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Amazon Echo Buds review: great sound at the right price

Amazon’s first truly wireless earbuds exceed expectations

Amazon’s new Echo Buds are the company’s first wireless earbuds. They put Alexa in your ear. They include Bose’s proprietary noise reduction technology to help eliminate outside noises. And the most surprising part is just how good they sound. The Echo Buds cost $129.99, which is a remarkably aggressive price compared to what manufacturers like Sony, Jaybird, Google, Microsoft, and other earbud makers are charging — especially if you want noise reduction.

Apple has managed to steal some of Amazon’s thunder with the new $249 AirPods Pro, which offer active noise cancellation, a customizable fit, and upgraded audio, plus all of the usual AirPod features. But the Echo Buds have exceeded my expectations and definitely warrant some excitement. They don’t offer every bell and whistle (like wireless charging), but I’ve been using them for a little under a week, and even if you never bother using any of the Alexa functionality, these are worth serious consideration.

The Echo Buds are nondescript, come in only black, and lack the signature blue LED that you might expect from an Echo / Alexa product. When worn, they don’t look much different from Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, just slightly larger. There are no physical buttons on the buds — just a touch-sensitive circle on each one that’s easy to find with a finger. Depending on how you want to customize the tap controls, you can change tracks, activate Siri / Google Assistant, or enable noise reduction with a tap, two taps, or by tapping and holding. Unfortunately, you can’t control volume directly on the buds; you’ll have to ask Alexa to crank it up or adjust volume on your phone directly.

Three sizes of silicone tips come in the box (with custom-fit Comply foam tips available separately), and Amazon also includes wing tips that might be useful if you plan to run or exercise with the buds. I noticed that using the largest wing tips could sometimes prevent the Echo Buds from fully docking in their case if I wasn’t paying attention. Even when I followed Amazon’s instructions to carefully line up the wing tip with its respective Echo Bud. This isn’t a problem with the medium and small wing tips. In my case, the largest ear tips kept the Echo Buds in snugly without needing the help of the wings, and they didn’t start to slip out or dislodge while eating or talking, which can sometimes happen if you’ve got an imperfect fit.

The Echo Buds are IPX4 water and sweat resistant, and Amazon says they can last for up to five hours of continuous listening before needing a recharge. The carrying case, which is neither the largest nor the smallest I’ve seen, has enough power to give the buds 20 hours of total listening time.

By far the worst part of the Echo Buds is found on that case, however. Amazon made the very unfortunate decision to use an ancient Micro USB charging port instead of USB-C or wireless charging. In late 2019. I’d managed to go all USB-C before reviewing these earbuds, but Amazon isn’t ready to let go of the past. This company has shown an extreme reluctance to change connectors; the new Fire HD 10 tablet is Amazon’s first USB-C device. I’m sure Amazon’s decision is backed by customer data, but it still comes off as stubborn when competitors are all using USB-C (or Lightning in Apple’s case).

I think it’d be easier to overlook the Micro USB annoyance if the Echo Buds case was capable of wireless charging and you could just ignore cables altogether. But it’s not, so you can’t. Here’s hoping that Amazon eventually releases a USB-C case with wireless charging — ideally before these buds get refreshed a year from now, but we’ll see. The included case also has the kind of matte finish that scratches and gets scuffed almost immediately.

Having Alexa in your ear is convenient, but unlike the rest of the Echo lineup, it’s not a headline feature. It’s easy to use these earbuds and pay no mind to Amazon’s voice assistant whatsoever. I think that’s a good thing because, in large part, Alexa feels redundant in this particular use case. If you do want to avoid Alexa completely, you can disable the wake word in Amazon’s Alexa app. The earbuds also let you mute the microphones, but that affects phone calls, too. I think there’s ample reason to be wary of wearing Alexa everywhere you go. To that point, Amazon says it has several privacy protections in place to keep the Echo Buds from spying on you:

The Voice Activity Detector senses when you’re talking, enabling wake word detection. We then use near-field beamforming technology to focus the microphones on your mouth to detect your speech and reject any background noise.

Echo Buds were designed such that Alexa wake word functionality is only available when at least one earbud has been connected via Bluetooth to a compatible mobile device with the Alexa app open and detected in-ear by an on-device sensor. Additionally, there are multiple ways to mute wake word functionality on Echo Buds. In the app, the 凯发k8官方旗舰店home screen will allow you to mute or unmute Alexa with just a click. You can also set up an on-device gesture that mutes the microphones when you press and hold either earbud. And finally, if you take both earbuds out of your ears Alexa will be muted. When Alexa is muted, no audio is streaming to the cloud and Alexa will not be able to process your request.

