In recent years Amazon has carved itself a not insignificant slice of the home entertainment market. From its Spotify-rivalling Music Unlimited and Netflix-competing Prime Video services to its Fire TV video streamers, Fire tablets and Echo smart speakers, there’s an Amazon device for almost every occasion. And the company is showing no signs of slowing down…
In October 2020 the firm announced five new Echo devices to join its extensive family of connected products (including 2019’s Echo Link Amp, Echo Link receiver and Echo Input). These devices made Amazon a genuine rival to multi-room stalwarts Bluesound, Bose and Sonos. These smart new propositions add significant features to its awesome line-up. For example, the new Amazon Echo takes the place of the louder and more expensive Echo Plus, in a package that Amazon touts as the best of Echo and Echo Plus. It features what Amazon calls “premium adaptive sound” and for the first time, it comes with a built-in smart home hub, with support for Zigbee, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and Amazon Sidewalk.
The new Echos also take a new spherical design, which is quite a departure from the dustbin and hockey-puck styling of old.
Amazon has previously proved its audio chops with the Echo Studio speaker, which offers hi-res music and 3D audio courtesy of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos Music. These are joined by in-car Alexa speakers, a device to turn any speaker into an Alexa speaker, and the Amazon Echo Buds, which use Bose active noise-cancelling technology and are the first “native” hands-free Alexa headphones.
Amazon’s USP? Its Alexa smart voice assistant. The online giant has led the way when it comes to all things voice control, helping us all to become well versed in talking to our tech, whether we want to change the volume, dim the lights or order a pizza. Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant may dominate the smartphone landscape, but Alexa leads the way in the home.
The proof: the Echo Dot – the smallest and cheapest Alexa speaker – has reportedly become the best-selling smart speaker ever.
Read on to discover everything you need to know about the Amazon Echo range…
Amazon has licensed Alexa to other hardware brands (including Sonos) since the voice assistant’s inception in 2014, helping the Alexa ecosystem grow to over 20,000 Alexa-compatible devices from more than 3500 brands. That includes excellent products such as the Sonos One, Sonos Beam, Bang & Olufsen Beosound A1 (2nd gen) and Ultimate Ears Megablast speakers.
In the last few years, Amazon’s Echo range has comprised a handful of speakers, all of which have, since summer 2017, been able to work in a multi-room capacity. Group two or more speakers together and you can play music on them simultaneously.
But recently Amazon has become more serious about its multi-room ambitions, not only growing its Echo range but also focussing more on making them work together.
So how does the Amazon Echo multi-room range compare to existing alternatives? How does it work? And which products are compatible? Let’s find out.
Amazon Echo multi-room: how does it work?
As it stands, if you have two or more Amazon Echo speakers, you can ‘group’ them together to play music simultaneously across multiple speakers. For example, grouping three bedroom speakers together and naming the group ‘upstairs’ will allow you to simply ask Alexa to, “play Pink Floyd upstairs”.
Hey presto – Comfortably Numb filling the first floor of your house.
To create speaker groups, you have to first register the Echo products to the same Amazon account, connect them to the same network, and then select and name groups within the ‘Multi-room Music’ section of the Alexa app. A speaker cannot be in two groups at once, but it can join in the ‘everywhere’ call to action – ie. say “Alexa, play Pink Floyd everywhere” and every speaker in your multi-room music network will oblige.
Every Echo speaker (including the Echo Sub) supports the multi-room feature, as well as third-party speakers from the likes of Sonos.
But where it gets really interesting (for us) is the launch of the Echo multi-room hi-fi products, namely the Echo Amp amplifier and Echo Link receiver. These allow Amazon to compete squarely with Sonos and Bluesound (though we can’t help thinking Amazon is missing a soundbar to rival the Sonos Beam and Bluesound Pulse).
As well as hardware, there are still some omissions in the Echo multi-room functionality. Multi-room isn’t possible when music is playing over Bluetooth, for example, and certain non-music content such as e-books aren’t supported either.
