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Here’s what Amazon’s new Echo speakers are like

October 22, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

Amazon’s latest Echo looks markedly different—like an oversize shot put rather than the canister design of its predecessor. But the smart speaker still retains the core features that the company hopes will lure people to buy its other smart-home gadgets.

For the past couple of days I’ve been trying out the new Echo, which debuted on Thursday. It’s a fun device, and contrary to what I thought, the novelty of asking the speaker to play a song didn’t get old. Although it’s no replacement for my existing stereo, I’d be comfortable using it as an extra speaker for the bedroom.

A few weeks ago, while showing off the new Echo, Tom Taylor, Amazon senior vice president of Alexa, told Fortune that one of the reasons for the Echo’s redesign was to allow sound to better disperse through a room. And indeed, when I placed the Echo on my living room coffee table to play songs, I didn’t notice any sharp drop in volume as I walked around. It generally sounded good wherever I was standing, as long as I wasn’t too far away.

Setting up the Echo is relatively easy. All I had to do was to download the Alexa app and tie it to my Amazon account.

Activating the device requires only saying “Alexa,” at which point a colorful ring lights up on the speaker’s base, letting you know that Alexa is listening and ready to take a command. While I didn’t mind the bright blue light, my wife found it a bit gaudy. 

The Echo’s biggest rival is arguably the Google Nest Audio speaker, which the search giant debuted earlier this month. Both speakers cost $100, are dependent on their respective company’s digital assistants, and have undergone redesigns to make them look sleeker and sound better than their predecessors.

At least to my ears, the Nest Audio speaker produced a clearer sound than the Echo, and I was able to pinpoint individual notes and sounds easier. For instance, the percussion and light cymbal hits from John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” sound more distinct playing through the Nest Audio than the Echo.

Music generally sounds flabbier through the Echo compared to the Nest Audio. Paul McCartney’s bass lines from the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry,” for instance, sound muffled coming from the Echo, but they were clear from the Nest Audio.

Fans of bass may like how the Echo produces a heavier low end than the Nest Audio. The funky disco beats of “Rain on Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, for example, sounded slightly louder from the Echo than the Nest speaker. But that louder bass comes with a tradeoff; it sounded more muffled.

Where the Echo bests Nest Audio is the capabilities of the Alexa voice-activated assistant and its numerous “skills” that developers have created. As other reviewers have previously noted, people can use Alexa for more complex tasks at home like automatically turning on Internet-connected lights if the assistant hears a fire alarm. 

If I had to choose between the Echo or the Nest Audio, it would come down to how much I would use the speakers. If I wanted to eventually buy more smart home gadgets and have my smart speaker act as the central command center, I’d probably go for the Echo speaker because there’s a broader range of options available.

But as a speaker, the Nest Audio overall sounds better to my ears.