"Unstoppable" Force, Meet Immovable Object

Look at you! All sleek and cool, speeding down the road! A beautiful sunny day! Nothing can hold you back now! You are unstoppable!

Then you hit the wall. A brick wall. No, better yet, a massive Machu Picchu-style wall. An immovable wall. Then you remember - you forgot to put "unstoppable" in quotes.

If you log onto the web cam in my office, no-ken-does-not-really-have-a-web-cam-in-his-office, you will see my face all scrunched up, my front teeth in full beaver mode, furiously putting air quotes around "unstoppable." There is a big difference between unstoppable and "unstoppable." All of which brings us to the Amazon Echo.

I probably pick on Amazon Echo too much. But as the market leader in the voice-controlled smart speaker market, it is the easiest target. And I am lazy. So, let's talk about Amazon Echo. You may have noticed that it has recently added a very cool feature. You can adjust equalization using the app or voice command. At least for now, the EQ is a simple bass/midrange/treble control over a ±6 dB range. For example, you can ask Alexa to "set bass to plus four." The EQ stays in place for all audio output until you change it or say "reset equalizer" to restore nominal response. The EQ is specific to that device; your multiple devices can all have a different EQ setting. I think it's pretty darn cool that Echo has added this feature.

Now, for the record, let's note that one of Amazon Echo's competitors, Google's Home, has already added EQ. So why are we interested in this also-ran addition to Amazon Echo? Because it neatly lets me make an observation.

Long-suffering readers, and I deeply apologize for your agony, will remember that I was an early proponent of digital audio technology, even when such cheer leading was sometimes disparaged. I was an advocate because I saw the many advantages of digital audio technology, and among them was the innate upgradability of software systems.

When you build an analog equalizer, whether it is a passive or active circuit, you only have one chance. That EQ's design is set for the product's lifetime. You can also build a digital equalizer that is similarly fixed. But you can also build a digital equalizer in software, and it can be completely reprogrammable, and moreover there can easily be a means to change the programming, even remotely. That, when you think about it, is an amazing benefit. Wow — a product can be continually improved throughout its lifetime. How cool is that? Ask anyone with a Tesla.

Amazon Echo has this amazing power to upgrade. I don't know if the EQ changes are done upstream as the music data leaves the cloud, or whether they are done locally just before the stream is converted to analog. But either way, it's very cool.

But here's the thing: With this amazing advantage, Amazon Echo should be unstoppable. So far, it has dominated other smart speakers, and its upgradability gives it a huge advantage over any other dumb audio product. But then the potentially unstoppable Amazon Echo hits the immovable wall, a wall named sound quality.

For all its skills, Amazon Echo, at least all the models I have auditioned, sounds pretty bad, and some are terrible. That's because Amazon, at least for now, refuses to spend the money for better loudspeakers. You can't fudge loudspeakers. Either you pay up for a quality transducer, or else it will sound bad. That is an immobile fact. Other voice-assistant speakers have invested in more spendy speakers, and some of them sound pretty good. But as long as Amazon cheaps out on the transducers in Amazon Echo products, they will continue to hit this particular wall and from any reasonable audio standpoint, that always stop them cold. That's the thing about immovable walls.

Jonasandezekiel's picture

My echo sounds terrible, but I use it so sparingly, it doesn't matter. The whole thing is a utopian lie anyway, who in their right mind, asks echo to tell them a joke??? Or order hair products?? It's overrated to the extreme, but I still think it's pretty cool when I stream the occasional radio station.