Jacob Krol/CNN
CNN —  

After over two years of intrigue and waiting, Amazon’s successor to its first foray into earbuds has arrived. The second-gen Echo Buds are now shipping, and we’ve spent nearly a week with them.

Echo Buds now feature a slimmer and refined design, and they felt plenty comfortable in our ears. With three microphones on board, they can fully block out the world around you — or at least try to — and have some of the best voice pickup we’ve experienced. Those microphones also do double duty when you ask for Alexa. There’s a lot to like here and a lot of value, so let’s unpack the second-gen Echo Buds.

The who, what and how:

Who it’s for: Starting at $119.99, the latest Echo Buds are for value-conscious listeners who want top-end features mixed with good battery life and rich sound without breaking the bank.

What you need to know: These small earbuds pack a punch with comfort and offer a rich sound experience. Battery life is solid, and the active noise cancellation (ANC) is a major improvement over the original. With Alexa built in, you’ll be able to ask questions and use the virtual assistant as you normally would. Additionally, Alexa on Echo Buds can be used to answer calls, send messages (on Android only) and pull up specific songs.

How it compares: ANC on Amazon’s Echo Buds most certainly falls behind that of the AirPods Pro, Jabra Elite Active 75t and Galaxy Buds Pro. Yes, they still block out a majority of noise, but they don’t go as far against these core competitors. Echo Buds do succeed with sound quality that can rival the best and a very comfortable build that doesn’t add stress to your ear. For the price, Echo Buds deserve a look.

Slim pickings, a slim design and easy setup

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The most apparent thing about Echo Buds from a quick glance is that they aren’t the smallest or biggest earbuds. Amazon has managed to make these earbuds 20% smaller over the original, and that goes for the case as well. And that design decision leads to more comfort overall.

Echo Buds no longer stick very far into your ear canal, and the main hull rests comfortably in your ear. These don’t stick out as much as the original Echo Buds, the AirPods Pro or the massive Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. And you get a choice of color this time around. Echo Buds are available in black or Glacier White. We’ve been testing the latter and it’s a muted white that looks like a mix between ivory and gray. They look subtle and svelte in our ears and in the case. We especially like how the outward-facing part of Echo Buds has a soft matte finish.

You’ll slide these into your ears quite quickly, and you’ll want to make sure the smile logo is in a horizontal position. It’s easy enough, and we didn’t struggle at all with getting the buds in. Amazon also went the extra mile when it comes to the ear tips. Echo Buds come with the medium-sized tips installed, and you get three additional sizes (small, large and extra large) in the box.

Here’s the ingenious part, though — the different tips have different colors. This makes it incredibly easy to tell them apart. It just makes a lot of sense, and we’re surprised no other earbuds do this. Hopefully Amazon is setting a standard here. The color key is green for small, red for medium, blue for large and yellow for extra large.

Similar to AirPods Pro, Echo Buds offer an “Ear Tip Fit Test,” which helps you get the best fit. It occurs during setup, and with them in your ears, the app will play a series of sounds and use the onboard microphones to test the seal. You’ll also find three wingtips in the box (small, medium and large) to help get a tighter fight. They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s nice to see them included.

Setup is all handled through the Alexa app for Android or iOS. When you open the Echo Buds case, it will start casting a signal (the LED on the front will glow to confirm this), and the Alexa app should automatically detect them. You’ll link them with your Amazon.com account and run through Bluetooth pairing. It’s easy enough and took no more than a minute, including the Ear Tip Fit Test.

Unlike AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds Pro, which offer quick switching, you won’t find that in the same form here. You can hold down the button on the back of the case to enter pairing mode to connect with another device, but these won’t intelligently switch between devices (i.e., how AirPods can seamlessly move from your Mac to an iPhone). You’ll need to go to the Bluetooth menu on each respective device to connect. It’s not the end of the world, though.

Once you’re set up and you’ve found the proper fit, it’s easy to forget Echo Buds are in your ears. We tested for comfort through a mix of scenarios — working at a desk while listening to music and taking a few meetings, and also while walking around town and even in a park. We didn’t experience any pain in the ear and found that the Echo Buds didn’t weigh us down either. Each one weighs just 5.7 grams, so there’s no concern there. Echo Buds are also rated for IPX4, which makes them safe against sweat and water. We tested them in light rain and a bit of a downpour with no issues.

The case is no longer big and flat like the original — which took up a significant amount of space. This time around it’s similar to AirPods Pro with a rectangular design that stretches only about 28.6 millmeters tall. It’s very pocketable and really doesn’t weigh all that much. There’s a bit of a lip for easy opening of the lid and a handy LED light on the front. This will glow for pairing, connections and battery status. The rear side has a USB-C port and a button for manual pairing. It will be color matched to your Echo Buds as well.

