A Buyer’s Guide to Amazon Alexa Echo Units

Adding a digital display to an Echo Dot makes it much more versatile and useful.

At first a rarity and an oddity, Amazon’s Alexa voice-powered devices are becoming increasingly common and, if not essential, certainly increasingly convenient and useful in our lives.  The concept of a responsive omniscient computer who we communicate with, anywhere and everywhere, using simple plain-language speech, and which in turn speaks back to us, not in a drab digital monotone, but in normal natural seeming human speech, has quickly moved from futuristic science-fiction (think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey) to present-day science-fact.

Amazon certainly deserves our thanks for its prominent role in moving this revolution forward.

The first generation Amazon Echo was released in March 2014, initially only to Prime members and other invited Amazon customers.  After two years, the first Echo Dot was released in March 2016, and shortly thereafter, the floodgates opened, and there have been many new Alexa Echo products released by Amazon, to the point there is now a bewildering range of choices.

We started off gingerly buying a single Echo Dot some years ago, and then gradually coming to understand it, to use it more, to like it more, and, inevitably, to buy more units, to the point we now have a mix of second and third generation Echo Dots, third and fourth generation Echos, first generation Echo Shows, a Fire HD TV stick, an Echo Auto, and assorted other Alexa-equipped devices, such that we can talk to and hear back from Alexa anywhere in our house.

This is particularly beneficial when it comes to streaming audio – either music or news/other talk type content.  We can move from room to room without missing a beat, and because we have a number of small devices, all playing the same content simultaneously, it is never too loud (or too quiet) as would be the case if we just had one or two central speakers.  Rather to our surprise, this concept of music evenly distributed everywhere has become the main driver for our buying more units, and upgrading present units.  You might feel the same way.

Be sure to read all the way to the end of the article where we have links to our extensive 30+ page document helping you understand the most useful of Alexa’s capabilities and voice commands/responses.

But, first, let’s look at the various different Echo units out there, explain the differences between them, and help you to understand which are the best choices for which applications.  We’ll start with the entry level but excellent Echo Dot, and move up the range from there.

Alexa Echo Dot

On the left, a third generation Echo Dot, and a new fourth generation version on the right.

The smallest of the Echo units (with a couple of exceptions that don’t really matter), and also the least expensive.  the Echo Dot is a great unit that does almost everything its bigger brother, the regular Echo can do, except decode Dolby audio.  Unlike the Echo, the Dot also doesn’t have a Zigbee home automation hub built in.  If you don’t know what that is, then it clearly isn’t anything to lose sleep over not having.

The Echo Dot also comes in an option with a built-in digital clock, which we discuss separately, next.  There is a friendly “kid’s version” too that hopes to sell you a bundle of Amazon services for $3/month to control internet access for children.

The current (June 2021) version is the fourth generation spherical style.  The previous third generation has a semi-cloth style surround and a hockey puck type shape.  The earlier second generation was the same as the third generation but in solid plastic rather than with a semi-cloth surround.  The first generation units are best avoided.

The fourth generation unit lists for $50, is sometimes discounted to $45, and from time to time goes as low as about $35.  Rarely (eg Prime Day sales) it might be even less expensive, and we’ve seen it as low as $25.

The third generation units still seem to be sold too (as of June 2021).  They have a list price of $40 and we’ve seen their price drop as low as $20.  The main difference is the fourth generation unit has its speaker facing forward, whereas the third generation has its speaker facing up.  The fourth generation unit might give slightly better sound as a result, but neither unit, both with a single teeny-tiny 1.6″ speaker, are going to give anything like “good” sound, although it is fair to describe both as “surprisingly good for what it is” (we discuss sound more scientifically, below).

If the newer unit only costs $5 – $10 more, perhaps it is sensible to get a device that is more likely to be forward-compatible with whatever new features Amazon might release, and which might give slightly better and potentially slightly louder sound.  But you’ll surely not regret getting third generation units either, especially if you can get them at a bargain price.

