Amazon’s second-generation earbuds offer more bang for your buck than Apple’s standard AirPods


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Amazon’s second-generation Echo Buds

Amazon’s new earbuds are a good option if you don’t want AirPods. I’ve been testing Amazon‘s new Echo Buds for the last several days, and they’re an improvement over the first-generation Echo Buds in almost every way.

They’re more comfortable, have better noise cancellation, stay in my ears, and sound better than the first version. Starting at $119, they’re also a solid alternative to Apple’s $159 AirPods and even offer some of the features found in Apple’s $249 AirPods Pro.

Apple has the bulk of the Bluetooth headphone market, thanks to the success of its headphones, but that grip is loosening as other companies continue to flood the market with low-cost alternatives. A lot of competing earbuds aren’t very good, and while AirPods Pro are still my recommendation for people who use Apple products and are willing to spend more, the second-generation Amazon Echo Buds are really good for the price and offer more bang for your buck than Apple‘s regular AirPods.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s good

Amazon’s second-generation Echo Buds

Amazon addressed nearly all of my complaints with the first-generation Amazon Echo buds.

The new model is 20% smaller than the first generation, which means they aren’t as clunky and sit better in my ears. They come with several rubber tip sizes that Amazon says should fit about 95% of the population’s ears, and several rubber wings that help them stick in your ears better.

I was able to run, walk and exercise on a bike without them falling out, even when I was sweaty (they’re also sweat-resistant). They’re far more comfortable to wear for several hours than the first model since they don’t drop down as deep into your ear canal.

Second-generation Amazon Echo Buds
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Music, podcasts and phone calls all sounded clear. The bass stood out to me the most, which I particularly like while exercising. Amazon also optimized the microphones to improve clarity. There are three microphones on each earbud. My editor gave it an 8/10 for clarity during a 15-minute phone call with him, just noting that there was a slight reverb effect at the beginning of the call, like I was talking in a big open room.

The first Echo Buds had a Bose noise reduction feature that didn’t work very well. This model replaces that with active noise cancellation, similar to what you’d find in Apple’s AirPods Pro. It’s subtle but I noticed it did a good job blocking out wind during a run, most of the roar of a lawnmower across the street while I was in my office, and the hum of my exercise bike. Higher pitched noises, like my one-year-old’s laughter, still snuck in. I think Apple’s noise cancellation is still a hair stronger, but the important thing is this is much better than the first model. Like AirPods, there’s a passthrough mode that can boost outside noise, which was useful when I was walking with a stroller and still wanted to hear cars and my surroundings.

Second-generation Amazon Echo Buds
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Amazon also improved the case you stow them in. It’s 40% smaller and includes more modern USB-C charging, which means you can use the same cable that charges an Android phone. A case with wireless charging is available for $20 more.

Amazon partnered with Anker on a new wireless charging pad that you might want to consider. It’s $18, works well, and has a nifty little groove you can stand the Echo Buds in so you know they’re in the right spot and charging every time.

Second-generation Amazon Echo Buds
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I like having Alexa built-in. You can bring up the voice assistant at any time by saying “Hey Alexa” to play music across a variety of apps, including popular ones like Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music and others. Or you can ask Alexa to do stuff like turn off the lights in your office. You can still use Google Assistant if you’re on Android, or Siri on an iPhone, by changing the long-press touch control on the side of the Echo Buds. Sometimes these controls were finicky for me, though. There seems to be a slight delay, so sometimes it paused a song when I double tapped instead of skipping it.

Battery life is also solid. Amazon promises five hours of music with active noise canceling on, or four hours of call time. The case, which recharges the Echo Buds, lasts 19.5 hours before you have to recharge it by plugging it into the wall or (if you have the wireless option) setting it on the charging pad. That lined up with my experience. I charged it fully on Saturday and, as of Wednesday, I have 23% left in the case and 88% left in each bud, after a few hours of listening each day.

By way of comparison, Apple AirPods (which don’t have noise cancellation) last for 5 hours of playback or 3 hours of talk time, and AirPods Pro offer 4.5 hours of playback with active noise cancellation or 5 hours without. The case for either needs to be recharged after 24 hours of use.

The Echo Buds also have a “Find My” feature sort of like the Find My App for iPhone. I really like that I was also able to ask an Amazon Echo to find them and that Alexa told me, through the Echo, where they were last seen (at home, of course).

What’s bad

Amazon’s second-generation Echo Buds

I use AirPods Pro or the AirPods Max most of the time at my desk. The one thing that stood out to me most is the Echo Buds don’t have any way to seamlessly switch between devices.

With AirPods, I love that I can be on an iPhone, switch to my Mac or my iPad, and have my AirPods just follow along. The Echo Buds need to be paired with each device individually, so changing between gadgets isn’t as easy. This isn’t a big deal for Android users, but it’s one way they differ from AirPods.

AirPods Pro case and Amazon Echo Buds case.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Also, even though Amazon said it improved the microphones so Alexa can hear you better, it still sometimes missed what I was trying to request. This happens with all voice assistants and all headphones, though, but it’s annoying when you’re trying to get a specific song on a run and have to keep repeating yourself between breaths.

Should you buy them?

Amazon’s second-generation Echo Buds

I think the new Echo Buds are among the best bang-for-your-buck headphones with active noise cancellation.

Most people, especially iPhone users, should buy the AirPods Pro if they’re willing to spend $249.

But, at $119, the Amazon Echo Buds offer more features than the regular $159 AirPods. At $139 with the wireless charging case, they’re an even better deal than the $199 AirPods with wireless charging. The only thing you’ll really sacrifice is the quick transfer between Apple devices, and a few hours of battery life for the charging case.

The point is: Amazon finally has a pair of earbuds that are worth considering.

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