Amazon’s Echo Speaker is a cross between Siri and a jukebox with the brainpower to pay your mortgage, read the latest news headlines, and naturally, order items directly from Amazon. Behind the Echo is Alexa, Amazon’s Siri-like digital assistant, which just celebrated her second birthday. As part of the celebration, Amazon and Best Buy are taking $40 off the $180 device — a deal rarely seen — for one day only.
In its simplest form, the Echo is a cylindrical, wireless speaker that stands about 9 inches tall. Using the Alexa app, users connect the Echo to their Wi-Fi network and their Amazon account. Within seconds, Echo is up and running. The speaker’s built-in microphone connects you to Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service, a versatile AI capable of controlling nearly your entire home through the power of voice commands.
For instance, Echo has access to Amazon’s Prime music service and any music stored in your Amazon account, including digital copies of any CDs you may have ordered from Amazon in the past. That means you can instantly start streaming music directly from the Echo.
The Echo can also stream from other popular services like iHeartRadio, Spotify, or Pandora — you’ll have to set them up via the Alexa app for Alexa to access your account.
To get Alexa’s attention, you need to call out “Alexa” followed by a command. For instance, “Alexa, play Bloc Party,” will have Alexa stream all songs by the band Bloc Party. While music is streaming, you can give Alexa further commands to raise/lower volume (i.e. “Alexa, volume 5”), skip a song, repeat, pause, and so forth. A few weeks ago, Amazon announced that Echo owners — who are also Prime members — will be able to subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for just $4 per month, instead of the $8 per month price for non-Echo owners. The catch is you’ll only be able to stream from the Echo device.
Performance-wise, we found the speaker’s sound quality is good enough. Bass response isn’t as deep or prominent as other standalone speakers, but other devices don’t speak back to you. It’s good enough for a small room, like a bedroom, or a small living room.
While music is a huge part of the Echo device, Alexa can also answer other questions. You can ask her random fact-based questions (“how fast can a cheetah run”) or measurement conversions. Alexa can also tell you the weather, set up multiple alarms/reminders, and create to-do lists. Alexa also has ambitions of becoming your smart home’s control center. Google-owned Nest announced it’s collaborating with Amazon to give Alexa control of its devices, as is Nest’s rival Vivint. Since its launch in June 2015, Alexa has been supplied with over 300 skills by third party developers. There are even rumors Alexa may receive an update this fall that gives it push notifications.
No matter how you use it, the Echo is a fun device that quickly becomes like an extended member of the family. For today only, Amazon and Best Buy are offering the rarely-discounted device for just $140.