For the last two weeks, I’ve been listening to music in an entirely new way.
I talk to Amazon’s latest gadget, a WiFi speaker called the Echo, and simply request a song as if I were talking to a human DJ.
It blew me away the first time.
“Play some classic rock,” I said.
And boom. Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” started playing. I hate using the word “magic” when writing about tech products, but using the Echo has been magical and delightful to use since day one.
The Echo is a $US180 cylindrical speaker that connects to the internet and lets you control things with your voice. In the relatively short time I’ve been testing the speaker, it’s already become my favourite way to listen to music at home.
But it’s also a hint at Amazon’s larger ambitions to become the center for everything in your digital life.
Amazon’s digital assistant
The Echo isn’t just a music player. It’s also the host for a Siri-like virtual assistant Amazon calls Alexa. Like Siri, Alexa can tell you basic stuff like the weather, sports scores, traffic conditions, and all the other stuff we’ve become familiar with when talking to those smart assistants that live in our phones.
On top of that, Amazon has added more functionality to the Echo since its soft launch last year. You can use it to reorder items from Amazon. (“Alexa, buy more Dial soap.”) It can also control some smart home accessories like light bulbs and electrical outlets. (“Alexa, turn on the lights.”)
But I’ve never been a heavy Siri user — I’d rather type a search into Google than shout a question at my phone — so I never really found a need to ask a disembodied voice in my apartment what the weather forecast would be. And while the concept of a smart home sounds promising in the future, I’m not ready to replace all my “dumb” appliances and gadgets with more expensive ones so I can control them over the internet.
So after spending two weeks with the Echo in my living room, I found myself ignoring most of its functions and using it almost exclusively as a music player. (There’s one exception: The Echo makes a great kitchen timer.)
How it works
After using a companion smartphone app to connect the Echo to your WiFi network, you control the Echo almost entirely with your voice. The built-in microphone is always listening for the keyword “Alexa” before you give it a command.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, the Echo can tap into Prime Music, the Spotify-like streaming service that all Prime members get at no extra cost. You can tell the Echo to play a certain playlist, artist, or just stream a genre of music from its preset playlists.
But Prime Music has a limited selection compared to other services like Spotify, Apple Music, Rdio, and Rhapsody, and I often had trouble finding the specific songs and artists I wanted to listen to. It was nice to tell the Echo something like “play some classical music,” but other than that it’s a big problem that Prime Music still doesn’t have a comparable selection to its rivals.
The good news: The Echo can sync with a few other music services, most notably Pandora. After you log into your Pandora account through the Echo app on your phone, the speaker updates so you can command it to play your stored Pandora stations. (“Alexa, play the Weezer station from Pandora.”)
On top of all that, the Echo sounds great. I’m no audio expert, so I won’t even attempt to dive into the technicalities of the Echo’s acoustics. But I did like how the Echo could fill my entire living room with sound even though it’s a relatively tiny device.
When you couple that with the wow factor of just asking a gadget to play what you want to hear, the Echo becomes a delightful way to listen to music.
As much as I love Pandora though, it’s still not ideal. For me, the only thing keeping the Echo from perfection is the lack of support for Spotify, which is how I listen to most of my music. Spotify has a massive library of 30 million songs and it’s rare I can’t find what I want.
In a perfect world, I’d be able to tell the Echo to play any album, playlist, or individual track I have stored in Spotify. Instead, I have to use a workaround by connecting my phone to the Echo through Bluetooth and controlling my music in the Spotify app, just like I would with any other Bluetooth speaker. It works, but it’s not as handy as just telling Echo what I want to listen to.
To be clear, don’t interpret this to mean that Echo will never get Spotify, Apple Music, or any of the other music services. One of the great things about the Echo is that Amazon promises to add new features to it over time with software updates. Alexa will get smarter. The Echo will be able to control more smart home devices. And there’s always a chance it will sync with more services.
That’s what makes me the most excited about the Echo. It’s already an amazing, intelligent music player today, but it also has the potential to evolve into the hub for everything electronic in my home.
It’s that potential that makes the Echo an amazing value. It’s worth the $US180 for the music features alone, and the fact that it’s going to get a lot better makes it a steal. If you’re an Amazon Prime member and you don’t already own a speaker for music in the home, you should buy an Echo.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.