Monday, May 30, 2016


I know Stephen T. McCarthy will object to this post because it's discussing an Amazon product, but the technology is really quite remarkable.

After initially debuting as an invite-only beta-gadget for $99 (I was one of the lucky ones who bought in at that price), the Amazon Echo now retails for nearly twice that: $180.

I had been in the process of storing my music collection in cloud space that I lease from Amazon ($25 a year for up to 250,000 songs-and I will use all 250,000). I was using my Andriod phone to stream the music to a Bluetooth speaker at work, and the Amazon music app on an Android device leaves a lot to be desired (very slow and cumbersome).

The Alexa app on the same phone SCREAMS. You want to play a record in your library? You search, hit play, and it plays. I found that not just to show it off, I was using the Echo to play music for company since it was a lot faster than going up to the CD room and going through the shelves.

The device does a lot of other things, from ordering products (Amazon and others, including Dominos pizza) at a voice command, turning house lights on and off, opening your garage door and more (you need to buy wi-fi compatible products for your home for lights, etc to work via Echo).

I mostly use it to play music. As I stumble out of my bedroom in the morning, I say "Alexa, play Todd Rundgren" and it starts playing.

In fact, my only criticism to Amazon on the device has been to add a couple of wake up words other than Alexa.

Bob Lefsetz has been publishing his daily newsletter with insights into the music business for more than a quarter century. When the Echo was introduced, Mr. Lefsetz had this to say (From the Lefsetz Letter, 6/25/2015):

We thought Jeff Bezos might be the new Steve Jobs. The Fire Phone proved otherwise. Amazon throws half-baked products at the consumer. And now we have the imperfect Echo.
Not high praise, and my initial reaction was that since his blog seemed to indicate he was an Apple disciple, it may have just been that the product was from a different cult. But I also wondered whether he had tried the device or was basing this on other reviews.

The device was rated pretty favorably across the board-in fact, a site devoted to Apple had this to say (full review HERE): 

We’ve all seen how great it is talking to the computer in Star Trek…the computer understands everything you say and never does anything dumb.

Then there’s Siri, which often works but when she doesn’t, she puts you in a murderous rage.

Now there’s Amazon Echo, a nine-inch black cylinder that you can command to do certain things, like play music, set alarms, and announce sports scores.

“What is the weather today?” you ask; or “Order more Nespresso coffee capsules.”

So far, it’s understood just about everything I’ve said, and acted accordingly. It’s a strange thing to tell a computer to do something, and it does it every time.
At the moment, Echo is an odd duck product. It doesn’t do much that’s terribly useful, but it’s a glimpse of the future voice-connected home, and it works a lot better than you’d expect.

Earlier this year, CNet had this to say (full review HERE)

And even Mr. Lefsetz has come around, as he recently posted all about his Echo (from the Lefsetz Letter, 5/17/2016):

Alexa gets it right.

The Echo came with almost no instructions. Simple packaging. Not a work of art, like Jobs’s creations, but far from the old Microsoft where there’s so much info you’re inundated.

And then the lights started to swirl and I hooked it up to the wifi and Alexa was alive.

But she wasn’t loud enough.

A little research told me to twist her dial. Maybe that’s what the remote is for, the one that no longer is included because most people don’t use it.

And after asking Alexa a few questions, I hooked up my Spotify account.

Credit the Swedish streaming company. They’re horrible marketers, but great technologists. They’re on the Alexa bandwagon early.  You can’t use Spotify with Echo unless you have premium.

Alexa cuts out a step. Before the Echo, you had to think of a track and then find it, click it and play it.
But now… You just say the name of the track and act, tell Alexa you want to hear it via Spotify, and she cues it right up.

It seems to be pretty mainstream now, available at Best Buy, QVC and Bed Bath and Beyond.

Mr. Lefsetz made a Spotify believer out of me-I have the premium service, and it is starting to curb my addictive music spending. If I did not already have an entire room filled with CD's, I would not start now-with Spotify you can pretty much listen to what you want, when you want.

