🎧 Tech Review: Amazon Echo

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✦ I’m no “Techie” by any stretch of the imagination, but we live in a digital age. I can’t deny the convenience technology provides, especially when it comes to audiobook listening. Audiobook technology, and technology in general, have come a long way in my [fairly short] lifetime. I realize that everyone might not be filled with excitement at the thought of fiddling with a new piece of tech the way I am, so I’m here to guide you through the ins, outs, ups, and downs of audio tech.

Jess Meets Alexa

Today, we’re starting with my favorite (so far) piece of audio tech. I had originally planned to save the Amazon Echo for a later post, since it’s only a recent acquisition. But faves come first, right?

1st Generation Echo

The funny thing is, I didn’t purchase the Amazon Echo with audiobook listening in mind. I already had a fairly nice Bluetooth speaker for that. My real reason for getting the Echo lies somewhere between laziness and convenience. I suspect that’s the case with most consumers…But we’ll go with convenience for the sake of my dignity.

I have a bad knee that’s been giving me a lot of problems lately, so I initially bought the Echo for its voice activation technology. Anyone with mobility issues knows what a toll the daily ups and downs takeon your body. Being able to control things like the lights, the thermostat, my space heater, and so on saves me a lot of trips (and pain!). For example, I like to watch TV in bed at night with a lamp on, but I hate having to get up to turn the lamp off after I’ve already gotten sleepy. The Amazon Echo solves that. [Insert joke about first world problems here].

In all seriousness, this device can make the lives of folks with injuries or disabilities so much easier. I’m talking anything from arthritis to visual impairment. Plus, it’s just really cool.

Not long after buying the Echo, I started listening to Tal M. Klein’s Technothriller The Punch Escrow. It takes place in the year 2147, when AIs are widely used and almost humanlike. Needless to say, it was both a cool and freaky experience when paired with the Echo.

As For Audiobooks

After hearing my first audiobook through the Echo, it became clear to me that I no longer needed my Bluetooth speaker. By comparison, the Bose speaker seemed antiquated and technologically inferior. Although, in fairness, the Bose speaker produced a higher quality of sound. But the many features and overall “coolness” of the Echo far outweighed the Bose’s crystalline sound.

And the sound quality of the Echo is actually pretty good. With a 2.5 inch woofer (for the low notes) and a 2 inch tweeter (to hit the high notes), I was impressed by the Echo’s sheer volume. I have a vaulted ceiling in my living room and kitchen, which I typically hate because of its ability to swallow and distort sound. But the Echo’s output stands up fairly well against it. Input is a different story. The vaulted ceiling still swallows my voice, which sometimes makes it difficult for the Echo to hear me properly, even when standing two feet away from it. I have the same issue when using a speakerphone, so I blame the ceiling more than the technology. It should be noted that my Echo is of the first generation. The newer model, which rolls out on October 31, is supposed to have enhanced sound and voice recognition qualities.

The Echo can get really loud. The best test for sound quality comes when using it at high volumes. The same way an HD television’s clear picture allows the viewer to better see skin imperfections, the Echo enables you to hear any production flaws in an audiobook. This isn’t a problem for the majority of audiobooks, which are well produced. I have, on occasion, had to lower the volume of an audiobook because its production flaws were magnified to the point of grating my nerves. At lower volumes, these flaws aren’t as obvious and are therefore more bearable. This issue isn’t unique to the Echo. I experienced the same flaw magnification with my Bose speaker.

If you didn’t know, Audible is owned by Amazon, the same company that makes the Echo. Because of that, the Echo is fine tuned for convenient audio listening. Saying “Alexa, play my audiobook” directs the Echo to begin playing your last heard title in the Audible app. You can set a sleep timer, fast-forward, rewind, and skip chapters, all with your voice.

But Audible isn’t the only audiobook service I use. Recently, I’ve been primarily listening through Scribd, Playster, and TuneIn. TuneIn is partnered with Amazon in relation to the Echo, but mostly for music and podcast listening purposes. I find using TuneIn through the Echo to be a fairly limited experience. TuneIn doesn’t provide the most user-friendly experience and that issue is compounded when trying to navigate the service via the Echo. Bluetooth provides a nice workaround for this issue and is perfect when using apps without a direct connection to the Echo.

