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Amazon Deploys Army of Echoes Against Oncoming Threats

By David Jones
Sep 29, 2017 1:42 PM PT
amazon-echo-smart-speaker

Amazon on Wednesday unveiled five new Echo products that raise the bar in the automated home market.

Among other things, Amazon has improved the sound quality in its second-generation Echo speaker to compete with several new competitors in the high-end audio segment.

The new Echo, which is more compact and comes in a variety of shell colors and finishes, offers more immersive sound. It has a new speaker architecture, a dedicated tweeter, Dolby sound processing, and a 2.5 inch down-firing woofer.

The new smart speaker uses Amazon's second generation far-field technology, which offers improved wake word-processing, better beam-forming and enhanced noise cancellation. These improvements are designed to help Alexa understand users' commands, even from across noisy rooms.

The Echo allows users to listen to music from several different streaming services, including Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio and TuneIn.

The new Echo speaker is available for a reduced price -- US$99.

Amazon also unveiled Echo Plus, which includes a built-in hub for managing smart home devices.

Users can give the command, "Alexa, discover my devices," to trigger the Echo Plus to find and set up lights, smart locks, electrical plugs, switches, and other devices without additional apps or hubs.

The technology is compatible with ZigBee devices like Philips Hue, GE and Kwickset, among others. Customers receive a Philips Hue smart lightbulb for free with the purchase of an Echo Plus, while supplies last. The Echo Plus sells for $149.99.

The Echo Plus also has improved sound, with 360-degree omnidirectional audio, and Dolby processing for deeper bass and crisper high notes. Users can stream from the above-mentioned music services. Amazon Music users also can search for songs by individual lyrics or time period -- or the service can choose music for you.

Alexa Tech

The new Echo and Echo Plus include new Alexa software, as well. Alexa routines allow users to set up customized voice commands, like turning off multiple devices by saying "Alexa, good night."

Amazon has expanded Alexa's recently launched calling features to allow free calls to phone numbers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. A new feature, Echo Connect, can connect to your home phone line to turn a smart speaker into a hands-free speakerphone.

Amazon also launched Echo Buttons -- new devices that let users play games on the device. Compatible skills include Trivial Pursuit from Hasbro, Sounds Fun with Mike Epps, Buzzer Beater Basketball Trivia with Karl Anthony Towns, and others. Echo Buttons will come in a two pack and be priced at $19.99. They initially will be available in the U.S., UK, and Germany.

Echo Spot

Amazon also launched the Echo Spot, a small circular speaker designed to sit on a nightstand or desk. It includes a display for visual enhancements of weather and news reports, alarms and more.

The Echo Spot includes second-generation far field technology with four built-in microphones, acoustic beam-forming technology and enhanced noise cancellation, which enables it to respond to commands from across a noisy, crowded room.

Front-facing cameras on the device enable video calling.

The Echo Spot, priced at $129.99 is now available for preorder and will begin shipping in December.

Something for Everyone

Amazon's launch of a new family of Echo products guards its flank from emerging competitors in a number of different segments.

"I think it's a really smart move by Amazon," said Adam Marchick, CEO of VoiceLabs.

"They are making it really clear that there is a device for every killer application," he told the E-Commerce Times.

The new devices reflect Amazon's ambition to be in as many homes, and in as many rooms inside homes, as it can, said Michael Levin, cofounder of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

"Echo started as an entertainment device, really only music," Levin told the E-Commerce Times. "Since then, Amazon continues to find new applications, including monitoring and controlling smart homes, and [to develop] devices that are cheap and easy to use."

Amazon dominates the market with 76 percent of the U.S. installed base, or about 15 million devices, while Google Home has about 5 million devices, or 24 percent of the market, data from CIRP shows.

Based on some of the new product specs, it appears Amazon may have gotten feedback that it needed to improve on sound quality and the ability to understand commands in noisy rooms, suggested Mark Beccue, principal analyst at Tractica.

The company may have felt pressure to respond to the looming threat of competition from Apple HomePod, Harman Kardon Invoke, and other high-end speakers that are set to come out this fall, he told the E-Commerce Times.

Google Assistant -- Alexa's stiff virtual assistant competition -- also is going to be embedded in many home and entertainment devices, based on a number of recent reports, including Nvidia's Shield TV, home appliances from LG, smart speakers like the Zolo Mojo from Ankerm and the new QC 35 II headphones from Bose.


David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.


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