What's my flash briefing?" There is a huge list of content you can add to your briefing including news updates, weather forecasts, sports and traffic updates, and educational snippets along with many that are just humorous or entertaining. Using the Alexa phone app or your Echo account page you can select exactly what content you want in your briefing and in what order you want to hear it. For example, I configured mine with NPR news, BBC news, the weather, and a word of the day. I love having an on-demand synopsis of the latest news from my favorite sources.
My other favorite feature, "drop in," essentially opens a two-way communication channel between any two Echo devices, sort of like an intercom. Simply ask Alexa to "drop in on [the living room, the kitchen...]" and you are instantly connected. My wife and I use this feature all the time when we need to communicate from opposite ends of the house. You can turn drop-in capability on or off for each of your Echo devices individually, and you can also choose whether each device can drop in with ANY Echo device or only those in your own home.
[Note that the drop-in feature is NOT the same thing as Alexa's hands-free calling feature. Hands-free calling allows you to call most phone numbers and Echo devices in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada from your Echo by saying your contact's name or number. Just like with a phone call, the other person must choose to answer your call before you can communicate. By contrast, with the drop-in feature communication is instantly established. For this reason you will probably want to use drop-in only with your closest family and friends, and probably only for certain rooms in your home!]
A few (minor) complaints
Unfortunately the Echo 2nd Gen shares an annoying trait of the Echo Dot: widely varying volume levels within the daily Flash Briefing. As you listen to the briefing, some components (such as One America News) come through quietly while others (like Fox News) are much louder. I don't know whether this variability is due to differences in how each component of the feed is produced or whether it has to do with the device itself, but in any case I hoped the phenomenon would be less pronounced with the 2nd Generation Echo than it is with the Dot. Unfortunately, it is not. Just be prepared to adjust the volume at the beginning of each segment.
Another complaint I have is the inability to listen to certain feeds outside of the Flash Briefing. One America News is an example here: you can listen to the channel's live feed any time, but you can only hear the channel's "top stories summary" as part of your Flash Briefing. This issue is probably more software than device related, but still, it bugs me.
A few tips
1) The Echo seems to pick up voices best when placed at or below eye level (i.e., roughly the level from which your voice emits). Mine has trouble detecting voices coming from below it, so I don't recommend placing this on a high shelf.
2) When you select news feeds for your Flash briefing I recommend picking one U.S. source and one international source (I use NPR and BBC - both are excellent). If you add too many feeds you'll get a lot of overlap and hear the same story several times.
3) If you have multiple Echo devices in your home, sometimes speaking to one will cause others to respond as well, especially if they are in close proximity (like in adjacent rooms). One way to prevent this is to change the wake word of one of the devices to "Echo" or "Amazon." The only downside is that you then have to remember which wake word you assigned to each device!
4) Some speakers have a bit of a "burn-in" period, so in an attempt to improve my Echo's sound I left it playing music for much of the first few days I had it. The sound did seem to improve a LITTLE, (the lower frequencies filled in some), but it's still not stellar. But if you're not happy with the sound at first, let it play frequently for a few days and it may improve a bit.
Which one to buy?
If you are trying to decide between the Echo and the Dot, think carefully about how you plan to use the device. The single biggest practical difference between the two is that the Echo has fuller, better quality sound. So if you plan to use the device mostly for listening to music, news, podcasts, or whatever, you will probably appreciate the Echo's better acoustics. On the other hand, if you want to use it mainly for voice control of smart home devices, the Dot is more than sufficient. I have a Dot in our home theater room that I use exclusively to control the lights in that room. For that type of single-purpose application anything more than a Dot would be overkill.
Although the Echo 2nd generation may not have any earth-shattering new features compared with the 1st generation, its significantly lower price and ability to send music to another speaker or stereo system make it a winner. If you already own a 1st generation Echo there probably isn't a compelling reason to upgrade because the difference in sound quality isn't significant. But if this is your first Echo device you will probably be very pleased with it. And if you are deciding between the Echo and the Dot, which one you purchase comes down to how you want to use the device. For heavy listening, the Echo may be preferable for its better acoustics; otherwise, the Dot is a great deal -- especially at half the price of the Echo!