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The 11 best Amazon Echo speakers: Which Alexa is right for you?

What is the best Amazon Echo speaker? The Echo Studio is ZDNet's No. 1 pick. But if you're curious about how the Echo Studio compares to all the other Echo speakers available, we've pitted it against 10 other Alexa devices from Amazon. We tested each one's sound quality, price, usability, and features to determine the best Echo speaker out of an extensive line-up.
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Reviewed by Elyse Betters Picaro

You know what Alexa does. She turns on your lights. She plays your songs. She answers your math questions. She wakes you up. She sets timers. She's your canister of helpfulness wherever your voice can be heard in your house. She's your BFF.

She's benign AI. She does everything you need, that you should be able to do yourself. And, as long as she doesn't wake up one morning, decide to take over the world, and murder us in our beds, she'll be a friend to us all.

But Alexa is more than the Echo, that black Pringles Can of Doom we met back in November 2014. Since the Echo was introduced, Amazon has been fielding a plethora of Alexas, a veritable Alexapalooza of devices. Since Alexa answers "Sorry, I don't know that one," to "Alexa, which Alexa should I buy," we figured we'd help out.

By the way, if you're confused about why I might interchangeably talk about Echos and Alexas, it's this: most Alexa-enabled devices sold by Amazon are called Echos. They all respond to the name Alexa. It's like having a litter of dogs, whose names are all Pixel. Except that Alexa is not nearly as cute, but is way less yappy.

There are now many other Alexa-enabled devices by companies other than Amazon that do not use the Echo brand but are still Alexa devices. In this article, we're only focusing on the Amazon-produced and branded products.

Amazon Echo Studio

Features: 5 speakers | Dolby Atmos | Built-in smart home hub

Our pick for the best Echo speaker is the Amazon Echo Studio. It's a high-end choice with high-fidelity sound, including 3D audio with a five-speaker setup and Dolby Atmos support. You can even pair the Studio with a second device to create a home theater-like surround sound setup. 

And, of course, the Echo Studio is Alexa-enabled, so you get all the functionalities of a smart home assistant along with that impressive sound. 

Pros:

  • Amazon's smart home ecosystem is strong 
  • Amazing sound quality 
  • Can be paired for stereo sound

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Very big
Amazon Echo Dot (fourth-generation)
Amazon

Features: 3 color options | Smart routines | Alexa Guard

Prior to the Echo, we thought it was okay to turn on our lights by touching the dirty switches on the wall. We thought it was okay to set our own alarm clocks. We thought it wasn't the height of crudeness to punch numbers into a calculator using our actual fingers. We were willing to do these simple, basic tasks ourselves.

But then we learned that we could set timers for every little thing, with impunity. We learned that having our choice of music at our fingertips no longer required actual fingers. The Echo became the least necessary, most appreciated simple helper in our home. We got to know Alexa, and she became family.

The Original Echo most closely resembled a black Pringles can. This device defined the Alexa concept. It had a ring of powerful microphones, capable of picking up commands from a distance. It had decent quality speakers for room-filling music. It was meant to be both an intelligent assistant, and a spare Bluetooth speaker.

In late 2017, the original Echo was taken off the market, replaced by a new Echo and Echo Plus, which have since been updated again. Now both the Echo and Echo Dot are spheres instead of cylinders.

I'm not sure I like the change. I don't have either in my hands yet, but both now have the lighted ring at the base of the unit instead of the top. I'm betting that's going to be a lot harder for people to see because it will be blocked by...everything.

The previous generation Echo also added the ability to change skins. That's gone away with the spherical Echo. You can choose from Charcoal, Glacier White, and Twilight Blue (which doesn't look at all like twilight and is really kind of a bluish-gray two-tone thing). Personally, I like the black look for pretty much everything, but if you're trying to make the Echo blend in with your surroundings, the alternate colors might prove appealing. That said, the spherical shape makes it harder to fit in your space than the previous cylindrical versions.

