Amazon's Echo Buds offer impressive value with a plethora of features

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Tue October 29, 2019

It's time to talk Echo Buds, Amazon's first true wireless earbuds that include Alexa and a host of other features. They're priced at $129.99, which is considerably cheaper than AirPods (starting at $144.99, originally $159; amazon.com), AirPods Pro ($249; amazon.com) or even Powerbeats Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com).

Echo Buds don't change much from the true wireless formula, but their arrival does throw Alexa into the on-the-go virtual assistant mix.

So let's talk Echo Buds, Amazon's first stab at true wireless earbuds.

A comfortable fit

Powerbeats Pro stick with an ear hook design, whereas AirPods opt for no ear tip and a build that sticks out. Sony's WF-100XM3s are inserted in the ear canal, but also stick out. Echo Buds go right in the ear canal and kind of just stay there. They are essentially a circular piece with a tiny nub that extends into the ear canal — and that portion is covered by an ear tip. You get a choice between small, medium and large.

The profile of Echo Buds is neither too deep nor too wide. They're just 22 millimeters tall and only 24 millimeters wide, with a lot of tech packed inside. They come in just one color — black.

Like AirPods Pro, there is a measuring technology and test that will help you find the right fit when it comes to the ear tips. That wasn't available during our review period, so we haven't tried it out, but we'll report back post-launch. You also get a set of three wingtips, which aim to create a tighter seal. It's kind of like an ear hook but it goes in the ear.

I found that the small ear tips on the Echo Buds with no wingtips were the best fit for me, but that's certainly subjective. Given the Active Noise Reduction and passthrough technologies on Echo Buds, you'll want a tight seal that is also comfortable.

The Echo Buds are comfortable and sit nicely in my ears, though the right side has felt a bit loose. That might just be my weird, asymmetrical ear canals, though.

The Echo Buds are rated IPX4 for sweat and water resistance — but to a light degree. I wore them in light rain without issue, and they stayed in my ear while running this past weekend despite some sweat. If they get wet or have liquid on them, you can wipe them off with a napkin or tissue and you should be just fine.

As you might expect, these also held up well during a casual walk to work, riding a pretty bumpy train and while moving around at my desk and office. Point is, these don't fall out.

Pulling one Echo Bud out will result in the music stopping playback. Amazon isn't the first to do this, but it's an important detail to get right. Both buds are quite easy to pull out as well.

Pairing process and audio quality

Pairing is surprisingly simple. It feels similar to AirPods on iOS. Upon unboxing the Echo Buds, I opened the Alexa app on my iPhone 11 Pro Max and a window popped up asking if I wanted to pair the Echo Buds. A few taps later, they were synced.

From there, I had easy control of the Echo Buds via the Alexa app and they auto-connected to Bluetooth on my iPhone. I also tested these with a Pixel 4 and Galaxy Note 10+ — both worked similarly, although I only completed the pairing process with my iPhone.

As for audio, put simply, the Echo Buds sound good. You can clearly distinguish between low and mid-tones, the bass is strong and quite clean at most volumes and vocals sound crisp. And while Amazon isn't overly specific, each Echo Bud features a custom made armature driver that is balanced for music, audiobooks, Alexa responses and podcasts, to name a few. It aims to work with all possible scenarios.

Like I normally do, I threw several different genres at the Echo Buds. And with a track like "Overnight" by Maggie Rogers, you get an enjoyable listening experience at nearly full blast. I can clearly feel the left Echo Bud vibrating from the bass — although subtle, it's the armature driver at work. You also get customizations over treble, bass and mid via the equalizer tab in the Alexa app. It's a nice feature that I wish was included on more headphones or earbuds. It works in real time, but there is no way to save presets of specific customizations with the equalizer.

As with any Echo, these buds work with all the popular streaming services, such as Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn. You can ask Alexa to play music or a specific artist (like Bruce Springsteen), and Echo Buds will pick up the request and route it through your phone for playback from your default service.

Once you start playing music, it doesn't always let you skip to the next song direct from your phone. It can be frustrating, but doesn't drown the experience. Apple Music, for instance, doesn't actually play through the Music app on your iPhone, but rather using the Alexa skill. It works, but not in the most cohesive way.

But the audio itself sounds good. I noticed that the overall sound output can be low for outdoors. You don't get the same forcefulness that you might find on AirPods or Powerbeats Pro, but it's not a dealbreaker for Echo Buds.

Echo Buds also pack in Bose Active Noise Reduction and Passthrough. The first is kind of like a simpler, lighter version of Noise Cancellation. That's not to say it doesn't block out a lot of noise. In our office, which is an active newsroom, it does a good job, but even at 100% volume with the ANR turned on, I can still hear my keyboard. That might simply be because I'm a heavy typer. Also, at full volume, those around me couldn't hear the sound, which means it creates a strong seal.

Passthrough lets sound into the earbuds so you can hear your surroundings, which is particularly useful for walking on a bustling street. There are five levels of passthrough that you can adjust between in the Alexa app, as well. By default, you can double-tap the Echo Buds to switch between ANC (active noise cancellation) and passthrough, but it is customizable in the Alexa app.

Alexa in your ears

For the most part, having Alexa in your ears works well. She plays nicely with Siri or the Google Assistant, depending on your phone. You can long-press either Echo Bud to engage the on-device assistant or use hands-free — either "Hey Siri" or "OK Google." Alexa, on the other hand, is only called upon via your voice with the wake word "Alexa."

You can ask her for music by song, artist or album. And you can specify which streaming service to pull from. Audiobooks, podcasts and radio stations are fair game. You can ask for the weather, jokes, fun facts and even scores. It's essentially the same as Alexa on any Echo or smart speaker. I like the ability to ask for smart home requests, like turning on smart plugs or lights as I'm approaching home on foot.

Alexa can also be used to call or message contacts on your phone, in addition to messaging in the Alexa app. This was hit or miss, as you need to make sure your contacts are synced with the setup process. And while the microphones for chatting with Alexa or the on-device assistant work well, it's a crap shoot with calls, especially outdoors -- I was told on most of my calls that it sounded like I was talking in a wind tunnel. It's similar to the experience on other true wireless earbuds and in line with Sony's WF-1000XM3.

The only other thing to remember is that any Alexa request is routed through your phone, so data rates might apply but it's nice to have Alexa in your ears for some experiences.

And privacy is front and center. You can turn off the Alexa wake word functionality and even mute the microphones from the Alexa app at any time.

Battery life is solid for true wireless earbuds

While the Echo Buds fall short of second-generation AirPods when it comes to the amount of recharges you can get, these are quite dependable. Amazon says you can expect up to five hours of battery life, and I was close. With varying listening volumes and several requests, I averaged about 4 ½ hours of playback.

With the case, you can expect up to 20 hours of battery life, which is on the money. That case also charges with a micro-USB port, which is strange as USB-C would have been a much better option. There's also no wireless charging.

And while the case is bigger than AirPods or Galaxy Buds, it can fit in your pockets or be tossed in a bag with ease.

Bottom Line

At $129.99, you're certainly getting a lot of value for the Echo Buds, and simply put, they're a versatile pair of true wireless earbuds. The big feature is, of course, having Alexa right on your ears, but these also hit several necessary boxes for basic earbud functionality.

  • A comfortable design that packs water and sweat resistance
  • Good sound quality on a relatively wide soundstage.
  • Battery life that can make it through the day
  • Adequate Active Noise Reduction and Passthrough modes

If you want a good value pair of true wireless earbuds, put these on your short list. And if you want Alexa-enabled buds, these should jump to the top.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.