The Amazon Echo was a hit when it was first released and the company improves the Echo line with every iteration—but it’s been six whole years since the Echo’s debut. So why are we still talking about it? The Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is the newest smart speaker from the company, and it hopes you’ll make it the center of your smart home. While the functionality of Alexa hasn’t changed much the shape and sound quality has definitely improved, but is that enough to make the new Amazon Echo worth it?
Editor’s note: this Amazon Echo (4th Gen) review was updated on June 18, 2021, to address the Amazon Echo Buds (2nd Gen).
Who should get the Amazon Echo (4th Gen)?
- People in the Amazon Alexa ecosystem should upgrade to the new Echo. If you have any Ring or Zigbee compatible devices, then it will work fine with this speaker.
- Anyone that wants a medium-sized speaker with strong bass will enjoy this compact sphere. This isn’t the only new smart speaker around, but if you want a stronger bass this is a solid option.
What is the Amazon Echo (4th Gen)?
The Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is, well, the fourth generation of its popular smart speaker. The original Echo looked like a large soda can but every model since then has been progressively more refined (and round). The third-generation Echo was a small, doughy-looking speaker that was more a smart home device than it was a speaker. That changes with the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) speaker which was designed to also be a decent sounding speaker. While it’s larger and rounder than the previous generation it’s still the same Alexa speaker that so many people enjoy.
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The model we’re looking at here is the top-of-the-line (4th Gen) home hub model, but there are a few other Echo options you can choose from as well if you want to save some cash. Alongside this particular model Amazon also released a new Echo Dot which shares in the new round design and is really just a smaller version of the one in this review. Then there’s the Echo Dot with a clock that you can pick up or the Echo Dot kids edition which comes in either a panda or a tiger design.
What’s it like to use the Amazon Echo (4th Gen)?
The Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is just as easy to use as all of the previous versions of this speaker. All you need to do is take it out of the box, plug it into an outlet, and follow the instructions in the Alexa app that’s available on both iOS and Android. Once you’ve connected it to your Wi-Fi you have access to the Alexa personal assistant.
With Alexa, you can do everything from controlling compatible smart home devices to ask it questions about the weather, just as you can with the Amazon Echo Buds (2nd Gen) when connected to the Alexa app. I was able to play music directly from the speaker just by asking Alexa and the assistant was also helpful with controlling playback. If you’d rather not use Alexa there are also buttons built into the top of the speaker for playback. You’ll get the action button, a mute button, and two volume buttons as well.
It has a unique orb-like design that might not be for everyone, but I love it.
The speaker itself weighs 986 grams and is a large sphere wrapped in a nice fabric. The design and build of the speaker is probably one of my favorite parts of the speaker. Its orb shape makes it fairly unique among the selection of smart speakers. The circular shape limits the spaces that you can comfortably fit it in, but once you find a good spot, it’ll blend right in.
An LED ring along the bottom lights up blue when you activate Alexa, providing you with immediate feedback as to whether the speaker registered your voice. On the back of the speaker, you’ll find the power input and an aux input. A threaded universal mount on the base will come in handy if you plan to add this to an existing speaker setup.
The microphones here are surprisingly good at picking up my voice even with music playing at relatively high volumes. Unfortunately, I don’t have any smart home gadgets to test it with but Alexa is fully compatible with plenty of services like Philips Hue lights and of course Amazons’ own Firestick. If you’re a fan of Google Chromecast or YouTube, using either with the Echo is a process that requires skills (the equivalent of apps for Alexa) to make the process possible.
Skills are the equivalent of apps for Alexa.
The process is even murkier with YouTube and YouTube Music, my streaming services of choice. Thankfully, Spotify does work fine which is good news for anyone who doesn’t want to use Amazon Music HD as their main streaming service. Basically, you’ll want to do a quick check to make sure the services and products that you rely on are fully compatible with the Echo (4th Gen).
Can you turn off the microphone?
Yes, you can use the hardware mute switch to disable the microphone. When you click it the microphone will turn off and the LED ring along the bottom of the speaker will glow red. While the microphone is muted you won’t be able to access Alexa even if you manually click the multifunction button, but you can still stream music to it via a smartphone.
How do you connect to the Amazon Echo (4th Gen)?
Connecting to play music on the Echo (4th Gen) is easy. All you need to do is plug the speaker in and download the Amazon Alexa app. The app will walk you through the process of adding a new device to your Wi-Fi network to get it set up to use. If you’re trying to connect any smart home appliances the process is a little more involved but still relatively straightforward. Just follow these steps:
- Open the Amazon Alexa app.
- Click on the Devices tab on the bottom row.
- Click on the + icon on the top right and select “Add Device.”
- Select the kind of device you’re trying to connect and follow the instructions.
