Amazon's new Echo speakers sound better, but do you need to upgrade?

Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY
·4 min read

Amazon has new Echo speakers to sell you. And if you're wondering whether or not to ditch the old ones for these, the answer comes down to two key questions for Alexa, the personal assistant.

► Do I prefer the looks of a round speaker over a cylinder?

► Do I crave better sound?

This year Amazon is all about being spherical, in the shape of its "The Spheres" corporate headquarters in Seattle. The cylinder can look of the original Echo and the hockey puck shape of the Echo Dot are out, replaced with little round balls and higher price points.

The flagship Echo is now $99, and the Dot is $50.

Of course, that means little, since Amazon discounts the speakers heavily during the holidays, usually selling the Echo for around $50 and Dot for around $25.

Amazon Echo Dot and Echo speaker
Amazon Echo Dot and Echo speaker

Which brings us back to the improved sound and the round ball aesthetic.

Let's start with a basic fact: Amazon's best-selling branded product is the Dot, not the Echo, despite having inferior sound to the more expensive speaker. If you take a look at the 640,000 reviews for the product on Amazon, consumers are not saying that music is their No. 1 use case for the speaker.

They write about liking it for controlling their smart home, making hands free calls to other Echo devices, listening to news reports and podcasts, following your daily schedule and, eventually, listening to music.

So when Amazon tells consumers that the new top of the line Echo has "premium" sound that has cleared highs, dynamic mid-ranges and deep bass for music, will they care?

If they did, the Sonos One would be the best-selling speaker in the world, as it clearly has way better sound that any previous Echo, and also answers to the Alexa personal assistant.

Sales: Amazon ships more than 1 billion holiday gifts, lots of Echo Dots

Second Opinion: Amazon's 2020 Echo speaker has new features

Amazon dramatically cut back on its roster of Echo speakers offerings this year, paring it down to just the Dot, a Dot with a clock ($60), a kids edition of the Dot ($60), and the Studio – hands down the best sounding of the speakers – for $199.

The rest of the lineup is devoted to video displays, the Echo Show 5 ($89.99), Echo Show 8 ($129.99) and the teased Echo Show 10 (3rd Gen) which was touted at a press preview in September, for $249. Listed on Amazon's website just as "coming soon," the new Echo is aimed at video calls and meetings, with a pedestal that moves the unit when participants move around. The Show 10 and Show 8 are scheduled to connect to Zoom video meetings before the end of the year.

We tested the "All-new" Echo speakers over the past few days, with two plugged in the same room and paired for stereo. The verdict: Yes, they sound better than the old Echo. In fact, they sound good. But they don't sound insanely great.

That's a subjective answer, because it all depends on the user.

But the Echo Studio, which was released in 2019 for $199 was easier to report on. It sounded truly and unquestionably great. (Or as I said, in my initial review: "Amazon's best sounding speaker ever.")

But you know what? The new Dot doesn't sound bad at all. It's still a nice portable radio that does a lot of other things beyond play music. It sounds fine. And it's usually dirt cheap this time of the year, which many of the Amazon reviewers said helped them decide to buy multiple units and place them all over the home.

If you want to talk great sound, the new Google Home speakers, which has been rebranded as Nest Audio, really do have incredible audio. I recently tested two of the $99 Nest units paired as well, and called the sound "fantastic" in my review.

Amazon speakers are more versatile than Google's. They can compose and read back emails and texts, and they can be paired with your TV and act as small soundbars without the snag of having to connect them to the TV. (You'll need a Fire TV Stick or the Fire TV Cube devices to do the pairing.)

So do you need to upgrade? Not if you're happy with what you have or think a round ball will be easier to place and look better in the home. It really mostly comes down to style. But if you needed an extra Echo, I'd opt for a Dot, since it's more economical.

Meanwhile, Apple has decided to get more competitive with Amazon and Google, and is set to release on Nov. 16 a consumer friendly priced edition of its HomePod speaker, the Mini, for $99. The original, which like the Mini answers to Apple's Siri, initially sold for $349. And like the new Echos, the new Mini will be small and round, too.

Google's speaker is square, like a small rounded box.

So music fans rejoice. The big tech companies have your back. But are you square or round?

Follow USA TODAY's Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amazon Echo and Dot Alexa speaker upgrades tout better sound.