Amazon Echo: Sorry, you're no SONOS

Amazon's entry into the home entertainment market is an interesting first try, but the company needs to bring the price down and expand its content ecosystem for it it be competitive with other cloud connected home devices.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

My longtime friend and ZDNet colleague loves his new Amazon Echo. He also hates it. But also wants to buy two more of them.

Typical Gewirtz. What an easily distracted, ADD-addled new shiny toy-obsessed edge case freak.

I love him to death.

Like David, I also took advantage of the early Amazon Prime offer to buy an Echo at a special introductory price of $99.

However, the regular price of the device is $199. Those of us who were able to purchase the device at the special introductory pricing had around a four month turnaround time before we could get ours, unless you were lucky enough to be fast tracked into the program, like James Kendrick, who is addicted to his own Echo, and has been using the product for five months.

In a nutshell, here's my position on Echo: It's a cool product, but its price is too high considering the current functionality ($99 to $149 would make more sense, particularly for existing Primes) and Amazon needs to beef up that functionality as well as its music content ecosystem in order for it to be a market leading connected device.

To put this in the proper perspective, I was already an owner of multiple cloud-connected music and entertainment devices before ordering my Echo.

I own two SONOS Play:3 devices, which live in my office and in my kitchen, a SONOS Playbar in my living room, and a SONOS Play:1, the last of which is probably the Echo's most direct competitor, that resides in my wife's office and also acts as a wireless remote speaker when I entertain people on the patio.

At $199 (or $349 for a connected pair) the SONOS Play:1 has a lot going for it. In terms of audio output and sound quality it is about on par with the Echo, and the speaker drivers are also about the same size and capacity.

To be fair to the Echo, the SONOS Play:1 doesn't have voice recognition. Nor does it have the ability to control and connect to home automation devices, like the Echo does. Unlike Gewirtz, I didn't have any compatible devices for the Echo to control, so I can't comment on that functionality.

Like the Echo, a SONOS component can now directly access a Wi-Fi network, although it is recommended that at least one component in a multi-room configuration is Ethernet-connected.

This is partly by design. The SONOS system is engineered so that one speaker component is wired Ethernet-connected to a router or a Wi-Fi bridge device to provide a reliable stream, and the rest of the speakers are connected to that first device via a "Mesh" wireless network, so that audio can be simultaneously streamed to multiple rooms at the same time.

Not only does this allow for all of the sound in all the rooms to be in sync or for each room to play content independently, but it also enables the SONOS multi-room system to be quickly re-configured for wireless surround sound, such as when combined with a SONOS Playbar.

In addition to multi-room capability which Echo lacks, SONOS components have access to a much wider range of streaming services than Echo does. The Echo can currently talk to Amazon Prime Music, Amazon Music (Cloud Drive), Pandora, iHeartRadio and TuneIn.

With the exception of Amazon Prime Music, SONOS includes the same service connectivity Echo has, but has more streaming media partnerships, including Slacker, Spotify and SiriusXM, just to name a few.

Essentially, I bought an Echo because I didn't have a speaker device that could leverage my Prime Music content other than my PCs and my iOS devices, and I was able to buy one for the cheap introductory price of $99.

Why Amazon is making it so difficult for SONOS and other dedicated streaming devices to plug into their Prime Music ecosystem I have no idea, considering that the real value to Amazon is their Prime membership signups.

Gewirtz's criticism's of the Echo's voice recognition is valid. When it works, it's a beautiful thing. But when it fails, it's spectacularly funny and often frustrating. The other big issue is that around volume level 7 or 8, depending on the source content and the size of the room, you end up yelling at Echo to tell it to lower the volume or to accept a voice command.

My wife likens it to screaming at a teenager to turn their stereo down.

Due to this issue, I prefer using the included remote to issue voice commands and control volume and advance tracks rather than speaking to the device directly. Additionally, to get the most out of Prime Music and connected services, I find the iOS/Android app for the Echo to be more flexible and more accurate for choosing content.

One omission that I found surprising from Echo was that the device is unable to read Kindle books, considering that it is already able to do text to voice with news reports from various sources.

I think this would be a relatively easy feature to add, and would allow many Kindle readers to enjoy an alternative method of reading their books, particularly after extended periods of reading that can produce eyestrain or for those with accessibility needs.

Overall, I think Echo is a good first entry for Amazon into the connected music devices market, but it's going to have to up its game to compete with more mature products such as SONOS, and I think that should include a price reduction.

What would you like to see more from Amazon Echo? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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