The Echo (4th Gen) is compatible with many smart home devices so chances are any device you’re looking to set up is compatible. Still, you might want to double-check that your specific device is compatible with Alexa. Once the speaker is connected to your Wi-Fi you can play music with Amazon Music and audiobooks with Audible. You can of course change it to something like Spotify by downloading an Alexa skill, but Amazon sets its services as the default when you first plug it in. The Echo (4th Gen) is also compatible with Apple Music, Apple Podcasts, Pandora, Deezer, SiriusXM, Tidal, and Vevo.
If you prefer not to use your voice, the Echo (4th Gen) has Spotify Connect built-in so that you can play music directly from the Spotify app without needing to use Alexa at all. I found this useful when I had the mic muted but still wanted to listen to music. The Echo (4th Gen) also has Bluetooth 5.0 so you can use it like a normal Bluetooth speaker as well if your source device can’t connect to Wi-Fi.
How do you charge the Amazon Echo (4th Gen)?
You don’t! Despite having Bluetooth 5.0, the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) isn’t a portable speaker. This needs to be plugged into an outlet at all times via the 30W adapter on the back. The power cable that comes with the speaker is all white and fairly long too, so you shouldn’t have too many issues reaching an outlet.
Do you need the Alexa app to use the Echo 4th Gen?
Yes! Even though this is a smart speaker with a voice assistant you’ll likely be using the app to get a lot done as it lets you control almost everything. Not to mention that you need it for the initial setup process. The app lets you control volume, pair devices via Bluetooth, add a second speaker or subwoofer, set up multiroom groups, set alarms, select whether you’re using the aux as an input or an output, and plenty more. You can also download more Alexa skills to give your speaker even more functionality.
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Pro tip: I would recommend turning on “Follow-up Mode” in device settings so that you don’t need to repeat the wake word after you’ve asked the speaker a question. So after you’ve asked Alexa a question it will answer and then automatically listen to for a few seconds to see if you have a follow-up question. It’s a small feature that is surprisingly practical in day-to-day usage.
How does the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) sound?
The Amazon Echo (4th Gen) sounds significantly better than previous generations of Echo speakers thanks to its larger drivers. This Echo has three drivers in total: two 20mm tweeters and a single 76mm neodymium woofer. The large size of the woofer means that the lows here pack a punch.
You can see this if you look at the frequency response graph where there is a good amount of emphasis in the range of 40-100Hz. The rhythmic bass kicks throughout the song Bustelo by Ratatat are easy to follow, but they do sound a little too strong for my personal taste. That said, two other people that walked in while I was using the speaker commented on how good the speaker sounded, and I think that’s in large part due to the bass. The extra emphasis makes the speaker sound bigger than it is, but that comes at the expense of the mids. There’s a pretty significant drop-off in the middle frequencies that make vocals sound less clear than on something like the Google Nest Audio.
This was somewhat noticeable in the song Can I Believe You by Fleet Foxes where vocals sometimes sounded lower in volume than I’m typically used to when listening to the song on other speakers or in headphones. That de-emphasis extends to the highs as well. Highs never approach harshness even at high volumes but cymbals and hi-hats don’t sound super clear as a result. You can hear them but a lot of the reverb that introduces a sense of space is cut off.
Should you get the Amazon Echo (4th Gen)?
If you’re looking for a smart speaker that sounds good and gives you access to all of the devices compatible with Alexa, then yes, the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is definitely a good pick-up, and one that is known to go on promotion from time to time. Not only does it look cool but it also sounds really good and won’t break the bank.
Most people will be happy with the extra bass response, especially when compared to something like the Google Nest Audio which has a less dramatic low end. As long you live (or plan to live) in an Amazon world with Firesticks and Alexa-compatible smart home devices sprinkled throughout or your house, the Amazon Echo (4th Gen) is a great choice. It does everything that people have come to expect from Amazon Echo speakers but with a new quirky design and better sound. Not bad for just $99 USD.
However, there is a cost to smart speakers beyond what you pay at the sticker, and that cost is privacy. While many are all too eager to trade a few nebulous privacy concerns for some seriously useful features: it may not be the right call for you. Just be sure to know what you’re getting into if you’re not already hooked on the smart speaker life. We won’t judge you if you go ahead and grab one, but just be smart about your data privacy, okay?
What should you get instead of the Amazon Echo?
Alternatives at this price point aren’t exactly plentiful, and Amazon’s smart services are one of the most popular for things like smart home control. Anyone fully entrenched in the world of Apple hardware can grab the Apple HomePod mini for $99 USD. You get plenty of useful features like intercom functionality and multiroom playback, but many things are exclusive to Apple hardware (typical).
If you’re looking for a step up, Amazon’s Echo Studio is the only real step up with the latest hardware. Double the price at $200 USD, it’s a bit of a stretch but offers better sound quality.
Frequently Asked Questions
You unmute the microphone the same way that you mute it—by pressing the button on top of the speaker.