At $20 – $50 each, these units are great to sprinkle liberally around your home, the more the merrier, particularly if you want to fill your home with music.

The Clock Option on an Echo Dot

You can add a digital clock display on your Echo Dot for an extra $10.

This has obvious appeal if you want to use a unit as a modern form of alarm-clock/radio in your bedroom (and it is so wonderfully easy to set alarms just by talking to the unit “Alexa, set an alarm for 7.00am” or whatever the case may be – see our “cheat sheet” of Alexa commands, below, for more on how to command your Alexa units).  The display defaults to showing the current time, but it can also show timer/alarm data, or the temperature, and has a “snooze button” feature as well.

If having this information displayed is of no use to you, then of course, there’s no need to pay extra for the clock display.  But in a bedroom and possibly in other settings too, you might find it a helpful bonus feature, and at a cost of only $10 more, it might be a feature you choose to include, even if you have no present obvious need, but to have it available for possible future use, especially if you move the unit somewhere else in your home or office where having the time displayed is helpful.

Alexa Echo

The third generation Echo on the left, and fourth generation on the right.

The Echo is/was the original of the now broad series of units, and is in its fourth generation.

The latest unit has better sound than the third generation Echo, and in all cases, the sound in an Echo unit is better and can be appreciably louder than in an Echo Dot.  It also incorporates the “continuous audio tuning” feature that is available in the Echo Studio model (see below) that adapts the speaker settings based on the acoustics of the room it is in.  It is hard to know exactly how transformative this feature is, because it is always on with no apparent way of turning it off, but it certainly seems like a good concept in theory.

It is hard to tell from the standard photos of the Echo and Echo Dot that the Echo is considerably larger.  This was more obvious in the third and earlier generations, when one was a short “hockey puck” and the other was a tall cylinder.  The Echo is 5.2″ high and 5.7″ wide, whereas the Dot is 3.5″ high and 3.9″ wide.

Better sound is the main reason for choosing this unit rather than an Echo Dot.  There is one more benefit to the Echo – it now includes a built-in Zigbee smart hub, so if you have Zigbee smart devices in your home that you’d like to control, you don’t need to get a separate and extra-cost Zigbee hub.

There is one other added feature that is almost entirely unadvertised by Amazon on the Echo and Echo Studio units – I only found out about it after installing my first fourth generation Echo – it has a temperature sensor that surprisingly accurately reads the ambient temperature around the unit, without being too influenced by any heat generated in the unit itself.

This is great for two reasons.  You can ask it (or other Echos in the same group) what the temperature is at its location.  You can also create routines such that it will automatically turn on a/c or heating if it gets too cold, or do other things in response to temperature events.

If you just want an Echo unit to control other Alexa-compatible devices, and to get simple answers to questions from, and for “unimportant” sound, then by all means, save money and get Echo Dot units, but if you want better quality sound – truly better, such that you can clearly hear the improvement – or if you’ve a larger area to fill with sound, and of course, if you need or expect you might need a Zigbee hub in the future, consider the full-size Echo units.

The Echo comes with three speakers – two 0.8″ tweeters and an upward facing 3″ speaker that Amazon optimistically calls a “woofer” but which we’ll more accurately term a mid-range speaker.  This sounds good to an uneducated ear but you’ll quickly tire of it and come to realize the bass always sounds the same (because you’re hearing about an octave of heavily boosted notes).  We discuss this further in the section on sound quality, below.

The Echo nominally lists for $100, and is often available for somewhat less than that, sometimes for $75, and occasionally for less.  At present there’s an astonishing bargain – $60 each – that is the best price we’ve ever seen.

The previous third generation Echo has one less speaker inside it (one mid-range and one tweeter), and so has slightly inferior sound, and seems to no longer be offered as new, just as refurbished.  Unless there’s a large saving, you’re probably better to pay an extra $10 – 20 and get a current fourth generation unit.

