It seems that I’m often the answer guy at home. My wife will ask me about the weather, my kids will ask how to spell something and we’ll all wonder about a particular singer or actor. Therein lies my motivation to give my wife Amazon’s Echo for Christmas. I took this to be the equivalent of a Siri or Cortana, albeit on a larger scale, for the home. It is. It does a beautiful job answering all sorts of queries. The female voice it uses is sonorous and soothing but clear. It recognizes what you say amazingly well with little training and can do all it advertises. It plays this role well, albeit without Siri’s and Cortana’s built in humor. At least, not yet.
My boys suggest that with Alexa (the wake word for the Echo), the singularity that sparked war in The Terminator is upon us. OK, that’s clearly hyperbole but who would have thought I would be talking to a small pillar to get my weather, news or who the lead singer in The All-American Rejects is (Tyson Ritter, by the way)? (See Our Relationship with Smart Things: Dehumanizing or Singularity Embraced? for more on our relationship with intelligent devices.) At least for me, however, that’s not the most surprising aspect of the Echo. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen something similar in Cortana, albeit this device seems quicker and more adept at learning and understanding my queries. What truly is sheer magic to me is the sound. Alexa (AKA Amazon Echo – we call the Echo Alexa and i’ll use the names interchangeably) produces amazing sound considering its, roughly, a 10 in x 3 in device.
I’ve listened to music from a number of genre’s – including Bruno Mars’s “Grenade”, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, Anne Akiko Meyer’s Air: The Bach Album and Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong singing “White Christmas.” It’s all fabulous. The beat of Grenade, the delicate highs of Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the sweet sound of the Satchmo’s trumpet are all handled with aplomb. Obviously I’m not comparing this to Fritz Grove Loudspeakers; this is an omni-directional speaker, after all. I will, however compare it to Jawbone’s Big Jambox (MSRP $300). Now, Jambox has two advantages: it has a built in battery so it’s more portable (Echo needs to be plugged in) and it can be used as a speaker phone (Alexa can’t). However, you have all of the cool intelligence of Echo with better sound than Jambox for $100 less ($200 less if you’re an Amazon Prime customer).
OK, Jambox has a couple of features the Echo doesn’t. Now let’s look at what the Echo can do that Jambox can’t: voice interface (which works well), direct access (needs no other device) to Amazon music library (including all that’s available through Amazon Prime if you’re a Prime customer), direct access to iHeartRadio and TuneIn, acts as a timer & alarm, manages to-do and shopping lists while giving you weather, news and answers. So, just a few more things. You can also use a web-interface.
Now there was a part of me wishing that you had access to Audible audiobooks through Alexa as well, since the speaker’s so great. A voice interface may be a bit tricky with bookmarking, forward and rewind and chapter skip, but it could be done. I did feel a little sheepish, then, realizing that it allows for bluetooth connections. It’s not like I can’t play Audible books through the Audible app on my Windows phone. Of course, this also allows me to play Pandora, Beats Music, Spotify and, well the list just goes on. So, while I think it would be cool to have direct access (and it would be nice to use as a speakerphone when connected to my phone), there isn’t much I can’t do.
Honestly, if you’re looking into an upper-end bluetooth speaker and you’re Amazon Prime, I think it would be insane to get anything else unless portability were a huge requirement. In just the couple of days since we’ve had this, everyone has had fun trying new things with it, it’s proven useful and the sound is nothing short of stunning.
Ease of setup and use: 4.5/5 stars
Voice – interface / Intelligence: 4/5 stars
Sound: 4.5/5 stars