At a jam-packed 2019 fall product launch, Amazon announced over a dozen new Echo and Alexa products to a gathering of tech reporters and enthusiasts, and I for one was keen to get my hands on the Echo Buds for review. You could say that leading up to that announcement, perhaps no device was as widely anticipated as the Echo Buds.
But what are the Echo Buds, you might ask? The simple answer is that they're Amazon's first real attempt at truly wireless smart earbuds. The more complicated answer is that they're part of the company's larger efforts to make their smart assistant even more ubiquitous in the wider world.
From the smart assistant's earliest days, Amazon recognized the need to remove Alexa from her black cylindrical prison and push her out the front door. After the initial Echo speaker launched in late 2014, the next batch of products to come out included the now-defunct Amazon Tap, which was a portable Bluetooth speaker with Alexa built-in. With the Fire Phone DOA in 2014 and the Tap not really going anywhere, Amazon was forced to partner with third parties like Bose and Fitbit to get Alexa out into the world. But now with products like the Echo Buds, Echo Auto, and Day One devices coming soon like the Echo Loop and Echo Frames, Alexa is starting to take her first fragile steps out into the world with us.
Alexa's my bud
Bottom Line These wireless earbuds feel great and sound great, and you'll love having Alexa whispering sweet nothings in your ears. With Active Noise Reduction, outside ambient Passthrough sound, and in-app EQ settings, they're fairly full-featured as well.
- Hands-free Alexa
- EQ and mic settings in the app
- Customizable tap controls so you can summon Google Assistant or Siri
- Really good sound for an in-ear bud
- No wireless charging
- microUSB instead of USB-C
- Only 1 color option (black)
Echo Buds Price and release date
The Echo Buds were announced in the fall of 2019 and went on sale for $130 at launch. With a few exceptions during holiday sales events, these true wireless earbuds have held steady at that price, regardless of the retailer.
That being said, I do expect to see the Echo Buds as one Amazon's featured Alexa devices on sale during Amazon Prime Day 2020 on October 13-14. It wouldn't surprise me if we see the price knocked down to the $110-$115 range, and Amazon might even surprise us and drop the price below $100. But don't worry if you miss the Prime Day sales, because the Echo Buds are also likely to go on sale during Black Friday 2020 as well.
Echo Buds What I like
The Echo Buds are super easy to set up and use. If you have the Alexa app installed and opened on your phone, simply lift the lid on the case and a blue light should start flashing. Then a pop-up dialogue will open in the app that will walk you through the setup process in a few short minutes (that's if you watch the how-to video). It was all very intuitive and familiar, particularly if you have set up a pair of AirPods or Samsung Galaxy Buds in the past.
Once I figured out how to get these buds into my ears (I'm not coordinated), they fit snugly and comfortably right away. I'm fortunate that I can almost always get by just fine with the default ear tips, so I didn't need to switch those out for a better fit (the buds come with multiple sizes of ear tips). I didn't bother to put on any of the included ear fins/wings either because I've never liked the way those feel, so I left those in the box (but they're there if you need them).
The touch controls are a pleasure to use, and thankfully you don't have to tap that hard to change states. The default settings for tapping the buds will alternate between Active Noise Reduction (which BTW they partnered with Bose to achieve) and Passthrough mode (which is their way of letting outside ambient noise in). When you do a double tap to change between these modes, there is an audible voiceover that tells you the buds are switching modes, which helps to reassure you that the device picked up on your request. Even though those settings are the default, you are able to change what these tap gestures do.
From the Echo Buds settings inside the Alexa app, you can decide which earbud you want to control things like media playback and play/pause, mute the microphone, or skip tracks. After messing around with the various alternatives, I ended up just going back to the ANR/Passthrough defaults, as I found them most useful for my runs/walks. I also found it was easier to ask Alexa to change playback controls than to ask her to change ANR/Passthrough.
More on the controls... Amazon partnered with Bose to include the audio company's Active Noise Reduction (ANR) technology into the Echo Buds, and to my ears, it works quite well. When I have ANR activated I get a much fuller sound and can hardly hear my surroundings (which is great when I'm trying to concentrate), but when I tap to get Passthrough mode, the sound sort of fades back a bit and it seems like I'm back in the real world again. This was definitely helpful when I went on my daily afternoon walks, though it did increase wind interference making it harder to hear music at lower volumes.
As far as the overall sound is concerned, I thought these definitely sounded better than the AirPods (1st or 2nd Gen) and better than any other wired earbuds I've tried in recent memory. Of course, they're not going to sound as good as a quality pair of over-the-ear headphones, and I know my colleagues will say the Jabra or Soundcore earbuds have more range (they're right), but I think that these offer pretty high-quality sound for the price. When listening to a recent Android Central podcast with Active Noise Reduction on, it sounded like I was literally in the room with Andrew Martonik, Michael Fisher, and David Cogan. And before my last run, I asked Alexa to play some workout music. The bass and sound isolation were really impressive, especially considering my sad breathless panting while running into a gnarly wind that afternoon. Even better, Alexa heard me quite well over it all when I asked what the name of a particular song was. All-in-all pretty impressive.
