Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has been making herself at home in wireless headphones of various shapes and sizes for a while now, so it was only a matter of time before Amazon itself got involved.
And sure enough, amid the tornado of new Echo products at the company’s Seattle event this week, we were introduced to the Echo Buds, Amazon’s first wearable, hands-free Alexa product.
They’re true wireless earbuds packed with mics aplenty to accurately pick up your voice commands. You can summon Alexa to control your music, podcast or Audible audiobook playback, check the weather or depress yourself with the headlines, all without lifting a finger.
Of course, none of this would matter if the Buds sounded rubbish, but we were fairly impressed with their sonic ability in our brief hands-on time, and Amazon has teamed up with the ambient noise-banishing wizards at Bose to ensure you can hear them wherever you are. Read on for our full impressions.
Design: bulbous buds
Amazon has opted for a minimalist, if not particularly stylish design with the Echo Buds. They’re plastic and all black, save for the blue or red ear tips, of which you get three sizes, and are much chunkier than AirPods, though not heavy in the ear.
There are no physical controls on the buds, with all of the hard work being assigned to Alexa. A volume rocker would have been nice, but hey ho.
Crucially, we found them to be comfortable and secure in fit, but that isn’t a universal statement. As with any earphones, you’ll want to try before you buy if possible.
The Echo Buds come with a strangely enormous charging case. It’s not a patch on Apple’s equivalent, but the magnetic connectors mean you won’t waste any time trying to slot them back into place.
Annoyingly, you’re stuck with Mini-USB for charging. The Echo Buds are sweat resistant and IPX4 rated, so they’ll take a splash and live to tell the tale. If you’re crazy enough to run in torrential rain, though, they probably won't be so lucky.
Features: Let’s ear it for Alexa
The Echo Buds’ headline feature is undoubtedly their hands-free Alexa capability. Each bud has two outer microphones and one inner mic that work in unison to reduce ambient noise and ensure Alexa can always hear you clearly.
And that’s important, because you’re going to be speaking to her a lot. Rather than being an optional feature, Alexa is central to the experience of using the Echo Buds, so you’d better be comfortable with talking to an AI in the supermarket.
Fortunately, the functionality seems to have been implemented really well. It was fairly noisy in the demo room we were in, but Alexa didn’t force us to repeat ourselves. There was the occasional bug, but that's to be expected pre-release.
You’ll know when the Earbuds are awaiting a command (unlike hands-free Siri on the second generation AirPods, where there’s no audio indicator) and at least in the brief time we spent wearing them there was barely a hitch.
From asking the AI to shuffle Ed Sheeran songs (shudder) and picking out Harry Potter audiobooks, to checking our non-existent calendars, Alexa didn’t embarrass herself. Obviously we’ll need to test the buds in a number of increasingly challenging scenarios before offering a proper verdict, but the initial signs are good.
In our demo we naturally listened to songs on Amazon Prime Music, but voice commands work with Spotify and Apple Music too.
The other significant feature is the Bose-provided active noise reduction tech built into the Echo Buds. While this isn’t the same as proper noise cancellation that you’ll get in Bose’s over-ear cans, it was really quite impressive, successfully reducing the chatter of excitable tech journalists to a relatively faint hum.
Double tapping the bud triggers the noise reduction mode, and double tapping again enables passthrough. You can tweak how much ambient noise you allow to enter the buds in the Alexa app, something you’ll want to do, as the highest setting seemed pretty extreme. Hopping between mode each is seamless, though, which is you’re great as you’re probably going to be doing so quite often.
Should you prefer bossing around a different voice assistant, you can also tap and hold your Echo Buds to access your phone’s native voice services, such as Siri or Google Assistant.
Sound quality and battery life: good for the price
The Echo Buds have drivers in each earbud, with the design apparently inspired by in-ear monitors used by professional musicians. Amazon set out to make headphones with well-weighted bass, solid mids and crisp high frequencies.
Although it’s too early to say if it succeeded, we were pretty impressed with the Echo Buds. Certainly they produced a more detailed and impactful sound than the AirPods, not to mention a superior bass performance. Unspectacular sure, but you have to bear in mind the competitive price tag.
Battery life is a fairly unremarkable five hours on a full charge, with another 15 afforded by the charging case. We’ll see how those numbers stack up when get a pair for ourselves.
Amazon Echo Buds initial verdict
As they enter an increasingly overcrowded market, it’s too early to say whether or not the Echo Buds will be a success. But when you marry their impressive feature set with the low price, you’d be surprised if they weren’t.
Of course, the hands-free Alexa stuff is only great if it works. You only need the tech to fail you once or twice in public before you give up on using it, and suddenly the product is a lot less interesting, even with Bose’s clever noise reduction.
But based on first impressions, we're optimistic about these Alexa-infused earbuds. Full review coming soon.