Echo is a high quality Bluetooth speaker, but if you are not an Amazon Prime user, it may not be for you. A lot of the convenience for me comes from the fact that all my music is on an Amazon server. The Bose Soundlink Bluetooth speaker that retails for the same price as an Echo does not have voice control but has better sound, and if you are just streaming Spotify, it may be a better option.

Amazon has introduced a portable Bluetooth speaker that has some Alexa voice functionality at a lower price-but that is a topic for a future post.

Now no matter what you think of Amazon the retailer, for any of you who are of a similar vintage to me, could your teenage self, as he picked him or herself off of the couch to turn the record over, have imagined this kind of technology would appear in his or her lifetime?


  1. Cars that drive for us, technology that does our jobs as well as we do them, and so on...

    As soon as they design an Alexa that eats, craps, and has sex for us, we can all just disappear from the planet.

    Don't cancel that gym membership! You're gonna need to do SOMETHING or all your muscles will atrophy.

    ~ D-FensDogG
    'Loyal American Underground'

    1. Yeah, that's why I mostly just use it for music-I did try to set up a light thinking it may be nice to be able to turn a light off an on when I am not home to make it look like I am, but had trouble getting it to work and returned the device (each of those additional tricks requires some kind of cash outlay).

      I do like being able to access the music quickly. Plus, when I say "Alexa, stop," I strike a blow for men everywhere be actually getting the last word!

  2. No doubt that this sounds amazing.

    The part of your post that really caught my eye though was the idea of storing 250,000. Seems like most of your time would be spent storing stuff and not listening to much of any of it. I didn't get into running the numbers, but a rough (maybe inaccurate) calculation suggests to me that at an average of 3 minutes per song that if you were listening to music 8 hours per day it would take you over 4 years to listen to all of the songs.

    You're better with the numbers so maybe you've got something more accurate to show for this. I like having a lot of music, but it can get to the point of the absurd I suppose. I'd love to be able to instantly access songs though. Can you use other cues besides song titles--such as portions of lyrics or by humming the tune? I know there are other things that will do this, but if it's in the Echo thing then that's really great.

    I don't guess I'm as serious about music as I used to be where something like this would fit my needs (or I guess I should say wants), but it does sound pretty nifty.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    1. It passed the point of absurd years ago. If I listened to 5 CD's a day it would take me the next twelve years to spin every CD I already own. Assuming I do not buy another one, which I do each week.

      I find the easier access does allow me to listen to more variety, and the act of storing them (ripping and uploading discs takes time) gives me time to listen, but yes, this is a hobby that has become an addiction. A harmless one-I meet all of my financial obligations and have several times the norm saved for retirement, but an addiction nonetheless.


    2. You're sick! Perhaps an intervention is in order.

      Send me some money.

      Arlee Bird
      Tossing It Out

    3. All things I have said about myself...except the sending money part

  3. Ha!-Ha!
    Yeah, getting that last word can sometimes feel so satisfying!

    ~ D-FensDogG

  4. I try to imagine what my grandparents would have thought this. Then I realize we passed their ability to compute when phones became mini computers. I'm having trouble imagining all the stuff this thing does.

    1. Sorry Robin-thought I had responded yesterday. The last sixty years have been incredible with the technological far most of the device's abilities are unnecessary, but it certainly makes you think about the possibilities.

  5. Hey, I almost didn't notice that you had reopened this blog! Welcome back!

    I wonder if Alexa would understand my wife. Siri never understands her. She doesn't even have an accent, mind you, and English is her first language. But each time she says something, Siri acts like she's muttering something in broken English.

    Example: Siri, text mom 'how are you?'
    Siri: Texting mom "Howard jew."

    1. Thanks for the welcome back, Bryan-I had a few ideas for posts, and thought, why not?

      I get a little of the same problem with Alexa, but nowhere near as much as when I try to use voice features on my Android phone.

      I was surprised that even a pro-Apple site endorsed the Echo.

      There is also the Amazon Tap, which I'll have a post on in a week or so.