Amazon's Alexa voice assistant has dominated the market for home smart speakers since the original Echo launched in late 2014. Amazon accounts for 25.4% of worldwide smart speaker shipments as of the second quarter of 2019, according to market research firm Canalys, outpacing competitors like Baidu and Google. And if the numbers aren't enough to convince you, Alexa has permeated pop culture, too — even earning its own sketch on Saturday Night Live.
But while Amazon has led the charge in this space, the e-commerce giant hasn't found a viable way to expand the influence of its digital helper beyond the confines of your home. Amazon makes an Alexa app for smartphones, but it faces stiff competition from virtual assistants that are natively built into the smartphones' operating system like Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant.
Now, the company is hoping to change that with the launch of the Echo Buds, Amazon's answer to Apple's AirPods and other truly wireless earbuds that have emerged in recent years.
The $130 Echo Buds allow you to access Amazon's voice assistant just by uttering the familiar "Alexa" wake word, and can also connect you with the native digital assistant on your phone by pressing and holding one of the buds. The earbuds contain two outer microphones and one inner microphone that enable them to reduce noise in your surroundings, and the company claims they include custom drivers inspired by those that professional musicians use.
The Echo Buds are launching on the same day as Apple's new AirPods Pro, an upgraded version of the iPhone maker's wireless earbuds that include active noise cancellation and a new design. They're probably Amazon's biggest rival in the wireless headphone space, as Apple accounted for 60% of the wireless earbud market as of the fourth quarter of 2018, according to Counterpoint Research.
After spending roughly a week using Amazon's new Echo Buds, it's become clear that the product isn't so much about the earbuds themselves, but how Amazon intends to tailor Alexa for new scenarios. Much like how the Echo provided an avenue for Amazon to get its voice assistant into peoples' homes, the Echo Buds could do the same for your ear if they're successful.
Plus, Amazon has an inherent advantage over Apple: its Alexa virtual assistant is already so ubiquitous in the home that you're probably already used to talking to it out loud — whereas you may not feel the same way about Siri.
Here's a closer look at what it's been like to use them.
How they look and feel
Amazon's Echo Buds come in black with a blue accent near the tip that goes in your ear — the signature blue that's reminiscent of the Echo's glowing ring. Their shape is similar to that of Samsung's Galaxy Buds, except Samsung's earbuds are slightly smaller and lighter than Amazon's.
The case for the Echo Buds is also noticeably larger than that of Apple's AirPods and Samsung's Galaxy Buds, which could make them less comfortable to squeeze into your pocket or a small purse. However, I did notice that I didn't have to charge the case at all during my first week of using them, so it may be worth putting up with the bulk.
But battery life will always vary depending on how you use them. I primarily used the Echo Buds to stream music from Spotify on my way to work for about 40 minutes roughly three days during the week, and also used them for about an hour during two separate workouts.
On most occasions, the Echo Buds remained snug and secure in my ears during my workouts and daily commutes. But in one scenario, one earbud did almost slip out during a run — an issue I rarely if ever have with AirPods. Amazon does include ear tips in small, medium, and large sizes in the box so that you can adjust the earbuds' fit.
Overall, however, I still much prefer the way Apple's AirPods fit in my ears compared to the Echo. They're lighter and I don't ever really find myself having to adjust them.
The are a couple of different ways you can interact with the Echo Buds: by speaking out loud to summon Alexa, or by tapping or pressing in the buds while they're in your ears.
Both input methods worked well during my experience; the earbuds were just as quick to pick up on the "Alexa" trigger word as the company's smart home speakers. And when you utter "Alexa," the earbuds make the same familiar chime sound to let you know that they're listening, just like the Echo. Apple's second-generation AirPods, comparatively, do not have an audio indicator that lets you know Siri is listening.
A quick double tap on either bud also lets you switch between Bose Active Noise Cancellation and Passthrough mode, the latter of which allows you to hear sounds from your surrounding environment as the name implies.
