I haven’t been shy about my love for the Amazon Echo. I wake up with it, and aside from my phone, computers and TV, it’s one of the gadgets I rely most on most throughout the day. So when Amazon announced the $ 90 Echo Dot, which brings all of its larger sibling’s features to any speaker, I was onboard before you could say “Alexa, what’s the weather?” I couldn’t wait to bring Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant, which is the heart of soul of the Echo, into my bedroom (ahem) and office. It took a long while for the Echo Dot to finally reach me (Amazon, once again, refused to make it available early for reviewers), but after a week of living with it on my nightstand, I’m finding it just as useful as the original.
Let’s make this clear up front: You still can’t buy an Echo Dot on its own. The only way to order one is to ask Alexa on an Echo or Fire TV to order it for you and wait several weeks. Amazon is clearly positioning it as a secondary device, which makes sense for most people, but also seems like a bafflingly restrictive choice in this day and age. Perhaps the company just wanted to limit its first available units to Echo users, especially since it’s had trouble producing enough devices in the past.
The actual process of buying the Echo Dot was smooth and easy — almost worryingly so. It’s strange to just say a few words and then have a $ 90 gadget headed towards your home. You’ve been able to buy things via the Echo with voice commands for a while now, but that’s something I’ve never done before the Dot. At most, I would ask Alexa to add a few items to my shopping cart or wish list. It reminds me of when, in 2009, I bought my 50-inch plasma TV via Amazon’s iPhone app — a moment of ludicrously convenient big-ticket consumerism that I remember to this day. Now, you don’t even need to look at a screen before you fork over money to Amazon.
Setting up the Echo Dot is only slightly more involved than with its larger sibling, mainly because you have to plug in an auxiliary cable, in addition to a power cord. You’ll have to use Amazon’s Alexa iOS or Android app to get the Echo Dot connected to WiFi, which typically only takes a few minutes. The Alexa app is also where you can manage the Echo Dot’s settings, as well as its “skills,” or connections to third-party services. You can also go through voice training with the app to help your Echo Dot understand you better.
The Dot feels like a large hockey puck: It’s basically the top part of the original Echo sitting on its own. There are two buttons on top for disabling the microphone and enabling Bluetooth pairing. To control the volume, you just need to turn the top portion of the device, which also lights up with LEDs to show you the sound levels. While it has a small built-in speaker, the entire appeal of the Echo Dot is its ability to connect to a beefier system. Once it’s plugged in, it’ll turn anything, even a decades-old amplifier setup, into a smart speaker. It’s also a useful accessory if you’ve already invested in modern speaker systems like Sonos. The Echo Dot has the same beam-forming seven microphone array that sits atop the original Echo, so it’s just as accurate when it comes to hearing your commands, even in moderately noisy rooms.
Currently, I have a large Echo set up in my living room and the Echo Dot about 30 feet away in my bedroom. When standing between them, they’re equally as fast at determining my voice commands and bringing back responses. (It’s truly weird occasionally hearing a symphony of Alexa responses in my apartment.) Since they’re plugged into power continuously, the Echo devices are better about listening for potential voice commands than phone virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now. Alexa doesn’t have to worry about conserving battery life, after all.
With the Echo Dot connected to an older Logitech speaker on my nightstand, it worked like a charm. Audio quality was solid, and being able to shout Alexa commands from under the comfort of my duvet felt downright luxurious. The only potential issue? Your speakers, naturally, need to be turned on for the Echo Dot to work. In the interest of energy conservation, that’s not something I’m willing to do 24/7. So I’ve taken to disconnecting the Echo Dot from my bedroom speaker most of the day, and instead relying on its embedded speaker for simple commands. When I want to listen to music or online radio, I just plug the speaker in. It would be nice if future versions of the Echo Dot gave you an easy way to automatically switch between its speaker options (or better yet, do it automatically).
The Echo Dot sounded great when connected to my elaborate home theater setup, which consists of a Denon S910W receiver and Pioneer Elite tower front and center speakers (I don’t use my rear speakers for music). Just like with the original, you can ask the Echo Dot to play your playlists from Amazon Music, as well as other services including Pandora and Spotify (after connecting to them with the Alexa app). While actual music performance will depend on the service you’re listening to, I didn’t hear many hints of compression with Pandora streams, which is among the lower-quality options. True audiophiles will still prefer using something like the new Chromecast Audio on big speaker setups, though, since that gives you the option of using an optical cable to let your amplifier handle audio processing. Your only option with the Echo Dot is a standard 3.5mm cable.
If you live in a smaller apartment, there’s a good chance you don’t actually need two separate Alexa devices. If I shout loudly enough from my bedroom, the Echo in my kitchen usually hears me. Still, it’s nice being able to have a closer device for voice commands, especially if you’re trying to set an alarm late at night. If you’re looking for a secondary Echo device and don’t have any extra speakers, Amazon’s $ 130 Tap speaker might be a better option for you. And if you just want to jump into Amazon’s ecosystem, the original Echo is still a great product at $ 180.
The Echo Dot is the very definition of a niche device. It’s meant to be connected to expensive gear that many people don’t have, and the future of voice-powered digital assistants is still uncertain. But for Alexa addicts who have decent sound systems, it’s the perfect virtual companion.