Echo Link Amp

Amazon has its Alexa wireless speakers, but this is its first push into the more hi-fi realm of a just-add-speakers amp.

This is Amazon’s smart amplifier, pushing its Echo range of Alexa devices into a more hi-fi space. The ‘Link’ describes the delivery of streaming music, and the ‘Amp’ differentiates it from the simple Echo Link, which is designed to plug into an existing amplifier. With the Echo Link Amp you just plug in speakers, creating an Alexa-friendly zone of streaming audio.

Note we say Alexa-friendly, but not immediately Alexa-ready. For reasons unknown, Amazon hasn’t put a microphone into the Echo Link Amp (or the Echo Link), so that for Alexa voice control you will also need a further compatible Echo device in the room, such as an Echo Dot, currently $79. This could be anywhere in the home since it will ‘talk’ to your Amp over the home network, but of course the merits of a voice-controlled amp are maximised when you’re in the same room! Those already in an Alexa world may, of course, already have multiple Dots around the home, ready to receive, making the Amp a plug-and-play hi-fi zone.


Ins and outs
Despite being the cheapest of the smart amps in this group, Amazon’s is arguably better equipped with physical inputs than either the Sonos or Bluesound models (see separate reviews). The Echo Link Amp has proper RCA sockets for its analogue input (compared to Bluesound’s minijack) plus dedicated and full-sized optical and coaxial digital inputs, and both digital inputs accept up to 96kHz (where Sonos doesn’t handle high-res). On the other hand this Link Amp doesn’t have the Sonos Amp’s useful HDMI audio input. You could still use it in a TV system by plugging your TV into the optical input; this solution also has the merit of keeping your TV’s HDMI sockets all free, though it doesn’t put the volume under the control of your TV remote. So, given there’s no physical remote control provided either, we were keen to discover whether the power of Alexa voice control would be enough.

There’s a surprising provision of output sockets as well, with analogue, coaxial digital and optical digital outputs, in addition to a subwoofer output option and the powered speaker outputs. These are quoted as delivering 2 × 60W into eight ohms, though specs or a THD distortion figure for that are not offered, only figures for the analogue and headphone outputs. The amplification is Class D.

These are multiroom products — Echo devices can be grouped, and groups can be named for easy reference: ‘Alexa play Coldplay downstairs’. They can’t, we gather, forward Bluetooth or analogue inputs to other zones, though they can play out via Bluetooth to any brand of wireless speaker.

Performance
Set-up was certainly simple in hardware terms, plugging in the inputs and speakers, connecting it via Ethernet (though Wi-Fi is also available, and uses both 2.4 and 5GHz bands, where the Sonos Amp uses 2.4GHz only).

Then another surprise, with a ripple of sound through the speakers followed by an instruction to go and open the Alexa app. We don’t recall any amplifier ever talking to us like that before;, and a full hi-fi voice is very different to hearing Alexa through a two-inch Echo Dot driver!

The Alexa app had no problems finding one of its own, soon announcing “your device is ready”. So far so good. But general use was less smooth; the Alexa app is not designed as a music player, nor it seems, as a device controller. The music services under the ‘Play/Browse Music’ tab took an age to load, and seem to be limited in Australia to Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, TuneIn and iHeartRadio (the US product adds Tidal, Deezer and the local-only Pandora and Sirius XM). iHeartRadio’s list of local live stations presented only an error, and its city listings showed only US cities. TuneIn did know we were in Australia and had a fast search bar.

The Alexa app doesn’t seem able to access music on your device, let alone files shared on the network, so to play your own music you’re apparently limited to Bluetooth, with no codecs above SBC listed.

As for selecting the external inputs, well, we were entirely stumped. Nothing in the app, no selector on the box. Once we did manage to get it changed by voice: ‘Alexa, change the input on the Amp’ (we’d renamed it ‘Amp’, in a group called ‘Bedroom’). ‘Mm, what are you looking for?’ ‘Analogue in’, we said. “Analogue is usually written as one word,” it said. But the input did start working. We went as far as contacting Amazon’s PR company (it doesn’t, like Sonos, have a helpful helpline) before realising that in the absence of anything streaming, the Link Amp senses activity on its physical inputs. Just play music into an input, and it’ll come out.

The volume knob on the front of the unit is ringed by LED indicators; this works well in contrast to the slider control in the app, which is so coarse and laggy (delayed operation) that achieving just the right level is hit and miss, while subtle nudging is out of the question. On several occasions this volume slider didn’t control the volume at all when using the analogue input; “you must be playing audio” said the app. Volume control was sporadically successful via Alexa voice control, though it seemed less keen to turn it down than up. With both the Amazon and the Sonos amps, we’d happily chip in a few extra bucks for a little physical volume control or, as on the Bluesound, for IR learning abilities on a few key functions.

Voice control can be fun, though. When testing ‘Alexa turn down the Amp’, it once replied ‘Do you mean the Sonos?’ We admit that our response was profane, and its reply was ‘I’m sorry, I cannot find a device called Oh BLEEP Off’, with a real bleep to cover the offending verb. It didn’t turn the volume down, but it did make us laugh.

Sound quality of the Link Amp was adequate to a certain level; gentle instrumentation, whether jazz, folk or chamber, could sound quite beautiful. But there were limits on pieces which got dense or dynamic and even with our sensitive JBL speakers we kept moving the volume up almost to the top of the control’s range. Eric Woolfson’s wafty vocal over the wafty verses of Alan Parsons’ Silence and I sounded sweet and expansive, but from the very first crack of orchestral entry the image hardened up, leaving no headroom to retain separate slam and impact for the drums within the general flattening of the soundstage — at least until the music dropped back for another wide-open and wafty verse (before clamming back up through the guitar climax). We heard this same track later in the week in the same room through the same speakers with Yamaha’s 5000 Series pre and power amplifiers (review soon). It’s unfair to compare opposite ends of the amplifier spectrum, but it confirmed that all requisite information is there in this file if the system can only let it through. Other examples repeated this pattern.

At lower levels it’s a perfect serviceable amplifier, so that you might let this go in a small-speakers study system, but you would still be losing the satisfaction of real hi-fi.

We should mention that we listened mainly through its analogue and digital inputs, both coming from our computer via a Musical Fidelity DAC, because the Echo offered no network streaming to play our standard test fare in a digitally direct manner. We were not prepared to judge it using either Spotify or Bluetooth, although we listened to both — again simple arrangements like Leonard Cohen’s Going Home were well enough handled, his voice delivered with both growl and whisper intact via Spotify, while via Bluetooth we could hear the background loss of detail, almost a phase suck-out which also had an odd effect of overemphasising on the left-channel electric piano. Spotify sometimes took a while to play correctly after connection.

Conclusion
Superficially well-equipped, the Echo Link Amp is hampered by the low level of music control and access in the Alexa app, and by the limits of its amplifier quality in playing dense or loud music, even given its reasonable pricing for a smart amplifier. 

Echo Link Amp
Price: $459

+ Respectable sound
+ Full-size connections
+ Easy Alexa integration

– Short of power when pushed
– No network file playback
– Limited music services
– No remote control

Quoted power: 2 x 60W into 8 ohms
Inputs: RCA analogue pair in, optical in, coaxial digital in, thernet/Wi-Fi networking
Outputs: speakers out; subwoofer out, optical out, coaxial out, RCA analogue pair out
Dimensions (whd): 217 x 242 x 86mm
Weight: 2.3kg