So let’s have a closer look at each member of the entire Amazon multi-room family…
The Amazon Echo products
Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen)
The smallest and most affordable Echo speaker is now in its fourth generation, and love or loathe the aesthetic, it’s a top little performer for the money. It has the same 1.6in driver as last year’s model (albeit now forward-firing), and has the same 70 percent increase in maximum volume. The LED speech light is now at the base of the sphere, creating quite a futuristic vibe.
The Echo Dot is similar to the Apple HomePod Mini in stature – placed side by side, the two speakers are almost identical in form. Under the hood is a new chip, which promises to make Alexa’s response times up to twice as fast. In our tests, the newer Dot does respond quicker – and with clearer, less muffled diction than in the older hockey puck-shaped Dot.
This Echo Dot also enters a new low power mode when idle to save on energy consumption, and it’s got some fab tricks up its sleeve in the multi-room department too. Under the Communicate tab on the Alexa app, you can make an announcement (such as “I’m home”) be broadcast to your speakers, and under the Home tab you can browse ‘skills’ to enable on your Dot. These include a round of the TV quiz show Pointless, spa music to help you unwind after a hard day, a game of Simon Says to occupy your children, and many more.
And it’s joined by two other Dots in the family…
MORE: Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) review
Amazon Echo Dot with Clock (4th Gen)
Amazon also updated its Echo Dot with Clock. Like previous generations, it’s identical to the Dot but with a digital clock display built in. And like the other new Echo devices, it takes a spherical design. It comes in three colours: Charcoal, Glacier White, and Twilight Blue, and has the same 1.6-inch, front-firing speaker as the standard Dot. The clock display can also show a timer or alarm.
As you would expect, it’s more expensive than the standard Echo Dot, but only marginally.
MORE: Buy the Amazon Echo Dot with Clock (4th Gen)
Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
There’s also a new Kids Edition Echo Dot, which comes styled as either a panda or a tiger. It’s identical to the standard Echo Dot apart from the finish, plus it has a new features called Reading Sidekick, which promises to use Alexa to help your child to read. It’s parenting, but outsourced. It costs the same as the Echo Dot with Clock.
Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen)
If you want a screen with your Echo, the Echo Show 10 could be for you. The 10in screen turns to follow you around the room, so it’s ideal if you like to pace up and down while you chat (or want to show off your room when on a video call). Its motor claims to be completely silent too, so it shouldn’t distract from your words of wisdom.
The Echo Show 10’s dual, front-firing tweeters and woofer move along with the screen, promising directional sound that automatically adapts to your space. It can also rotate while you’re watching the news, flash briefings, or TV shows from Hulu + Live TV and Prime Video. So just because you’re cooking, you won’t miss a second of your favourite show.
The screen is brighter than previous Echo Shows, and it has a 13MP camera to show off your face in all its glory. The new Alexa Group Calls feature lets you call up to eight people at once (just say “Alexa, call my family”).
It’s a bit pricier than the other Echo devices – inevitable, given that it has a screen. It will be available in Charcoal and Glacier White, priced at £240 ($250 / AU$400). It will start shipping on 25th February.
MORE: Buy the Amazon Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen)
Amazon Echo Spot
If you can make do with a much smaller screen, the Echo Spot might suffice. It’s a small, round speaker that looks like a clock, with the same built-in voice assistant and functionality of the Echo Dot. The 480×480 pixel touchscreen gives visual feedback to all your Alexa commands (for information ‘at a glance’, according to Amazon) and a camera for video-chatting. Essentially it’s a mini Echo Show, and that’s no bad thing.
MORE: Read our Amazon Echo Spot review
Amazon Echo Show 8
The Echo Show 8 is smaller and less well specced than the 10in models. But its 8in screen has the same 1280 x 800 resolution – the same number of pixels crammed into a smaller panel will actually make images look sharper than its larger siblings.
Onboard are two 2in tweeters, a 1MP camera for video calls, and the same manual privacy controls (a camera cover and physical mic off button). There’s no smart hub and it doesn’t turn, but still, its smaller size makes it ideal for more intimate spaces.
