Friday, July 12, 2024

Amazon Echo Buds review: Alexa lays a smackdown on the AirPods


DT Editors’ Choice

Amazon Echo Buds review: Alexa lays a smackdown on the AirPods

Score Details

“Serving up more value than any other true wireless earbuds, the Amazon Echo Buds are now the buds to beat.”

  • Comfortable fit
  • Excellent sound
  • Very effective noise reduction
  • Hands-free Alexa
  • Great value
  • Average battery life
  • No touch-based volume control

Amazon might be new to the audio hardware game, especially when compared to Apple, but it has clearly done its homework. After all, one does not simply decide to compete with Apple’s AirPods without bringing your A-game.

On paper, the $130 Amazon Echo Buds do just that. They have five hours of battery life, a snug-fitting and comfortable design,  an IPX4 sweat and water-resistant rating, Bose Active Noise Reduction, and hands-free access to Alexa — with Siri and Google Assistant compatibility, too.

But hardware is hard. Amazon’s own website is littered with the cheap corpses of those that tried and failed to beat Apple at the true wireless game. Has Amazon built a set of true wireless buds that deliver on their many promises?

Comfy and secure

Amazon went to a lot of trouble to ensure that the Echo Buds fit a wide variety of ears. Included with the Buds are three sizes of silicone ear tips and three sizes of ear fins, which are called “wingtips.” A correct fit matters because the Bose active noise reduction (ANR) feature works best when a full seal is achieved.

Though it wasn’t ready for testing at the time of this review, Amazon is developing an ear tip sizing test — a tool inside the settings menu of the Amazon Alexa app — that helps you find the right size of ear tip.

Riley Young / Digital Trends

For my ears, the default ear tips were a great fit. The Echo Buds sat comfortably and were secure even without the optional wingtips. With the wingtips added, they didn’t budge at all. The rounded shape of the earbuds makes them easy to tap with your fingers, yet they sit flush. Unlike Apple’s AirPods or Jabra’s line of true wireless earbuds, there’s no protruding stem, giving the Echo Buds a very clean, minimalist look.

Wicked wireless

One of the problems that plague true wireless earbuds — even those with Apple’s custom H1 Bluetooth chip — is connection dropouts. Whether it’s one earbud losing its signal, or both dropping out for a split-second (or longer), it’s something we’ve experienced a fair bit in our reviews of true wireless earbuds.

The Echo Buds have proven unflappable, staying tethered over Bluetooth with either an iPhone or an Android device. Even in locations that have stymied other earbuds, the Echo Buds never missed a beat.

They’re also very flexible. You can use them both, or you can use just one. When both are in and audio is playing, simply pull one out, and the sound will automatically pause. Put it back in, and you’re back to your tunes. The pause function works well, but I found that the resume feature was a bit hit and miss.

The Echo Buds have so far proven to be unflappable, staying reliably tethered over Bluetooth.

The one hiccup we experienced was the initial pairing of the Echo Buds. On our Android handset, it worked as expected. The Alexa app recognized the Echo Buds when we opened the charging case and placed it beside the phone. Our test iPhone didn’t handle the process smoothly, so we had to add the Echo Buds through the app..

Almost no noise

One of the highlights of the Echo Buds is their onboard ANR developed by Bose. I’m still not clear on the difference between ANR and ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) — which Bose uses on its flagship headphones — but I can tell you this: It works really well.

Turning on Bose ANR has an almost magical effect on constant low-level noise, like the hum of machinery. I didn’t get a chance to put the Echo Buds to the ultimate traveler’s test — an airplane — but when I stood next to a fridge with its compressor running or my NAS hard drive during its ludicrously noisy diagnostics run, those sounds were totally canceled.

Riley Young / Digital Trends

ANR is also effective at reducing the sound of traffic, background conversations in cafes and restaurants, and general ambient noises. At my gym, it was a lot easier to focus on my daily fix of morning talk-show radio.

It’s not a cone-of-silence, but it’s effective enough that you appreciate the ability to let outside sounds in temporarily via the pass-through mode. Inside the Echo Buds settings, you can adjust the level of pass-through amplification. On its maximum setting, the feature acts like a hearing aid of sorts, not only letting sounds in but magnifying them.

Surprisingly good sound

I wasn’t expecting the Echo Buds to deliver excellent audio quality, but they do, easily beating Apple’s AirPods. Sound is rich and full, and very satisfying. The sound can best be described as “close.” Vocals and instruments feel like they’re right beside you, as opposed to occupying a wide stage.

