I’ve worn earbuds more over this past year than any other. Between video calls and workouts at home, it felt like I was constantly putting some sort of implement in my ear.
Wireless earbuds have become essential—as has noise-canceling technology to drown out the sounds of housemates. If you’re looking for a new pair, and are leery of dropping $249 on Apple’s shiny Pro ’pods, consider
recent update to its Bluetooth buds.
The second-generation Echo Buds have active noise cancellation and built-in, hands-free Alexa. They’re smaller and sound better than the previous model—and they’re cheaper too.
The price—$120, or $140 with a wireless charging case—is why these headphones are worth your attention. Noise-canceling earbuds from companies like Apple,
and Bose all cost over $200. For significantly less, Amazon’s set offers similar audio quality and sound-blocking cancellation, with some trade-offs.
Active noise-canceling doesn’t only seal out sound; it uses microphones to listen to ambient noise, then generates opposing sound waves to eradicate it. (If it helps, think of lining peaks with troughs, and troughs with peaks.) Good noise canceling is difficult to do, especially in small, marble-size earbuds.
The AirPods Pro are my gold standard. They can’t isolate sound like bulkier over-ear headsets, but they successfully reduce daily din to levels that allow me to concentrate. During indoor and outdoor testing, I was surprised how well the Echo Buds 2 active noise cancellation held up in comparison—and for $130 less.
Outside, the grumble of passing trucks and the howling wind were imperceptible. Inside, I could hear my husband on his video call, until I put on music. Then, his voice faded into the background.
Noise canceling has to start with a secure seal. A range of ear-tip sizes (S, M, L, and XL) plus three pairs of optional ear-support wings are included in the box. You can test the fit in the Alexa app. A chime plays and rates the quality of your seal. With the default medium tips installed, my fit was “good.” Adding wings bumped my grade to “great.” My ears did feel sore after wearing the buds all day. Downsizing to small tips eliminated the pain, but broke the seal.
A snug fit also improves the audio experience. Modern pop such as Griff’s “Black Hole” and classics like The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” sound great in the Echo Buds. The bass is particularly punchy, and the treble is clean. Competitors I’ve tested do produce more balanced audio, but at a much higher price.
The Echo Buds’ feature set is generally on par with competitors’. I got an industry-standard 5 hours and 15 minutes of battery life, with noise canceling on and music playing. When you’re on the phone, an adjustable “sidetone” allows you to hear your own voice. There are programmable tap controls: a single tap can pause media, while a double tap answers a call.
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In other respects, the earbuds don’t meet the mark in the same way pricier buds do. For one, the important “pass through” mode—which allows you to hear outside sounds clearly while wearing the headphones—produces a noticeable, unnatural hissing.
You can only use Alexa hands-free while the buds are connected to a phone with the Alexa app. And while the assistant was fine at recognizing my voice, and telling me the weather outside or the date, Alexa had some trouble with other requests: “Set a timer for one minute” consistently yielded a “Sorry, I’m having trouble” response. An Amazon spokesman said the Echo Buds team wasn’t aware of the bug or how to fix it.
I often recommend that people get earbuds made by the same maker of their devices. They’re often optimized for connection reliability and pairing. But at this price, the new Echo Buds are a tempting proposition.
And if past Amazon deals are any indication, they’ll probably be even cheaper when Prime Day rolls around.
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Write to Nicole Nguyen at [email protected]
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