As the 19th century philosophical saying goes, all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is opposed. Third, it is accepted. When Amazon abandoned its puck-shaped Echo Dot last year and served up a spherical design, comment threads on various forums erupted in laughter.
Amazon isn’t the first to consider a spherical audio solution, of course. Cabasse’s Pearl and Devialet’s Phantom range embraced the design many moons ago, while others, such as Bowers & Wilkins’ Nautilus or Vivid Audio’s Giya, have also confidently extolled the virtues of gastropod shapes for sonic deliverance.
So, might the public change its tune in time? And is the new globular Dot better than its puck-shaped predecessor?
The Echo Dot is similar to the Apple HomePod Mini in stature – placed side by side, the two speakers are almost identical in form. Our charcoal Echo Dot sample is a similar hue to the black Mini and the power cable is mounted at the same angle – although the Dot’s cable is removable rather than fixed, and flanked by a 3.5mm audio line out for wired listening.
Much like the larger Echo (4th Generation), the Dot’s spherical design is lopped off at the bottom to provide a base, and it's here you’ll find the Amazon Echo range's trademark blue ring of light. Alexa’s pulsating presence is slightly subtler than it is on the top edge of the previous Dot, and it now reflects pleasingly on kitchen counters or glass tables.
Dimensions (hwd) 10 x 10 x 8.9cm
The third- and fourth-gen Dots boast the same circumference at their widest, but the new variant is almost twice as tall and more imposing than its predecessor – think grapefruit rather than stack of coffee coasters.
The four physical buttons for mic on/off, action and volume are still present, offset from the apex of the Dot, and there’s also a 'tap to snooze' feature, which is helpful if you use your Dot for alarms and reminders.
One notable thing about the new design is the elliptical band of plastic that rises to its highest around the power port at the back of the unit; it means you shouldn’t expect the same omnidirectional sound presentation as in the previous iteration. As we said in our review of the larger Echo (4th Gen), which sports this same design element, it’s a minor issue since the device needs to be plugged in and, consequently, will usually sit close to a wall anyway.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the extra height afforded by a spherical design must mean an extra driver under the hood. However, the all-new Echo Dot includes a solo 4cm driver – just as the third-gen Dot did, albeit it's now front-firing. The same four-mic array for voice pick-up is also here.
Inside is a new chip, which promises to make Alexa’s response times up to twice as fast. In our tests, the newer Dot does respond quicker. The fourth-gen Echo Dot also enters a new low power mode when idle to save on energy consumption.
As anyone familiar with Amazon Echo devices knows, set-up is a case of downloading the Alexa app on your smartphone, plugging in the Dot and following the prompts. Helpful advancements have been made to encourage the ownership of several Echo devices. For example, you can name and group all your Echo products within your home, so saying “Alexa, play David Bowie in the living room” will mean that any Echo devices in that group will oblige.
One Dot cannot be in two groups at once, but you can say “Alexa, play David Bowie everywhere” to get audio throughout your house. Stereo pairing is possible too, but only between two Dots of the same model.
Under the Communicate tab on the Alexa app, you can make an announcement (such as “I’m home”) be broadcast to your speakers, and under the Home tab you can browse ‘skills’ to enable on your Dot. These include a round of the TV quiz show Pointless, spa music to help you unwind after a hard day, a game of Simon Says to occupy your children, and many more.
Of course, you can link music streaming subscriptions, including Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited (but not Tidal or Qobuz). Here, we find Deezer a wise investment, with the Echo Dot and streaming service working well together. Although Apple Music, Beats 1 Radio and Apple Podcasts are supported skills on the Echo Dot, venturing into Apple’s ecosystem with an Amazon Alexa product isn’t the smooth ride you’d get from the Apple-centric HomePod Mini. It works most of the time but can feel a bit clunky.
In our tests, we find that the newer Echo Dot has slightly better hearing than its predecessor, but the most dramatic improvement is Alexa’s vocalisation. There are several voices to choose from but, whichever one you select, Alexa sounds less muffled than in older iterations and has clearer, crisper diction – a huge bonus if you often ask your Echo Dot questions or enjoy receiving flash briefings. Although the quickened response times in the new Dot might feel negligible, the levelled-up clarity of its responses is undeniable.
Add this to features such as Amazon Routines (to dim lights in your smart home, for example), ‘dropping in’ on anyone sat near a Dot for a two-way conversation, and Alexa’s help with everyday queries and all in all, this affordable smart speaker offers a staggering amount of clever perks for the money.
As the driver inside the new Echo Dot is front-firing, wall-mounting it (with the base against the wall) is ill-advised. The ideal placement for this Echo Dot is in a corner or facing out into a room with the power connector at the back. But despite a design that’s slightly fussier over placement, once you set it down you’ll hear the difference.
It isn’t time to sell your pair of stereo standmounts just yet, but if you regularly listen to podcasts or music at your desk, the Echo Dot offers a solid step-up on the previous model for audio. We kick off our listening with R.E.M’s Automatic For The People album and find the keys and strings in Nightswimming three-dimensional and relatively well fleshed out, aided by a clear, refined treble.
Stream The Waterboys’ The Whole Of The Moon and the Dot jubilantly celebrates the track, managing to open out various musical strands – the lilting female backing vocal, a violin, a cannon firing – and layer them with a steadier hand than its older sibling. It does so while staying true to Mike Scott’s textured and central vocal through the midrange, too.
Sit through the brooding intro of Maria McKee’s Show Me Heaven and any fears that the Echo Dot might be undercooked through the bass are dispelled. It would be churlish to expect huge low-end clout from such a small speaker, but here it is certainly present and helps an emotive dynamic build over the course of our listening.
We switch to David Bowie’s Absolute Beginners to compare the old and new Dots. The third-gen Echo Dot sounds slightly muddied through the lower registers and, comparatively, lacks timing and energy. The new Dot's delivery, on the other hand, boasts better zeal and agility, and there’s an extra ounce of focus over the older iteration.
The HomePod Mini betters the Dot for detail and overall sound quality, but it's double the price and a far more particular (by which we mean Apple-centric) beast. At this price, you won’t find a better-sounding smart speaker than the Echo Dot.
The question of which voice assistant to introduce to your home is largely a personal one. If your household comprises mostly iPhone users, for example, the HomePod Mini offers Apple-focused functionality and a step up in terms of sound quality over the Echo Dot, albeit at a substantial price hike.
But by updating its most popular and affordable Echo device, Amazon has laid down the most compelling case yet for choosing Alexa. Regardless of the Marmite aesthetic, responses are slightly quicker, answers are much clearer, and the sonic performance is better than ever. Amazon’s entry-level smart device has come a long way in terms of sound quality since the arrival of the first and second Dots – so much so, you could say Amazon has come a 'full circle’ in the smart speaker arena.
- Sound 5
- Features 5
- Build 5
Read our guide to the best wireless speakers
Read our Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen) review
Read our Apple HomePod Mini review