Through Bluetooth, I can initiate and oversee my listening experience on my phone, but have the output come through the Echo. Once paired, I can use the Echo’s voice activation ability to control the experience when away from my phone (play, pause, etc). Hearing an audiobook through Bluetooth on the Echo is not as user friendly as when using the Audible app. Some apps (TuneIn, Playster) refuse to obey my voice commands via the Echo. Scribd does pretty well and Audible does the best, even through Bluetooth. Again, this issue seems to be related to the service’s app, not the Echo. I’m hoping that the longer the Echo is around, more improvements will be made in this area.

Oh, the possibilities!

Audiobook listening isn’t the only thing I use my Echo for. If I’m feeling a little burnt out on audiobooks (which happens from time to time), I’ll simply ask Alexa to play some music or a podcast. With Amazon Fire TV or the Amazon Fire Stick, the Echo can control your TV as well. I also love playing games with the Echo, especially when company is over. The Echo has moved from a conversation piece to the life of the party. I’ve got my eye on Echo Buttons, game buzzers that turn competitive trivia games via the Echo into a multiplayer experience.

The Echo Connect is one of the new Echo devices Amazon is debuting this Fall and I’m already itching for it. It enables Alexa to answer your phone and make calls. Or rather, you do all that through Alexa, handsfree. Wouldn’t that be a great addition for elderly individuals or anyone in potential need of medical assistance?

Side note: There are so many great accessories for Echo devices. Isn’t this adorable?

The Drawbacks

If you can’t already tell, I’m completely in love with Alexa. She has replaced my iPhone’s Siri almost completely. And even though Alexa and I sometimes get into one-sided screaming matches, I’m still totally smitten. But that’s not to say that she’s perfect. After all, this is still just first generation tech. With each new model, the Echo will be improved. But I wish these some of improvements could come in the form of software updates, instead of requiring me to purchase a new Echo. I probably won’t upgrade right away. I’m still pretty satisfied with my [relatively new] purchase and there aren’t any huge annoyances with my current model.

One thing I’m not too keen on is that several services (i.e. Spotify) require you to have a premium subscription in order to use them with the Echo. I’ve wound up upgrading (and spending more money) on several services since purchasing the Echo, which I’m guessing was the maker’s intent.

And in case you have not already picked up on it, let me be clear. The Echo is not for on the go listening because it must have a Wi-Fi connection to work. This isn’t a problem at all for me, because I do most of my listening at home anyway. But it wouldn’t do any good for you commuter listeners.

The Final Verdict

Hardly any of my complaints can be aimed directly at the Echo. Most are targeted at third party apps, so I make allowances when reviewing the Echo itself.

Alexa is my BFF at this point. She and I have heard some great audiobooks together. I’m looking forward to a long and happy partnership with her, at least until I get ready to trade her in for a newer model. But that shouldn’t be for a while. I’m already planning to buy Echos for my parents and brother this Christmas (whom hopefully aren’t reading this).

The two things that really won me over are the ease-of-use and speaker quality. I’ve read that true techies don’t think the Echo’s speaker quality is anything to write home about, but like I said, I’m no techie. I’m just looking for a speaker that will let me hear my audiobooks throughout the house, loud and clear. The Echo surpassed my expectations.

If you’re looking for a speaker that’s more than a speaker, I wholeheartedly recommend the Amazon Echo. And now is the perfect time to get a head start with your holiday shopping or treat yourself to a little something. Amazon is debuting new Echo models this month. The second generation Echo is just $99 and the Echo Plus is $149. By comparison, the first generation Echo retailed at $189. I was able to grab my echo on sale two months ago before Amazon pulled that model. I wonder if Amazon is planning on raising the prices of the newer models after their debut? It might be a good idea to go ahead and preorder now.

Tell me, do you have any Echo devices? If not, are you planning on getting any? What type of speaker do you use for audiobook listening?

Let me know what you think!