• November 28, 2021

Amazon Echo (4th Gen, 2020) Review: A New Zenith

It’s been a few years since Alexa first started listening to me everywhere. After an initial honeymoon with an original Echo Dot (a device I still maintain is the best alarm clock ever), I’ve slowly filled my house with Amazon’s review units. These days, I mostly break out Google- and Apple-made speakers for comparison testing. The fact is, Amazon’s smart speakers work so well, there has never been a reason to switch my whole system.

In terms of price, compatibility, audio quality—and now, thanks to a sleek, round redesign, looks—the new Echo remains one of the best smart speakers for most people. As long as you don’t mind Alexa, or don’t have a Bezos-related vendetta, I’d go so far as to say this is the best $100 speaker around.

Round Sound

The biggest difference between the new Echo and older, tube-shaped models is the rounded design. It looks like one of those foam dodgeballs I used to get pelted by in middle school, but with four rubbery buttons on top and a power cord for a tail.

This new shape isn’t just an aesthetic change, it also reshapes the way the speaker interacts with acoustic environments. I’ve noticed the redesigned stereo speaker pushes sound around a room more evenly than the last-gen Echo, making it much more of a whole-room speaker than it used to be.

This makes it more usable as the goldilocks of Amazon’s smart speaker line, sitting in between the smaller Echo Dot (which comes in standard, kids, and with-clock editions) and the larger Echo Studio. Just know that it does have a slightly larger footprint than before.

Photograph: Amazon

It sounds bigger, better, and more balanced than ever. I left my review unit on the kitchen counter—one of the most useful places for a smart speaker as I can set timers—and it easily filled both the kitchen and my attached living room with enough sound for quarantined dance parties with my fiancée and our clumsy rescue dogs.

The new Echo has a few things under the hood that enable it to best its predecessors. First and foremost is a new adaptive EQ engine, which allows the speaker to listen to and adjust for the room it’s playing in, using information it gleans from onboard mics.

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Put it near walls or corners, and it can tame the bass to sound a bit better. It’s not what you do hear, it’s what you don’t; the adaptive sound is meant to make it so your music sounds the same everywhere. I moved it around my room and didn’t notice a huge change in balance or soundstage (how “big” the music feels in the space), but did notice it sounded much less boomy in tighter corners than the last generation.

New speaker drivers also boost the low-end performance, with the 3-inch woofer extending pretty darn deep in the frequency spectrum for a speaker this size. It’s also much louder than competitors like the Google Nest Audio (8/10, WIRED Recommends), which I had sitting next to it on the counter (although bass gets muddy at full volume).

Then there’s the built-in Zigbee receiver that allows you to easily connect a ton of smart home devices, and an Amazon Sidewalk receiver, a soon-to-launch Amazon service that uses Bluetooth Low Energy to keep devices connected outside but near your home.

Familiar Favorites

As a longtime Spotify user, I have consistently been impressed with how easy it is to set up Echo devices with Spotify Connect, and it was just as simple this time. I set it up in the Alexa app, and I was streaming Mariah Carey’s Christmas hits in no time.

In terms of functionality, I like the big mute button on top of the speaker for when you don’t want Amazon listening in, as well as the easily accessible volume buttons. It’s still a pain to adjust the volume to the perfect spot using your voice.

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