I spent a week learning to love the Amazon Tap, a wireless speaker/voice command device that not only plays music but also extends Amazon’s quirky virtual assistant Alexa to travel size proportions.
Hell, I didn’t even have anything initially witty to say about Amazon’s latest cylindrical gadget, a follow-up to the original Amazon Echo, a larger speaker / IOT (internet of things) hybrid that was “always on” and would listen to your every reasonable command or question when summoned by speaking her/its name beforehand. For instance, “Alexa, order The Art of War by Sun Tzu”, “Alexa, play some Fetty Wap”, or “Alexa, how many Oscars has Alec Baldwin won?” all work to impressively direct or entertaining effect. It’s like Siri, or Cortana, only more immediately useful.
So what’s different? Obviously the Tap is smaller, measuring in at 2.6” (width/depth) and 6.2” high, and weighs as much as a 16-ounce bottle of water. This also puts it right in line with other Bluetooth speakers like the UE Boom 2 and JBL Flip 3, sitting coincidentally in the middle in terms of price. However, the Tap is unique by including a contact base that actively charges the speaker with power when docked, and reduces some cable clutter.
With an estimated nine hours of juice to burn, battery life was practically a nonissue. Much of this is due to the fact that the Amazon Tap is in sleep mode when it’s not blaring music or answering whatever asinine question you can think up. In fact, I only charged the thing once during the entire week of test with little fear of it dying on me.
All of this sounds very promising based on specs alone: who doesn’t want an omnidirectional Dolby Bluetooth speaker, that’s also a smart assistant for music catalogs and instantaneous online purchases?
Well, this is where the Tap starts to lose its luster. There’s enough clarity for non-demanding listeners, and is appropriate for audiobooks or NPR radio. Otherwise, performance is pretty mediocre when it comes to bass or richness, well behind the UE Boom 2 and even the previous JBL Flip 2 I reviewed some time ago. The end result is a direct and conspicuously flat sound that only gets worse when the volume goes up, even by budget Bluetooth standards.
We like buttons but the Tap takes a few steps backward, considering the well-received praise the bigger Echo got by avidly bucking the trend. Aside from the playback array, a prominent microphone button must be pressed every time if you want Alexa for something, which kind of defeats the purpose of an automatic voice assistant. Press said button and five teal LED dots light up to tell you Alexa is ready to respond, which she does in immediate fashion. While feedback is quick, overall convenience is not in this speakers’ vocabulary. In fact, it’s counterproductive for anything not related to Amazon Prime in the home.
The Tap is dependent on Wi-Fi connectivity and you’ll also need the Alexa app (Android/iOS), which gives you a visual history of everything you’ve ever asked your cylindrical subordinate and additional options to help improve the experience. However, the Alexa portions are cut off entirely without an internet connection — and you’ll need the app for initial – and every subsequent – WiFi setup at every available hotspot you come across. Granted, you’ll probably be listening to your own music via Bluetooth over your phone when you’re enjoying life outside; but again, the acoustics of the Tap fall short as a bona fide party machine.
The central theme of the Alexa (and Amazon Echo) experience is how effortless the far-field voice integration was, and the ease of never using your hands during the whole process. Tinfoil-hat wearing paranoids may decry the “always on” functionality, but dammit, it really does work well. Unfortunately, that’s precisely why the Amazon Tap doesn’t make much sense; no always-on feature means you have to stop what you’re doing and go physically press buttons for Alexa to operate instead of just talking to it. Even worse, the speaker performance is middling at best — not even the multicolored sling covers can save it.
My recommendation: Get the Amazon Echo for the house, and hold onto your regular smartphone for everything else.