How We Became a Triple Alexa Household

Smart speakers, I harrumphed. That's something I'll never want, I said hubristically. A speaker's job is to sound good, isn't it? I watched in dismay as smart speakers became the fastest-growing speaker category, leaving righteous makers of good-sounding speakers in the dust. Then my roommate gave me a refurbished Amazon Echo Dot for my birthday and everything changed.

It turns out I like talking to Alexa. She doesn't do everything I'd like her to, but she does a lot. Now I'm annoyed at my TV because I have to pick up the remote control and hit a button to turn it on. I'd rather have Alexa do it. (With Polk's new Alexa-powered Command Bar, you can use a voice command with the soundbar's CEC to turn on the TV.)

No, the Dot is not a great-sounding speaker. But it does have an analog output to feed an audio system. The DAC may not be the latest and greatest but it's an improvement over the 0.6-inch driver. Note that the internal speaker is silenced when a cable is plugged into the output. That often discourages me from using the Dot with my desktop system, even though it's sitting on top of the amp. Constant plugging and unplugging undermines the conceptual sleekness of voice control. It's easier to leave the Dot unplugged and play or stream music from one of the PCs connected to the system (with a better DAC). In any case, fidelity is beside the point when I simply need a question answered.

And I have a lot of questions for Alexa. More than once a day I ask for a weather report because it's easier than booting up a PC or tablet weather app. I ask for the time if a wall clock is not within view and I'm not wearing a watch. Alexa sets timers to remind me to empty the dryer or check the oven. When I'm keying in data for a product review, she converts centimeters to inches without my having to lift fingers from keyboard.

It was just a matter of time until I decided Alexa was needed in the bedroom, adding the larger original-size Echo. Yes, it sounds better than the Dot, but no, not much better. We're talking about the bedroom of an unrenovated apartment in a charming century-old building, so there's just one power outlet, and it's in an awkward spot. But it doesn't matter that the Echo is exiled to a nearly unreachable perch atop a tall shelf surrounded by cartons. I don't have to touch it; I have only to speak to it.

And Alexa can hear me fine, even when I'm in bed. This comes in handy during sleepless nights when I'm lying in a rigorously dark room (with an impregnable blackout curtain and all electronic lights banished) and want to know what time it is. I ask Alexa; she lights up, answers, then goes dark again. Amazon seems to be one of the few manufacturers of audio products that recognizes my need to avoid light pollution. A screenless Echo lights up only when you speak to it, and for certain notifications, which can be switched off with the app's "do not disturb" command.

While I still use an analog clock/radio for the morning alarm, I don't fiddle with its buttons if I need to get up earlier. It's easier to ask Alexa to set another alarm.

My roommate was fascinated with Alexa. He spends a lot of time cooking, so I gave him our third Alexa-powered device, the Echo Spot, for use in the kitchen. It nestles on an isolated part of the kitchen counter where a jar of disinfectant wet wipes used to stand. We don't use the 2.5-inch touchscreen much though it makes itself useful as a clock dial. Miraculously, it joined us just before the kitchen's wall clock stopped working.

We haven't dismantled the kitchen's other audio gear, an old Sony mini-system connected to a pair of wall-mounted JBL speakers. It plays radio and CDs (and cassettes!) and can patch in a music player or phone, options we're loath to give up. It also plays louder than the Spot's 1.4-inch driver, helpful when the microwave is roaring away. But when we're doing something messy and don't want to operate the mini-system with greasy fingers, it's so much easier to talk to the Spot. The internet-connected speaker also delivers AM stations better than the mini-system's interference-plagued AM tuner.

Radio is, for me, a smart speaker's killer app. While none of the three Echoes sounds especially good, they have become my go-to sources for talk radio. I use iHeartRadio to get All Things Considered from WNYC-FM, the local public radio affiliate, and TuneIn to get WINS-AM news radio ("you give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world"). On the rare occasions when I want an Echo to play music, I ask Alexa for a Pandora "radio station" or set up a new one, which is blessedly easy to do with voice commands.

So now we are a three-Echo household. Alexa is literally all over the place. When you pack three Echo speakers into a one-bedroom apartment, you learn not to yell at Alexa. Her far-field microphones hear quite well, and yelling sets more than one of the devices off, making life complicated.

We have also learned not to be rude to Alexa. It seems like a victimless crime but she has no sense of humor. Alexa has civilized us, encouraging us to ask clearly worded questions, in a gentle tone of voice, enunciating carefully, if not fastidiously. This is probably how we should be treating people as well.

We are only a few months into the Echo experience and use only a fraction of what Alexa is capable of. However, the constant emails suggesting new uses usually leave me cold. Most of them seem trivial (though some users probably disagree). And Alexa does not do everything well. She can make voice calls to numbers in my phone contacts but struggles with voicemail. My friends have gotten voicemails that include me telling Alexa to hang up, often more than once. The phone still makes a better phone.

What I would like Alexa to do is answer some of the questions I spend long days and nights typing into Google searches. Though she can answer some simple questions, Alexa does not seem well suited to more obscure ones, at least for now. I'm guessing that Google is not willing to link Alexa to its search engine because it is marketing smart speakers of its own. The same might be true of Microsoft's Bing and Cortana. This may be the biggest hurdle for Alexa.

Could it be that our three Echoes are already obsolete? Oh no...

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

eugovector's picture

5 echos and 7 googles in my house. Bought both systems to do an honest side by side review. Love having voice activated smart home, but google is the better option 80% of the time for me. Amazon has analog audio out w/o having to buy a google chromecast audio, and Jeopardy. Google has better sound in mini than dot, more robust to network outages, and more natural conversation. If you haven't tried google devices yet, especially if you use google calendar or android devices, give it a go.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I'm considering doing just that.
silverjd's picture

You can add a Google search skill to Amazon Echos. It is not easy but it can be done! Here is a link to the instructions:

Mark Fleischmann's picture
I'll try that.