A true low-cost alternative to AirPods Pro

13 May 2021

The old, bulky Echo Buds case -TeCHi

Share Post

It’s no secret that Amazon’s first attempt at carving its way into the wireless earbuds market was a dud. The original Echo Buds didn’t impress us with their chunky size and lack of real active noise cancellation, not to mention their brief overheating problem

I’ll cut right to the chase and tell you the follow-up was worth the wait. Amazon’s new Echo Buds deliver good sound quality, effective ANC, and a slimmed down build for a startlingly low price of $119.99. If you’ve been looking for a device-agnostic pair of wireless earbuds that will drown out the world around you, look no further.

Effective active noise cancellation • Smaller and more comfortable • Solid sound quality • Low price

Too much Alexa • Overly sensitive touch panels • Average battery life

Amazon went back to the lab for its second iteration of Echo Buds and came out with a really solid pair of noise-cancelling earbuds that will go easy on your wallet.

Smaller, quieter

The most noticeable visual difference between Amazon’s first shot at Echo Buds and the new ones is what the company says is a 20% reduction in size. Echo Buds 1.0 were incredibly bulky, with the charging case in particular looking laughably large next to its AirPods equivalent. That isn’t a problem anymore, with the case coming in at a relatively svelte 66.8 x 28.6 x 39.1 mm. It’s rectangular in shape, with rounded edges, as well as a USB-C charging port and Bluetooth pairing button on the back. For $139.99, you can order the Echo Buds with a case that can charge wirelessly, if you’re into that.

Available in black or white, the Echo Buds themselves look inconspicuous. A circular outer panel with Amazon’s smiling logo juts slightly out of the ear, while a speaker grill with a rubber tip at the end of a short nozzle will pump audio into your ear canal. I found the design to be reasonably comfortable right out of the box, even when wearing the Echo Buds for two to four hours at a time. If you don’t feel the same way, Amazon’s included three different sizes of ear tips in the package as well as three sizes of “wing tips,” which are essentially rubber jackets you fit onto the Buds’ bodies so they’ll stay put in your ears.

It might be a good idea to use those if you plan on exercising with the new Echo Buds, as I did find them slowly slipping out of my ears over time or during periods of physical activity, as most earbuds do without any kind of physical support. For those like me who mostly sit at desks all day, that probably isn’t necessary. You can just adjust them with your fingers if need be.

The old, bulky Echo Buds case
The old, bulky Echo Buds case

Image: karissa bell / mashable

And the new one.
And the new one.

Image: Mashable composite; Shutterstock / best_vector

But be warned: The circular panel that sits on the outside of your ears is touch-sensitive, and I mean sensitive. Even the outer edges will occasionally register a tap and pause what you’re listening to if you try to adjust the Echo Buds. That said, I’d rather these be too responsive than not responsive enough, so it’s really just a matter of being careful and ready for the possibility of pausing when touching them.

As for the Echo Buds’ touch controls, it’s all familiar territory: Single tap to pause playback, double tap to skip ahead, and triple tap to rewind.

If you touch and hold the panel for two or three seconds, the best new feature of the Echo Buds shines through. That will activate active noise cancellation, a big upgrade over the Bose-powered “noise reduction” that was present in Amazon’s Echo Buds the first time around. I’ll get into that more in a bit, but this tap-and-hold maneuver switches between ANC and a “passthrough” mode where you can more clearly hear everything around you. Unlike the old Echo Buds, Alexa doesn’t chime in every time you do this, instead letting the change in noise levels do the talking.

The Alexa app gives you a lot of options, but you may not be comfortable with Alexa.
The Alexa app gives you a lot of options, but you may not be comfortable with Alexa.

Image: screenshot: amazon

Speaking of Alexa, the new Echo Buds are predictably Alexa-centric in a way that could potentially make some users uneasy. After all, the company’s privacy record there isn’t stellar. You can pair the Echo Buds via Bluetooth using a button on the back of the charging case, but Amazon recommends going through the Alexa mobile app on iOS and Android the first time. This is simple enough thanks to straightforward onscreen prompts, though it did take the app about two minutes to notice the Echo Buds that were sitting right next to the phone. If you do choose to pair through Bluetooth and bypass the Alexa app, be aware you’ll miss out on access to Alexa features, customization settings in the app, and any future software updates.