MORE: Buy the Amazon Echo Show 8
Amazon Echo Show 5
Lastly in the Show family, there’s a 5.5in model too. This takes a step down in screen resolution to 960 x 480 pixels, but given the smaller size you shouldn’t notice much difference. It only has one speaker, and it’s smaller than on the other models, so expect the audio quality to suffer. But it has Alexa built in, which is the main selling point of any Echo device, which means voice controls are at your beck and call.
In our five-star review, we concluded: “If you want to get into the world of the digital assistant with both audio and video, this is as a good a starting point as we’ve come across.” And it still holds true.
MORE: Amazon Echo Show 5 review
Amazon Echo (4th Gen)
The latest, greatest Echo combines the best of the standard Echo and Echo Plus, and it does so in a neat new spherical design. It features what Amazon calls “premium adaptive sound” and for the first time, it comes with a built-in smart home hub, with support for Zigbee, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and Amazon Sidewalk. Amazon Sidewalk can help you set up new devices quickly, extend the working range of devices like Ring Smart Lighting that may be beyond the capabilities of your home wi-fi, and offer new support for devices like Tile to locate misplaced items.
Its sonic capabilities have been beefed up somewhat, especially through the low end. It now supports Dolby Stereo and the bass registers sound significantly better thanks to a 3.0-inch woofer. From a purely hi-fi perspective, we found the treble from the separate dual-firing tweeters slightly underwhelming, but the Echo does offer a competent smart performance all round. As with Echo Studio, the new Echo senses the acoustics of your space and fine-tunes audio playback, and it does so with Dolby processing.
It’s more powerful too, thanks to Amazon’s new AZ1 Neural Edge processor. This is an all-new silicon module that’s purpose-built for accelerating machine learning applications. It means Alexa can process requests faster, and in our tests, we found our virtual voice assistant even more responsive.
You can make Alexa announce that ‘Dinner’s ready’ to every speaker in your home thanks to its intercom feature, or send music to a particular room as a not-so-subtle message – Bruno Mars’ Lazy Song to a room containing a housemate who’s yet to emerge, perhaps. They’re fun features – but also very useful.
MORE: Amazon Echo (4th Gen) review
Amazon Echo (3rd Gen)
The Echo 3 expands its predecessor’s specs (a 3.5mm line output, Bluetooth and, of course, wi-fi streaming) with a new fabric design and an improved sound that Amazon says is delivered by the same audio architecture as in the pricier Echo Plus (below). It also has the dustbin design of old.
MORE: Amazon Echo (3rd Gen) review
Amazon Echo Plus
The Echo Plus was the first Echo speaker with a built-in smart home hub. In the same way your router connects your smartphones and tablets, this hub directly links devices like smart-lightbulbs or thermostats to the internet using a specialised mesh network, negating the need for a bridge set-up or third-party hub.
It also integrates a temperature sensor so you can trigger routines based on how hot or cold your room is. Amazon has made some of its cloud-based controls local to the Echo Plus, meaning lights can be controlled even when your internet is down.
The 2nd-gen Echo Plus is not only one of the most intelligent audio products on the market, it’s also, to its credit, less a smart speaker, more a speaker with smarts. Sound-wise, this is as good as we could hope for from a smart speaker at this price. And that’s why we gave it a five-star review.
MORE: Amazon Echo Plus (2018) review
Amazon Echo Studio
With smart speakers, the audio side often takes a back seat to the smart home capabilities. But not with the Echo Studio. Positioned as Amazon’s speaker for audiophiles, it boasts upgraded internals fit for hi-res audio, which is now available from Amazon’s own music streaming service. And it delivers 3D audio courtesy of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos.
Our verdict? The best sounding Echo yet.
MORE: Amazon Echo Studio review
Amazon Echo Input
One of the more interesting products in Amazon’s ever-growing Echo family, the Input is the first Echo device without a speaker. So how does it make a sound? Well, it doesn’t. Instead, the 12.5cm-tall Echo Input simply connects to an existing speaker via a 3.5mm jack or Bluetooth to gift it voice functionality. So when a ‘dumb’ speaker is connected to an Echo Input it can be added to a multi-room music group. Think of it as an Alexa-flavoured Chromecast Audio, then.
