Amazon's New Echo Buds Are Annoyingly Good for the Price

Illustration for article titled Amazon's New Echo Buds Are Annoyingly Good for the Price
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Amazon is trying its hand at earbuds again after stumbling out of the gate with its first pair of Echo Buds in 2019. The improvements, I’m mildly irritated to say, are good.

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Amazon’s hardware is all over the place: Its Kindle lineup is excellent but still sports microUSB ports, its smart displays are very good but also mildly creepy, its first fitness tracker was horrifyingly invasive, and its first-gen Bluetooth earbuds were outdated from the jump (see, again, microUSB) and didn’t sound great. I wasn’t sure what to expect when the Alexa-forward second-gen Echo Buds arrived on my doorstep, but I have to admit, when evaluating the latest buds against the rest of the increasingly competitive pack of other Bluetooth earbuds, the new ones are priced so well that the little issues I have aren’t dealbreakers. They also sound pretty good.

And then there’s Alexa. More on that in a minute.

Boring Design Is Perfectly Fine

The Echo Buds look almost completely free of personality or branding until you peer closely at each earbud and notice the Amazon smile logo. Virtually no one wants to wear Amazon’s logo in their ear, but the black logo on black earbud is so faint as to be nearly invisible. The charging case is also branded, but the smile is on the bottom of the device so no one can see it. (I didn’t get a chance to see the white version in person, though the Amazon logo on those appears to be a little more obvious in photos.)

The buds come with four silicone eartips, which are mercifully color-coded so you know which to grab, and two sizes of wings, which are damn near impossible to get on and off the earbud and can also easily cover the charging magnets that snap the earbud to its spot in the charging case. I found that out the hard way and accidentally drained my left Echo Bud from 100% to 11% thanks to an errant wing fit, which I promptly ditched. (The wing part doesn’t help with fit all that much anyway.) But even without the wings, I got a solid fit and a nice seal, and the vented design prevents discomfort even when wearing them for a couple of hours at a time.

Each bud is touch-sensitive so you can control music playback with a tap or two (or three), and you can customize one gesture, a long hold, to control volume on either the left and right buds. Customizing that gesture means removing the ability to control Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and pass-through using a long hold, so I sacrificed that functionality.

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The Echo Buds sport an understated design—some might say boring—and fit well.
The Echo Buds sport an understated design—some might say boring—and fit well.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Surprisingly Good Audio

The biggest change Amazon made to the second-gen Echo Buds is the addition of active noise cancellation instead of the first-gen version’s noise reduction. And it works.

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I went for a 3-mile run outdoors in the heart of Hollywood to test the Echo Buds’ ability to drown out ambient street noise or filter in the outside world when I needed to for safety, and the ANC was effective. You can control the noise cancellation using a long press of either earbud, or ask Alexa to turn it on or off. Pass-through is fine, though I didn’t hear as much of the outside world as I hear with other ANC earbuds. (I should note that the Echo Buds are only rated IPx4 and are therefore not sweat-proof, so if you need earbuds that can withstand workouts, look elsewhere.)

One pass-through feature is specifically for phone calls, a setting called Sidetone you can activate in the Alexa app, which lets you more clearly hear yourself when you’re talking on the phone. This was buggy—I could hear myself marginally better than without it turned on at first, but then it quit working. The change wasn’t big enough to be super noticeable on my end, but when I was talking to my mom with Sidetone activated, she asked what I was making—the sound of my hair brushing against the earbud was so intense that it sounded like I was chopping iceberg lettuce, she said. Without Sidetone on, my hair wasn’t an issue.

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The new Echo Buds have 5.7mm drivers and three mics: two external beamforming ones and one internal. Music definitely sounds good, but I will say that the Echo Buds audio doesn’t quite as full or immersive as it does with pricier earbuds (like Apple’s AirPods Pro and the Jabra Elite 85t), but I only noticed that listening to the same song on all devices back to back. I tested this with a few different genres, from EDM to classic rock and, of course, Fiona Apple. But overall the Echo Buds are well-balanced, and the ability to adjust the EQ in the Alexa app means I can bump up the bass as much as I want.

Battery Life Could Be Better

The second-gen Echo Buds come in two versions: the $120 model, which charges via USB-C, and a pricier $140 version, which has both USB-C and supports wireless charging with any Qi charger. Apple’s second-gen AirPods with wireless charging case will cost you $199 and they don’t even offer ANC, so this seems like a steal by comparison.

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The charging isn’t particularly fast either way—the case charges about 30% in 30 minutes via USB-C or wireless charger—but 15 minutes in the case gives the earbuds themselves about two additional hours of juice, which is useful (see above, when I inadvertently drained my left earbud and had to quickly resuscitate it). Amazon promises four hours of call time on a charge and eight additional hours in the charging case with ANC and Alexa enabled, which tracked in my testing—I got a few days of battery life between listening to tunes and podcasts, going for a run, and making phone calls.

USB-C port (left) and Bluetooth pairing button (right). Quick and easy.
USB-C port (left) and Bluetooth pairing button (right). Quick and easy.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo
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Battery life improves if you turn ANC and Alexa off—6.5 hours in the buds and 19.5 hours total with the charging case. That’s on par with what you get from AirPods Pro, which are $120 more expensive than the base-model Echo Buds, but the Jabra Elite 85t remain my fave for the 25 total hours you get with ANC turned on. (The 85t are also $230, but I love them.)

