The good news is that Amazon largely succeeded in what it set out to do. I tried the new Echo Dot ($50) and Echo Plus ($150), both in single-speaker and the new stereo configurations, both with and without the Echo Sub. In every case, I found myself surprised at the quality of the audio I heard: There's no question these are the best speakers Amazon has made for music playback. But there are a lot of different ways to configure all these speakers, and they hit a variety of price points. So hang tight here as I break down what you get for your money and how these new Echo speakers stack up against options like the Sonos One, Google Home Max and Apple HomePod.
Test #1: Echo Dot(s)
The cheapest and smallest Echo speaker on the market is the Echo Dot -- and while the original model was a fantastic gateway drug into the Alexa world, it sounded tinny, distorted and generally unpleasant. But this year, Amazon made the device slightly bigger and redesigned the internal speaker. Suddenly, the Dot became a viable option for playing music in your bedroom or other small space. It still doesn't have the power to compete with bigger speakers like the Echo Plus or Sonos One, but the lack of distortion when compared to the earlier model makes a huge difference. It's also significantly louder than the original, and the new 1.6-inch driver does indeed bring out some semblance of bass.
Even more surprising was how good two Dots sound in stereo. Setup through the Alexa app on my phone was pretty simple. The app recognized that I had two Dots active on my network, asked me to pick which one was the right channel and finished the pairing automatically. And if you want to separate the speakers, all you have to do is press one prompt to split them back up.
The stereo pair adds more volume, of course, but even more impressive is the increase in clarity. My usual mix of guitar-driven albums (think Soundgarden, Death Cab for Cutie, Cursive) sounded quite nice, as did the latest albums from synth-heavy indie pop musicians like Chvrches, Mø and Now, Now. The intricate details found in string-heavy film scores like Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings got lost a bit, but overall the Dots provided a solid balance of decent audio quality and volume.