Hands-on review of the new earphones.
Wire-free earphones are really hitting their stride, with a wide range of solid choices available for $50 to $300, each with their own unique features and benefits. Amazon’s new Echo Buds try to offer a little bit of everything, and they largely succeed. These true wireless earphones have hands-free Alexa voice control, Bose-tuned active noise reduction, and a remarkably comfortable fit, all for just $129.99. Audio performance isn’t quite as strong as other models in this price range, but if you want a pair of wireless earbuds that check pretty much every box in the features department, the Echo Buds are an amazing deal.
The Echo Buds are simple, unassuming little earpieces with plain black plastic shells and no Amazon branding. Three pairs of silicone eartips and three pairs of ear fins can fit on or around each earpiece. After finding the right combination of tips and fins, I found the Echo Buds to offer one of the best fits I’ve experienced in this category, staying snugly and properly angled in my ear canal without any irritation or tightness.
Despite the comfortable fit, be careful if you wear the Echo Buds at the gym; they have only an IPX4 rating, which means they’re sweat-resistant, but you can’t rinse them off. To be fair, the Bose SoundSport Free has the same rating, though the Jaybird Vista and JBL UA True Wireless Flash are both fully waterproof (IPX7).
The back panel of each earpiece is sensitive to touch, and four input gestures are available: double-tap either panel, or tap and hold either panel. You can program what these gestures do in the Alexa app, including switching between noise-reducing and pass-through modes, manually activating Alexa or Google Assistant/Siri (depending on your phone), play/pause, skip a track, go back a track, or mute the microphones. There are no volume controls on the Buds, though you can tell Alexa to adjust the volume, which we’ll detail in the next section.
According to Amazon, the Echo Buds can last up to five hours on a charge, which is pretty average for wire-free earphones. The included charging case adds another three full charges, and provides a place to keep the earphones when not in use. It’s a small, flip-open matte black plastic box about the size of an Altoids tin, bearing the only real Amazon branding on the product: a glossy black smiling arrow symbol on the top. The right side of the case has a micro USB port for charging, and the bottom has a button for displaying battery level, which appears as a multicolor LED on the front. Be careful if you use the earfins; getting the charging contacts to sit properly against the pins in the case can be a bit fiddly when they’re on.
The big deal with the Echo Buds is hands-free Alexa access. Once you set things up in the Alexa app, you can use then issue voice commands without needing to touch a thing. Just say, “Alexa,” and wait for a chime, then ask a question or speak a command just as if you were talking to any other Amazon device.
As long as the Echo Buds are connected to your phone and your phone has an internet connection, Alexa will provide nearly all of the functions that it offers on Echo smart speakers. That includes answering questions for general information like weather and traffic, checking calendars and to-do lists, controlling smart home devices, and using various third-party skills, from calling a cab or ordering pizza. Alexa will also play audiobooks from Audible and music from Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Pandora, TuneIn, and Tidal. Other audio apps can play through the earphones over Bluetooth, but you have to use your phone. You can also use Alexa to dial phone numbers or send texts after you sync your contacts with Amazon.
The Echo Buds provide a unique hands-free unique benefit that doesn’t apply to Echo speakers: Navigation. You can ask Alexa to look up a location, and it will provide turn-by-turn walking directions (because you shouldn’t wear earphones while driving).
Bose Noise Reduction
The other notable aspect of the Echo Buds is the inclusion of Bose active noise reduction. Amazon is quick to point out that this isn’t the same as active noise cancellation (ANC), like you find in the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 ($400), so you shouldn’t expect the all-encompassing elimination of outside sounds here like you can on the company’s ANC products.
The active noise reduction on the Echo Buds indeed reduces noise, but doesn’t produce silence. The Echo Buds won’t quiet make office chatter sound like a distant whisper, but they reduce it quite a bit, as well as the loud rumble of trains and other vehicles. In testing, I found it to be about on par with Sony’s WF-1000XM3 earphones ($230), which is impressive. This is partly due to the excellent, secure fit of the Echo Buds; Sony’s ANC circuitry might be capable, but I couldn’t get the fin-free WF-1000XM3 earpieces to fit securely enough to ensure consistent noise isolation.
Playing our bass test track, The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” at maximum (and borderline unsafe) volume levels, the bass synth notes and kick drum hits don’t distort at all on the Echo Buds. The kick drum manages to feel surprisingly booming, for a deep, round sound that doesn’t quite reach into sub-bass levels, but comes close.
This depth, strangely, only seems to apply with very deep sub-bass, as more modest bass levels sound underserved by the Echo Buds. In The Crystal Method’s “Born Too Slow,” the driving bass drum sounds slightly poppy, but it doesn’t get much power in the lower frequencies to really make it thump. The vocals stay in the front of the mix, which is slightly odd for a fast, electronic track like this. It isn’t a bad sound at all, but the lower and higher frequencies are a bit lacking.
Yes’ “Roundabout” sounds very good on the Echo Buds, though it also shows the earphones’ relative limits in the extremes. The busy mix is nicely balanced, letting the hi-hat, vocals, and guitar strums get enough attention against the bassline, though they lack much of a crisp edge to help them retain their position and avoid getting slightly muddled. The opening acoustic guitar plucks get some string texture, but there isn’t significant high-frequency finesse, and the notes don’t get much low-mid resonance, either. It’s a capable sound signature that lets every part of the mix come through, but it doesn’t shine with clarity or depth.
Buds of All Trades
The Amazon Echo Buds offer more for the price than any other pair of wire-free earphones we’ve tested, with a comfortable, exceptionally secure fit, hands-free Alexa voice control, and solid active noise reduction for $130. They even sound pretty good, though they don’t quite have the sonic finesse or power of similarly priced options like the $130 Samsung Galaxy Buds or $120 JBL Endurance Peak. If you want wire-free listening that offers a bit of everything, however, the Echo Buds are an excellent choice.
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