Is Alexa ready to leave the house? That was the first question that sprang to mind when Amazon included the Echo Buds in the line-up of Alexa Everythings in Seattle last September. For Amazon itself, it’s probably still the most important question surrounding the wireless earbuds. For everyone else – who cares?
On account of the Echo Buds being priced at £120 and sold on the world’s biggest shop, they will sell by the bucketload. But not because they put Alexa in your ears. Firstly, it’s been done before by the likes of the now-deceased Bragi Dash. Secondly, it’s performance is not good enough to change our out-of-the-house habits yet. No surprise really considering that one of the announcements in Seattle was for a ‘frustration detection’ feature for when the voice assistant makes mistakes.
What the Echo Buds offer is a combination of price, comfort and features – like Bose’s noise reduction – that will make audio brands operating in the sub-£200 bracket feel pretty uncomfortable. That said, after a month with the Echo Buds – and competitors – in our ears, we’d recommend paying slightly more for superior sound. Features: good. Price: good. Alexa: not yet. Sound: decent but outclassed. Got it?
You don’t technically have to link the Echo Buds up to Alexa at all if you really don’t want to, but it’s almost mandatory to download the Alexa app to properly set them up. You’ll need it to tweak the passthrough level, which allows you to hear ambient noise and is set to a level of three out of five as default and is much too loud and overwhelming. (I immediately slid it down to the ‘one’ setting).
You can also set up the tap controls here: double-tap and press and hold. There’s no volume controls option on the earbuds themselves so you’ll have to use your phone’s volume rocker or, if you choose to go all in with Alexa, use the voice command “Alexa, volume up” which works well.
If you set up the double-tap to, as suggested, toggle between passthrough mode and noise reduction – more on that in a second – it’s also worth noting there’s an option in the Alexa app, for iOS and Android, to turn both these features off should you wish. There’s also EQ tweaking and a short Eartip sound test that gives you a score for each ear – you’re aiming for ‘great’ here.
When it comes to design and fit, there’s really nothing to complain about. The Echo Buds look like what you’d draw if someone menacing asked you to sketch wireless earbuds – quickly. There’s no design flair but they’re also inoffensive, fit fairly snugly and neatly in the ear and they’re light enough to be worn for long commutes or for an hour or two in the office.
It’s also interesting, at this price, that they are earbuds not EarPod-style earphones. Lots of cheap wireless options are earphones and, while it’s down to personal preference, it’s good to see a pair at £120 offering this for people who prefer to ram buds down their lugholes. Also handy is the range of tips and wings, and the IPX4 water and sweat resistance – they’re not designed as running earbuds but in a pinch, they’d manage. You really can’t fault the Echo Buds on specs.
In day-to-day use, they’re easy to get on with. I did find myself having to double-tap quite considerably, though, and while pressing and holding to get Alexa ended up pushing my right Echo Bud into my ear. Best to use the wake word, again if you’re happy with Amazon accompanying you throughout your day.
The Echo Buds pair quickly and the Bluetooth (5.0) connection is rock solid and stable. When you take one earbud out the connection holds but pauses your music or podcast. Call quality is also good for both parties, with audio close enough to using a smartphone’s mics, though both Alexa and taking calls get trickier the noisier the environment you’re in.
One of the most irritating aspects of using the Echo Buds in public is the charging case. The battery life itself – five hours on one charge and an extra 15 hours from the case–- is pretty good and comparable to more expensive rivals which only offer an hour or two more. In reality, if you wear them, say, one hour each way commute, with some use at work, you could get away with charging these only once a week.
The case is mid-sized for a wireless charging case, so it’s not the size that’s the issue. It’s the fact that because the Echo Buds sit on the magnetic chargers rather than slot firmly into the body of the case, it makes the whole process more of a faff when you’re on the street or the bus. It’s a small thing, but it’s noticeable – you have to slow down or stop and look at what you’re doing. The use of microUSB, to charge the case, is also a pain if you’re travelling, unless of course you’re also taking a Kindle.
