Voice assistants are poised to become our home’s digital butlers, and Amazon’s Alexa is a strong contender in the race to be the best. But which is the best Amazon Echo speaker? Or should you consider an alternative? Read on.
Initially released in 2014, the Alexa voice-operated personal assistant has found its way into an array of smart speakers, giving them new functionality. Music playback, making 'to-do' lists, setting alarms, providing real time information of many kinds - this is the sort of stuff that makes Alexa so powerful.
While other voice-assistants offer similar features, Alexa is still ahead. It has a wider range of functions, and greater consistency across its platforms, than Apple's Siri on the HomePod, and Google’s Assistant is a little more awkward still - and its Google Home speaker doesn’t sound quite as good as Amazon’s equivalent.
But for those looking to get voice control into their homes, it can be a little daunting deciding which product to get. There are so many Echo-brand products available, including the ‘classic’ Echo, the Echo Plus, the latest 3rd-gen Echo Dot, and the screen-toting Echo Spot and Echo Show 5.
Each has its positives and its pitfalls, so we’re here to show you the path through Amazon’s range…
Amazon Echo Dot (3rd-gen)
The small, puck-shaped design remains but it has been jazzed-up and improved on this 3rd-gen Echo Dot. Fabric replaces the hard exterior of the previous model and the controls on top of the device have had a makeover, too. It looks noticeably smarter as a result – we see it as a nice addition to a room rather than something you want to tuck out of sight.
Also updated is a new driver and a change to the microphone layout. There’s a 4cm driver here as opposed to 3cm on the previous model and Amazon claims it’s 70 per cent louder as a result. Interestingly there are fewer microphones, four rather than seven, but tweaks to the design aim to make performance every bit as strong. In terms of features, it's still all about the 3.5mm audio output and Bluetooth connectivity.
All told, the upgrades have been well executed - the new Echo Dot sounds noticeably better with voices and music, making it ideal for background music as well as voice commands.
Why should you buy the new Echo Dot?
The new and improved Echo Dot is every bit the upgrade on the previous models. Want the best, budget way to add Alexa to your system? This is it.
Also consider: Google Home Mini
If Echoes were ice cream, this would be vanilla. Amazon’s middle-of-the-road option is made for those that want a good, standalone wireless speaker with all of the added functionality of Alexa.
With its increased size (about as tall as a water bottle) and bigger drivers (a 65mm woofer and 15mm tweeter), the Echo offers better sound quality than its smaller sibling.
This speaker plays it safe at both ends of the audio spectrum, delivering more bass and a beefier sound than the first-generation Echo (although it compromises on clarity) and a significantly more convincing experience than the Dot.
It also comes in a number of different styles: charcoal or heather fabrics, plus oak, sandstone or walnut finishes.
Why should you buy the Amazon Echo?
If you’re looking for a decent wireless speaker with smart functionality – and want to make sure it gets updated with every new feature – the Amazon Echo is one to consider.
Also consider: Ultimate Ears Blast
Amazon Echo Plus (2nd-gen)
Until the launch of this latest Echo Plus, we'd struggled to completely recommend Amazon's smart speakers. There was nothing wrong with the smart bit but we struggled with the speaker side of things. Now we don't need to worry.
Just under 10cm in width and standing almost 15cm tall, the Echo Plus’s cylindrical body does not quite offer room-filling sound, but certainly has the presence and power to make itself heard. There's a 3.5mm aux input, should you want one, and the inclusion of the built-in Zigbee smart home hub. Zigbee is an established smart home standard, which means you can now control it using your voice, Alexa and the Echo Plus.
If your use of smart features is to be limited, there are other speakers offering Alexa control on a more modest scale that you should consider, such as the Sonos One. But the Echo Plus should be on your shortlist regardless of its features, only because its sonic performance makes it worthy in isolation.
Why should you buy the Echo Plus?
Want better, bigger sound and the bonus of compatibility with a whole host of smart home products? The Echo Plus is the Amazon speaker upgrade for you.
Amazon Echo Spot
You might want a screen, of course. Which is where the Echo Spot comes in. It has a small (480x480 pixel) touchscreen, which gives visual feedback to all your Alexa commands. Ask it to read your news briefing, and it’ll be accompanied by a little video. Setting alarms shows a countdown timer. You can even make video calls, using the small camera at the top of the device.
For a little more personalisation, the clock face is adjustable and each design is well judged – whether it’s the vinyl style, the owl or its various analogue and digital formats. It’s a more homely than the uniform style of the Echo speakers, giving the device a touch more character.
You can also use it to watch Amazon Prime Video content, if you’re a Prime subscriber. Not particularly immersive when it’s so tiddly, granted, but still a nice addition.
Also, when playing music, some tracks will have the lyrics scroll across the screen – no more need you be caught out singing “we built this city on sausage rolls” or “dancing queen, feel the beat from the tangerine”. Happily, all expletives are beeped in case you have children present.
Why should you buy the Echo Spot?
If you want a great alarm clock that can read you the news and play your favourite Spotify playlist, the Spot is perfect for you (and those that are picky about their privacy settings can disable the camera).
Amazon Echo Show 5
And the Spot above is no longer the only option with a screen. The new Echo Show 5 also embraces both sound and video in its abilities to communicate. So, as well as playing music or reading out information, you can access video content on the 5.5in LCD touchscreen.
A little larger than a super-size smartphone, the Show 5 is nicely put together, with a textured cloth finish at the rear and a rubberised base. It has a micro USB input and a 3.5mm audio output but of course the main concern here is Alexa voice controls.
Neither the speaker nor the 5.5in screen delivers spectacular performance, but together they deliver a hard-to-beat take on the latest Alexa experience, with immediate access to video news, calls and entertainment alongside spoken word responses.
Why should you buy the Echo Show 5?
This is the 21st century bedside radio. Music, video and an instant voice assistant, the Echo Show 5 does exactly what it sets out to do, in solid style.