I wasn’t expecting the Echo Buds to deliver excellent audio quality, but they do.

They over-deliver on bass out of the box — not uncommon on audio accessories — but you can compensate using the Alexa app’s EQ settings. I threw many genres at the Echo Buds, and they were all enjoyable to listen to.

Alexa, is that you?

The Echo Buds make Alexa even more personal. If you have the Amazon Alexa app running in the background on your iOS or Android device, you can simply speak your preferred wake word to summon Alexa. The three-mic array on each earbud does an impressive job of recognizing when you’re speaking. I was able to get Alexa’s attention while huffing and puffing on an elliptical trainer without raising my voice at all.

Using Alexa has become mundane for many people, but I guarantee you’ll be wowed by the experience all over again once it can follow you anywhere you go.

I was able to get Alexa’s attention while huffing and puffing on an elliptical trainer without raising my voice at all.

I still wish Amazon would add support for more music services — specifically Google Play Music — but most folks will find the ability to control Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music (to name the big ones) will be more than adequate.

The Echo Buds will also work with Siri and Google Assistant (depending on your device) but only Alexa can be used hands-free for now.

Two taps

With no physical buttons, you tap on the smooth outer surfaces of the Echo Buds to control its various functions. The Alexa app gives you the ability to assign different functions to each earbud, but you only get two interactions: A double-tap and a long-press.

Double-taps are recognized very effectively, but I had some trouble with long-presses. The trick is to treat the first part of the long press as a tap — a gentle touch won’t work. I think I’d prefer to have a single or a triple-tap instead of the long-press, but Amazon tells me its chosen combo was very intentional. Regardless of which function you assign to the double-tap, when a call comes in, a double-tap will answer or end it.

Riley Young / Digital Trends

You can pick from the usual media playback controls (play/pause, skip forward/back) but there’s no way to adjust the volume — something that’s also missing on many leading true wireless earbuds. Unlike some other wireless earbuds, however, you can ask Alexa to adjust the volume for you.

You can also flip between the Bose ANR modes (on and pass-through) or use an optional “pass-through and pause” function which simultaneously pauses your music and lets you hear your surroundings.

One of these tap actions can also be assigned to activating Google Assistant (Android devices) or Siri (iOS devices). Unfortunately, there’s no way to summon Google Assistant on an iOS device.

Basic battery

If there’s one area that the Echo Buds fails to inspire, it’s their battery life. Amazon claims five hours per charge, which is at the low end of the current options. I found it’s more like four and a half hours if you keep Bose ANR on, and use the wake-word for Alexa.

The charging case is good for three recharges, giving you almost an entire day’s worth of use before you have to go in search of an available USB power source.

This is probably enough for most people, but we’d still like to see Amazon pump these numbers up a bit on the next version. The charging case itself is compact enough to fit in most pockets and seems to be well-built.

The clamshell design tends to make one-handed opening and closing a bit tricky, however. The Echo Buds snap into place on their charging contacts with just the right amount of magnetic pull and remain securely fastened until you pluck them out.

Our take

At $130, the Amazon Echo Buds don’t just wipe the floor with Apple’s more expensive AirPods. They belong in the top spot of our list of the best true wireless earbuds. It’s their sheer number of useful features, like hands-free Alexa access and awesome Bose ANR, that elevate them above other wireless earbuds, regardless of price.

Is there a better alternative?

The Echo Buds hit the sweet spot when it comes to price, quality, and features.

You can get cheaper earbuds that sound just as good, but lack the Echo Buds’ hands-free convenience and ANR — the $99 1More Stylish come to mind.

You can also spend a good bit more and get better audio, better battery life and true ANC, like Sony’s $230 WF-1000XM3. But what you won’t find is a product that brings together all of the features of the Echo Buds — at any price.

How long will they last?

The Echo Buds come with a one-year warranty from Amazon which while standard, doesn’t tell you much about long-term performance. Compared to other wireless earbuds we’ve tested, the Echo Buds look to be of average build quality, but like so many of these devices, it’s probably the batteries that will give out before the earbuds themselves fail.

Should you buy them?

Yes. Whether you prefer iPhones or Androids, the Echo Buds offer up an amazing combination of features that make their $130 price tag all the more appealing.

Read more

More News