Amazon’s latest Echo Frames are more style than substance

Amazon’s latest Echo Frames are more style than substance

The purpose of the Amazon Echo Frames is obvious: to provide quick access to Alexa no matter where you are because it’s on your face. But generally speaking, that’s not why anyone wants smart glasses, let alone a pair that costs $389.99 like the Carrera Cruiser model I’ve been wearing for the past week.

For better or worse, most people’s vision of smart glasses is informed by Tony Stark, James Bond, and other iconic sci-fi and spy movie characters: sleek, discreet devices that have some sort of hidden mixed reality display or the ability to capture the world around you. The original Google Glass cemented that image, while successors like the Snap Spectacles and the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses have leaned heavily into content creation. But the Echo Frames hasn’t really ever been quite that ambitious. Like the Bose Frames, Amazon’s approach to smart glasses has primarily been as a pair of open-ear headphones that you can take calls on, listen to music with, and ask the occasional Alexa query. There’s no camera, no screen, and nothing to clue anyone in that you’re not just wearing ordinary glasses.

Amazon isn’t straying too far from that formula with these third-gen Echo Frames. The big thing now is that they’re lighter, the battery lasts longer, the bass is more bassy, and they look a lot more stylish than previous iterations. I don’t think that’s enough to turn the Echo Frames into a must-have gadget — but it’s a half-step in the right direction.

Strike a pose

It’s a big deal that Amazon’s latest Echo Frames look nicer than before. Style is one of the most underrated criteria for smart glasses, and put simply, you’re just not going to wear something that makes you look like a dweeb. Everyone’s face and vision is different, and a successful pair of smart glasses is going to account for that by offering a wide range of styles, colors, and fits.

With the third-gen Echo Frames, you can choose between clear, prescription, blue light filtering, and sunglass lenses. They also come in multiple shapes, including round, cat eye, square, rectangle, and “modern” rectangle. These start at $269.99 for the most basic clear lenses, $299.99 for blue light filtering lenses, and $329.99 for sunglasses.

These are all subtler options, but if you like a flashier style, Amazon is also continuing its partnership with Carrera. That extra pizzazz comes with a heftier price tag. The Cruiser (the one I have) and Sprinter model will both set you back $389.99. The latter is more of a boxy, Wayfarer-esque frame and gives you the option of sunglass or blue light filtering lenses.

I have a low nose bridge, so I had to keep pushing these up after a few seconds.

Because the Cruiser only comes with sunglass lenses, I wore these during my commute and on outdoor walks. They are a vibe. I’ve been described as channeling Yeezy, a Kardashian reject, a card-carrying member of the Jersey Shore mafia, and a time traveler from the ’80s. I most definitely have turned heads while on the street. I had fun wearing these, and most folks could pull this off so long as they put a little swagger in their step — but personally, this isn’t the style I’d pick for my day-to-day sunnies, mostly because they didn’t fit my face well. While these are made of a lightweight acetate weighing 46.3g, I have a low nose bridge, and these were slipping down my face every five seconds. The other thing I didn’t love about the Cruiser glasses was the build quality. While they look high fashion, they feel plasticky in my hands and not befitting of their nearly $400 price tag.

Forget the bass

As I said, these are less smart glasses than they are a pair of open-ear headphones. On that front, the Echo Frames are alright for the category but are nothing mind-blowing.

Bass is purportedly three times better on the new Echo Frames, but they’re still not going to bring the thump of even standard AirPods. I’ve been listening to a lot of Stray Kids lately, and Felix’s TikTok-breaking rumbly baritone is absolutely lost on these. In God’s Menu, the song’s famous “cookin’ like a chef I’m a 5-star Michelin” line is reduced to zero-star Michelin. On a loud train, I couldn’t even hear it despite turning the volume up to the max.

This isn’t a problem limited to the Echo Frames — it’s a common problem with any open-ear audio headphones. That said, the same song on the Meta smart glasses sounded a bit richer. These were a lot better for podcasts or less bass-heavy songs, but you still can’t get away from the feeling like you’re listening to something from a few feet away instead of right next to your ear.

I don’t love the charging stand, but battery life has been improved.

At the same time, there’s a fair amount of audio leakage. No one asked me to turn things down while I was commuting. Trains and city noises are loud. But at the same volume in the office, all of my co-workers could hear that I was listening to something. They might not have been able to discern the song, but it was loud enough to be distracting.

As for call quality, these were good enough. I called a friend during an hour-long walk, and she was able to hear me despite beeping trucks and wind. In her words, I sounded “echo-y,” and she could hear a lot of the ambient noise around me, but at no point was she unable to hear me. I do like that you can pair the glasses to multiple devices and have them switch between the two — that’s something the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses weren’t really capable of. However, this is only useful if you’re getting clear glasses, as you shouldn’t be wearing sunglasses indoors while on your laptop.

The right side has two action buttons.

The volume rocker is on the left side. You can also see some of the directional speakers and mics.

