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Hands-on with Amazon's new Echo, Echo Plus and Spot clock

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
Amazon’s all-new Echo Dot will come in several colors, including this oak wood veneer. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

Amazon (AMZN) has unveiled a slew of new products and product updates aimed at expanding its considerable reach in people’s homes. Chief among them? An all-new Echo speaker.

Available for sale Wednesday for $99 — $80 less than its predecessor — think of this year’s all-new Echo as an evolved version of the first device, which Amazon initially released back in 2014.

I spent 30 minutes with the new Echo, Echo Plus and Spot and walked away with several impressions:

It’s a svelter, better-looking device

The Echo Speaker in silver. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

The all-new Echo is all about choices.

Where the first Echo came in just two colors — black and white — the new Echo strives to offer at least six colors, including charcoal fabric (black), heather gray fabric, oak finish, sandstone fabric, silver finish, and walnut finish.

The fabric-covered speakers, in particular, looked like a major upgrade from the first Echo and seemed particularly slick, especially given that they’re much shorter, too. I wasn’t a fan of the faux-wood veneer options — those just struck me as less premium-looking — but they could very well appeal to others besides me.

It sounds better

During Wednesday’s announcement, Dave Limp, Amazon SVP of Devices and Services, emphasized that one of the biggest upgrades to this year’s Echo speaker is in the audio department. An all-new audio design promises a new tweeter (or treble speaker) and subwoofer for improved sound. Also, newer “far-field” technology with noise cancelling should allow better voice recognition so Alexa can understand your commands from farther away.

“A kitchen is a very tough acoustic environment; a living room is a very tough acoustic environment,” explained Dave Limp, Amazon SVP of Devices and Services, of the company’s reasoning for introducing the improved design.

Amazon’s demo area on Wednesday crawled with reporters — not exactly an ideal environment to test out speaker audio — but a few minutes of streaming tracks, like Imagine Dragons’ “Believer” from Amazon Music, proved that the sound is indeed better and louder on this Echo.

Will the all-new Echo’s all-new audio blow away audiophiles? No. But it will fill a small-to-medium room, easy-peasy.

The Echo Plus offers much better audio than its predecessor. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

Also announced? The $149 Echo Plus, which also promises improved audio and a built-in “smart home hub,” which lets you easily connect smart devices around your home — compatible lights, locks, and switches, for instance — just by saying, “Alexa, discover my devices.”

It looks … a lot like the first Echo

You’d be forgiven for having a feeling of deja vu upon seeing the Echo Plus, which is available for pre-order and ships October 31.  At first blush, it looks virtually identical to the first Echo speaker that debuted in 2014, although you can order this one in black, white, and silver. It also comes with one Philips Hue bulb, as a way for users to get quickly acquainted with the Echo Plus’s “smart phone hub.”

It gets seriously loud

Alexa aficionados craving true, room-filling sound should probably bypass the smaller Echo and take a serious look at the Echo Plus. Again, it was hard to tell just how detailed music could be in Amazon’s  demo area, but the Echo Plus had no problem filling — even drowning out — the area with loud, distortion-free music at 3/4 the volume. For someone like me who enjoys listening to music or news updates as they do chores all around the house, it’s an appealing draw.

The Echo Spot aims to replace your old-fashioned alarm clock. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

One of Amazon’s more surprising announcements on Wednesday was the Echo Spot, a device that’s supposed to go by your bed and basically replace your old-school alarm clock. One area of the house Amazon hasn’t explicitly gunned for yet is the bedroom; however, the Echo Spot is clearly meant to fill that void.

Available for pre-order Wednesday and shipping this December, the $129 Echo Spot is a nearly 4-inch globe-shaped device with a 2.5-inch color screen that shows a clock by default. It also sports a front-facing camera for video calls.

When it arrives later this year, the Echo Spot should do everything its larger Echo Show sibling does, like displaying calendar appointment reminders and video calls. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

The Echo Spot promises to do everything the Echo Show and Echo speaker do, including recognizing voice commands to give you the news, play music, hail you an Uber, even play video, albeit in a much smaller and — dare I say it — more attractive package.

Unfortunately, because the Spot’s software wasn’t quite ready, my hands-on time basically consisted of me admiring its solid, compact industrial design and a few finger swipes to check out a calendar appointment here or a digital clock face there.

Come back to Yahoo Finance in the coming weeks for our in-depth reviews of the Echo, Echo Plus and Spot.

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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