Amazon and audio: Echo pairing and customer support

Article By : Brian Dipert

This particular tale is told not only with a specific glitchy-setup situation in mind, but as a more general analysis of Amazon's approach to customer service.

I’ve had a first-generation Amazon Echo sitting on my desk, serving up jam band and other-genre tunes (along with the weather forecast and other factoids, plus controlling my lights and such) daily since mid-2015. It’s slowly-but-surely been joined by Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, and Echo Tap siblings activated elsewhere in the house, along with upgrades and generational successors waiting in the wings. But the Echo remains in regular service in my office, in the spirit of “if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it,” even though its music reproduction is mono, not stereo, and even though its reproduction is limited (I’m being kind) at both ends of the audible frequency range.

In an attempt to alleviate that latter concern, specifically at the bass end of the spectrum where lossy compression hasn’t already done much quality damage, my wife got me an Echo Sub for Christmas:

The Echo Sub has dimensions of 8.0″ (tall) × 8.3″ (diameter) (202 × 210 mm), and weighs 9.3 lbs (4.2 kg). It comprises a 4 liter sealed chamber containing a 6″ (152 mm) downward-firing woofer, a 100W Class D amplifier and an integrated power supply, and specs a 50 Hz – 200 Hz adaptive low-pass filter crossover frequency, along with a claimed low frequency response down to 30 Hz (−6dB).

The process of activating the Echo Sub on a Wi-Fi network and pairing it with the primary Echo device (or pair of devices, generation-dependent … keep reading … ) is fairly straightforward and handled by the Alexa app for Android or iOS. Here’s a screenshot sequence:

You might have already noticed from the previous images that the sustained connection between the Echo and Echo Sub isn’t a simple Bluetooth tether but a parallel Wi-Fi link to Amazon’s servers (from whence the music is streamed). That this is the case doesn’t at all explain one of my (minor, but still) grumbles with the setup; with pairing activated, my Bluetooth-based Echo Remote stops working, leaving me only with either voice commands or the limited top-panel buttons as control options.

Here’s the thing, though … that “parallel Wi-Fi connection” pairing arrangement is much less robust than I’d prefer, too. At minimum, it’s often the case that the Echo Sub will start “thumping” away before the primary Echo kicks in and joins it (in perfect beat sync, mind you). But randomly, and for random duration, the primary Echo will completely drop off the music stream (although it will still audibly respond to voice command input from me), leaving me with only a low-bass subset of the music I’m listening to.

Here’s the review I posted to the Amazon product page after (following a month or so of initial error-free operation) it began acting up, and my subsequent debug-and-recovery attempts were fruitless:

I have the Echo Sub paired with a first-generation Echo. Unlike some who have posted critical comments here, I’ve had no difficulty with initial setup and pairing through multiple iterations of it (following resets of the Echo Sub in a vain attempt to permanently fix other issues which I’ll document below).

As others have already documented, the Bluetooth-based Echo Remote no longer works with the Echo subsequent to pairing it with the Echo Sub…which is a bit odd, given that as far as I can surmise, Bluetooth connectivity between the two is never necessary. Initial setup over Bluetooth is between the Echo Sub and my smartphone, and the Echo and Echo Sub subsequently seem to jointly WAN-stream from whatever music service I’m accessing at the time over Wi-Fi. Can’t intercommunication between the Echo and Echo Sub also take place over Wi-Fi (the LAN)?

As others have already documented, the Echo frequently stops playing music, while the Echo Sub continues to thump away. The only way I’ve found to fix this, short of a two-device power-cycle, is to stop playback completely, wait several minutes, and then try again…an immediate re-attempt post-stop is predictably unsuccessful.

And in recent days, another quirk…when I attempt to, for example, skip tracks while listening to Amazon Music Unlimited, the existing track continues playing on the Echo Sub while the Echo reports that “Amazon Music is streaming on another device”. It asks me if I want to redirect playback to the Echo…but my “yes” never succeeds. A dual-device power-cycle seems to be the only “fix” here (short of visiting an un-paired Echo elsewhere in the house and initiating music playback there, which “resets the system”)…Amazon’s servers seem to be forgetting the Echo-plus-Echo Sub pairing and treating them as separate devices.

As I said, so much unrealized potential…and since this was a Christmas gift from my wife, it’s beyond the return-for-refund window. Sigh. Going forward, I’ll periodically re-power on the Echo Sub, re-pair it to the Echo and see if firmware upgrades have fixed these bugs (while not introducing others). And hey, if the developers at Amazon want to chat, I’m happy to assist!

That all said, why isn’t this writeup a completely negative “slam” on the company and its products? That’s because, shortly after I submitted the review, I got an email from Amazon’s development team with an invitation to jump on the phone for a chat (to be clear, to this day Amazon has no idea that I do tech product reviews for a living). The company rep I spoke with was polite and apologetic; he acknowledged that the issues I was having weren’t unique to me. He offered me a full refund, even though the Echo Sub was then outside the normal return timeframe … but alternatively offered me an ongoing direct-communication line to the development team for any future issues I might have.

I took him up on the latter offer, and have periodically pinged them since then whenever my setup acts up. They respond by downloading and analyzing my device logs (as I assume they’re doing with others they’ve similarly connected with) and, although my Echo Remote remains MIA to this day whenever pairing is active, the overall Echo-plus-Sub experience has slowly but surely gotten more reliable (I assume because my device has gotten “pushed” incremental firmware updates).

Not only, in fact, have I not returned the Echo (in acknowledgement of Amazon’s hand-holding), I’ve (in confidence that the setup issues will sooner or later get fully resolved) pulled out my credit card and bought even more hardware, with an upgrade-to-come in mind. Second-generation Echos and Dots, as it turns out, can be paired together in a left-plus-right stereo arrangement … and that arrangement can then be further paired with an Echo Sub. With the Sub handling the low frequencies, I don’t need fuller-range Echos for the satellites; the latest-generation Echo Dots should do the trick. Stand by for those setup-and-audition impressions to come.

Wrapping up, I’ve written this particular post not only with this particular glitchy-setup situation in mind, but as a more general analysis of Amazon’s approach to customer service. I’ve been reviewing and writing about consumer electronics for a long time now, and I realize that the profit margin on such equipment is frequently slender-at-best. That said, time and time again I’ve crafted words to the effect that company so-and-so has shafted its customers in the short term in the hopes of preserving profit margin, in the process significantly damaging its long-term brand reputation.

Amazon’s unique, I realize, in the degree of its “pocket depth” (i.e. willingness to invest in the short term in the hope of long-term return), along with the fact that its near-term product sales also support long-term sales both of services (Amazon Music subscriptions in this particular case) and other products (“Alexa, I’d like to buy dog food”). But my experience with the Echo and Echo Sub suggests not only that Amazon’s willing to invest short term in the hope of long-term return, but that the company is cleverly adopting its customers as part of its development team, thereby also getting them invested in the success of the company and its products.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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