Amazon did not sacrifice sound quality when it reduced the Echo's stature. I have a 2018 Echo in my garage and its sound is strong and clear. The 4th Generation Echo's sound has improved above that, including an upward-firing woofer and dual tweeters.

The 4th Generation Echo also adds the smart hub capabilities previously only offered in the Echo Plus. A smart hub. If you're not familiar with smart home devices, this will take a second to explain. Basically, in almost all cases, when you add a smart home device (like the Alexa-controlled Philips Hue bulbs), you need to add a hub to your network to control them.

While hubs aren't that difficult to set up, one disadvantage is the extra device, wire to your router (or Wi-Fi link), and power dongle. The Echo Plus eliminates the need for this extra device for most common smart home devices. One thing to keep in mind is that the 4th Generation Echo (like the previous Echo Plus) supports the Zigbee smart home standard, but not Z-Wave. My blinds are Z-Wave, so I had to pick up a Samsung Smarthings hub to manage those.

The new 4th Generation Echo has a low power mode that will work in most configurations and uses 50% post-consumer recycled plastics. It also uses 100% post-consumer recycled fabric and 100% recycled die-cast aluminum, proving that even Big Brother can care for the environment. Finally, this model also has a 3.5mm audio jack input and output.

Pros:

  • Amazon's smart home ecosystem is strong 
  • Fun design 
  • Affordable

Cons: 

  • Sound quality is not as great
Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
Amazon

Features: 2 color options | Amazon Kids+ | Better parental controls

The Echo Dot Kid Edition has all the same features you've come to know and love with the Echo Dot, but with more kid-friendly features and better parental controls. Kids can ask Alexa questions and even get help with their homework or ask Alexa to read them a story. The Amazon Kids+ subscription will get you kid-friendly Audible books, interactive games, and access to educational skills. 

Parents can set daily time limits, filter explicit songs, and review activity in the Amazon Parent Dashboard.

Pros: 

  • Specifically made for kids 
  • One year of Amazon Kids+ for free

Cons:

  • Amazon Kids+ costs an extra $2.99/month after the trial
Amazon's 10-inch Echo Show

Features: 2 color options | 13MP camera | Auto-framing | 1280 x 800 resolution

The 10-inch Echo Show looks like it was separated at birth from a 2002 iMac G4. Except the Echo Show has a gimmick: it follows you around. Like a creep.

Review: Echo Show 10 with motion: How it feels to be followed around

No, it doesn't rove around the room under its own power (that's the Ring Always Home Cam, which flies and hasn't been released). This Echo Show spins on its base, so it's always facing you. If you've ever had a small dog stare at you with 10,000 watts of attention, all attempting to will you drop that piece of chicken, you probably know how it will feel to have the new Echo Show stalk you.

While I find the physical follow feature of the new Echo Show a little creepy, I'd love to use one in filming my YouTube videos. There are smartphone gadgets that auto-pan to follow a speaker, but with all of Amazon's great AI, the Echo Show is probably going to do a better job of it. The question is how you can capture that video for later desktop use. We'll see. It's an interesting application but certainly not mainstream.

Pros: 

  • Use display as a digital photo frame 
  • Auto-framing always keeps you centered on video calls
  • Built-in Zigbee smart home hub

Cons: 

  • Expensive
Amazon's 8-inch Echo Show

Features: HD touchscreen | Adaptive color screen | 1280 x 800 resolution

This is really the sweet-spot Echo Show. At $129, it's relatively inexpensive for what it does. It has a big enough screen that you can see what's on the other end.

Review: Amazon Echo Show 8: How one big feature changes everything

Since Amazon recently updated it with a good camera, it will no longer embarrass you on Echo or Zoom calls. And... it doesn't follow you around like an over-enthusiastic puppy who wants yet one more treat.