I’ve mostly used Alexa to add items to my grocery store shopping list and check the weather. Everything I do with it is already possible one way or another with Siri or Google Assistant. Triggering Alexa with my voice isn’t any faster than Apple’s “Hey Siri” or saying “OK Google” on headphones with Assistant built in.

Aside from the basics, the Echo Buds let you instantly Drop In on Echo speakers — either your own or those belonging to friends / family — with an audio call. Or you can record announcements that’ll be played back on your speakers at 凯发k8官方旗舰店home. But as long as you’ve got the Alexa app on your phone, you can already do all of this with any set of earbuds — albeit not hands-free. It’s nice to be able to check whether your smart lock is latched without pulling out your phone, but I don’t think Alexa will be what sells the Echo Buds.

But their noise reduction and sound quality definitely will.

Amazon collaborated with Bose on the Echo Buds, which feature the latter 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 will eliminate annoying hums and cut down on street noise, but it’s not the same kind of isolated feeling you get when wearing over-ear noise-canceling headphones. Even Bose itself says its upcoming wireless earbuds (due sometime next year) will outperform the Echo Buds in this regard.

But don’t let that put a damper on your expectations. I’m still quite satisfied with what the Echo Buds can do. You can definitely tell the difference between the noise isolation you get just from wearing the buds and the increased peace and quiet that comes with enabling noise reduction. By default, you can switch between noise reduction and pass-through ambient audio mode with a double tap of either earbud.

In the Alexa app, you’re able to adjust the volume of the piped-in pass-through audio, but noise reduction is an on / off affair. Amazon’s ambient mode isn’t as natural-sounding as I’ve recently heard from Bose’s Noise Canceling Headphones 700 or the Beats Solo Pros. There’s a distinctly digital quality to everything, and pass-through can get almost disorienting if you turn it on in a loud restaurant or bar. But it gets the job done fine if you need to have a quick chat with someone or hear an announcement.

Much to my surprise, the Echo Buds sound wonderful and are leaps and bounds better than the expectations I had coming in. The low end packs a wallop with strong, bumping bass. But it’s not bloated, and the overall tonal balance put out by the dual-balanced Knowles armature drivers is very pleasing. I like them considerably more than Sony’s expensive noise-canceling earbuds. More than the Galaxy Buds. I like them more than Jaybird’s Vista earbuds, which were my general recommendation at this price point — until now.

The Echo Buds aren’t flawless, and I’m sure some self-described audiophiles will say the sound signature is too blatantly tailored for modern music. And it is a perfect fit for Taylor Swift’s Lover album. But the Echo Buds competently handle music spanning decades and genres, from Paul Simon to Post Malone. They deliver a lively listen that makes the debut album by The Highwomen shine, with nice separation between the four vocalists and a wide placement of instruments. The buds support AAC and SBC Bluetooth codecs, and you can make basic EQ adjustments in the Alexa app. If there’s one weakness, it’s that the Echo Buds never get super loud — if that’s your thing — but they offered more than enough volume for my liking. Audio pauses automatically if an earbud is removed, and either of the Echo Buds can be used individually if you want.

The other half to the sound quality equation is how the microphones handle voice calls. I’ve had no complaints and people said I sounded clear when talking to them with the Echo Buds, so Amazon’s beamforming mics and speech detection seem to produce good results. This is an area where Samsung’s Galaxy Buds and even the Powerbeats Pro really struggle.

Like any version 1.0 product, the Echo Buds aren’t without their bugs. I’ve had more than a few instances where saying “Alexa” got no response. (You’ve got to speak up when using voice commands in general.) Occasionally, I’ve heard a notification sound / chime while music is playing for no obvious reason. And you’ll notice that when you adjust volume with noise reduction enabled, your music will sound different for a second or two before everything levels back out. (Amazon says that one is by design and a side effect of the noise reduction tech.) And I must mention that on my iPhone, I’ve noticed some audio / video delay when watching select apps — but not all — including YouTube. This shouldn’t be the case, according to Amazon.

Those minor issues and the curse of Micro USB aside, I’m downright impressed with the Echo Buds. They’re Amazon’s first earbuds, yes, but their fantastic sound quality shows the strides 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 are no doubt going to have a huge impact on the wireless earbuds category, but Amazon has managed to do a lot right on its first time out. And I think the $130 price is going to hit the right buttons for a lot of people when they’re comparing the Echo Buds against $200 and $250 options from other brands.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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