Once that setup is done, though, pairing is as simple as taking the buds out of their case with Bluetooth active on the phone. In the app itself, you can toggle ANC, mute or unmute the mic, check battery levels, and adjust a number of settings. Want to hear your own voice during phone calls? That’s in there. Need to adjust bass or treble levels on a simple equalizer? You can do that. If you don’t want to tap-and-hold to activate ANC, you can customize that particular command to control volume, mute the mic, or disable it entirely.

The Alexa app gives you a nice number of options for the Echo Buds, though the connection to Alexa in general is something I’m less enthusiastic about as I don’t like voice assistants. Even with the Buds’ mic muted when I’m not listening to anything, Alexa loves to occasionally chime in with “Unmute to speak!”

There’s a reason I have the mic muted, Alexa.

Still, it’s there if you want to use it. You can set up alarms, activate Alexa skills, put together a shopping list, or do anything else you’d normally do with Alexa. It’s not for me, but maybe it’s for you.

Cancel that noise

Quiet down.
Quiet down.

Image: Mashable composite; Shutterstock / best_vector

Amazon’s new Echo Buds have an impressive list of features on paper and that’s only bolstered by performance that backs that up. The 5.7mm drivers provide good-but-not-great sound quality, though the difference between “good” and “great” in this regard matters more to audiophiles than regular folks.

Your favorite tunes will come through cleanly, with nice stereo bouncing between sides in situations that call for it. I’m still on a Daft Punk kick after finding out the enigmatic French robots would no longer make music together, and classics like “One More Time” and “Something About Us” just happen to make for good audio testing material. The club-rumbling bass of the former thumps just well enough to make an impression, while the funky licks of the latter sound exactly as they should. You’ll get a richer sound with harder bass out of something like the Bose QC Earbuds, but those are also more than twice the price of the Echo Buds.

ANC doesn’t always shut down the outside world as well as it should on wireless earbuds, but it’s the most impressive thing about the new Echo Buds as far as I’m concerned. There’s a real, appreciable difference between ANC and passthrough here. The ANC doesn’t completely silence your environment, but unless you’re next to a speeding subway train or a jet engine, it’s more than capable of killing outside distractions while you jam. Considering how much cheaper these are than other big-name ANC-enabled earbuds, it’s pretty incredible that the ANC works as well as it does.

To close out my performance analysis, I’ll note that battery life is acceptable, but not spectacular, with the new Echo Buds. They’re rated for 5 hours of listening time with ANC turned on and that’s almost exactly what I got out of them in my testing. A fully juiced-up charging case extends the total lifespan to 15 hours, which is well short of the 24 hours Apple says the AirPods Pro are capable of. When you’re offering consumers a discount of more than $100 compared to the noise-cancelling competition, some compromises have to be made.

Undeniable value

Speaking of competition, the Echo Buds come out looking strong next to other noise-cancelling earbuds from big tech brands. Let’s look at how it shakes out:

  • Apple’s AirPods Pro ($249), which aren’t especially useful for Android owners
  • Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro ($199), which aren’t especially useful for iPhone owners
  • Bose’s QC Earbuds ($280), which work fine with any device and sound fantastic

Purely from the standpoint of which earbuds give you ANC, it’s no contest. Amazon’s option is so much cheaper that it’s almost silly. Even if you spend the extra $20 for the version with a wireless charging case, it’s still less than the regular AirPods or Google Pixel Buds that don’t cancel out noise at all.

It’s not unusual for Amazon’s self-made products to come in at cheaper prices than the competition, but in this case, the product’s quality is high enough to bring serious value.

Solid for any device

The second generation of Amazon Echo Buds are a serious improvement over the original thanks to a slimmer size and the addition of real active noise cancellation. At such a comparatively low price, I’d call them a steal for anyone who wants to dip their toes into the world of ANC without setting their wallet on fire. They’re also particularly enticing for those who aren’t married to Android or iOS, which can be a real barrier for AirPods or Galaxy Buds adoption.

The biggest downsides to these second-generation Echo Buds are a somewhat unnerving reliance on Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and average battery life. (I never again want to hear Alexa command me to unmute the mic if I can help it.) But for those who just need a solid pair of cheap noise-cancelling earbuds and don’t mind voice assistants, the new Echo Buds are the way to go.

Share Post

error: Content is protected !!