By the time Amazon got around to announcing its Alexa-powered earbuds in September, the rumors had already been swirling for months. They were hardly a surprise. The online retail giant has a solid track record of keeping upcoming products under lock and key, but word of these voice-controlled true wireless earbuds first surfaced way back in April. Now that they’re here, the Echo Buds ($129.99) are poised to take on Apple’s AirPods with hands-free Alexa, touch controls, Bose’s active noise reduction and more.
- Hands-free Alexa works well
- Affordable price
- Battery life
- Limited touch controls
- Mediocre sound quality
- micro-USB charging
Amazon got some things right with its AirPod rival. Hands-free Alexa is great for voice control and works well. But, the sound quality is decent at best, the touch controls are limited and battery life is less than what the competition offers in 2019. Still, these are much cheaper than rival options.
In terms of design, the Echo Buds aren’t wildly different from the competition. Amazon opted for touch controls over physical buttons, so the outside of the earbuds have a similar look to the Bragi Dash or Galaxy Buds. They’re rather plain looking, with no discernible branding. There’s simply a glossy circle that accepts touches surrounded by the matte plastic of the main housing. They’re also pretty average size, and they tuck nicely into your ear. Like many of the newer models of true wireless buds we’ve seen, these are slightly more discreet and don’t stick out from your head too far. They stick out a bit, but they certainly don’t look like a pair of antennae.
The included charging case is also compact. It’s about the same thickness as those from Jabra, Sony and others. However, it is slightly wider. Still, it’s quite small and will easily tuck into a pocket without much fuss. It’s nowhere near as big as the case for the Powerbeats Pro, which is absurdly huge.
As you might expect, the Echo Buds come with different sets of ear tips (three, to be exact) to help you find the best fit. Amazon went a step further and color coded them, so you can quickly grab the ones you’re after, rather than having to do a size comparison to figure out which is which. None of the options will make the Echo Buds any more comfortable to wear, but true wireless earbuds just aren’t very comfy regardless. After all, you’re shoving something far enough in your ear holes that they won’t just fall out. These aren’t painful, and that’s about all you can hope for.
The company also included three sets of wing tips if you need a more secure fit. You don’t have to use those though, and I didn’t bother after trying them out a few times. I found the largest ear tips kept them in place just fine — no wing tips needed. Even during a workout, the Echo Buds stayed in place without the extra pieces. Depending on your ears though, you may need them. There’s a fit test in the settings that’s designed to test the seal and help you find the best fit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t ready for me to try during this review, but Amazon says it will be available when the Echo Buds ship on October 30th.
You can also feel confident about taking the Echo Buds to the gym. They’re IPX4 rated against sweat and “light splashes,” so you shouldn’t have any trouble with water damage when you’re running, lifting or doing other activities. Amazon does warn you to wipe off any sweat or moisture before place the earbuds back in the charging case. Which, let’s be honest, isn’t too much to ask.
To tap into the Echo Buds full potential, you have to download the Alexa app on iOS or Android.
Sure, you can use the earbuds without it, but you’ll lose the most unique feature: always-on Alexa. Once it’s installed, you’re supposed to pair the earbuds to your device through the app directly. But I couldn’t get it to work. I followed Amazon’s directions steps, but the Echo Buds never fully connected with the app. It was only after I manually paired them with my iPhone first that they showed up in the Alexa app.
The app offers a host of customization options as well. It’s where you’re able to adjust the EQ, assign touch gestures and more. You can adjust Passthorugh volume for the Echo Buds ambient sound mode or the amount of “Sidetone” — how much of your voice you hear during a call. There are also options to activate Bose’s Active Noise Reduction (ANR) tech, disable hands-free Alexa and mute the microphones.
For the touch controls, many devices allow you to employ single, double and triple taps alongside a long press to give you as many on-board controls as possible. That’s not the case on the Echo Buds. Here, you can only assign features to the double tap and the press-and-hold gestures. What’s more, the actions you can pick from are quite limited. You can choose between switching from Bose ANR and Passthrough, activating another voice assistant (Siri/Google Assistant), muting microphones, play/pause, next track and previous track. There’s also an option for pausing music and activating Passthrough simultaneously — one that’s handy for a commute or working in a spot where you might need to converse with someone.
Volume control isn’t on the list, so any time you need to adjust that, you’ll have to reach for your phone or ask Alexa to do it for you. The assistant can simply turn the volume up or down on command, or set it to a specific level between 1 and 10. The Echo Buds are equipped with sensors that automatically pause whatever you’re listening to when you remove one or both of the earbuds from your ear. The audio resumes when you replace it. Yes, this is a common feature, but it’s not universal.
Again, if you pair the Echo Buds to a device via Bluetooth and don’t use the Alexa app, you won’t be able to summon Alexa hands-free. This means if you want to use them with your laptop or something else, you’re pretty much just getting the core audio from the earbuds. ANR and Passthrough still work, as do the touch controls you’ve selected. If one of those happens to be activating Siri, for example, you’ll have least have that option for summoning a voice assistant on a Mac.
Hands-free Alexa is really the big feature here. And thankfully, it works very well. I have an Ecobee thermostat with the virtual assistant built in, so once I paired it with the Alexa app, it’s one of many things I could control without pressing a button or opening an app. Amazon offers a long list of things to try on a card that comes inside the box, but I mostly used the assistant to control Spotify, play the news, check the weather and perform regular searches.