I try to avoid ever calling humans, but when I asked Alexa to call my wife... the call sounded really clear.
I try to avoid ever calling humans, but when I asked Alexa to call my wife, I was connected quickly, and the call sounded really clear. My wife did comment that my voice sounded a little further off than usual, but that's to be expected when the microphones are basically in your ear. Otherwise, she said I sounded just as good on her end as if I was on a phone, and she wouldn't have been able to tell that I was using Echo Buds. Sounds like a win to me.
Amazon has been trying to play up their renewed focus on privacy this year and have introduced products with physical privacy controls like the shutter and microphone switches on the Echo Show 5 and Echo Show 8, and they also have prominently featured the privacy settings on the Echo Buds in their materials. If you are concerned about Alexa hearing more than you think she should, you can go in and turn off the microphones on the buds in the Alexa app. You can also ask Alexa to "delete what I just said" or "delete my voice recordings for the day," etc. Deleting voice recordings and managing your full Amazon data privacy settings can also be done in the app or online in the Alexa Privacy Hub.
Amazon says the Echo Buds should get around four to five hours on a charge, and up to 20 hours with the case. And while it's not really fast charging, you can top up and get about two hours of extra battery life in about 20 minutes. In my usage, I found the battery to drop 15%-20% in about an hour of use (which is right in line with Amazon's estimates). This included listening to a podcast in another app, asking Alexa to play music from various playlists, and asking random queries of Alexa as I walked.
Oh, I almost forgot! There are rumors that Amazon is testing fitness features with the Echo Buds that they might push out later in a software update. I hope these rumors are true, and that I get to test this out in the near future!
Echo Buds What I don't like
These earbuds are kind of unremarkable to look at, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I mean, they stick into your ear holes, so how fantastic could they look? They share a design language with the Samsung Galaxy Buds or even the Jaybird Vistas in that they are medium-sized chonks that fit in your ear.
The case is not the best feature of the Echo Buds either. First of all, it comes with a microUSB charging port and cable (argh Amazon!?!?), and less important but equally disappointing is that you cannot charge the case wirelessly. I will also say that the case for the Echo Buds feels pretty cheap... hollow even. It's made out of a hard matte black plastic and does require two hands to open (if that matters to you). Even for the relatively low price these come at, I would've expected a little better. But then again, you're buying these for the buds, the sound quality, and the Alexa features, not what they come packaged in. It's what inside that counts, right?
While the Echo Buds are easy to control within the Alexa app, I still don't totally love the experience of using that app. It has gotten a lot better over the last year or so and certainly runs faster, but it still feels a little clunky to me... kind of like what iTunes had evolved into after years of having additional features and services glommed onto it. And I get it — Amazon doesn't have a mobile platform of its own like Android or iOS, so if they want you to discover and use all of the features that Alexa has to offer, it just makes sense for them to dump them all into one place.
Alexa herself sounds a bit tinny in her replies, which is weird.
Calls, audiobooks, podcasts, and music sounded great to me, but the one bit of audio that I thought sounded a little off was Alexa. Whenever I would make a voice request, the response I got from the smart assistant was ever so tinny, almost like there was a bit of... wait for it... an echo. Not every time, but enough that I noticed it right away. Again, this isn't a deal-breaker by any means, but I found it a little odd nonetheless.
One last thing... the Echo Buds also allow you to invoke the default smart assistant on your phone (Google Assistant or Siri) by pressing one bud for a few seconds, but I found this to be a bit hit or miss. It did work, but I could never figure out the right amount of pressure to apply or for how long. Probably just operator error, but worth mentioning.
Amazon Echo Buds Should you get these?
If you use Alexa or Echo products at all, then I think these are definitely worth a shot. They're more affordable than most comparable competition in this space, and I think they fit well and sound good too for what they are. Sure, you can get better sound in higher-priced options from Bose, Jabra, or Apple, but I don't personally think that's necessary for most people. Even if you don't use Alexa that often (and you can skip her altogether and invoke Google Assistant or Siri at a press), I still think these are worthy of your consideration.
If you do elect to give these earbuds a try, keep a lookout for Amazon-specific promotional offers. Right now Amazon is offering new users a 90-day free trial of Audible, and they continue to run a 30-day free trial of Amazon Music Unlimited. Both are excellent audio content services, and both work amazingly well with Alexa through the Echo Buds.
Solidly smart earbuds
Alexa breaks out
These wireless earbuds by Amazon are a solid first swing at a new product category and form factor for Alexa. The fit and sound are surprisingly good for the price, and the convenience of hands-free Alexa and Google Assistant/Siri at a tap is a really useful combination.
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