It’s “a great way to bring Alexa voice control to your existing speakers”.
MORE: Amazon Echo Input review
Amazon Echo Flex
Amazon followed up the Echo Input with the Echo Flex, which is essentially an Alexa plug. Slot it into a plug socket and it’ll connect to your home wi-fi network – you can then voice control it, with Alexa reading out news headlines, weather reports and the like, and controlling other smart home devices. And if you do want music, you can always plug an external speaker into it. A great option if counter space is limited.
MORE: Buy the Amazon Echo Flex
Amazon Echo Sub
Furthering the Echo family’s sonic capability, the 100-watt Echo Sub can be wirelessly paired with one Echo speaker for a 1.1 configuration, or with two of the same Echo speakers for a 2.1 set-up, aiming (and succeeding) to bring more grunt to a stereo pair through its down-firing 6in woofer. It adds considerable sonic authority to your Amazon speakers, putting a decent amount of power behind it, and is priced pretty reasonably.
MORE: Amazon Echo Sub review
Amazon Echo Link Amp and Echo Link
This is where the range’s hi-fi ambitions currently peak. The Echo Link Amp is a 60-watt streaming stereo amplifier with both digital and analogue connectivity, designed to let users connect their own speakers, and control music selection, volume and multi-room playback through Alexa via an Echo or the app.
The just-add-speakers streamer is sadly a swing and a miss, though, with an uncompetitive performance that makes it hard to recommend.
MORE: Amazon Echo Link Amp review
The Echo Link, meanwhile, is the receiver version – no amplifier – designed to connect to an amplifier, receiver or pair of active speakers for similar control via the Alexa ecosystem. This, we haven’t seen.
Amazon Echo Buds
Amazon also has its own pair of wireless buds, which use Bose active noise-cancelling technology and are the first “native” hands-free Alexa headphones. But sadly, they’re more Fire Phone than hot product. While they pack decent noise cancellation and a reasonable battery life, their sound is inconsistent, the touch controls fiddly and there are no physical volume controls. Avoid.
MORE: Amazon Echo Buds review
Amazon Echo Auto
Fancy taking Alexa on a road trip? Now you can, with Echo Auto.
Just connect it to the Alexa app on your phone and it’ll play audio through your car’s speakers. You can connect wirelessly over Bluetooth, or plug it into your phone using the aux in. Its eight microphones and far-field tech should mean Alexa can hear you even with the window down on the motorway, and it has all the usual Alexa skills. Take it for a spin.
MORE: Buy the Amazon Echo Auto
The obvious one: Sonos. As an entire ecosystem, Sonos is hard to fault – if you don’t mind sacrificing hi-res audio, of course. Sensibly priced, beginner-friendly and with an appealing, expand-as-you-go ethos, it’s a multi-room solution to be reckoned with. Its all-inclusive approach ensures access to a huge number of music services, and voice assistants Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.
MORE: Which Sonos speaker is best for you?
Bluesound Generation 2
The first genuine threat to Sonos was Bluesound, whose key hook of support for high-resolution audio made it our preferred multi-room system for years (as multiple Awards trophies will attest). Its wide range of products, which includes wireless speakers, streamers, amplifiers and a soundbar, plus detailed and punchy sound made this premium system a worthy investment. An increasingly competitive landscape means this won’t be the choice for everyone but if you value hi-res audio support and of course great sound, it’s the way to go.
MORE: Bluesound Generation 2 review
Audio Pro’s Addon wireless speakers earned the Swedish manufacturer four What Hi-Fi? Awards in 2018 and, having embraced multi-room, the company is a serious force to be reckoned with. The appeal is pretty simple: great sound, super-affordable prices. The app isn’t as slick as some rivals, nor is the feature or product support as wide, but for a fine multi-room sound on a budget, you can’t go wrong. A real rival for any Amazon Echo system.
MORE: Audio Pro system review
Wondering which smart speaker is for you? Amazon Echo vs Dot vs Plus vs Spot vs Show 5: which is best?
Or our comprehensive list: best smart speakers
Kit out your house with the best multi-room systems