Amazon's Echo Buds were successful in offering an AirPods alternative to people who prefer Alexa to Siri. Hands-free access to the assistant worked well, the earbuds were affordable at $130 and the company offered a decent amount of customization. However, the first-gen model didn't sound great, battery life was short and Bose-powered Active Noise Reduction (ANR) wasn't as powerful as true active noise cancellation (ANC). Today, Amazon is introducing a redesigned second-gen version of the Echo Buds that are cheaper, smaller and address all the key flaws from the initial release.
The main feature of the all-new Echo Buds is still hands-free access to Alexa. Just like the first version, you can ask the assistant to play music and podcasts, make calls, find a missing earbud and more — all without having to pick up your phone. In terms of podcasts, Amazon is refining things by allowing you to ask Alexa to play podcasts you follow, not just to recommend a show. The company is also added a time-based command last year that will allow you to prompt the assistant to play music for a set period. For example, if you want to take a short break you would say "Alexa, play (insert type of music here) for 15 minutes." When the audio stops, you know it's time to get back to whatever you were doing.
With the Echo Buds, Alexa can also help with non-audio tasks. Amazon's assistant can set reminders, check your calendar, find the nearest burger spot or add items to your shopping list. The company says it will also add its VIP Filter feature to the earbuds later this year. The tool debuted on Echo Frames and it allows you to let selected notifications through while silencing the rest. When you receive an alert, a double tap on either earbud will play it while a single tap will dismiss. VIP Filter works with calendars and group messages as well, so you aren't limited to just calls and texts. Lastly, Alexa can also lend a hand during your commute with public transit info. The feature is already available in several major US cities, broadcasting directions and status updates directly to the Echo Buds. Amazon says it plans to expand the transit tool to more cities in the US "in the coming months."
The new Echo Buds aren't all about Alexa though. The earbuds have been redesigned to be 20 percent smaller. Amazon also reduced the overall weight and increased comfort by shortening the nozzle that goes into your ear and adding vents to reduce pressure. Like the previous model, the company offers an Ear Tip Fit Test to ensure the tips you select provide a proper seal. Amazon also redesigned the case to open on the top edge rather than laying flat, and if you're willing to pay extra, you can splurge for wireless charging.
Inside, Amazon has made several key changes that should lead to improved audio performance. First, each earbud is equipped with a 5.7mm "high-performance driver" that the company says produces "crisp, balanced sound with extended dynamic range." Amazon specifically notes that these components are tuned for "increased fidelity in bass and treble" and reduced distortion. Overall sound quality was an issue with the first Echo Buds, so any improvement there would be a welcome change.
Amazon has also switched to active noise cancellation instead of the Active Noise Reduction on the original Echo Buds. The company says it developed it's own ANC technology that can cancel out twice as much noise as the first-gen earbuds. More specifically, Amazon explains that the new Echo Buds are better at filtering out low-frequency noise like the hum of an airplane. As was the case on the initial product, Passthrough Mode offers the ability to pipe in ambient sound when you need it and the level of outside noise is adjustable inside the Alexa app. Both ANC and Passthrough can be activated hands-free.
One area Amazon did not improve is battery life. The new Echo Buds still only have up to five hours of listening time with hands-free Alexa and noise cancellation active. If you turn those off, the company says you can eke out another hour and a half. The case offers two additional charges for 10 more hours of use on top of what the buds themselves can hold (up to 15 hours total with Alexa and ANC). If you're in a pinch, 15 minutes will give you up to two hours of playback and Amazon added LEDs inside of the case to give you a battery level estimate for each earbud. You can also ask Alexa to check your percentage at any time with a spoken command.
The new Echo Buds are available for pre-order today in black or white color options with shipping set to begin for US customers in May. Amazon is selling two versions: one with USB-C wired charging for $119.99 and one with a wireless charging case for $139.99. For a limited time, you can save $20 on each, which puts them at $99.99 and $119.99 respectively. A purchase of the second-gen Echo Buds will also come with six months of Amazon Music Unlimited and Audible Plus free of charge — if you haven't already cashed in on a free trial.