Alexa Echo Studio

A cut-away view of an Echo Studio, showing the five speakers inside.

If you want to get the best quality sound out of an Echo system, there is a better-than-Echo speaker unit, the Echo Studio, currently in its first generation form (it came out in late 2019).  It has five speakers (a downwards facing 5.25″ woofer (more like a mid-range) with a vent facing towards the listeners, two 2″ mid-range units facing the sides, a 1″ tweeter facing towards the listeners, and a fifth 2″ mid-range speaker facing upwards).  The upward facing speaker is intended to be used with Dolby Atmos sound sources, and directs sound up to be reflected off a ceiling, giving a 3-D soundspace – at least in theory.

In addition, it has a “stereo spatial enhancement” feature that processes the sound to try and create a stereo impression via the two side facing speakers.  This is a gimmick, and takes you further away from the purity of the music rather than bringing you closer to it.  If stereo sound is important to you (and of course it is) you’d have a better experience with two regular Echo units coupled as a stereo pair (for the same or lower price), or for that matter, two of the Echo Studio units coupled as a stereo pair, too.

The Echo Studio also has a clever feature where it will balance its frequency response to accommodate the acoustics of the room it is placed within.  This definitely helps even out the smoothness of its frequency range, although it doesn’t really extend its frequency range.

Like the standard Echo, it has a Zigbee compatible hub built in to it.

Remember that all three speakers (Echo Dot, Echo, and Echo Studio) can be coupled together for stereo sound playback (but in matched-model pairs, eg two Echos, but not an Echo Dot and an Echo Studio, etc).  With a pair of Echo Studio units, you’re starting to approach almost reasonable sound quality.

Echo Studio units are priced at $200.  It seems they’ve not yet been discounted, but perhaps this Prime Day will be the first time.

Alexa Echo Sub

The Echo Sub directs its sound down and out through the vents at the bottom.

Okay, if two Echo Studio units aren’t enough for you, there’s one more way to improve your sound experience, and that’s by adding an Echo Sub (as in “sub-woofer”) to the setup.

This unit was not uniformly well received when first released in September 2018, and may even have been discontinued for a while before being reintroduced in late 2020, and is available now.  Whether it has been improved/upgraded or not is unclear.  It lists for $130.

It has a single 6″ woofer in an infinite baffle type enclosure.  Amazon has a cryptic claim for frequency response, that simply says “30Hz (-6dB)”.  But it doesn’t tell us any more than that, or what the -6dB figure is in reference to.  They also say, in terms of crossover frequencies, “50 Hz – 200 Hz adaptive low-pass filter” and that too is something that leaves unanswered questions.  A review suggests that Amazon changes the cross-over frequency depending on what other devices are playing the higher sounds and how far down into the bass they reach.  There is a reasonably steep 24dB per octave filter for the crossover.

Another review suggests its high frequency limit is about 200 Hz, and perhaps the reviewer is using the upper end of the cross-over to determine that.  Unfortunately, we believe there are no easy ways to adjust its output level relative to the other speakers.  This ability to adjust (“balance”) the respective outputs of the main speakers and subwoofer is a handy feature with most sub-woofers, but you can adjust its bass (in the Alexa app or “Alexa, turn down the bass”) so that is probably almost the same thing.

It claims to be capable of generating 100W of low-frequency sound.  Impressive?  Ummm, not really.  My Bob Carver designed Sunfire subwoofer risks blowing the mains fuses (and probably the windows out, too!) with its ridiculous 2700W capability.

Because very low frequency sound is “non-directional” you only need one subwoofer, even in a multi-speaker stereo or surround sound configuration.

Alexa Echo Show (3 models)

The largest of the three Echo Show units, the Show 10 is on a swivel base that automatically keeps the screen (and camera) pointed at you.

