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Amazon Echo Frames: We decided we don’t really want to wear Alexa – CNET

Like

  • Look like normal glasses
  • Good microphone performance
  • Able to add prescription lenses

Don’t Like

  • Audio quality is poor
  • Battery life isn’t great
  • No skills designed for Alexa on the go
  • Plastic feels cheap

Amazon’s Echo Frames drew plenty of attention when they were announced last year among the company’s Alexa-powered blitz of new products. Unlike Google’s ill-fated Glass or Snapchat’s Spectacles, Amazon’s $250 specs (discounted to $180 as part of its invite-only Day One edition prelaunch) look largely like regular glasses. They also lack cameras, outward-facing lights or a heads-up display. 

Instead, the big appeal is the support for Alexa, which the Frames can summon anywhere. This essentially frees Alexa from the limitations of a home speaker or an app on your phone. But in practice, the Day One Edition of Amazon’s Echo Frames is very much a beta product. If Amazon wants to truly lead in smart glasses, it needs to make big improvements on the frames’ sound quality, build and performance. 

Otherwise, the Echo Frames run the risk of joining the tech graveyard with Glass, Spectacles and the rest of them. 

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Amazon’s Echo Frames look like regular glasses. 


James Martin/CNET

Echo Frames look nice, but feel cheap

With thick black lenses à la Tina Belcher, the Echo Frames aren’t going to be for everyone. But they do have a modern, polished look. The plastic arms — which house components including the speakers, microphones, battery and magnetic charging connector — were light and comfortable, even after wearing them for hours on end. 

And just like regular glasses, they fogged up whenever I stepped outside and wore a mask on a hot summer day in New York. The Frames are IPX4-rated, so all the electronic components should be able to withstand sweat or splashes of water. That said, they’re not waterproof so you still shouldn’t take them in a pool or to the beach. 

Because the glasses I received didn’t have prescription lenses, I wore mine with my contact lenses and it worked out fine. But the Echo Frames can be fitted with prescription lenses, with Amazon publishing a little guide (PDF) for you to take to a local optician. Amazon gets points here as some other audio-focused smart glasses, such as Bose‘s $200 Frames Alto and Rondo sunglasses, haven’t always made this as easy. After initially launching without them, late last year Bose added the ability to purchase or update its Frames with prescription lenses in the US.

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Bose’s Frames Alto, left, can lay flat on a surface, unlike Amazon’s Echo Frames. 


Eli Blumenthal/CNET

But while the frames look relatively nice, for $180 (or the $250 regular price after the invitation window has closed), Amazon needs to put more focus on the build quality. The plastic feels cheap and fragile. I could never get the glasses completely closed because the arms were so bulky, and it ended up looking awkward and unbalanced.

The irony is that all the other pieces included in the box give off the impression of a premium product, including the leather glasses case and braided charging cable. The glasses themselves feel like the cheapest thing in the package.

Echo Frames’ battery life and controls

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The bottom right side of the Echo Frames houses the magnetic charging connectors, volume rocker, power/mute button as well as two speakers and a microphone. 


Eli Blumenthal/CNET

Battery life is not a strong point either, and it’s something even Amazon acknowledges on its website, noting that “battery life is optimized for everyday Alexa usage.” And extended periods of playback, like music streaming, “will drain the battery more quickly.”

During my testing over the past couple of weeks, I played a lot of music, made several phone calls and asked a bunch of questions to Alexa. I was able to get roughly 6 hours, 40 minutes of battery while doing that mix, though on days where I did more music streaming I noticed the battery drain quicker. 

You will want to keep that USB charging cable handy to make sure you can get through a full day. Roughly a half-hour of charging got me back to 60%, with Amazon saying that a full charge takes about 75 minutes.  

When you say “Alexa,” a little blue light appears over your right eye by the bridge of the nose and a chime plays over the speakers to let you know it’s listening. 

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When you say Alexa, a blue light illuminates above the right eye to show you it is listening. 


