Hands On: Amazon Echo, A Bluetooth Speaker You Can Talk To

The Amazon Echo arrived today. As an Amazon Prime member with a Kindle Fire HDX, I received the invitation to buy an Amazon Echo for $99, a hundred dollars off the $199 price tag. I was intrigued, as the Echo is unlike any other device. It’s a Bluetooth speaker with Siri-type voice-activated control and information. It sounded like a silly idea. I expected that I would try it, make fun of it and return it. The first thing I learned about the Echo is that it listens to your commands and questions whenever you say the default wake word, “Alexa.” After just an hour with Alexa, both my boyfriend and I are certain that Alexa and the Amazon Echo are going to be living with us permanently. That says a lot, as he usually eschews new technology.

Setting up the Echo was easy. I followed the instructions to plug it in and wait for Alexa to greet me. While it should have had a QR code for fast access to the required Amazon Echo app, I found it in the Amazon app store and installed it on my Kindle Fire HDX. I also installed it on my Android Samsung Galaxy phone, but there is no iOS app. As instructed, the Echo app takes you through the steps to connect the Echo to your Wi-Fi, followed by a few tutorials to get you started.

The Echo connects to “the cloud” to answer a variety of questions and we quickly put it to the test. “How old is Johnny Depp?” “What is the population of Grants Pass, Oregon?” “How many calories are in a slice of pepperoni pizza?” and “What is a synonym for the word ‘wonderful’?” Alexa seemed to understand me better than Siri does. If I didn’t catch the spoken answer, all questions and answers are sent to the accompanying Echo app where I could click to get more details. The app maintains a history of all questions/answers and offers the option to send feedback to help improve the Echo.

Of course, Alexa and the Echo didn’t get every question right. Although it should have my Amazon account information, I had to go into the settings and tell it that I don’t live in Portland. I couldn’t pronounce the word “ecstatic” well enough to be understood. Alexa couldn’t offer me a substitute for sour cream in a recipe.

Still, Amazon promises that the Echo will continually learn and will add more functionality over time. It will adapt to speech patterns and preferences.

The Echo is first a Bluetooth speaker. A down-firing 2-inch tweeter, and a 2.5-inch woofer with a reflex port, promise deep and crisp sounds without distortion. While it won’t be replacing my home theater speakers, it did perform well for a Bluetooth speaker. I turned up the volume until my whole house was filled with sound, and the music remained clear when playing music from the Tidal hi-fi streaming service. Pairing and disconnecting Bluetooth can be done with a voice command.

Writing about streaming services, I have a Sonos system and have seen more than my fair share of Bluetooth speakers. Yet, I get lazy about finding my phone, picking music, and then finding it again to control volume, skip a song, or pause playback. Echo will not only play the music in my Amazon library, it will play from the whole Prime library. Alexa can be told to play a Prime Playlist or Prime Radio Station.

We chose to listen to music by Lyle Lovett and Neil Young. The Echo played all Prime songs from each artist. It was easy to tell the Echo to turn up/turn down the volume or to skip to the next song when I didn’t like a track. Prime music can also be chosen in the Echo app but it defeats the hands-free experience. My boyfriend tried to stump Alexa. He asked “her” to play the Australian tune, “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back.” Without missing a beat, Echo played the Charlie Drake song.

Amazon has integrated iHeartRadio and TuneIn into the Echo. I asked for a '70s radio station on TuneIn. The Echo successfully fulfilled my request by playing the Bell Bottoms @iradiophilly.com station. It also played ESPN radio. As I’m not familiar with specific stations on iHeartRadio, I asked for a iHeartRadio station for chilling out. Alexa asked for clarification, “I think you asked for an iHeartRadio station that is perfect for chilling out, I think the Chillax station is what you want.” Yes, it was.

Seven microphones are positioned around the circumference at the top of the Echo. The beam-forming technology can hear you from any direction and from a good distance away. We placed the Echo on a corner of my kitchen counter and it could “hear” me from my office a good 20 feet away. If your house is larger or noisier than mine, the included Echo remote control has a built-in microphone that will direct your voice to the unit.

The kitchen is the logical place for the Echo. It comes with a strong magnet that will hold the remote control on a refrigerator door. The Echo is also a hands-free timer. The buzzer temporarily suspends music playback. Say “Alexa, stop,” to stop the timer alarm and the music resumes. No more grabbing my iPhone with greasy hands while I’m cooking. That’s a big selling point for me.

Sure, I’m enthusiastic about Alexa and the Echo. I didn’t expect to like it. Like all relationships, I’m sure there will be times when Alexa will not understand me and make me frustrated. I’ll get used to her and take her for granted. Hopefully, Amazon will continue to come out with new features to keep our relationship fresh.

If you are a Prime member, search for the Amazon Echo to request an invitation and get it for $99 while the promotion lasts.