Pros: 

  • Same great features as the 10-inch Echo Show, but cheaper 
  • Made with sustainable materials 

Cons: 

  • No built-in Zigbee smart home hub
Amazon's 15-inch Echo Show

Features: 5 MP camera | Visual and voice ID | 1920 x 1080 resolution

But wait, there's more... or at least bigger! The latest Echo Show device is Amazon's biggest, with a full 15-inch wide 1080p screen. You can mount it on the wall and display your favorite pictures. Or you can have it be all an Echo Show can be, displaying lists, weather, news, remote cameras, and more. There will also be optional stands for the device.

Pros: 

  • Great for organization like family calendars and to-do lists 
  • Family members can create personal profiles and use visual ID and voice ID to see their specific appointments, reminders, and more

Cons: 

  • No auto-framing video feature 
Amazon's 5-inch Echo Show

Features: 3 color options | 2 MP Camera | 960 x 480 resolution

Look, it's hard to recommend the 5-inch Echo Show over the 8-inch model, even if you're saving money. The screen is smaller (and the drop from 8-inch to 5-inch is more than you'd expect when watching a video), the camera is of a substantially lower quality, and it doesn't sound as good. Really, the only reason you should get this over the 8-inch model is to save those bucks or if you don't have a space that can fit the slightly larger model.

There is a kid version of the Echo Show 5 that comes with a reptile green shell. Because kids like reptiles? I don't know. But it's green. As with the Echo Dot Kid's edition, you can pay extra to have the Echo Show provide some level of parental control services, keeping your little ones safe.

Pros: 

  • Useful as a smart alarm clock 
  • Kids version

Cons: 

  • Lacks the quality and robust features of other Echo Show devices

Weirdly odd Echos

Kudos to Amazon for experimenting with new ideas. The company offers additional Echo products in varying degrees of usefulness and weirdness. We'll just run them down quickly here because if you're buying your first Echo, none of these should be that Echo. But, if you are already considerably invested in the Alexa ecosystem, then you might want to pick one of these up.

Amazon Astro

Features: Alexa Together subscription | 20.6 pounds | 10.1-inch HD touchscreen display

So, there's this. Named after the dog in the sixties TV series The Jetsons, the Astro is an Alexa on wheels. Why? Honestly, we're not yet sure. Amazon says it's a security device that will follow unidentified intruders, but we're withholding judgment until we get one in-house and see how it performs.

The big question: why isn't this a robot vacuum with an Echo Show screen? Ah well, stay tuned. It's got an introductory price of a thousand bucks (and you have to be invited to buy it). After the intro period, it's going up to $1,449. Let us know in the comments below if you're dying to get your hands on this one.

Pros: 

  • Advanced navigation technology
  • Can follow you around the house

Cons: 

  • Only available by invitation
  • Super expensive 
Amazon Echo Auto

Features: 8 microphones | Radio voice control | Bluetooth and auxiliary connection 

This is Amazon's first attempt to get Alexa into the car and, well, it's not a barn burner. You're far better off with CarPlay than this hack of wires and aux ports. That said if you're dedicated and you only want to spend under $50, go for it.

Pros: 

  • Brings useful Alexa controls into your vehicle 
  • Hands-free controls safe for driving

Cons: 

  • Not compatible with all cars
Amazon Echo Buds (second-generation)

Features: 2 color options | Active noise cancellation | 5-hour battery life 

These $120 earbuds are basically AirPods for the rest of us, with Alexa built-in. According to our own Matthew Miller, they're not spectacular, but they also don't suck. Plus, they look like AirPods, if AirPods had been drawn to the dark side.

Pros: 

  • Sweat resistant 
  • Compatible with iOS and Android 

Cons: 

  • Touch panels can be too sensitive
Amazon Echo Frames

Features: Open-ear audio | IPX4 splash-resistant | 2 hours of talk, 4 hours of listening 

No, these aren't the AR Erikas I foretold back in Reality shock: The #FakeWorld future of ubiquitous AR. Not yet, anyway. These are just eyeglass frames with a mic/speaker built into the frame. Still, it's a step in that direction.

Pros: 

  • Prescription, blue light, and sunglass options 
  • Supports Google Assistant and Siri

Cons: 

  • Quality of the frame build could be better
  • Super expensive 

See what I mean? They're a bit weird. But if you're into Alexa, you might want to take that interest a bit further with one of the above products.

