Amazon's new Echo Buds are the company's first wireless earbuds. They put Alexa in your ear. They include Bose's patented noise reduction technology to eliminate external noises. And the most surprising part is how well they sound. The Echo Buds cost $ 129.99, which is a remarkably aggressive price compared to what manufacturers such as Sony, Jaybird, Google, Microsoft and other earbud manufacturers charge – especially if you want noise reduction.
Apple has managed to steal a part of Amazon & # 39; s thunder with the new $ 249 AirPods Pro, which offers active noise cancellation, an adjustable fit and improved audio, plus all the usual AirPod functions. But the Echo Buds have exceeded my expectations and justify some excitement. They don't offer every bell and whistle (such as wireless charging), but I've been using them for just under a week, and even if you never bother using any of the Alexa features, they are worth considering.
The Echo Buds are unobtrusive, only delivered in black and lack the characteristic blue LED that you can expect from an Echo / Alexa product. When they are worn, they do not look much different than the Galaxy Buds from Samsung, just slightly larger. There are no physical buttons on the buttons – only a touch-sensitive circle on each button that is easy to find with a finger. Depending on how you want to adjust the tap control, you can change tracks, activate Siri / Google Assistant or enable noise reduction with one tap, two tapes or by tapping and holding. Unfortunately you cannot control the volume directly on the buttons; you will have to ask Alexa to turn it up or adjust the volume directly on your phone.
Three sizes of silicone tips are supplied in the box (with customized fit) Comply with foam tips available separately), and Amazon also includes wing tips that may be useful if you plan to run or practice with the buttons. I noticed that the use of the largest wing tips could sometimes prevent the Echo Buds from fully fitting in their case if I didn't pay attention. Even when I followed Amazon's instructions to carefully align the wing tip with its respective Echo Bud. This is not a problem with the medium and small wing tips. In my case, the largest earplugs kept the Echo Buds tight-fitting without the help of the wings, and they didn't start slipping or loosening while eating or talking, which sometimes happens if you have an imperfect fit.
The Echo Buds are IPX4 water and sweat resistant and Amazon says they can listen continuously for up to five hours before they need to be charged. The carrying case, which is not the largest or the smallest I have seen, has sufficient power to give the buttons 20 hours of total listening time.
However, by far the worst part of the Echo Buds can be found in the case. Amazon has made the very unfortunate decision to use an old Micro USB charging port instead of USB-C or wireless charging. End of 2019. I had managed to use all USB-C before I reviewed these earbuds, but Amazon is not ready to let go of the past. This company has shown an extreme reluctance to change connectors; the new Fire HD 10 tablet is the first USB-C device from Amazon. I'm sure Amazon & # 39; s decision is supported by customer data, but it still comes out stubborn when competitors all use USB-C (or Lightning in the case of Apple).
I think it would be easier to overlook the micro USB annoyance if the Echo Buds case could charge wirelessly and you could simply ignore your cables altogether. But that's not it, so you can't. We hope that Amazon will eventually release a USB-C case with wireless charging – ideally before these buttons are renewed in a year, but we'll see. This also scratches and is planed if you look at it incorrectly.
It is handy to have Alexa in your ear, but unlike the rest of the Echo setup, it is not a headline function. It is easy to use these earbuds and do not pay attention to the Amazon voice assistant. I think that is a good thing, because Alexa feels largely unnecessary in this specific use case. If you want to completely avoid Alexa, you can disable the wake in the Alexa app from Amazon. With the earphones you can also mute the microphones, but that also affects telephone conversations. I think there is enough reason to be wary of wearing Alexa everywhere. So far, Amazon says it has various privacy protections to prevent Echo Buds spying on you:
The Voice Activity Detector detects when you are talking, enabling wake-up detection. We then use near-field beamforming technology to point the microphones at your mouth to detect your speech and reject background noise.
Echo Buds are designed so that Alexa wake-up functionality is only available when at least one earphone is connected via Bluetooth to a compatible mobile device with the Alexa app opened and detected in the ear by a sensor on the device. In addition, there are several ways to mute wake-up functionality on Echo Buds. In the app you can use the home screen to mute or undo Alexa with one click. You can also set a gesture on the device that mutes the microphones when you hold down one of the earphones. And finally, if you remove both earplugs from your ears, Alexa will be muted. When Alexa is muted, no audio is streamed to the cloud and Alexa cannot process your request.
