Alexa’s grown wings, and they’re an inch from your eardrums.
The first time I tried the Echo Buds, I took them on my morning run. The Echo Dot in my bedroom told me it was colder than usual when reading my morning news. I slipped on some thick black gloves before I put in the earbuds. Ten steps into my run I realized I forgot to cue up my Discover Weekly playlist. I started to pull off my gloves and dig my phone out of my armband, but quickly realized I didn’t have to put myself through such hassle. I just asked Alexa and 5 seconds later, I was off to the races. Pretty slick, Bezos.
The Echo Buds help Amazon’s popular voice assistant bridge a small gap—the few feet between a smartphone and your ears. But in terms of accessibility, the tech giant’s first wirefree headphones feel like they’re leaping the Grand Canyon. Alexa can now come alive anywhere and rack its digital brain for anything you need.
Those who aren’t already hogtied to Amazon’s ecosystem might not be as enticed by the siren song of handsfree calling, playlist picking, and instant BBC news updates. Still, they’re surprisingly adequate $130 completely wireless earbuds, and that’s impressive given how many amazing wirefree buds there are to choose from right now.
I ran numerous sweat-basted miles without the earfins installed, and was impressed with their stability. If I were running a marathon, I might attach the fins (also called wings or wingtips), but they’re not usually needed. That’s good, because they take forever to strap on, and it’s tough to tell which direction they’re supposed to point.
The Echo Buds also auto-pause music when you take them out of your ears. I’ve realized that this is the only real non-verbal control I consider vital. And in terms of battery life, they only get five hours on a charge, which is a few hours less than many new sets. Then again, I haven’t listened to music for more than five hours uninterrupted in months, and I literally review headphones for a living. Have you?
Privacy fans (now, sadly, a subgroup of people) will like that you can turn the microphones off, so that Alexa will stop listening for its name. But there may not be any point. There’s an Alexa-enabled speaker in my bathroom listening to me pee, and in my bedroom listening to me snore. Why shouldn’t I force the voice assistant to emerge from the shadows of my cell phone and jog alongside me while blaring Outkast at full volume? (“No, not ATliens, Alexa. I listened to that yesterday. Stankonia, please.”)
If I remember I need dog food 3 miles into my run, Alexa already has my shopping list, a web store, and my credit card on file.
Alexa, How Do They Sound?
But despite just how easy Alexa can make your listening life, she isn’t the only thing that makes the Echo Buds great. They’re also some of the better-sounding wirefree earbuds around.
The bass is focused and revealing, striking kick drums and bass notes hard but quickly backing off in places where competitors like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds (8/10, WIRED recommends) wobble and blur. There’s even a slight dip in mid-range sounds that creates more musical space for guitars and keyboards. They project a surprisingly wide soundstage for those instruments to occupy—especially on acoustic recordings of jazz and classical music, which can sometimes feel like the audio equivalent of watching a great movie on a really tiny screen.
Fit is a key component to the Echo Buds’ great sound. Amazon includes three sizes of eartips, and the Alexa app comes with a test that uses special tones and the Echo Buds’ microphones to map your ears and take the pain out of finding the right pair. It quickly informed me that I needed to change out the large eartips (which came stock on my review units) for set of mediums. Alexa was right; the smaller tips fit much better, and immediately improved the sound quality.
Amazon borrowed a pinch of active noise-canceling technology from Bose, but the vast majority of the noise reduction you’ll experience when wearing the Echo Buds comes from the eartips. The headphones aren’t as whisper-quiet as the $230 Sony WF-1000xM3 (9/10, WIRED Recommends) or the $250 AirPods Pro, but they dampen sound just enough that you’ll talk annoyingly loud to companions when you forget to turn it off.
The charging case, a black plastic oval that opens like a chest, is bigger than an AirPods case, but fits easily in most pockets. It uses Micro USB instead of USB C, which means there’s no super-fast case charging to speak of, though with 20 hours in the case you probably won’t need it.
Can’t Touch This
The touch sensors, which are on the outside of each earpiece, are frustrating. They can be customized to do everything from skip songs to call up Google Assistant (in situations where Alexa isn’t enough, I guess?) but no matter how you customize them, you can’t make them adjust the volume. And beyond that, a good portion of my taps didn’t register.
After a while, I stopped bothering and just asked Alexa for everything. Barring the occasional loss of my phone’s data connection in parts of Portland, OR that my wireless carrier seems to acutely dislike, every voice command was immediately heeded.
In fact, I found that asking Alexa to do everything for me made me feel better. At least I’m getting some convenience in exchange for placing a multi-billion dollar company’s ears in my bedroom, bathroom, and now basically everywhere else.
Immediate access to Alexa is also a great feature for those with disabilities. Last week, I spoke with a WIRED reader who needed both hands free to drive while in their wheelchair, but who wanted to make calls and do tasks with their voice. It won’t be long until all wirefree headphones can do this—in most cases, voice assistants are already just a button push away, and other sets are beginning to add hands-free access to Google Assistant.
Air or Echo
You might want wirefree buds with more than the five hours of battery life, or with earfins that aren’t annoyingly difficult to put on correctly. You might want touch controls that always work. The Echo Buds can frustrate in these basic ways, but with Alexa they’re still quite usable, and they sound fantastic.
The Apple AirPods are the big alternative for iPhone owners, thanks to their hands-free Siri access. I’d opt for the Echo Buds. Amazon has better voice-based apps inside Alexa’s ecosystem than Apple does with Siri, and the audio nerd in me simply demands better sound, actual sweatproofing, and more comfortable eartips than Apple offers.
Then again, maybe it’s that Alexa already wakes me up each morning. In any case, I’ll give the edge to Amazon.