The controls are at least easy to navigate. On the left arm, you’ve got a self-explanatory volume rocker. (Though, I found myself reaching for the volume rocker on my phone far more often. Habits are hard to break, especially if you often have your phone in hand anyway.) On the right side, there are two action buttons that you can use to take or decline calls, put the device into pairing mode, or mute Alexa. If you press the back action button twice, you can launch a personalized playlist on the music streaming service of your choice. For me, I’d think that’d be a list full of K-pop and sad indie artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski. Instead, the glasses played a list full of artists I didn’t know and songs that I would never listen to.

Like I said, these are more headphones than smart glasses.

Alexa on your face

The main thing that’s supposed to set the Echo Frames apart is the fact that they have Alexa built in. My problem here is that Alexa has never been and still isn’t a particularly good voice assistant when you’re on the go. It’s fine at answering odd queries, setting timers, and telling you the weather — but it’s much better at controlling your smart home than replacing Siri or Assistant.

It’s not that you can’t do things. You can now use this to make non-Alexa calls and, if you have an Android phone, reply to text messages. Directions are also possible, but it’s clunky. Alexa told me I’d get a notification on my phone to start… but that meant tweaking my notification settings to a less preferred option. When I did get it working, it suggested I go to Bowling Green in Kentucky instead of the Manhattan train station five minutes away. Most things are still just easier (and faster) on my phone. As a result, I didn’t have a lot of reasons to actually use Alexa on these glasses. That was only exacerbated by the fact that I had a pair of sunglasses instead of regular glasses.

It relies on your phone for a connection, and that’s a pro and a con. So long as you have a stable Bluetooth connection and your phone has signal, you can use Alexa reliably while on the go. On the flip side, you don’t have much offline usability on that front. Plus, you need to make sure the Alexa app is always open and running in the background.

It says to just ask Alexa, but I didn’t find much to ask beyond the weather and timers.

Even so, it’s just weird to say “Alexa” in public. (You can change the wake word to Echo if that feels better, but for me, it did not.) This is an issue I have with nearly every pair of smart glasses with some kind of voice assistant. Earbuds are a visual and cultural signal that we all implicitly understand. If I’m talking to midair with AirPods in, you can be confident I’m on a call. Me talking to myself with no phone or AirPods in sight got me some odd looks from strangers — and confused looks from some of my friends.

In terms of notifications, I like that you have some control over when you get notified. There’s a VIP Filter you can curate so that only select apps and contacts will notify you. The glasses will play a sound whenever you get a notification, and then you can pull your phone out to check. It won’t read your texts, but I appreciate that. I don’t love it when Siri takes 10 years to read out the URL to a funny link my friends send me, for instance. It does mean you have to be ruthless when setting up your VIP list, however.

You can set a VIP Filter to curate your notifications, but it’s best to be ruthless here since you only hear a ping.

For testing purposes, I did try issuing a few Alexa commands while I had these at home. I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t trip up any of my Echo speakers. There is a feature where you can ask any Echo speaker you have to locate your Frames. That’s nice, but at the same time, I doubt it’s something most people will frequently use. As a lifelong glasses wearer, mine are always either in a case or on my nightstand because. I have a specific drawer for sunglasses. Plus, this feature relies on your glasses having a decent charge.

Speaking of charge, these held up well over the past week. My commute is around 60–80 minutes, depending how much the MTA wants to test me. I’ve gotten about five hours of media playback and calls thus far and have about 30 percent battery left. Meanwhile, a roughly 50-minute call drained the battery about 20 percent. Charging from zero to 100 percent takes about 2.5 hours, though I’m not a big fan of the charging stand’s design. It took me a hot second to figure out that you’re supposed to place them on the stand vertically so that the lenses are pointed straight up at the ceiling. The way the stand is designed, I’d expected you’d plop them in horizontally. I missed the charging case of Meta’s smart glasses, which killed two birds with one stone and was a much more elegant charging solution overall.

Pay more for less

If you’re a heavy Alexa user, I can see paying the $270 for the base model and maybe using FSA or HSA funds if you need prescription lenses. But while I like the look of the Carrera Cruiser model, this is not nearly $400 worth of tech and style, especially not when the Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses start at $299 — a mere $30 more than the cheapest Echo Frames. Those get you better build quality, a surprisingly good hands-free camera for photos and video, the ability to livestream to Instagram, better audio quality, and a much better mic. Those get you the option of transition lenses, too, though the third-gen Echo Frames are at least on a similar playing field when it comes to style. Likewise, the Bose Frames Tempo and Soprano have a retail price of $249 — and can be found on sale for around $200. Those have similar battery life and better sound quality.

Audio definitely leaks on these in quieter spaces.

These make some small moves in the right direction. Again, improving the range of available styles was a much-needed change. It’s good to beef up the audio, but it wasn’t enough of a change to make these stand above the competition or a compelling alternative to wireless earbuds. But perhaps most crucially, I wasn’t convinced to use Alexa more than I otherwise would have. As it stands, I think Amazon’s getting there with form. It’s just not quite there with function.

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