I’ll preface my first impressions of the $130 Amazon Echo Buds by stating the obvious: Evaluating the quality of headphones in an office building while surrounded by hundreds of other journalists quizzing their sources is something of a fool’s errand. It does, on the other hand, provide a great opportunity to test the active noise reduction on that device.
Notice I wrote noise reduction and not noise cancellation. Amazon isn’t claiming its new buds cancel ambient noise, only that they can reduce the amount of noise that reaches your ears. Still, most earbud manufacturers forego this kind of processing because earbuds do a pretty job of passively blocking noise on their own, just by virtue of being shoved into your ear canals. Active processing, after all, requires battery power, and there’s just not a lot of that to be had in tiny earbuds. But Amazon worked with one of the pioneers in active noise reduction while developing the Echo Buds—Bose—and you can tell.
These are truly wireless models, meaning there’s no wire connecting one earbud to the other. A double-tap on the right earbud toggles noise reduction on and off, enabling you to hear what’s going on in your surroundings when it’s disabled, and dampening the hum of the outside world when its on. A much more thorough evaluation will be needed before we can pass judgement on the Echo Buds, but I was able to achieve a tight seal with the stock tips, and they did a very good job shushing my colleagues during the demo.
These also have Alexa onboard, of course, so there are two beamforming microphones on the outside of each bud, and a third mic inside each. The exterior mics are used solely for sampling ambient noise. The interior mic is also used for this purpose, but its main job is to listen for the Alexa wake word. She’ll acknowledge your command in the same way she does on any Echo smart speaker, and then perform whatever task you’ve asked of her.
Amazon says the Echo Buds have enough battery power for mixed use—streaming music, handling phone calls, and responding to voice commands—to last five hours. A battery in the carrying case delivers an additional 15 hours of use, but Amazon didn’t say how long it would take to bring them back to a full charge. The buds comes with three sizes of silicone ear tips—small, medium, and large—but Amazon enlisted the support of ear-tip-manufacturer-extraordinaire Comply in the Echo Buds design, and you’ll be able to buy memory-foam tips from that company if none of the three form a good fit. Your other option would be to attach Amazon’s own wings to achieve a tighter fit. Those included accessories will come in handy if you intend to run or engage in other exercise while wearing the buds.
During my very brief demo, I thought the Echo Buds sounded quite good, delivering plenty of bass response without muddying the mid and high frequencies. That’s probably attributable to the dual balanced armatures in the earbuds: One for bass frequencies and the other for higher frequencies. Here again, however, we’ll need to spend some quality time with them before we can give a thumbs-up/thumbs-down recommendation.