The three Echo Show units add video to the Alexa/Echo service lineup.  Although the original main feature of the Echo series of products was that it was a voice and sound driven system, both for accepting commands and responding to them, we always felt the lack of a display when the Echo units first appeared.  Imagine, for example, asking Alexa for a recipe, something that cries out for a display on which to see ingredient lists, etc.

Amazon waited until May 2017 before introducing the first Show unit, which had a 7″ screen.  That was followed by a 10″ screen version, and then 5.5″ and 8.0″ screened versions, while the 7″ unit was withdrawn.  All three units have touchscreens, and will now display content relevant to the query or function the unit is performing – in the case of a recipe, then now the ingredients will be displayed, in the case of the weather, added data about the weather, and so on.  They can stream video and also connect into video feeds from Ring doorbells and home security monitoring systems.

The Show Units have a camera to transmit video of you to someone else – in other words, you can use them for video calling, too.

The Show 5 2nd generation unit is the entry-level priced baby of the three Show units, and is probably better avoided, with the Show 8 being a generally better unit for only a moderate extra cost.  But if you want to try out the concept of an Echo unit with display and camera, it is a great and inexpensive way to do so, as is the first generation Show 5 that is now often discounted below $50 – less than the cost of an Echo Dot without screen and camera.  The current 2nd generation unit has a higher resolution camera on it (2 MP rather than 1 MP), but loses the audio out socket.  Both units have the same size/shape/weight, speaker, and 960 x 480 pixel 5.5″ screen.  It lists for $85.

The Echo Show 5 and 8 have a fixed base.

The 8″ screened 2nd generation Show 8 unit might be thought to be a good compromise between the much smaller 5.5″ diagonal screen on the Show 5 and the monster 10.1″ diagonal screen on the Show 10.  That is true.  It also is priced at a much more reasonable $130, compared to $250 for the Show 10.  It has two 2″ speakers in it, compared to a single 1.7″ speaker in the Show 5, and a better resolution screen, the same 1280×800 pixels as on the Show 10.  The first and second generation Show 8 units have the same screen, size, shape, weight and speakers, but the newer unit has a 13MP camera that will auto frame you in the picture, compared to a 1 MP camera on the first generation unit.

The Show 10 is now in its 3rd generation, and the 3rd generation unit introduces an interesting new feature – it is mounted on a swivel base, and will swivel so it is always facing you while you move around.  This is useful not just if you’re in a video call and don’t want to accidentally move out of the camera’s field of vision, but also if you just want to see what is on the screen.

Sadly and surprisingly the screen is very low resolution, in terms of what you’d expect for that size of screen.  It has a 1280×800 pixel resolution – the same as on the 8″ screen version.  To put this in context, the Fire HD 10 tablet has the same sized screen, but with 1920×1200 pixel resolution – more than twice as many pixels, giving a much cleaner and clearer resolution of both type and images.

Considering that Amazon sells the Echo Show 10 for $250, and the Fire HD 10 for $150, you’d think the budget would have allowed for a better screen on the Echo Show 10.

The Show 10 has a 13 MP camera, and three speakers – a 3.0″ mid-range speaker and two 1.0″ tweeters.

All three Show units have disappointing audio, but perhaps understandably, Amazon focused more on the video rather than audio side of the units.

The Show 10 has the most usefully sized screen, and the auto-tracking feature is interesting, although a bit spooky.  But it is a hefty price jump from $130 for the Show 8 to $250 for the Show 10, and unless you really clearly can see a benefit attached to the swiveling, if you simply want a larger screened unit you can talk to and command, why not get a Fire HD 10 for $150 instead?

Our suggestion – get a discounted Show 5 first generation if you just want to “play” with the concept of audio and video on an Echo device, and get a Show 8 if you can already see the value in having video.

Not Only Amazon’s Units for Better Sound Quality

There’s a deceptive “trap” built in to the Amazon Echo product range.  You start off buying an Echo Dot – say you get one on sale for $35 or less.  You discover it can play music.  You then decide you want to enjoy better music, so you upgrade to a regular Echo – perhaps $75 or so.  The earlier unit isn’t money wasted, you can place it somewhere else in your home, too.