As for sound, Amazon is putting much more emphasis on audio quality in its speakers such as the Echo Studio to mixed success – in our review, we called it “ambitious but flawed”. Here, aside from the odd unidentified, unnerving crackle sound, this is a workmanlike performance that’s fairly good value if you consider where wireless earbuds were at even six months ago.
If you’re going to listen to a lot of music on your wireless earbuds, though, as opposed to podcasts or audiobooks, you might want to pay more. Amazon is changing the game of what features you can now expect when you pay £120, but not sound. Its competitors are also coming down in price.
On balance, the Echo Buds are probably a stronger choice for audio than the second-gen AirPods, but when we compared them directly to Sony’s excellent WF-1000-XM3s, there was no contest.
Amazon’s problem? The XM3s, which had a RRP of £229, are now routinely selling for between £170 and £180. Sure that’s an extra £50 which might be too steep for some people, but where your favourite album is concerned, the Echo Buds can sound muffled in comparison to the open and spacious Sonys.
There’s no one particular strike to be made against them in terms of audio. They certainly don’t sound tinny like the worst offenders, there’s decent whack to the low end, perhaps when the volume is at maximum, things do get distorted, but I wouldn’t recommend going that loud anyway. That extra £50 or so, though, gets you a treat for your ears, with proper active noise-cancellation to boot.
The Echo Buds’ ‘active noise reduction’ is good for the money. Bose has taken pains to point out that it wouldn’t give Amazon its best noise cancellation for this product, in fact it’s releasing its own rival later this year. But, aside from a very slight hiss that you’ll only pick up on in a quiet room, this is how I chose to listen to the Echo Buds the majority of the time I’ve been testing them. There’s no option to tweak the settings, but as it is, it drowns out some, if not all, of the baby shrieking, tube wailing, colleagues chatting you might want to avoid.
I haven’t mentioned Alexa much. That’s largely because, as I suspected, I have yet to build talking to any voice assistant into my daily routine in the same way as I do with Alexa and Google Assistant at home.
When Alexa is set up, the app will run in the background on your phone and request access to your location. Alexa figures out when you are talking and goes into wake-word detection mode – if you want nothing to do with this, you can disable ‘Alexa Hands Free’ in the app or mute the microphones, though this also applies to phone calls. You can also set the double-tap or press-and-hold actions to mute the mics if you feel more comfortable doing that on an ad hoc basis.
I have long ago decided to let Amazon and Google have a lot of information about me in exchange for convenience. That said, my most common voice commands at home – “light on” or “play Hot Chocolate” just don’t translate into walking down the street. Alexa was able to tell me the weather today and tomorrow but when I tried out some use cases that might work outside the house, things predictably broke down.
I had to remind myself that Alexa still can’t handle some more complicated information retrieval requests such as “what’s the next train from Brockley station”. Here, Google still has the edge, and it’s worth saying that you can also activate Google Assistant on the Echo Buds, a sign of increasing co-operation between the two. Alexa on the Echo Buds works, but when it comes to intelligence, it’s got even further to go than Alexa in the home.
When you compare the Echo Buds to a competitor like the TicPods 2 Pro, it’s clear that Amazon has got a lot right here on its first attempt. The new TicPods are also £120, offering Siri and Google Assistant in a earphone-with-stem form factor but with no noise reduction.
Amazon is able to undercut rivals on value and this will no doubt bring down prices across the whole category. And that’s also exactly why the Echo Buds might cause their own downfall as companies such as Sony and Sennheiser, with not only a headstart but the audio pedigree, too, bring down the prices of their own no-compromise wireless earbuds.
The Amazon Echo Buds are £120 on Amazon. When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we earn a small affiliate commission. This does not impact the products we recommend.
More great stories from WIRED
🚙 The most exciting electric cars coming in 2020
🍄 These mental tricks can help you go vegan this January
🚐 SUVs are worse for the planet than anyone realised
⏲️ Science says we should work shorter hours in winter
📧 How to use psychology to get people to answer your emails