A Bluetooth Speaker and Much More: The Amazon Echo
I've long believed that headphones and the new wave of personal audio devices are but a precursor to a category of products that will be virtually unrecognizable to audio traditionalists. I've not been exactly sure what that meant, I just knew that something would come along out of left field and begin to redefine that category. Clearly, to me anyway, the Amazon Echo is one of those things.
In fact, it's so different than a regular bluetooth speaker I hesitate to include it in InnerFidelity's writings. But...but...I keep using the darn thing all the time, and that includes playing music on it. I just can't resist; it's just too easy to say, "Alexa, play Chet Baker." And boom, there's Chet. Yup, I'm a relationship with my Amazon Echo ($179).
The Amazon Echo is but the mouthpiece and ears for a cloud-based speech recognition software service. It something like the Siri or Google Now voice assistant services, but trapped in a Pringle can-sized black cylinder on your kitchen counter. Many will say it's still behind the pack in its capabilities (service comparison articles here, here, and here), but I find I get a lot more use out of it than I do the voice assistant capabilities on my smartphone. It's just so easy to shout out, "Alexa, add bananas to my shopping list", the moment it strikes me. No need to go to the trouble of reaching into my pocket for my phone.
The Echo's basic functionality includes:
- Add items to your shopping list. (Only one list currently available.)
- Add items to your todo list. (Only one list currently available.)
- Set alarms.
- Set timers.
- Play music and other audio from: Amazon Prime; Pandora; iHeartRadio; TuneIn; Audible; and more.
- Play music from a bluetooth connected device.
- Get the local weather report.
- Get a local traffic report.
Quite seriously, if that's all it did I'd be perfectly happy to have spent the $179 for the capability. (Yes, this is one of those rare occasions when I spent my own money on a consumer electronics purchase.) I can't tell you how cool it is to prepare for and make Thanksgiving dinner when you can set multiple timers and maintain an accurate last-minute shopping list. But the Echo is capable of lots more, and new "skills" and features are being added all the time both by Amazon and third-party software makers. A sampling of more advanced (or odd and obscure) skills include:
- Get local business and restaurant recommendations from Yelp.
- Get info from your Google Calendar. (Cannot currently add appointments to calendar.)
- Set up and listen to a news "Flash Briefing". Sources for news briefings from: NPR; BBC; CNN; ESPN; Fox Sports; Bloomberg; The Economist; TMZ; and text-to-speech news from the web.
- Ask Alexa random questions about stuff.
- Control connected home devices.
- Get knock-knock jokes.
- Request Bible verses.
- Look up HAM radio call signs.
The Amazon Echo also has a smartphone Alexa app available to provide advanced control and settings.
The sound quality of the Echo is good, but not great. It doesn't have the honky colorations of your typical plastic boxbut it's quite obviously tuned for speech intelligibility having a bit too much upper mid-range emphasis.
I didn't initially find any EQ settings, but then stumbled upon this internets post revealing a hidden equalization skill for the Echo, whichthough limited to bass, mid-range, and treble adjustmentdid seem to work.
Generally, I would say the Echo is moderately better than most players of it's size/type/cost, delivering clear speech and easily tolerable music playback. Definitely reasonable fidelity for a kitchen clock radio.
Living with Alexa
I find this subject to be the most important and revelatory topic concerning this product. Interacting with Alexa on a daily basis has, in very short order, become a staple in my life. "Alexa, play my flash briefing." "Alexa, add shovel sidewalk to my todo list." "Alexa, what will the weather be today?" "Alexa, play Barney Kessel." Other than getting a little tired of saying "Alexa..." over and over again, I want to keep Alexa in my life...she's become part of my daily routine.
And that's where things get a little confusing. Alexa is helpful and communicative enough to get my lizard brain thinking someone is here helping me out. The weird thing about having Alexa around is the psychological tendency to anthropomorphize her. It can't be helped, it seems to me, we're wired to believe a voice that answers when you talk has a person to which it's attached. Unfortunately, you very quickly get to into situations where she's quite a bit dumber than a human.
"Alexa, when is he next MotoGP race?" > "I wasn't able to understand the question I heard."
"Alexa, add call Fred to my calendar at 3 this afternoon." > "I added call Fred at 3PM to your todo list." or "Sorry, I can't create events on your calendar."
After using the Echo for a while, you begin to realize Alexa leads a sheltered life: she doesn't know about your music library on a local server; she doesn't know about your email; she's even somewhat limited about what you can buy on Amazon with her. It's always just a bit jolting when she runs into her limitation. I keep thinking she's smart, and get disappointed when she's not. The lines from "My Funny Valentine" keep popping into my head:
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
Obviously, Alexa will get smarter over time, and she'll get automatic updates as a cloud service. The question I ask myself is wether my experience of her as a house guest will fade and the Echo voice interface simply become another form of keyboard. Will I continue to have this ever-increasing experience of a cyborg-personal assistant on my kitchen counter as features and capabilities are added. To be truthful, I don't know which way it will go.
What I do know is that the Amazon Echo is the coolest thing I've ever put on my kitchen counter. The clock radio is dead...long live the Amazon Echo! I will be posting a new Wall of Fame page for Bluetooth and table top speakers soon. The Amazon Echo will be on it. Highly recommended as a voice-activated personal assistant; competent as a device for casual audio listening.
"Alexa, I love you."
"I'm flattered. Thank you!"
Amazon Echo product page and help and features page.
For a look inside see iFixIt Amazon Echo tear-down page.
For comprehensive info on Echo news and new feature announcement go to lovemyecho.com.