Amazon Echo is either the coolest wireless speaker ever—or the creepiest

Is an always-on, always-listening cloud-connected device a good thing to have in your home?

Published: November 07, 2014 10:45 AM
The Amazon Echo looks like an ordinary Bluetooth speaker. It's not.

However you look at it, the new Amazon Echo wireless speaker is something of a revelation, an always-listening virtual personal assistant that can perform a wide variety of tasks, whether it's playing your favorite tunes, offering wake-up calls, prompting you with reminders, or searching the cloud for answers to questions. And not surprising, it's happy to help you put together a shopping list, presumably to buy more stuff from Amazon.

But since the smart Wi-Fi/Bluetooth speaker is pretty much always on, it also raises the question: What else is it listening to, and what is it doing with all that data?

Standing just over 9 inches tall, Echo has seven built-in far-field microphones embedded in the top of the unit, which are supposed to allow the built-in voice recognition technology to hear you—even if music is playing—no matter where you place the speaker in a room. When on, the Echo's two downfiring speakers—a separate woofer and tweeter—radiate sound in 360 degrees. 

Echo comes with a remote control with a built-in mic, but there's also a dedicated Echo app for use with Fire OS- or Android-based phones and tablets, plus Web-based apps for Macs and PCs. A mobile iOS app is reportedly in the works. The unit will priced at $199 when it becomes available in the next several weeks, although Amazon Prime members can get it for $99. (Oh, yeah, you have to e-mail Amazon and request an invitation to buy one.)

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When it's not in use, the speaker is apparently in some kind of sleep mode; to wake it up, you simply say "Alexa," though it appears that at some point, you'll be able to rename it. Once awake, Alexa is ready to respond to questions and commands. Echo connects to a home network via Wi-Fi, and to portable devices, such as a smart phone or tablet, using Bluetooth. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences, Amazon says.


Want to know what the weather will be like, or the top news stories of the day? Echo will tap into a local news stations or NPR. It can also set timers and alerts, create to-do and shopping lists, or tap into Wikipedia to answer questions. And when you want to hear music, it can access songs from several services, including your Amazon Music Library or Prime Music, plus TuneIn and iHeartRadio. We've seen cylindrical Bluetooth speakers before: The JBL Charge and Charge 2, plus the Logitech UE Boom are currently in our wireless speaker Ratings (available to subscribers), and we'll be interested in testing this new contender's sound quality.

Amazon says Echo will be able to automatically receive new features and services via cloud-based updates. Since Echo's "brains" actually reside in the cloud—aka Amazon Web Services—Amazon says it will continually learn and add more functionality over time. The more you use Echo, the more it will be able to determine, and perhaps eventually predict, your preferences. Basically, Amazon will gradually know more and more about you.

And that's a source of concern. What, exactly, will Amazon be listening to once it has a set of microphones in your living room? How much of the daily conversation within your home will being captured, and what exactly will Amazon be doing with all that data? Will the Echo prove to simply be a smart speaker designed to make your life a bit easier, or is it a Trojan horse that's really engineered to help Amazon to sell you more stuff?

These are questions that we'll be asking once we're able to get our hands on an Echo unit and test it in our labs and homes. We'll also be closely reviewing the Echo's terms of service language to see exactly what Amazon is asking you to agree to when you place an Echo in your home. Keep checking back and we'll let you know what we find.

—James K. Willcox

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