But I did appreciate the fact that the case has three color-coded LED lights—one for the case itself and one for each earbud—that let you know how much battery life is left in each. You can also ask Alexa for a quick battery status update, which brings us to the Echo Buds’ marquee feature.

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Alexa’s Pros, Cons, and Privacy Concerns

Look: If you’re thinking of buying a pair of Amazon earbuds, you’re probably comfortable with Amazon as a company. Perhaps your home already has a handful of Alexa devices, despite the fact that Alexa has historically been a privacy minefield for reasons we’ve covered before—a reputation Amazon has never quite been able to shake, for good reason. While I am personally not all-in with Alexa, Amazon has made it possible to use these earbuds with no Alexa at all, or with minimal Alexa when you want it.

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Though you have to set up the Echo Buds with the Alexa app to access features like adjustable EQ and customizing the tap controls, you can also just pair the Echo Buds to your phone using the standard Bluetooth settings, no app required. There are also a handful of ways to activate Alexa but mute the assistant when you want to so that the earbuds’ microphones aren’t always capturing your audio and sending it to the cloud. First, the Alexa app has to be open and running in the background on your phone for Alexa to function. And an earbud has to actually be in your ear to activate Alexa; it won’t be listening if placed in the case or on a table, for instance. If you want to use the earbuds but mute Alexa, you can do so in the app or by customizing a physical gesture (long-pressing the earbud). You will hear a tone when Alexa recognizes the wake word, but there are no physical indicators.

You don’t actually have to set up Alexa at all, but if you do, you unlock a whole bunch of  features.
You don’t actually have to set up Alexa at all, but if you do, you unlock a whole bunch of features.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo
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All of that said, if Alexa knows literally all of your business and you have no qualms about that, then having the assistant directly in your ear can be useful.

Amazon’s Echo system is not my go-to jam, so I am always taken aback when I remember just how fast Alexa picks up its wake word and responds. Even better, Alexa listens to me and responds even if I’m listening to something on the Echo Buds. For instance, while cooking dinner and listening to a podcast, I asked Alexa to set a timer for me, and while the pod volume lowered a bit as I spoke, Alexa didn’t interrupt to respond—the timer was set, the timer went off, and I went about my business. (Here’s where I could complain about Siri’s, but that sad, sad horse has long since stumbled off into the sunset.)

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You can set up all the standard Alexa skills in the app to request that the assistant play music, audiobooks from Audible, add reminders to your to-do list, make phone calls—the works. That all happens quickly and easily, though I find Alexa to be most useful while bumming around at home or out on a walk (though if you’re out in public wearing a mask and no one can see you mumbling to yourself, by all means). And an Alexa Transit feature available in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago will help you plan your public transit route and give you status updates on the train or bus you’re waiting for. This hasn’t yet been flipped on where I live, in Los Angeles, but using your earbuds to plan your commute is kind of neat.

I appreciated using Alexa to do dumb little things like set timers, ask for the weather forecast, and play DJ for me—things you might have purchased an Echo smart speaker to handle, but could instead be accomplished with a pair of earbuds that can be used in your home or on the go. If your smart home is rigged with Alexa-compatible gadgets from tip to toe, you’ll likely find the Echo Buds even more useful.

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What I Don’t Like

The Echo Buds are very good for the price, but they aren’t perfect. There are a few advanced features that don’t work as well as they should, and one big thing is missing.

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Following so closely on the heels of Apple’s AirTag launch, I was surprised to find a Find My feature for the new Echo Buds in the Alexa app. It may not surprise you to learn that the Alexa Find My feature for Echo Buds is not quite as advanced as the one Apple uses for AirTags. I never lose just one earbud, but I regularly misplace the case with both earbuds tucked inside. Unless the Echo Buds charging case is open, however, it won’t play a sound (that’s because the earbuds themselves independently play sounds, and not the case itself). This is not helpful, to say the least. I have never lost an earbud charging case while it was wide open.

I don’t usually lose my earbud case like this.
I don’t usually lose my earbud case like this.
Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo
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Then there are the quibbles I have with Sidetone and battery life that I mentioned earlier.

But really, the biggest issue is the lack of a feature I really, really need from Bluetooth earbuds: the ability to connect to multiple devices. The Echo Buds can only be paired to one device at a time, which means you can’t seamlessly switch audio from your phone to your laptop, which is crucial for me. If this is also an important feature for you, what with the pandemic era’s endless phone calls and video conferences, I would recommend splurging on a pricier pair of ANC earbuds that can connect to multiple devices at once. My go-to is the Jabra Elite 85t (or the also good Elite Active 75t, which has software-based ANC that’s actually very capable). Apple’s AirPods Pro are great for iPhone users with MacBooks, though the fit is not my favorite.

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Who Should Buy Echo Buds?

As I started testing the Echo Buds, I wasn’t quite sure if they’d be any good for those of us who are either skeptical of Alexa or who avoid the assistant altogether. But they are good, especially considering the price. For $120, you get a solid-sounding pair of earbuds with capable ANC and comfortable fit, and for an extra $20 you get a wireless charging case. There are a few drawbacks—the battery life could be better, and not being able to switch devices sucks—but I’m surprised by how much I liked using these things. I don’t like them enough to fully embrace Alexa, but the good news is: You really don’t need to.

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Senior editor, consumer tech @ Gizmodo

DISCUSSION

brnpttm
brnpttmn

I still can’t justify spending more than $30 on wireless earbuds. I’ve had good luck with the cheapo brands.