At this point your purchases have been totally rational.  Maybe you now decide you’d like to get a second Echo, to get stereo sound.  You’re now at $150 for two speakers for stereo sound, which is still not out of the ordinary.

Then you add an Amazon sub ($130) and your “investment” has reached $280, then you decide to move your two Echo units elsewhere in your home, and get two Echo Studio units for your main sound system, representing now $400 for two Echo Studios and $130 for an Echo Sub, a $530 total investment (plus $220 for the other three Echo units you’ve purchased and now redeployed elsewhere).  And this is almost surely not the end of your purchases!

You’re now at a point where you could consider other speaker options as well as the Echo units – indeed, you can get other speaker units that have Alexa functionality built-in to them, so you’re not having to give up your Alexa/Echo compatibility.  The Sonos One is worth considering, and has the added benefit of being compatible with the Google Assistant system as well as with Alexa.  Other Sonos products can be controlled by a regular Echo unit.

While we’re not at all fans of Bose and consider their speakers to generally be over-priced and over-hyped, some people love Bose products, and they too have smart speakers that can be used with an Alexa setup.

Formal Analysis of Echo Sound Quality

No Echo unit will ever have true high-quality sound.  The speakers and their enclosures are just too small.  The high frequency range can be impressive, because tweeters are, by their very nature, small in size, but the midrange and bass will always be weak, and typically in our experience is “boomy” with a strong band of resonance and little else to offer (a typical type of “audio cheat” designed to trick one’s ears but which is not actually good sound at all).

This is not just a criticism of Echo speakers – it is pretty much true of all the modern small sized speakers out there, and the Echo units score reasonably well in terms of quality and value compared to other similar products.  The challenge is you can’t escape the physical laws of sound creation that constrain the ability of getting good quality sound out of tiny units.  Plus, for something usually under $100 a speaker, there’s a limit to how much you can expect, when you consider that a truly good quality speaker unit will set you back $1000 and more – much more – per each unit.

Here are two frequency response charts comparing the Echo with the smaller Echo Dot and the more expensive Echo Sound.  They are taken from the excellent rtings.com website that has a lot of additional discussion and evaluation on all three units.

This first chart compares the Echo (4th gen) with the Echo Studio.  Full details and discussion are here.  The key two things to appreciate are :

The blue line is the frequency response for the Echo and the green line is the frequency response for the Echo Studio.

The yellow line is the “averaged” frequency response for the Echo and the purple line is the same averaged response for the Echo Studio.

As the yellow and purple lines hint, the Echo Studio generally is a more level balanced speaker than the Echo.  The Echo has much more exaggerated bass than the Echo Studio.

This second chart compares the Echo (4th gen) with the Echo Dot.  Full details and discussion are here.  The key two things to appreciate are :

The blue line is the frequency response for the Echo and the green line is the frequency response for the Echo Dot.

The yellow line is the “averaged” frequency response for the Echo and the purple line is the same averaged response for the Echo Dot.

Surprisingly (because it lacks the exaggerated bass in the Echo) the tiny Echo Dot actually has almost as good a performance, albeit without the boomy bass, and as shown by the purple line, a slightly better overall response.

In all three cases, I’d choose to add a bit of treble boost, based on these curves.  For the Echo, I’d cut back the bass a bit, I’d leave the bass alone with the Echo Studio, and I’d boost it a bit with the Echo Dot.

All three units would probably benefit by being coupled with an Echo Sub.

Other Echo Devices, Past and Present

There have been a number of other Echo devices that have come and gone over the years.  Here are some (but not all) of them.  We admire Amazon’s willingness to experiment with new concepts, and perhaps it is only with hindsight that some of these can be easily recognized – now – as failures.

Echo Auto

Amazon wants to get its Alexa service everywhere, and for many of us, the car is a place we spend considerable time in.  I sometimes find myself missing the ability to ask Alexa a question or get it to do something, while I’m in the car.

