Amazon’s new Echo Dot ($49) looks good and sounds great. With vastly improved sound, it’s now a distinctly better smart speaker than the Google Home Mini, and can replace the larger $99 Echo for less picky folks. That makes it our Editor’s Choice for entry-level smart speakers. If you already own an old Echo Dot and use it to power a bigger, better speaker, there’s no need to upgrade. But if you use your Echo Dot as a primary speaker, you’ll want the new one.
A Cuddlier Dot
The new Echo Dot is chubbier and cuddlier than the previous model, although it’s about the same size. Instead of just hard plastic, now the speaker has a fabric wrap in one of three shades of gray. Choose wisely, because unlike with the full-sized Echo, you can’t change the wrapping after you buy the speaker.
Like previous Echo Dots, the speaker has a colored light ring around the edge and four buttons on top: volume buttons, a mic mute, and an action button. I like the Echo Dot’s volume buttons better than the Home Mini’s slightly mysterious touch controls, although you’ll almost certainly be controlling the volume with your voice. The speaker is 3.9 inches in diameter by 1.7 inches high, and weighs 10.6 ounces. It’s portable in the sense that it’s easy to pick up and move from room to room, but it needs to be plugged in for power.
You connect the Echo Dot to your Wi-Fi network with the Alexa app or through a web browser. The new Dot supports 802.11ac, which noticeably extends Wi-Fi range for the device on a 5GHz network when used with an 802.11ac router.
From left: Amazon Echo, old Echo Dot, new Echo Dot
The sound quality on the single 1.6-inch driver is much, much better than the old Echo Dot. The old Echo Dot sounded abysmal, like a 1960s transistor radio. It was fine for Alexa’s voice, but music was extremely tinny. The new Echo Dot at least has some semblance of bass, and a much more rounded midrange. Take two Echo Dots, and you can even form them into a stereo pair.
The Dot now sounds noticeably better than the Google Home Mini. The Home Mini isn’t as painfully tinny as the old Dot, but it pushes voices far forward of any other sound when you’re playing music. Listening to your favorite singers is therefore entertaining, but you’re getting a very false idea of the background instrumentation. The new Dot brings things at least somewhat better together.
Now, this is still a small $50 speaker. The $99 standard Echo offers bass with much more room and shape compared with the Dot, for a noticeably better listening experience.
But I think this Dot finally vaults up into the realm of “good enough” for a lot of people, who don’t necessarily read dedicated speaker reviews. For everyone else, the Echo Dot still has a 3.5mm jack on the back, as well as Bluetooth, to connect to other speakers and audio sources.
Playing music, the new Dot gets up to a very noticeable 7dB louder than the old one, and about 2dB louder than the Google Home Mini at six inches. Interestingly, the new Dot is only 2dB quieter than the larger Echo. Where the larger Echo stands out is in the shape and quality of the sound—less compressed drums, and much better attack and decay with strings, for instance.
The Dot had no trouble hearing me, or being heard, at a 30 foot range in a quiet room. With music playing, you’ll have to speak up.
Alexa vs. Google Assistant
While we used to prefer Alexa to Google Assistant, Amazon is falling behind in its ability to answer natural language queries. When it comes to the major things people use smart speakers for—timers, music, weather and news—Amazon and Google are doing just fine. Alexa is even still ahead of Google on accessing calendars from Google accounts, as Google Assistant still can’t handle G Suite calendars.
Alexa is also ahead of Google Assistant on smart home control. While Google now brags that it can control 1,000 smart home brands, you can assume that any smart home device will work with Alexa. If voice controlling your TV is important, Amazon’s range of Fire TV sticks, devices, and smart TVs are much more flexible than Google’s Chromecast.
But ask a pair of speakers about, say, local businesses or directions, and Google flies ahead. Google Assistant knew the addresses of a local business I needed to get to where Alexa didn’t, and gave me transit directions there, which Alexa couldn’t. Our experience is supported by a major study done by ad agency 360i, which found that in the areas of travel, finance, cars, and retail, Google Assistant is much more able to answer arbitrary queries than Alexa.
Google also has superior multi-user functions. Google’s speakers just recognize the voices of various people in a family; Amazon speakers have to be told to switch accounts.
The new Echo Dot is good enough to be the default Alexa speaker in most rooms of your home. It no longer sounds horribly tinny, and it’s half the price of the bigger Echo. If you want better sound, you can easily hook it up to a larger speaker of your choice, or match it with another Dot as a stereo pair. It’s affordable, flexible, and attractive, and sounds a lot better than the Google Home Mini.
Amazon’s challenge right now is in the cloud, not in its hardware. Alexa still rules when it comes to voice-enabling a wide range of hardware from different manufacturers. It supports more smart home devices than Google or Siri, and the range of Fire TV devices, both in smart TVs and add-on devices, runs rings around Apple’s and Google’s options.
Google Assistant is just easier and more fun to talk to, which is why we recommend Google over Amazon if you’re starting out with smart speakers and don’t intend to go in a broad smart home direction. Google is more likely to understand what you’re asking and give you good advice. While you can enhance Alexa with thousands of third-party skills, their syntax is considerably pickier than Google’s is, making deep usage of Alexa an inherently geekier task.
We’ve been issuing Editors’ Choice awards for smart speakers more based on the hardware than on the ecosystem, because there are pros and cons with each platform. I’m happy to call the new Echo Dot an Editors’ Choice, and the entry-level Alexa speaker you should consider right now. It’s good enough to be the backbone of any Alexa-enabled home.