Like the wired Amazon Echo smart speaker before it, the battery-powered, $130 Amazon Tap speaker is a multi-talented device. Via Bluetooth, you can stream audio to the Tap from a smart phone. Connect the Tap to Wi-Fi and it can also play music directly from Amazon Prime Music or other popular streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora.
The Tap also gives you access to Alexa, Amazon’s speech-recognizing virtual assistant. Everything Alexa can do on the Echo (or the new Echo Dot), Alexa can also do on the Tap. Among a variety of useful (or silly) tricks, she can track a to-do list, she can tell you the weather, she can also control an ever growing list of smart home devices, all via your spoken commands.
The biggest difference between the Tap and the Echo is that because the Tap runs on a battery, its microphone isn’t always on, waiting to hear you say “Hey, Alexa,” to prime it for a voice command. Instead you have to push a physical button on the Tap before you talk to it, even when the Tap is resting on its charging base. That makes using Alexa on the Tap more like a call to a smart front desk concierge than a conversation with an ever-present valet.
We’re still putting the Tap through its paces to see how much that push-to-talk feature affects how you’ll use it, how much convenience the portability adds, and to test out its battery life. We’ll update this post to a full review shortly. After about six hours of testing, so far, the Tap seems like it’s pretty good at a lot of things, but I’m still looking to find something it’s great at.
Not hands-free: Pressing Alexa’s button
You might not think having to push a button to talk with Alexa is such a tragedy, but hands-free interaction is kind of the point of the original Echo. It has such a great, wide array microphone, you can talk to it even if you’re in the next room. With the battery-powered Tap and its push-to-talk requirement, using Alexa becomes less personal.
I felt some sadness with this change, which surprised me. I think of the Amazon Echo as “Alexa.” I refer to the Echo as a “her” instead of an “it,” and I rely on her so much in our CNET Smart Home set up, that I almost think of her as another team member.
With the Tap, the Alexa identity vanishes. Since you push the button to initiate a voice command, you don’t need to preface each request with the “Hey Alexa,” wake phrase. You simply press and speak. The press-to-talk function is necessary to preserve battery life on the Tap, but it also makes the speech recognition experience feel more transactional.
The battery of course brings portability, which you don’t get with the original Echo. The Tap is about the size and weight of a tall can of iced tea, and it’s easy to pick it up and cart it with you as you move from the kitchen to the patio. Amazon has said that portability is one of the most commonly asked for features with the Echo. The Echo Tap delivers, and with respectable battery life claims: nine hours of streaming time, and about three weeks of stand-by on a single charge.
We’re running battery life tests now, and we’ll update as soon as they’re done, but other Bluetooth speakers, like the UE Boom 2, claim up to 15 hours of streaming time, so the Tap falls a bit short competitively, at least on paper. If the Tap is close to nine hours, though, that feels sufficient for using it around the house.
Overall, the move to portability makes the Amazon Tap feels like a Bluetooth speaker first, virtual assistant second. With Echo, it’s the other way around.
As an audio device, the Tap delivers sound that’s fairly typical of a compact portable wireless speaker, the majority of which stream audio over Bluetooth, not Wi-Fi (we mainly tested the Tap over Wi-Fi because it’s supposed to offer better streaming performance than Bluetooth). By that we mean that the Tap sounds decent with less demanding tracks — ballads, easy listening music — but falls down significantly with more complicated tracks or bass heavy material.
That’s because the Tap, not surprisingly, is all about the midrange, where voices live. It’s clear and forward sounding, which allows Alexa to come across with a lot of presence; her voice is clear and loud.
There’s a little treble push that makes the speaker sound a tad bright, but the lack of bass is the bigger issue. It’s not completely devoid of bass, but the Tap’s sound is fairly thin.
We played tracks from Amazon Music and Spotify and thought the speaker did well with material like Dave Matthews Band’s “You & Me,” Sting’s “August Winds,” and Queensrychre’s “Silent Lucidity.”
But it sounded pretty crunchy with Chairlift’s “Show U Off” and “Ch-Ching” and The Smashing Pumpkins “Being Beige.” At about 60-70 percent volume, the speaker got overloaded whenever a lot of instruments were playing at the same time or any deep bass was introduced. The on-board digital processor (DSP) ratcheted back the bass and volume to keep things from distorting too badly, but it tended to be a losing battle, particularly with hip hop and techno tracks.
Again, this is typical of very compact wireless speakers, but even Bluetooth speakers such as JBL’s Charge 2+, which costs about the same as the Tap (the Charge 3 is coming soon), sounded better. The JBL has significantly better bass and sounds richer and smoother. It wasn’t really a contest, even though the JBL was streaming over Bluetooth not Wi-Fi.
Of course, Amazon isn’t marketing this speaker to audiophiles and critical listeners (we still have to review it with a critical ear, however). It’s marketing it to people who want something to use to play background music and sound “good enough.”
Still, aside from making the Tap sound very good, the audio doesn’t distinguish itself from the multitude of moderately priced portable wireless speakers on the market.
Along with the Amazon Tap, the other new device in the Echo family is the Amazon Echo Dot. Basically an Echo with the speaker cut off, the $90 Dot lets you plug Alexa into your home’s existing sound system. With three Alexa-powered products, the Echo family now has some choices. But each one comes with trade-offs.
The Tap’s biggest advantage is its portability, but again, it’s not always listening. Perhaps for privacy minded individuals, that’s not a disadvantage, but so far the voice input isn’t as convenient to use as it is on the Echo.
Disappointingly, you can’t use voice commands when you take the Tap off of Wi-Fi. Without an internet connection, it becomes just a simple Bluetooth speaker. You can’t even issue basic media control commands via voice. Amazon says you can connect it to a mobile hotspot, which presents some interesting use cases for taking Alexa on the road. I’ll try a few of those out for the full review.
Just be cautious when you’re partying with the Tap nearby. Unlike the Charge 2+ and other Bluetooth speakers, the Tap isn’t water resistant.
With all of that in mind, is the Amazon Tap a worthwhile device? I’ll have that answer for you shortly, after I spend a little more time with it and we finish testing its battery. In the meantime, if you’re sold, you can purchase the Tap now on Amazon for $130. It’s not yet available internationally, but Amazon tells us that expanding internationally is “super important,” adding, “we expect over time to go everywhere Amazon is.” The Tap pricing converts to roughly £90 and AU$170 for our readers in the UK and Australia.
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