I usually used Alexa to add items to my grocery list and view the weather. Everything I do with it is somehow already possible with Siri or Google Assistant. Activating Alexa with my voice is no faster than & # 39; Hey Siri & # 39; from Apple or & # 39; OK Google & # 39; say on headphones with built-in Assistant.
Aside from the basics, the Echo Buds let you come in immediately on Echo speakers – or yours or that of friends / family – with an audio call. Or you can record announcements that are played on your speakers at home. But as long as you have the Alexa app on your phone, you can do all of this with any set of earphones – although not hands-free. It's nice to be able to check if your smart lock is locked without pulling out your phone, but I don't think Alexa will sell the Echo Buds.
But their noise reduction and sound quality will certainly do that.
Amazon collaborated with Bose on the Echo Buds, which use the latest company's noise reduction technology. This is very much a case where words matter; Noise reduction is different and less extensive than active noise cancellation. The Bose system used by the Echo Buds eliminates annoying buzzing and reduces street noise, but it's not the same kind of isolated feeling you get when wearing over-ear noise canceling headphones. Even Bose himself says that the upcoming wireless earplugs (which will be released sometime next year) will surpass the Echo Buds in this regard.
But don't let that hinder your own experience. I am still fairly satisfied with what the Echo Buds can do. You can definitely see the difference between the sound insulation that you get only by wearing the buttons and the increased peace and quiet associated with switching on noise reduction. By default you can switch between noise reduction and pass-through environment audio mode with a double tap on both earbuds.
In the Alexa app you can adjust the volume of the canceled pass-through audio, but noise reduction is an on / off issue. Amazon's environment mode is not as natural as I have recently heard from Bose & # 39; s Noise Canceling Headphones 700 or the Beats Solo Pro. Everything is of a digital quality and pass-through can almost become disorienting if you turn it on in a loud restaurant or bar. But it works fine if you want to chat with someone quickly or hear an announcement.
To my surprise, the Echo Buds sound great and with great leaps and bounds they are better than the expectations I expected. The low-end comes out with a portion of strong, bumping bass. But it is not bloated and the overall tone balance is very pleasant. I like them considerably more than the expensive noise-canceling earplugs from Sony. More than the Galaxy Buds. I like them more than Jaybird & # 39; s Vista earbuds, which so far has been my overall recommendation for this price. The Echo Buds are not impeccable, and I am sure that some audiophiles that I have described will say that the sound signature is too clearly aligned with modern music. And the is a perfect fit for Taylor Swift & # 39; s Lover album. But the Echo Buds can expertly handle music from decades and genres, from Paul Simon to Post Malone. They provide a lively listening experience that makes The Highwomen's debut album shine, with a nice separation between the four vocalists and a broad placement of instruments. The buttons support AAC and SBC Bluetooth codecs and you can make simple EQ adjustments in the Alexa app. If there is a weakness, the Echo Buds never get super loud – if that's your thing – but they offered more than enough volume for my taste.
The other half of the sound quality comparison is how the microphones handle voice calls. I have had no complaints and people said that I sounded clear when I spoke to them with the Echo Buds, so the beamforming microphones and speech detection from Amazon seem to produce good results. This is an area where the Samsung Galaxy Buds and even the Powerbeats Pro really have trouble.
Like any version 1.0 product, the Echo Buds are not without their bugs. I have had more than a few cases where saying & # 39; Alexa & # 39; received no answer. (You must make your voice heard when you use voice commands in general.) Occasionally I have heard a notification sound / bell while music is playing for no apparent reason. And you will find that if you adjust the volume while noise reduction is on, your music will sound differently for a second or two before everything gets back to level. (Amazon says there is a design and a side effect of the noise canceling technology.) And I have to mention that I have noticed a delay in audio / video on my iPhone when viewing selected apps – but not all – including YouTube. According to Amazon, this should not be the case.
Apart from those minor problems and the curse of Micro USB, I am very impressed by the Echo Buds. They are the first earbuds from Amazon, yes, but their fantastic sound quality shows the progress that Amazon has made in audio. The upcoming Echo Studio speaker is another testament to Amazon's determination to make high-quality listening devices.
Apple's noise-canceling AirPods Pro will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the wireless earbuds category, but Amazon has succeeded in doing a lot in the first time. And I think the price of $ 130 will hit the right buttons for many people when they compare the Echo Buds with $ 200 and $ 250 options from other brands.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge
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