Amazon's canvas coated semi-sentient spherical speakers got an update this year. Or rather, the smaller Echo Dot variants did. The little speaker now sounds better than ever, plus there's a new Kids edition design and a more useful LED display on the Echo Dot with Clock.
Having used all of Amazon's previous versions we were keen to see if the new Dot hits the mark with good sound this time, or if we'd really miss the 3.5mm port of the older models that would allow us to plug into a better sound system. Here's how we got on.
- 100 x 100 x 89mm
- 55 per cent recycled plastic - 95 recycled fabric
- Available in Charcoal, Deep Sea Blue and Glacier White
It's worth clearing up something before we get started. Amazon offers three distinct variants of the Echo Dot (5th gen). There's the standard model, the Kids Edition and the Echo Dot with Clock. For the most part, they're all the same - the internal hardware and smart capabilities are all identical. Even the dimensions are the same.
However, the Kids version comes with a colourful animal-themed design and access to Kids+ content, plus parental controls, while the Echo Dot with Clock has a simple LED display hidden beneath the canvas on the front and displays the time 24/7. It can now also show song titles when music is playing, or even a weather icon when you ask for the forecast.
Other than that, they match the Echo Dot (5th gen) on shape, materials and design. That means you get a small globe-shaped device with a flat underside and a fabric-covered upper. It's essentially the same as the previous generation and is made from 50 per cent recycled plastic and 95 per cent recycled fabric. Likewise, the cardboard packaging is 99 per cent recycled too.
The Dot has four physical buttons on the top indicated by four raised icons. There's the '+' and '-' for volume control, a mute button and a multi-function button that you press to manually get Alexa's attention without using your voice.
There's another invisible control. You can tap the top of the unit to play and pause music, or snooze your alarm in the morning if you have it set to wake you up. It works well when you purposefully tap the Dot, but we did find we'd accidentally trigger it when trying to press the other buttons sometimes.
We're a little disappointed to see the latest Echo Dot no longer has a 3.5mm port for output to better sound systems (or bigger speakers), but perhaps this is a sign that a) Amazon is confident in the new little speaker's sound and b) People don't really use them that way. Still, it would be nice to have the option.
- 1.73-inch (44mm) driver
- Compatible with Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and Tidal
- No 3.5mm port
The most notable - and perhaps only real - upgrade with the fifth generation is the audio quality. Amazon built a new speaker system into its smallest smart sphere, enhancing the bass without losing much in the way of clarity in the vocals and high-end frequencies.
It's definitely an improvement from the previous generation of Echo Dot. You get a fuller spectrum of audio colours, and it definitely seems better balanced with better vocals, better separation between high and low frequencies, and a good amount of bass.
A lot of your speaker's audio is dependent on the room it's in, what it's sitting on and how many hard surfaces like wooden floors and tiles you might have. So in some instances, you might find you want to tweak the EQ so you don't have bass that's hurting your ears, or reverberating around the room too much and making it hard to hear the vocals or high notes.
In these instances, you can make use of the EQ controls in the Alexa app. Here you can adjust the treble, mid and bass frequencies to suit your preferences, or the room it's in. Sadly, it doesn't have the Echo Studio's ability to measure and adapt to its surroundings automatically, which would be a nice feature to roll out further.
Managing expectations is always a good thing to do when looking at small £50-£60 speakers. Because, of course, if you want the absolute best quality sound, with textured, detailed and responsive bass, you're not going to be looking at an Echo Dot. It still has the tendency to go a little boomy in the loud and low bass frequencies, losing a bit of the texture. But it's still very good for its size and price point.
In our opinion, the best way to enjoy the Echo Dot's upgraded sound is in a pair. As part of the set-up process, if the Alexa app detects you have two Dots ready to set up, you get the option to set them up as a paired system. It's simple to do, and once done, you get a stereo system. Whenever you ask Alexa to play music on either of the units that are paired, it'll play it in stereo from the two speakers.
We had ours set up in the bedroom, with one on either side of the bed, but you can - of course - use them anywhere. If you have a Fire TV stick, you can even set them up to play audio from the TV dongle in a stereo pair beneath your TV.
With our own set-up, the experience was so much more immersive and expansive than it would be if we only had one speaker. You get the full stereo effect of it when playing albums or tracks with lots of layers split between right and left channels. Being Funny in a Foreign Language by The 1975 is a great example.
So many of those songs have wind instruments or guitars playing off each other on the right and left sides, some with a call-and-response element to them. It's an effect you simply can't have if you only have one speaker.
The only downside of Amazon's speakers is that they're not equipped with AirPlay or Chromecast support for easy audio beaming from your iOS or Android device. However, if you use the Amazon Music app on your phone, or Spotify, that's not an issue. With those you can easily choose to play music from a specific Echo or group of Echos.
Apple Music users will be reliant on voice commands or using the Alexa app (which is a little limited when it comes to music control). Or, if you really want to, you can just use it as a Bluetooth speaker, pair your phone to it and play music via Bluetooth the old-fashioned way.
- Alexa assistant voice control
- Built-in thermometer
- Ultrasonic motion detection
Unlike some of the bigger, more expensive models, the smaller Echo Dot isn't equipped with a built-in Zigbee smartphone controller, so it can't detect smart home products on your network. Thankfully that doesn't hinder its usefulness really, since Alexa supports pretty much all popular third-party systems using its Skills platform.
What makes it strong is the same as what makes the rest of Amazon's Echo lineup strong, and that's its compatibility with all of those other systems. You can use voice commands to switch smart home products on or off if you want to, or - if it's light bulbs - change brightness and colour. If you're happy to spend a little time with creating Routines through the Alexa app, you get a more convenient experience.
For instance, you can group products and functions together to respond to specific phrases. As an example, you could say 'Good Morning' and have it switch on your bedroom lights and play you a morning news briefing and share the day's weather forecast. Or, in our case, we have a routine in place to switch all of our office lights on or off when we say 'I'm in the office' or 'I'm done for the day'.
It's particularly useful if you have lights from different manufacturers. Routines make it easy to group lights together from LIFX, Nanoleaf, Philips Hue (or other compatible brands) and have them respond together to the same voice commands. It means you don't have to necessarily stick to products from one company.
The Echo Dot has been a really reliable voice assistant in our time testing it too, responding quickly and reliably to its wake word. We haven't had to repeat ourselves yet, and that's been a refreshing change from some of the older models.
Like its hidden 'tap to pause' feature, the little Dot has another secret: a thermometer. This temperature sensor sits inside the Echo Dot and can measure the temperature of the room it's in. Using this, and some Routines, you can - for instance - set it to switch on a fan when the room gets too warm or turn on a heater when it gets too cold. If you have smart plugs with those devices plugged in, it's simple enough to do.