Amazon's new Echo with Alexa, 2017

Amazon took the wraps off a slew of new Alexa voice-powered devices Wednesday, including a new set of Echo smart speakers with better audio, and a 4K Fire TV. The Seattle-based tech giant also revealed a deal with BMW to bring Alexa to its automobiles.

Updates to the Echo speaker come in two flavors: an updated flagship model and a plus version with integrated smarthome hub. “The all-new Echo and Echo Plus deliver better sound, all new far-field technology, and new features we think customers will love,” said Tom Taylor, senior vice president, Amazon Alexa. In addition to “improved room-filling sound,” the devices feature Dolby audio, which could please critics of the original’s sound production.

Powered by Alexa’s artificial intelligence engine, the Echo launched in 2015 showcased what voice-equipped smart speakers can do — including streamlining Amazon purchases, adding to a shopping list, ordering pizza, answering random questions or conjuring songs, all via verbal commands. But in playing music, a fundamental raison d’être for any speaker, the device’s mediocre audio quickly disappointed critics. Later gadgets in the Echo lineup didn’t improve on the middling bass or uneven sound.

Competitors Google Home and Apple’s upcoming Homepod haven’t blown away audiophiles either. In the connected realm, most favor Sonos Play:1, which incidentally will be getting Alexa integration as well.

For anyone hedging on smart speakers, Amazon’s new flagship appliance could tip the scale. The baseline Echo features cloth enrobing the exterior with changeable shells that come in charcoal, sandstone, heather gray, oak veneer, walnut veneer and silver. Google Home has a similar design ethos, but retails for more, at $130. Apple will sell Homepod for $350 when it releases in December, and Sonos Play: 1 lands in between, at $200.

The new Echo, at $100, comes in with the most affordable price point, with the Plus going for an additional $50, at $150.

If “conversational commerce” is driving the future of shopping, as experts believe, then major improvements to consumer-facing features like audio are critical to this evolution. Put another way, better experiences attract more users, and that means more people will be equipped to shop by just talking to their gadgets — or their cars. 

Amazon, which is reportedly working on Alexa-powered glasses, will also bring the voice assistant to BMW and Mini automobiles next year. Drivers will be able to vocalize commands to get directions, start a call or music playlist, control their smart homes, or order a Starbucks coffee even before the car pulls into the parking lot, without having to fire up a separate mobile app. 

This isn’t BMW’s first time working with voice technology, nor is it the company’s first time working with Amazon’s version. The automaker introduced a “skill” last year that gave car owners some limited control over their vehicles — including climate control and door locks — from any device that supports Alexa.

“Voice control [was] first featured in BMW Group cars many years ago,” said Dieter May, BMW Group’s senior vice president of digital services and business models, “and we are now enhancing its functionality by adding a digital ecosystem, which will open up all sorts of new possibilities that customers can access quickly, easily and safely from their car.”

Amazon’s wave of new products also includes a $35 Echo Connect phone device, game-oriented Echo Buttons at $20 for a pack of two and the $130 Echo Spot — a small device that somewhat resembles a tabletop Nest thermostat and displays news, weather, security camera feeds, vid chats and Alexa skills, among others. The tech giant also introduced a new, more powerful 4K Fire TV with high dynamic range and Alexa voice support for $70. 

Amazon's new Echo Spot

Amazon’s new Echo Spot  Photo: Business Wire

The devices, apart from the Echo Connect, are available for pre-order starting today for U.S. customers, and all are slated to ship later this year. The Echo speakers and Fire TV will ship as early as next month.

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