Amazon Echo Buds Are Great, if You Can Get Them to Hold a Connection

Amazon Echo Buds Are Great, if You Can Get Them to Hold a Connection
Image: Asha Barbaschow/Gizmodo Australia
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I have been avoiding writing this review, mostly because I don’t have a whole lot nice to say about my experience with the Amazon Echo Buds. The headline says it all, really: these earbuds sound great, and Alexa has a tonne of smarts, but they’re just not reliable.

There’s a lot of competition in the in-ear headphone space. Apple has its AirPods, Samsung has the Galaxy Buds and Google has the Pixel Buds – all offering a phone that uses the same OS as the earbuds. But when we consider the broader ecosystem, there’s some pretty kickass earbuds from Bose, Sony and even Bang & Olufsen, just to name a few.

The point I’m making is that the Amazon Echo Buds fail to hold a connection with an Apple product like the AirPods can, and don’t offer a seamless experience with a Pixel like other Android buds do. This means they have to sound epic and offer me something even more epic than just sound-into-ear if they want to compete with, again, the likes of Bose.

Amazon Echo Buds

WHAT IS IT?

Second generation wireless earbuds from Amazon, first pair to launch in Australia.

PRICE

RRP $169

LIKE

Fitness tracking/Alexa smarts, sound.

NO LIKE

Inconsistent performance, unreliable.

I’ve had a pretty mediocre experience, but let’s start at the beginning.

Connecting the Amazon Echo Buds

Opening the charged case, they transmitted a signal via Bluetooth to my iPhone to let me know they existed. They then connected, which was great. Until I tried to play some music or make a call and the sound was coming through the phone. Reading the instructions, I then downloaded the Amazon Alexa app. Setup is fairly straight forward, but there’s a lot to do.

There’s also a tonne of info to click through, such as how to connect the condom thing (wing tips, but more on that later) and the ear tips. You then get a rundown on what the functions of the earbuds are – but this isn’t something overly useful to me before they’re even connected to my phone. I’d have liked this after the frustrating process was over.

Once that’s done, however, you enter your height and weight. Hmm. I get it, fitness etc. But do you really need me to enter that so I can play some tunes or call my dad to tell him I’m on my way over?

Having signed in using my Amazon account (yep, you need one of those), I then select which one of my family members I am. Finally. We’re connected and I can listen to music.

Except not quite.

I don’t know if it’s iOS or Spotify itself that hates to play through the Amazon Echo Buds at first attempt, but it took me a few disconnect/connects before sweet tunes came through the buds. But it kept cutting out. It was almost as if the Bluetooth connection was dropping out, but without the notification from Alexa. It was super reminiscent of a scratched CD being played to death. It wasn’t my internet – the songs were on a downloaded playlist.

During a phone call to my dad, he reported the sound as fine. I was driving and had all four windows down, doing 60 km/h. He said he could hear me well enough, although a bit of the passing cars came down the line. But the buds were shoved so far into my ear (as is their design) that I could hear myself talk more than I could hear him. It was almost throbbing. He was too quiet, even when the Echo Buds were all the way up. But then, Alexa was telling me my connection was dropping out – Vodafone had all my reception bars maxed out (and even had full 5G, so). It became unbearable, listening to Alexa talk at me without telling me what exactly was the problem and in fact, not being able to fix the problem.

Dropout isn’t only experienced on an iPhone, they hate to connect to a MacBook. I was good for one or two songs, then taking one bud out to have a quick conversation with someone in the office resulted in me having to disconnect and reconnect the buds (more than once) before the music started playing through the buds and not the laptop when I shoved the second bud back into my ears. Another time, however, the music kept playing after both buds were out of my ears. Inconsistency. I also attempted three times (on three different days) to use the Amazon Echo Buds connected to the MacBook for a video call. The third time worked, but the sound of my team wasn’t loud enough – yes, the volume was on max.

This whole time I’ve been comparing the buds to what I get with AirPods – notifications read to me consistently, seamless connection to both the phone and laptop and the ability for Siri to control things on my devices via the AirPods. None of this works properly with Alexa, her and Siri don’t like to work together all the time.

It’s a similar experience with a Google Pixel. For clarity – I was using a Google Pixel 6 Pro. I had to install the app again, which is obvious, but it just highlighted again how tedious setup is. My height and weight is not integral for the buds to work. The Alexa app told me I was already signed up to use the app. Frustration flowed through my body. I resisted the urge to throw them in the bin and we got some YouTube happening. I took the buds out to leave the room for 6 minutes and when I got back, they had disconnected and I had a few attempts to reconnect. I gave up and popped the Huawei FreeBuds Pro in, instead (these are my go-to buds when I’m using the Pixel).

I signed up for Amazon Music Unlimited. They worked perfectly on an iPhone each time. Make of that what you will.

