Hands On With Echo Dot & Amazon Tap

Okay group, the day has arrived at last: I got my Dot and Tap yesterday and spent many, MANY hours running my own tests, as well as reader-requested tests. Forgive today’s extra-long post, and possibly some typos I can come back and correct later, but I thought it might be frustrating to readers if I broke the reader questions out into a separate post that wouldn’t run till next Tuesday (because Mondays are always reserved for Stupid Alexa Tricks) or didn’t publish this until late in the day.

 

Announcing Dot Tap

 

Echo vs. Tap vs. Dot: Sound Quality
Some of the most common questions people have about the Dot and Tap are about sound quality. I decided to test all three devices using three songs specifically chosen to highlight bass, treble and stereo sound, plus an audiobook because I listen to a lot of audiobooks on my Echo.

For bass, I went with The Mission UK’s Tower of Strength. It has some deep, booming chords in certain places that lower-quality speakers won’t pick up at all, and there’s a slow build to a ‘wall of sound’ effect early in the song that showcases those speaker-rumbling chords when they arrive.

For treble/high end, I went with Yo-Yo Ma’s Air from Simply Baroque. I chose this because it’s a piece for strings, which is a great test for crispness and clarity—through a quality speaker, you can even hear the slight reverb from Ma’s cello in certain passages—, and Ma’s interpretation is often cited by experts as unusually warm, which would provide some contrast.

For stereo sound testing, I went with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a song I know well, and I have many memories of listening to it through headphones as a teenager so I could crank up the volume and enjoy the lush stereo effects in it.

My audiobook was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (A Full Cast Production), which I’ve been listening to on my Echo for a little while now.

 

 

For Bass & Bluetooth, Tap Wins
I had my doubts about the Tap’s sound quality before it was released, but I have to admit I was wrong. The Tap comes out on top if rich, deep bass is your priority, and even at high volume levels the sound does not distort. The Dolby Audio, which is only available on Tap, is really pulling its weight here.

While the high end may seem a bit muted in comparison, and will get ‘hissier’ as you increase the volume, it’s not muddy. And of course, if you’re piping your audio to the Tap from a stereo receiver or app that has equalizer functionality, you can adjust the levels to better suit your taste anyway.

Tower of Strength sounds amazing on the Tap, Air sounds fine, and the stereo tricks in Bohemian Rhapsody are noticeable if you either hold the Tap right in front of your face (to get one speaker on each side of your head) or rotate it from one speaker to the other during stereo effects. When the Tap’s just sitting nearby, the stereo’s not so noticeable. Unfortunately the Tap does not have a headphone jack, so if quality stereo sound is your priority you’re probably going to prefer the Dot connected to external speakers.

The Tap also wins when it comes to Bluetooth range, which makes sense since it’s being marketed as an on-the-go Echo. With a Bluetooth connection to music playing on my laptop, I was able to walk all the way to the opposite end of my apartment, over 30 feet, past walls and doors, with no loss of sound quality. It wasn’t until I went to the kitchen and there were major appliances between me and the laptop that I lost the signal.

One reader asked if putting the Tap on its side would better reveal the stereo sound. The answer is no, because the stereo speakers are both located on the bottom of the tap, on opposite sides of the cylinder.

American Gods sounds more or less identical to the way it sounds on my full-size Echo.

 

 

For Balance and High End, Echo Wins
While the Echo’s bass isn’t quite so mind-blowing as the Tap, the Echo makes up for it with a cleaner high-end sound that doesn’t get hissy even at high volume. Listening to Air on the Echo, I can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s breaths in certain places, and they don’t come through on the Tap. Granted, you’re probably not listening to a Yo-Yo Ma track to hear his breathing, but my point is that the fidelity is just that little bit better on the Echo when it comes to crispness, clarity, and picking up background sounds that don’t always come through on a speaker.

Tower of Strength still sounded fine, as did the audiobook. The Echo’s speaker is mono, so there was no point in testing Bohemian Rhapsody on it.

 

 

Dot: So-So Alone, Great With Quality Speakers, But There Are Gotchas
Audio coming through the Dot’s speaker will remind you of a portable radio with a single speaker. It’s fine for Alexa’s replies and even audiobooks, podcasts or actual radio broadcasts, but if you want to enjoy its stereo sound you’ve got to connect it to external speakers. Once you’ve done that, the sound quality comes down to the quality of your external speakers.

I tested the Dot with both cabled and Bluetooth connections to a very cheap, no-name Bluetooth mono speaker, a mid-range Sonos Groove speaker and a Bose speaker, and and the sound quality on each was as you’d expect: low, good, great. With the Dot in close proximity to the speaker (18 feet or less) there’s no appreciable difference in sound quality between Bluetooth and cable connections, though of course as you take the speaker further away from the Dot its Bluetooth signal will weaken, eventually crackling and dropping out.

 

 

The Dot Gotchas
Some have said the Dot’s listening microphones seem much more sensitive than those of the full-size Echo, but I think that’s just because the Dot ships with its volume turned to maximum. I’ve noticed that volume settings on my full-size Echo seem to affect not just the volume of audio coming out, but listening volume as well.

