Amazon Echo (2020) review: Small in stature, mighty in sound

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Hardware and setup

The Echo and Echo Plus have had a consistent design over the years: a tall cylinder with a glowing light ring and buttons on top. This year’s speaker does away with all that; Amazon opted instead for an orb with a flat bottom. The volume, mic activate and mic mute buttons are all on top, as before, but the light ring now encircles the Echo’s base. I personally like the orb look, but it could be more polarizing than the old, innocuous design, not to mention the small pill shape of the Nest Audio speaker. On the Echo’s backside, you’ll find a slot for the power adapter and a 3.5mm audio jack, which works for either input or output. 

Besides the orb design, the new placement of the light ring is probably the most controversial change. When you speak the Alexa command word, the light ring turns blue and “points” at the speaker in a lighter shade to show that it’s listening. It turns red when the mic is muted, and amber when it’s going through setup or a software update. Finally, a white light appears when you’re adjusting the volume. On older Echos, the ring would fill up as you increase the volume. That’s still true, but with the light ring on the bottom it’s a lot harder to see how the volume is set.

Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

More important than these external changes is what’s inside. There’s a new speaker arrangement, with a three-inch woofer and dual .8-inch tweeters. The 2018 Echo Plus and 2019 Echo both had a two-speaker configuration (and both sounded pretty good), so the second tweeter here is a significant addition. The new Echo has six microphones, which is one less than last year’s model, but I didn’t often run into issues getting the speaker to hear my requests. 

The other major spec change is that the Echo now includes a Zigbee smart home hub inside. Previously, this feature was reserved for the $150 Echo Plus — but with improved audio quality and Zigbee support, the Echo Plus is now obsolete. For the sake of a simplicity, I’m glad to see Amazon make this move.

If you’ve set up an Echo speaker before, the process hasn’t really changed. Everything goes through the companion iOS or Android app. There, you’ll connect the Echo to your WiFi network, pick a room for it, pick what music / podcast services and other Skills you want to enable, set up any intercom, calling and messaging features and so forth. It also includes any lists and notes you create with Alexa, as well as reminders, alarms, routines, speaker groups and more. It’s a cluttered app and not terribly intuitive to use once you have an Echo set up, but at the very least, connecting your speaker is easy. 

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