Using the Amazon Echo Buds

I’ve mentioned above the volume on calls/video calls is very quiet. You have to be in a room with no sound to hear the person/people on the other end. When it comes to music? They actually sound pretty good. I wish the rest of the experience made the sound worth it.

A sweet sound

For their price tag, the sound is good. It’s not tinny (well, it is until I modify the bass/treble, but that’s super easy to do) and each instrument can be heard.

Running along a busy road, the music didn’t quite go up loud enough; on a train or at my desk, the volume range was more than good enough. On max, screaming vocals become a little distorted and drums feel like they’re right in my ear. At my desk or walking casually from the station, guitar/drum-heavy music, intense electronic and even some sweet pop tunes were all handled perfectly by the Amazon Echo Buds.

Sitting next to me, colleague reported only being able to hear the sound leaking when he was 30 cms away from me. (It was up at max).

The noise cancelling works well – I have complete tunnel vision, except ears. I didn’t even notice someone on a bike was ringing their bell and approaching from behind. Sound-cancelling can be swapped for a ‘pass through’ noise option, which allows you to be aware of your surrounds while still listening to music. You do lose some of the music quality, a lot, actually, but that’s why this setting can be switched for active noise cancelling – it’s there for safety and for reasons that require you to not be lost in your music.

All of this is controlled via the Alexa app.

alexa app
Alexa app.

Which brings me to my next point, the Alexa app lets you do a decent amount. I got the most out of the fitness function. Entering your height and weight will come in handy for those wanting to use the Amazon Echo Buds as a fitness buddy. You enter your start time and then hit stop once your walk or run is complete. You get a summary of your workout and your walks/runs are saved in your history. The summary includes a map of where you went, the distance travelled, steps you made, time it took, average pace and the calories you burned. This is a great feature.

Super smart

I don’t actually use Alexa, my laptop/phone/ear buds are controlled via Siri and I have a Google TV and Google devices placed around my home. So aside from reviews, I rarely get to explore Alexa to her full capacity.

As an assistant, she rules. When the Echo Buds are connected, she can start/end your workout, make calls when you ask, Google whatever it is you need (you actually get a history of the searches Alexa performs for you). I don’t need to tell you how good assistants are, and with the Amazon Echo Buds you get all Alexa features. The only limitation is again that there isn’t a phone running the same software that can make Alexa truly shine here.

Battery life

I can’t really tell you a whole lot about the battery life because I couldn’t consistently use them enough to test this. Every time I began to test the Echo Buds, I made sure the buds and the case were fully charged. I got 4.5 hours of solid music playback on one occasion before needing a charge – Amazon says up to 5 hours and if you weren’t fiddling around with the controls as much as I was and asking a lot from Alexa, you’d get closer to 5, no doubt.

From dead, 15 minutes of charge gets you 2 hours of playback, which is fantastic. And that 5 hours of music playback is boosted to 15 hours with the charging case.

I was testing the USB-C charging model, but the wireless charging model should do the same for an extra $30.

They look and feel cheap

The Amazon Echo Buds are too big. I have to shove them into my ear so they don’t fall out while I run and so I can hear properly. Pulling them out acts as an ear wax clean out (gross, I know, but who needs candling with these things?). Jokes aside, it was pretty embarrassing pulling them out of my ears on a train and slamming them quickly into the case before anyone around me could see how filthy they were.

Amazon Echo Buds
L expectation; R reality. Image: Asha Barbaschow/Gizmodo Australia

The buds themselves look quite nice – the matte black looks fine but material feels a little cheap. Speaking of cheap material, the case is made out of the same. The case sucks. Size wise, great, easy to connect via USB-C, no complaints there. Just don’t tap your nails on the case because it feels like a bottle cap.

The controls are annoying

As you can see in the pic above, the Echo Buds present a circle with the Amazon logo on it to the world, the rest is hidden in your ear. This is only part of the buds you can use to push them into your ear once they start to wriggle out. It’s also the part of the buds with all the controls, so pushing the buds into your ears triggers the pause button (or whatever you set the controls to be).

The buds come with four sets of tips large, medium, small and super duper tiny. Small was what I used. They also have a condom (two sizes of wing tips) but these just took up more in-ear real estate, so I opted to leave them off. The buds/tips are sweat resistant, too.

Amazon Echo Buds Are Great, if You Can Get Them to Hold a Connection
Image: Asha Barbaschow/Gizmodo Australia

Should you buy the Amazon Echo Buds?

The sound is great, the Alexa smarts are fantastic, but the inconsistent connectivity (and the fact they’re beaten in convenience by the AirPods and Pixel Buds) means they fall short of being my favourite in-ear headphones. The standard version have an RRP of $169 and the wireless charging case model will set you back RRP of $199. The price is fine, the overall experience is underwhelming, however.