What is the best Amazon Echo?

The best Amazon Echo speaker overall is the Echo Studio. This Echo device showed to have the best sound quality, usability, and features of all the devices in Amazon's Echo lineup.

Amazon Echo speaker / Alexa device

Price

Notable Features

Amazon Echo Studio

$200

5 speakers, Dolby Atmos, built-in smart home hub

Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen)

$100

3 color options, smart routines, Alexa Guard

Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition

$60

2 color options, Amazon Kids+, better parental controls

Amazon 10-inch Echo Show

$250

2 color options, 13MP camera, auto-framing, 1280 x 800 resolution

Amazon 8-inch Echo Show

$130

HD touchscreen, adaptive color screen, 1280 x 800 resolution

Amazon 15-inch Echo Show

$250

5 MP camera, visual and voice ID, 1920 x 1080 resolution

Amazon 5-inch Echo Show

$80

3 color options, 2 MP Camera, 960 x 480 resolution

Amazon Astro

$1,550

Alexa Together subscription, 20.6 pounds, 10.1-inch HD touchscreen display

Amazon Echo Auto

$50

8 microphones, radio voice control, Bluetooth and auxiliary connection 

Amazon Echo Buds (2nd Gen)

$120

2 color options, active noise cancellation, 5-hour battery life 

Amazon Echo Frame 

$250

Open-ear audio, IPX4 splash-resistant, 2 hours of talk, 4 hours of listening 

Which Amazon Echo is right for you?

Now that you've met the Echo family let's look at which device is right for you.

If you are or want…

Then choose this Amazon Echo speaker…

If you don't have any Alexa devices yet, and you don't need to care for elderly folks or kids (or have friends who want to video chat with this technology):

Your first device should be the new Amazon Echo. It's a little more expensive, but the added speaker is worth it.

If you want an Echo but want to reduce smart home device clutter:

Also consider the new Amazon Echo. It now comes with smart hub features built into the price, and as long as you don't need Z-Wave, it can help reduce the junk factor in your house.

If you want to save money and still get an Alexa:

Get a Dot. You won't have the music-playing fidelity, but you'll have the rest of Alexa's magic.

If you have kids and are concerned they'll treat your Dot like a real baseball:

Get the Kid's Edition. You'll have better parental controls, and when Junior inevitably launches the Dot against a wall at 94 miles per hour, you can rest easy knowing Amazon will simply send you a replacement.

If you already have an Echo and want to add-on a device somewhere where music-playing quality isn't of top importance:

Buy an Amazon Echo Dot. We bought a second regular Echo for the bedroom, where a Dot would have worked. But we do like playing music there as well.

If you're caring for elderly parents or want to see the people you're connecting to at a fixed place and location:

Get an Amazon Echo Show. 

If you want an Echo but don't want to spend much:

Get an Amazon Echo Dot.

If you want better sound:

Get an Amazon Echo or go even further upmarket with the Amazon Echo Studio.

If you want Echo capabilities and a tablet-like screen (but that's wired to wall power:

Get an Amazon Echo Show. 

That's the quick view. What's above is a deeper dive into the Alexa family as of later-mid-2020. We want to mention that, over the past year, the Alexa technology has been baked into devices from companies besides Amazon. We're only covering the Amazon Echo devices in-depth. We're also not looking at the Alexa capabilities built into the Amazon Fire TV, tablets, microwave, and new TVs. 

How did we choose these Amazon Echo speakers?

We chose these devices by a mix of research and using them ourselves. We compared factors like pricing, reviews (both good and bad), different features, and compatibilities.

What is an Amazon Echo Show?

We have two of these. It started with one in the kitchen. No, we didn't use it for recipes. Or news. Or stories. It's just there, with a screen. I'm not sure why we have the Show instead of a regular Echo, but that's what my wife wanted. She also wanted one in the laundry room. And no, she doesn't watch videos on it. But she likes it. A lot.