The full-volume setting on the Dot doesn’t sound excessively loud—until you connect it to a speaker. Then, Alexa’s voice coming through external speakers is a shout compared to whatever audio you may have playing. You can turn down volume on the Dot to quiet Alexa, but that also degrades the volume/quality of the audio being sent to your external speakers in general.

The other gotcha is that when you connect the Dot to external speakers via cable (as opposed to Bluetooth), you can only hear Alexa’s responses when the external speakers are powered on. With Bluetooth the connection to the speaker(s) will be dropped when the speaker(s) are powered down, so all audio will come out of the Dot’s own speaker when a Bluetooth-connected speaker is off.

One clever Dot buyer quickly came up with a workaround for this. She bought an audio Y splitter (one example of this type of cable is pictured and linked above), plugged one of the split outputs into her stereo speakers that aren’t always powered on and plugged the other into an inexpensive external speaker she leaves plugged in and powered on, at a low volume, at all times. So when the quality speakers are off she can still hear Alexa coming through the smaller, always-on speaker.

 

 

Tap Questions & Answers
Note that the mic button on the Tap is press-and-release, you don’t have to hold it down the whole time you’re talking. You also don’t need to use a wake word with Tap, the button press wakes Alexa up.

Here are the specific questions / test scenarios I got from readers and social media accounts.

Q: How do volume and pause functions work for podcasts and music?
A: You can use the volume control buttons on top of the Tap no matter the audio source.

However, if you’re piping audio to the Tap via Bluetooth, other playback controls (e.g., skip, rewind, stop, pause) must be accessed from the music source. For example, if you’re sending music to the Tap from your phone or tablet’s iTunes library, you must use iTunes for all playback controls other than volume. For volume, you can still use the Tap’s buttons.

If you’re listening to Amazon Music, you can use all the buttons on top of the Tap as well as voice commands for playback and volume control, but you do still have to press the mic button to make any Alexa requests (including commands like, “Turn it up.”).

 

Q: What happens if piping music to Tap from phone & get a call?
A: This actually depends on what your phone would normally do if you get a call while listening to music. I tested it with an Android phone that pauses music when a call comes in and resumes it automatically, and that’s the behavior I observed with a Bluetooth connection to Tap. Most current-model phones are designed to pause and resume audio when calls come in, but they also usually give the user an option to turn that feature off or customize it (e.g., to simply stop music when a call comes in, to ignore incoming calls when music is playing, etc.). Check your phone’s music player options for a better prediction of what your specific phone will do.

 

Dot Questions & Answers

Q: Is the Dot’s audio output in stereo?
A: Yes.

 

Q: Can you [Bluetooth] pair the Dot to the Tap?
A: Yes, but I don’t recommend it. In my tests Bluetooth connectivity between the Dot and Tap was wonky and error-prone. Future Dot/Tap software updates may help, but for the time being a cabled connection will be more reliable.

 

Q: When the Dot is connected to an external speaker, can you still talk to Alexa on the Dot?
A: Yes, but the answers will come through the connected speaker.

 

Q: If I leave a speaker connected by Bluetooth or wire will the speaker eventually go into standby mode and click or pop annoyingly?

I had a speaker connected via Bluetooth and powered on for close to two hours with no audio playing, and I’ve heard no pops or buzzing. I had a speaker connected via cable and powered on with no audio playing for over an hour earlier today, and there was no popping or buzzing there, either.

 

Q: Will the Dot swallow the first syllable or two if it has to come out of standby?
A: Not at all.

 

Q: If I don’t leave a speaker connected all the time, is it easy to divert the output?

A: After consulting with this person a bit more, I can rephrase this question as, “Will Dot remember past Bluetooth connections and re-connect easily?”

The answer is yes, with some qualification. I think the best way to explain is to go through the tests I did.

One at a time, I created BT connections from the Dot to the Tap, my laptop, and a small, no-name portable BT speaker. For each device, I’d make the connection, test the audio output, then power down the connected device to break the connection before moving on to the next device. After making those first 3 initial connections, re-connecting to the Dot was as easy as powering the device back on, getting within BT range of the Dot and saying, “Alexa, connect my speaker.” In the case of the cheap-o, no-name BT speaker, it re-connected automatically as soon as it turned its Bluetooth on.

However, when more than one of the three devices was powered on, had its BT on and was within BT range of the Dot, re-connecting was not so smooth. The Dot would get confused and do strange things, like telling me Bluetooth could not be connected (through the speaker of a device that had obviously managed to connect to the Dot by Bluetooth).

If your situation involves using the Dot in an environment where multiple BT devices you’ve connected previously will all be within BT range of the Dot, two or more powered on and broadcasting BT availability at the same time, then to avoid problems you’ll need to go through the Alexa app to re-connect because as of now it seems like there’s no other way of making it clear to the Dot which device you want to re-connect with.

 

And there you have it! Feel free to submit any other questions or test scenarios you may have via the site Contact Form.

 

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While ship dates as far out as August are being reported for Dot orders being placed this week, the Amazon Tap is listed as in stock and even available for one-day shipping (where available).

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