On the whole, the trademark feature works nicely. The only time I had an issue was the first few times I tried to control Spotify. Everything indicated the command was accepted, but the music never played. When I tried it again the next day, it was fine. There was an app update between tests, so that could’ve been an issue Amazon fixed. Either way, it’s working like it should now, and I haven’t had any trouble since.
If you have other Echo devices around your home, you can ask Alexa to drop in or make announcements. These aren’t new features, but still, it’s nice you can access them on Amazon’s true wireless earbuds. That decision certainly makes the Echo Buds feel like an Echo that’s always with you, rather than another set of earbuds with voice control built-in.
I expected mediocre sound quality on a set of $130 earbuds, and for the most part, that’s true. While the audio on the Echo Buds is pretty good at certain volumes, it suffers when you have them down low or turned all the way up. At low volumes, extra bass muddies the sound and when you crank them wide open, treble dominates everything else. Things like clean guitar riffs and falsetto vocals become almost painful to listen to. I tried some EQ adjustments, but they were minimally effective. To remedy this, I kept the volume around 80 percent, or level 8 in Alexaspeak. That’s where I got the best sound, but having to be so specific with the volume is far from ideal. I rarely want to keep music at the same level all the time.
Once I found a sweet spot, the Echo Buds held up well across a range of genres. Whether it was the wooing sounds of Death Cab for Cutie, the angry metal of Oh, Sleeper or the electronic beats of Com Truise, there was a solid amount of bassy thump. The sound has decent clarity and though there’s more tendency toward the low end, the overall audio was solid.
A key feature on the Echo Buds is Bose’s Active Noise Reduction. The ANR tech isn’t active noise cancellation (ANC), and you’ll learn this quickly once you start using the earbuds. It does a decent job of cutting out some background noise, but it won’t completely block out the world around you. That’s especially true in coffee shops and other spots there’s a constant din. It’s definitely a step up from passive noise isolation, but if you’re looking to kill it all, you’ll want to consider an alternative.
Call quality is also decent on the Echo Buds. During my tests, the person on the other end said I still sounded like I was on speakerphone, which is common for true wireless earbuds. However, they noted that it sounded like I was doing so in a quiet room. At the time, I was standing right beside a noisy dishwasher, so that’s pretty impressive. Being able to adjust how much of yourself you hear on calls is also a nice feature for the Alexa app. Once you dial it in, it will help you speak more naturally and keep you from yelling while you’ve got the tiny gadgets in your ears.
Amazon promises up to five hours of battery life for the Echo Buds with three additional full charges in the case. I was able to mange just under four and a half. While five hours is well short of the 10 hours much of the competition offers, it’s enough to get you through a work day — especially if you put them in the case during a meeting or lunch break. Sure, the Echo Buds are more affordable than a lot of the competition, but just know battery life is one of the sacrifices you’ll have to make.
We’re in a USB-C world in 2019, but Amazon is living in the past and charging the Echo Buds. The case charges via micro-USB, but at least there’s a quick-charge feature that will give you 40 percent battery in 15 minutes. The company also includes an LED battery-level indicator on the front of the case to give you an estimate on where you stand when the buds are inside. There’s a handy button on the bottom of the case that activates this feature (and puts the earbuds in pairing mode). If you’re above 40 percent, the light will shine green. Below 40 percent the light turns yellow and when you drop below 5 percent, it will glow red. The light will display the info for the earbud with the lowest level.
You can also check on the battery level of the case itself when the Echo Buds aren’t inside. A green light means you have more than one charge left, while yellow indicates less than a full change. A red light simple means low battery. You can also just ask Alexa about the battery level, or swipe over to the app for an exact percentage.
It goes without saying that Amazon’s main competition for the Echo Buds is Apple’s AirPods. That will change in 2020 when Google ships its new Pixel Buds. Both alternatives from Apple and Google offer assistants that are always listening. However, if you want that feature with AirPods, you have to splurge for the pricier model. The Pixel Buds will cost $179, but we don’t know exactly when they’ll arrive or if they’re any good. AirPods are available for $159 and $199, which makes the Echo Buds the most affordable option out of all three at $129.99.
If sound quality is more of a concern than hands-free Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 are currently the best choice at $230. Plus, those earbuds pack full active noise cancellation rather than active noise reduction. Apple also announced the noise-cancelling AirPods Pro this week. They’ll be available tomorrow, but they also cost $249, $19 more than Sony’s stellar option with ANC. I guess it depends on whether or not you can live without hands-free Siri at this point, since AirPods Pro are so new we haven’t been able to review them yet.
The competition may be flooding the market with options, but at least Amazon is finally bringing the Echo Buds to consumers. Hands-free access to Alexa is a powerful feature and it works well with only a few minor hiccups. And those issues are mostly one-time problems that you can quickly fix. Sound quality isn’t great and limited touch controls can be frustrating, but there’s a solid overall package here thanks to Alexa. It’s a good first effort, and if we’ve learned anything from Amazon over the years, the company will continue to refine features and audio quality in future models. Let’s just hope it does the same with the Echo Buds.