On September 25, Amazon announced over 30 products at once. Since I’ve been using the Samsung Galaxy Buds for nearly 6 months with the Amazon Alexa app, the announcement that I saw the most immediate value in was the Amazon Echo Buds ($139.99).  I love the Samsung Galaxy Buds – but they’re not perfect.  After testing them the Amazon Echo Buds for nearly 2 weeks, here are my favorite and least favorite things about them.

The Good: The Pairing

For the initial setup, as soon as you open the case for the Echo Buds with the Alexa app open and Bluetooth on, the headphones pair automatically. There’s no need to put the headphones in any kind of “pairing mode” if you have the Alexa app, which is great. You go from opening the packaging to up and running in less than 10 seconds.

Once you’ve connected, there’s a great demonstration video inside the Alexa app, showing how the Buds fit and what you can do with them. It’s quick, but definitely worth watching to get an overall idea of how to use them. This process is extremely painless and works really well.

The Good: Active Noise Cancelling

There are two kinds of noise cancelling headphones typically provide – passive or active. Passive noise cancelling is just the headset muffling sound through rubber tips in an in-ear design or padding in an over-the-ear design. Essentially, the headset acts like an earplug or earmuff.  Active noise cancellation is when a microphone in the headphones monitor environment noise and create anti-noise that’s mixed in with audio to cancel noise.
I commute on the train and the subway every day, so headphones are essential. The train is fairly quiet, but the subway can very loud, so the need to block out noise is important. Additionally, dealing with hearing people’s conversations, gum chewing, or other noises can be challenging.  Samsung’s Galaxy Buds have passive noise cancelling, which is ok, but far from ideal.  Amazon’s Echo Buds have Bose Active Noise Reduction built-in, which is active noise cancelling that provides a sound at a similar frequency to block out low level noise. Frankly, this is fantastic and the main selling point of these earbuds. The difference when the noise cancellation is active is extremely noticeable, and makes for a much better commute.  I still hear people’s voices and gum chewing, but those noises are significantly muted.  When I turn on some white noise, I can barely hear anything else.

The Good: Amazon Alexa Built-In

The main point of the earbuds is to have access to Alexa at all times, which is a wonderful idea.  With the earbuds in my ears, I can summon Alexa at anytime, hands-free.. If I’m walking and my phone is in my pocket, I can say “Alexa, play my news” or “Alexa, play my music” and the commands are executed. Even if I’m asking in earshot of my other Echo units, the other Echo units know not to listen to the command, and let the Echo Buds handle the request. This works extremely well.
Once you get used to talking to Alexa whatever you’re doing, your phone becomes less important. You can easily ask the time, the weather, or where your spouse is. You can ask for your favorite song or playlist. You can ask for the lights at home to be turned on. Whatever you can do with your Amazon Echo units at home or your Alexa app, you can do with the Echo Buds.

The Good: Passthrough mode

One feature that the Echo Buds have, passthrough mode, is an interesting concept – it allows you to hear some outside noises, based on your preference. Inside the Alexa app settings, you can adjust the level of passthrough mode, allowing more or less ambient noise through. I don’t particularly see a need for this in my daily life, but you may use this feature.

The bad: Alexa

The major issue that I have is that it’s hard to figure out what volume of my voice to use to summon Alexa, and it’s unclear what to do when she doesn’t respond. When I’m walking around Manhattan and I say “Alexa, play Taylor Swift”, and she doesn’t respond – I have no idea why not. Was I not loud enough? Did my headset become disconnected? Did I lose signal? In an attempt to get Alexa to hear me, I repeat my request louder and louder, until I eventually give up and pull out my phone to put some music on like a normal person.

The problem I have with Alexa in the Echo Buds is that it’s not very well integrated into my phone. I can ask Alexa to play music – which will stream from Amazon or Spotify – but my local library on my phone is off limits. I can ask Alexa to raise or lower the volume of my phone, but that’s the only request I can make about my phone. My Galaxy Buds would say what app received a notification – I would hear “Messages” or “email from so-and-so”, saving me from digging out my phone.  The Alexa Buds do nothing when I get a notification.

The bad: Battery Drain

Since I’ve had the Echo Buds, I have noticed my phone being significantly hotter than normal, and the battery dying a lot sooner than it typically does. I dug into the settings of my phone to discover that the Amazon Alexa app is taking more battery than any other app on my phone. I did listen to them for 4 hours, but when the case is closed with the Echo Buds inside while I’m at work, the app should not be running in the background, and it definitely should not be using that much battery.   When I stopped using the Echo Buds, the problem went away.

The bad: Gestures

To save you digging your phone out of your pocket or bag to adjust the music, the Echo Buds allow for taps – a double tap on the right earbud, for instance, will play or pause the music. Interesting, a long tap on the right earbud can activate Alexa while a long tap on the left earbud will active Google Assistant. This is a great concept, but I never seemed to be able to consistently tap the earbud to achieve the desired result. Tapping the earbud to figure out the right amount of force when it was deep in my ear was painful and when it didn’t work, I just ended up frustrated.

The bad: the size of the Buds

The Echo Buds are so much larger than the Samsung Galaxy Buds, it’s a bit off-putting at first. The amount of weight in my ears definitely took a few days to get used to. I assume the weight has a lot to do with the microphones and the batteries inside, but it’s very noticeable.

The bad: the Charging Case

Upon receiving the Echo Buds, I noticed 2 things – first, the charging case is extremely large, and second, it charges via micro-USB. Since all my recently purchased devices have USB-C – including my phone, my tablet, my Galaxy Buds, and my Nintendo Switch – the decision to only have micro-USB confuses me. However, it seems most Amazon devices utilize micro-USB, so that may explain this decision.

Final Verdict:

If you’re invested in the Echo ecosystem, like earbuds, will benefit from the Active Noise Cancelling, have large pockets and $139, I recommend the Echo Buds. I’m returning mine to Amazon today.