If you have a phone that connects to the car with Bluetooth (or a car with Alexa built-in), then you might be able to continue to converse with Alexa in the car.  But if you don’t, things become slightly more constrained (although you could simply use the Alexa app in your phone anyway, without considering the car’s speakers).

Amazon came up with a workaround, called Alexa Echo Auto (click the link to see our review when it came out).  In theory, it is a good idea, but in practice, it takes over your car’s audio system, and needs to connect with your phone too.  It also assumes there is an audio input for it to feed in to your car radio – failing that, you could then connect it to an FM transmitter, perhaps, and get the signal through your car radio.

We ended up taking the unit out of our car and it languishes unused and largely unloved now.  They are being sold for only $15 in the Prime Day sale this year, which feels like Amazon trying to quit itself of old stock and discontinue the unit.

Notwithstanding our earlier neutral review, now that we’ve had the unit for almost a couple of years, we’re going to probably recommend you do not buy one, although at only $15……

Alexa Echo Flex

This is the most basic of Echo units, and is designed to plug directly into any wall power socket.  It offers full Alexa functionality, plus has a USB charging port on it in case you need another such thing where the unit is located.

The big limitation is it only has a micro-speaker, designed for Alexa voice responses, but not for music.  It does have a speaker output jack, but really, if you want to be able to play music with the unit, the best thing to do is simply to buy an Echo Dot.

The Echo Flex lists for $25.  Sure, that’s less than the $50 list on an Echo Dot, but the chances are you can buy a Dot on discount for $35 or maybe even less, and you end up with a much more versatile unit and don’t need to mess with a separate speaker as well.

Echo Link (with or without amp)

If you want to feed music from Amazon’s streaming into your regular Hi-Fi stereo system, you can use this device, costing a surprising $200, and if you want one that has a built-in amplifier, the price goes to $300.

There are easier ways to do this – for example, use a Fire TV stick feeding into an HDMI input on your amplifier instead.  That will cost you as little as $25, for essentially the same functionality.

Even if there weren’t easier and less expensive approaches, we’re uncomfortable with the concept of paying $200 for what is surely less than $20 worth of electronics.  Note also the Link units have no microphones – you have to pair them with a regular Echo (Dot) unit to be able to speak to them.  No part of the Link unit appeals – neither its functionality nor its price.

Alexa Echo Plus

This product is essentially a regular Echo combined with a home automation Zigbee hub, and sold for $150 rather than the $100 of a regular Echo.

But the latest fourth generation Echo and Echo Studio now include a Zigbee hub, too, so now there is no reason to consider buying an Echo Plus.

Alexa Echo Spot

This came out in September 2017, and is a sphere shaped object with a slice off it, on which resides a 2.5″ micro screen.  It was quickly obsoleted by the small Echo Show 5 and the Echo Dot with time display, and has been deservedly discontinued.

If you’d like a good laugh, be aware that Amazon’s PR people said the reason was it had been sold out due to “incredibly positive” customer response.  They had no explanation for why, in such a case, Amazon didn’t order millions more from China.

Getting Best Use Out of Any Alexa Unit

So, whether you already have Alexa units, or are just now about to buy your first units, you’ll want to get as much beneficial use from them as possible.  You probably know you can use them to remotely turn lights on and off if they have Alexa-compatible switches or bulbs, and you probably know you can listen to music.  But what else, and how?

By some counts, there are over 100,000 different things (“skills”) that Alexa can do.  We’re not about to list them all or discuss each one.  But we have put together a listing of some of the most helpful and useful commands for your Alexa units.  Here’s a link to a 12 page document that has some of them.

If you are one of our much appreciated supporters, please go to your page of special reports and downloads, and download a larger 30 page document.  If you’re not yet a supporter, you can instantly become one and get immediate access to this document and much other additional content too, by joining on this page.

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