So here's where we stand with the Echo Show. We have four models of this thing. Three are two recently updated 5-inch models (one is a kid's edition), an updated 8-inch model with a vastly improved camera, and a 10-inch model.

So, what is the Echo Show? It's an Echo that is aimed at video chat and monitoring. At least that's its starting application. Let's deconstruct that for a moment. We've all used FaceTime or some similar video chat capability on our phones. The Echo Show does the same thing, except it has to be plugged in and must sit in one spot.

Does this remind you of anything? If you're a Millennial or older, you remember telephones. These were devices tethered to the wall that were rock-solid reliable. They allowed us to talk (with our voices) to other people who also had telephones.

While there were eventually wireless phones, for years, most of us had to walk to the location where the phone was, dial the party we wanted to talk to and stay within reach of the cord. We could only talk, not text.

There was no panic over where we put down our smartphones. There was no concern over whether the battery was charged. We rarely uttered, "What? I can't understand you." It was a simpler time.

OK, I know I'm being a bit facetious in my description, but there's a point here. My mom, who spent the last 30 years of her life using computers actively, kept getting confused trying to use her smartphone. She kept hitting the red button and then wondering why her calls dropped. My dad didn't trust his smartphone at all and insisted I install a landline for him when he moved to a new house.

Neither my mom nor my dad liked the idea of the contact list on the phone. They had a few numbers memorized. For everything else, there was a sheet of paper with phone numbers next to, you guessed it, the telephone.

There are two immediate and powerful applications for the Echo Show: Checking on elderly family members and being able to look in on the kids easily. The Echo Show easily allows you to use voice activation to contact, talk to, and see a family member.

If on the approved list, you can establish a connection immediately. This gives concerned middle-agers the ability to ascertain the health of an elderly parent quickly. It gives parents and grandparents the ability to easily connect with, talk to, and see the kids and grandkids. It bypasses the whole smartphone thing completely. While many of us might find the idea of a fixed, plugged-in phone to be an inconvenience, it also provides a hands-free calling experience from a set place, a known location, and a predictable setting.

This becomes particularly poignant in our pandemic-infested setting. Many of our seniors haven't seen their families for several holidays. Having the ability to reach out and see them via video may help soften the blow. Amazon is now supporting both Skype and Zoom, making the Echo Show a particularly helpful part of the new normal.

Let's go farther, though. What might someday be on that screen? Right now, you can ask Alexa to time things and calculate things, but you can't tell her to show you the next item in the recipe. But with the addition of video and image skills, I'm betting that's not far off.

With Amazon's recent move into security devices (they bought Ring and Blink, for example), the Show is also becoming a convenient security monitor. I think we'll see more of that over time. 

Is there a monthly charge for an Amazon Echo?

Nope! You don't have to pay anything extra to use an Echo device, but if you want to listen to certain songs or artists, you may be prompted to set up an Amazon Music subscription.

Do you have to have Amazon Prime to use Alexa?

You have to have an account with Amazon, but you don't have to have a Prime account. Though, Prime may get you extra content or features that a basic account may not let you use.

Do you need Wi-Fi to use Alexa?

Alexa and Echo devices are designed for use over Wi-Fi only, which means that they need to be constantly connected to the internet in order to work properly. Without an internet connection, you won't be able to ask Alexa questions, use voice commands for smart tech around your house, or stream any music; your Echo will be a fancy paperweight, and Alexa will be like that friend you connected with on social media, but never talk to.

Is Amazon Echo worth it?

I'll tell you this: When I first looked at the original Echo, I thought it was ridiculous and unnecessary. Now, if you want my Alexa, you'll have to pry her from my cold, dead hands. We've always been a bit iffy about the Echo Show, but given the number of models and the pandemic, we think this new model may be a hit.

And yet Alexa still doesn't do anything that I couldn't do if I wasn't self-enabling myself to new levels of laziness. I mean, really? I should be willing to flip on a light switch with my actual hands.

Are there alternative Alexa devices to consider?

Here are a few other options to look into:

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.



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