Pressing and holding down on either the left or right headphone will let you summon the native digital assistant on your phone: Siri if you're using an iPhone or the Google Assistant if you're on Android. This gesture took a little more effort in order to get it to work, and sometimes required more than one attempt. In general, I find the press-and-hold gesture for earbuds to be uncomfortable to begin with, so I didn't use it all that much.
You can also customize these gestures within the Alexa app, with the options including activating active noise reduction and passthrough, triggering Siri or Alexa, muting the earbud's microphones, and controlling music.
Alexa on the go
But the Echo Buds' headlining feature, of course, is the fact that they enable you to access Alexa on the go.
The Echo Buds aren't the first pair of headphones that make it possible to access Alexa hands-free. Jabra's Elite Active 65t, for example, allows you to access Amazon's voice assistant, as do Sony's WF-1000XM3 wireless earbuds.
But as it's introducing the Echo Buds, Amazon is encouraging developers to optimize skills for new use cases outside the home — and is introducing one of it's own. Later this year, you'll be able to use the Echo Buds to see if your local Whole Foods supermarket has the product you're looking for, and if so, which department it would be located in.
It's a minor addition, and unfortunately it hasn't launched yet so I wasn't able to test it. But it demonstrates the types of use cases Amazon envisions for Alexa beyond the home.
Otherwise, Alexa works the same way on the Echo Buds as it does elsewhere — you can ask it to play music, retrieve news or the weather, add items to your shopping list, and make calls among other tasks. When summoning Alexa while listening to a playlist on Spotify, the Echo Buds would lower the music just enough so that I could hear Alexa's response — similar to the way Siri handles requests on the second-generation AirPods while you're listening to music.
Amazon's dominance in the online shopping and smart home industries gives Alexa the potential to be vastly more useful on-the-go than Siri. During my time with the Echo Buds, I occasionally asked Alexa to add items to my Amazon cart as I was out and about during the day — a task that Siri couldn't handle when I asked. You can also use the Echo Buds to communicate with other Echo devices in the home through a feature called Drop In — a feature that Apple can't really compete with considering it doesn't have a smart home device that's as prevalent as the Echo.
The Echo Buds offer sound quality that's satisfactory enough to serve as a reliable pair of everyday headphones for casual listening. I was able to distinctly hear elements like the bass when listening to tunes across different genres, and music and phone calls seemed crisp enough. The audio quality didn't blow me away by any means, but it was adequate for listening to music on-the-go.
The biggest difference between the Echo Buds and AirPods, however, was in their volume. Amazon's earbuds didn't seem quite as loud as Apple's AirPods, and I often found myself cranking up the volume more often than usual.
While I generally prefer the way Apple's AirPods fit in my ears over the Echo Buds, I did come to appreciate the Echo Buds' active noise reduction. Although AirPods felt louder, this feature made it much easier to drown out sounds like the screeching of the subway coming to a halt during my commute and the humming of the treadmill during my run.
That has made the Echo Buds a bit more useful during my morning commute than the second-generation AirPods I had been using. However, Apple did just unveil a new pair of earbuds called the AirPods Pro on Monday, which support active noise cancellation. That could give the Echo Buds some serious competition, although Apple's new headphones will be significantly more expensive at $250.
Amazon's new Echo Buds offer decent sound quality and features like active noise reduction at a cheaper price than rivals like Apple and Jabra.
But the launch of the Echo Bus is less about the earbuds themselves and more about Amazon encouraging you to take Alexa with you everywhere you go. As such, it wouldn't be surprising to see developers take this into account when developing and updating new skills for Alexa moving forward. By releasing the new feature that allows Alexa to help you find products at your local Whole Foods, Amazon may be setting an example that it hopes other app makers will follow.
Amazon's Echo Buds are far from being the only headphones that make it possible to access voice assistants hands-free. But Amazon has an inherent advantage in the fact that we're already used to talking to Alexa-enabled gadgets in our homes, by uttering phrases like "Alexa, what's the weather?" or "Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights." That makes it feel much more natural to speak to Alexa on-the-go compared to rivals like Siri, which I rarely use for such tasks.
It's a critical move for Amazon as it seeks to expand its Alexa digital helper outside of the home and into other corners of our lives.