Eli Blumenthal/CNET

At first, I found the blue light distracting but I got used to it over time. It also made for a few awkward encounters when my eyes were looking towards the Frames itself. To others around me, it looked like I was just cross-eyed. To mute Alexa, double-click the power button under the right arm. A little red light will flash and Alexa will tell you it’s muted, while a little charging light under the right arm will also turn red, not that you can see it while wearing the Echo Frames. 

Keep in mind that muting the mics on the glasses will mute them for everything, including for phone calls. When I wanted to talk to someone I had to remember to unmute my glasses, which was a bit of a pain.

It is worth noting you can summon Siri or Google Assistant with your voice using the Frames by saying, “Hey Siri” (on an iPhone) or, “OK, Google” (on Android), or by holding down on a touchpad built into the right arm. 

Alexa comes with you everywhere, but do you really need it to? 

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Amazon’s Echo Frames look like a pair of regular glasses. 


Eli Blumenthal/CNET

The big appeal of the Echo Frames, of course, isn’t the style but the technology. After becoming a mainstay in millions of households, Alexa truly moves outside the house with the Frames. But this is nothing like Jarvis in the Iron Man movies. In the Frames, Amazon’s smart assistant really isn’t much better than Siri. 

When connected to an iPhone or Android phone over Bluetooth, it can make audio calls, play music, set timers and answer questions (such as “What’s the weather?”). The Echo Frames also take advantage of Alexa’s skills and smart device controls, so it can turn on compatible smart lights or a TV. 

Granted, it is nice to ask out loud if it’s going to rain when seeing ominous clouds, and then instantaneously get an answer. I also like being able to ask about any random piece of information (a sports score, say) without having to take out my phone. Alexa does a good job of calling my contacts too (though it isn’t able to send an iMessage, initiate a video call or connect to WhatsApp). In general, unless you’re a big Alexa user, I’m not convinced that the smart assistant does enough to justify buying the Frames. 

Unlike Google Glass, for example, which had a small heads-up display for displaying information and a camera for capturing the world around you, the Echo Frames are audio-only. This greatly limits their augmented reality potential in their current form and I have yet to find any Alexa skills designed for being used out and about.

For some tasks, like when I asked for directions, Alexa directed me to the Alexa app on my phone, which opened Apple Maps. At that point, it was no different than just grabbing my phone. Alexa didn’t even handle the turn-by-turn navigation. Instead, it defaults to the Maps app, which gave voice directions over Bluetooth the same way it would with any headphones. I also couldn’t change the default mapping option to Google Maps on iOS.

Audio is passable, but not worth the price

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The Echo Frames rely on a Bluetooth connection to your phone. 


Eli Blumenthal/CNET

Overall, the Frames’ audio is middling, and if you’re looking to use these as headphone replacements, it’s best to look elsewhere. Amazon touts the Echo Frames as having “open-ear technology,” which is marketing speak for having little downward-facing speakers next to your ears, as opposed to buds inside them. 

The audio integration was one of the Echo Frames features I was most excited about when the specs were first announced, making the actual execution all the more disappointing. 

Unlike some other audio glasses, Amazon’s specs have traditional speakers and not newer technology like bone conduction, which pumps the audio vibrations into your ear through your skull. 

This means that not only is your audio public and people around you can listen in if they pay close attention, but the glasses also sound much worse than AirPods or other Bluetooth headphones. 

The Frames have four speakers (two in each arm), but when I played music, it often sounded hollow and tinny, with songs sounding like they were being clipped at higher volumes. The open-ear approach also makes for challenging listening when walking a busy New York street. 

In comparison, Bose’s Frames not only had significantly better audio quality, but they leaked very little audio making for an almost bone conduction-like experience with much greater privacy when listening near others. 

I will say though that one bright spot was in the two mics and I received no complaints about sound from those I spoke with over FaceTime or regular phone calls.

Correction, Aug. 26: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said that Bose’s Frames were not available with a prescription. The sunglasses can be purchased or updated with prescription lenses in the US.

First published on Aug. 19.

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