And we don’t think it’s worth spending the extra $20 to get Echo Buds with a Wireless Charging Case. For $119, you’ll be fine with the standard case, which charges via a USB-C port. Amazon even includes a cable in the box for charging.

And as you’d expect, the case is both a home and charger for the buds. Battery life has been strong here as well with us getting five hours and 15 minutes with ANC enabled (that’s 15 minutes over Amazon’s promise) and six and a half hours of playback with ANC and Alexa off (that’s 30 minutes over the promise). We found that the case provides around two more full charges for the Echo Buds as well, and that’s regardless of what features are turned on.

Rich playback and Alexa in your ears

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Each Echo Bud features a custom 5.7-millimeter driver that delivers a major improvement in audio quality over the original. With the first few listens, you’ll notice a wide soundstage that lets you clearly hear all the aspects of a given track. The mix lets lows, mids and highs shine through without any sense of things being rolled together.

We’d describe the audio as clear, crisp and forceful. The volume issues we experienced on the original are fixed, and these hit a much higher max volume. This leaves tracks feeling fuller, and when we’re back to commuting, we’ll be able to blast out annoying travelers.

In “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, the Echo Buds handled the opening blast of drums, guitar and horns quite well, giving us clarity to take the boom of sound in. Additionally, while listening to the original (non-remastered version), there wasn’t extra distortion added to the track. Taylor Swift’s new version of “Hey Stephen” sounded clear and vibrant, with a nice pickup on high melodic tones. All in all, the buds deliver a really enjoyable experience for sound that notably doesn’t shy away from incorporating strong low and bass tones.

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But the real differentiator of Echo Buds is that Alexa is in your ears. It’s pretty similar to the experience with Echo Frames, one that we thoroughly enjoyed during our testing. With Echo Buds, though, it’s far less Alexa with you at all times but more Alexa just a call away. You can say, “Alexa” and really ask for anything. You can ask her about the weather, about the traffic on the way into the office or for a news briefing — and this is just scratching the surface. It’s also really handy for pulling exact song or playlist requests when you need to be hands-free. If you’ve used Alexa on any Echo speaker or smart display, it’s the same virtual assistant just in your ears. Keep in mind, though, that Alexa only works when Echo Buds are connected to your phone (Android or iOS), since she needs an internet connection (Wi-Fi or cellular) to understand and respond. Alexa will even let you answer calls on your phone, which is more handy than you might think.

With three microphones in each earbud, voice pickup is dramatically improved here. We’ll also call out that Echo Buds perform wonderfully on calls and video meetings. While you can hear your voice echoing a bit in a room, it does block out background noise like HVAC. We also didn’t encounter any connection or latency issues while testing.

If you’re really invested into the Alexa ecosystem, it’s a really handy addition. You can still access Siri on iPhone or the Google Assistant on an Android device through the Echo Buds. We just have a feeling that you’ll find yourself asking Alexa.

Admirable ANC — but not the best

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The addition of ANC is a welcome change to the new Echo Buds. The original model had a bit of active noise reduction (ANR), but it wasn’t all that impressive. Interestingly enough, Amazon had partnered with Bose on that but ditched them in the second generation for developing ANC in-house.

And while the Echo Buds’ ANC effectively blocks out most of the world around you, it does fall behind our other favorite earbuds — AirPods Pro, Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and Jabra Elite Active 75t included. To enable Echo Buds’ ANC, Amazon is using three microphones and a custom processor. As a result, the new Echo Buds do block out twice as much noise as ANR on the original Echo Buds, but it doesn’t block out the whole world around you. So in real-world terms, when wearing Echo Buds in an apartment with the HVAC system on, it reduced the loud fan noise down to a hum while also blocking out loud sounds. Higher-frequency sounds like environmental noise, bird chirping and even some human voices do make it through in a muted fashion.

There are also three ways to engage ANC on Echo Buds — you can ask Alexa, long-press on the bud or use the Alexa app. Any route will you give an easy way to focus or to block out the haters in a matter of seconds. As you might expect, Echo Buds also feature a Passthrough Mode with levels that you can adjust. This mode lets some environmental and surrounding noise in. It’s most helpful for when you’re in a space with others or while at home and waiting for a delivery. In comparison to Transparency Mode on AirPods Pro, this is a little harsher around the edges by default with a lot of white noise being tossed in. You can adjust the latter with the level of Passthrough.

Bottom line

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Amazon’s Echo Buds bring a lot of value to the table. For $119 or $139, there’s a lot to like about these true wireless earbuds.

We’re big fans of this updated design language, which puts minimal pressure on your ears and stays comfortable for long listening sessions. We have no issues with the battery life or charging quality either. And the sound quality is really quite superb here. Our one qualm would be that the ANC was a bit of a letdown, especially when compared to other buds.

Still, at $119 for the wired case, Echo Buds are an especially good value for fans of Alexa.