The Amazon Echo is undoubtedly one of the most significant gadgets to launch in the past few years. Amazon's smart speaker has created and dominated a new category of devices, wrong-footing rivals, leaving speaker manufacturers scratching their disconnected heads and leading technology rivals to get into the scene.
It's only in 2017 - some 2 years after the first Echo was launched - that others are really getting in on the scene, with the likes of Sonos and Ultimate Ears both joining the Alexa family. Apple won't get its Home Pod to market until 2018, some 3 years behind Amazon.
This competition has seen a change in the Echo offering from Amazon, with a cheaper and smaller second-gen Echo and this, the new Echo Plus.
Looks the same but better built
- Familiar cylindrical design
- Black, white, and silver colours
- 235 x 84 x 84mm, 954g
The Echo Plus looks the same as the original Echo model. It's the same size, it comes in the same colour (although there's the addition of a new silver model) and the controls are the same as they were before.
It's not the same, however. While the finish is still plastic, the new Echo Plus feels sturdier than the old model. There's been a slight tweak in the base with the addition of a 3.5mm output - in case you want to connect your Plus to an existing set of speakers - while the top is more substantial than the first-gen Echo.
These are things you might not notice, because much of the time the Echo Plus is something you don't need to touch, thanks to Alexa's voice control. However, tap the top of the Echo Plus and where the original sounds rather hollow, the Plus is all the more robust.
Importantly, the Echo Plus retains one of our favourite features, the manual volume ring. The second-gen Echo (the smaller one) loses this and in the process gets a top that's fussy because it has volume buttons too. Not so on the Plus, which retains a degree of elegant simplicity.
What you don't get is the changeable covers that the second-gen Echo offers: these feel like a play to compete with Google Home and having used both new Echos for some time, we can't say mind that the Echo Plus is still a plastic cylinder. We use it in the kitchen and it's easier to wipe clean...
A sound quality boost you might not hear
- 2.5-inch woofer
- 0.8-inch tweeter
- Dolby sound processing
The biggest criticism of the first-gen Echo was sound quality. It's a slightly unusual position, because while the Echo is predominantly a speaker, it's so much more than just a source of sounds. So how do you judge it? For many reviewers of the first Echo, the claim was that the sound quality wasn't good enough.
The position has changed hugely though, with the Echo now being so much more than it was when it first launched, thanks to Alexa's expanding skills. It's not just a speaker and that's an important factor to consider when talking about sound quality.
Even so, Amazon talked up the sound quality of the new Echo models when they were announced, dropping in reference to Dolby tuning and improved drivers. For the smaller Echo, we don't think that rings true: read our review and you'll see that we think the second-gen Echo isn't a strong enough performer if you want to use it for regular music listening.
The Echo Plus, however, sounds quite different, and so it should. The Echo Plus has a 2.5-inch woofer and a 0.8-inch tweeter, but also has a larger sound chamber than the smaller model. The result is 360-degree sound that's richer, with better defined bass for a much more substantial sound. Of the two new Echos, this is undoubtedly the model you want if you're going to be using it for music on a regular basis.
Putting this into context, we used the original Echo in the kitchen since the day it launched. It was an ideal replacement for a kitchen radio and the Echo Plus very much delivers that same experience. If anything, we'd say the Plus is slightly better sounding and well worth the price difference over the smaller Echo model which is weak by comparison.
If, however, you've got the original Echo, you probably won't notice a huge difference in sound quality with the Echo Plus and if you really want to push things further, then you might have to look to something like the Sonos One. Where the Echo Plus really fails is at higher volumes where there's a lot of distortion; Alexa helpfully has a 1-11 volume scale and above volume 7 you have noticeable degradation of the music quality.
- Amazon Echo vs Echo 2 vs Echo Plus vs Echo Tap vs Echo Dot vs Echo Show vs Echo Spot: What's the difference?
Music on the Amazon Echo Plus
- Amazon Music offers the best experience
- Native Spotify, TuneIn and other services supported
- Spotify Connect
We've said that the sound quality is good enough on the Echo Plus, so let's talk about the music experience. You can play music through the Echo from a huge range of sources, although Amazon naturally has a preference for Amazon Music. If you're a Prime subscriber or you've bought music through Amazon previously, you'll have access to a fair selection. If you subscribe to Amazon Music, then you get access to a lot more.
When the Echo doesn't know where to play from, it's to Amazon Music that it defaults - so if you just ask the Echo Plus to play "happy music" it will start an Amazon Music playlist which works nicely and we can see that those on other music services might be tempted to switch to Amazon Music if the Echo is being used daily.
The Echo also fully supports Spotify, giving you full voice control, as well as acting as a Spotify Connect speaker, so you can control it directly from your Spotify app too. Not all Alexa-powered speakers offer such comprehensive Spotify integration - devices like the Sonos One or UE Magablast are currently limited in what Alexa can do with Spotify.
There's also support for other audio apps like TuneIn, making it really easy to listen to a huge range of radio stations.
One of the newer features that has been added is multiroom. This will let you pair up Echo speakers (of all types - Dot-Echo-Echo Plus), so that music is synchronised. It's really a play to bringing the same music across different rooms, because this isn't stereo pairing.
Multiroom is easy to setup in the Alexa app and then control with your voice, which is great for parties, but it has some limitations: at the moment it only supports TuneIn radio and Amazon Music. You can't play Spotify across multiroom Echo speakers and you also can't be using Bluetooth on your Echo at the same time (although the aux out is fine).
In reality, multiroom feels like it's designed for ad hoc pairing when you are throwing a New Year's party, rather than a way to create zones like you might with Sonos.
There's one "but" here. While we've been enthusiastic about the Echo Plus music experience, as we mention below, sometimes we can't get it to stop playing that music, leading us to manually turn off the Echo Plus to stop it.
What the hell is Zigbee?
- Easily connect your smart devices
- Let's you ditch individual device bridges
- Only available in Echo Plus
The real "plus" in the Echo Plus, is the addition of a Zigbee controller, which has led to a lot of confusion. Just cast your eyes over some of the customer reviews on Amazon.co.uk and you'll see that the message has got a little lost, and we're not surprised.
Zigbee is essentially a wireless protocol that's used by a number of smart home devices. It's not really a technology that's talked about: while everyone is familiar with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, very few people know what Zigbee is or what uses it, which is something of a problem for Amazon when pitching it as a huge benefit in the Plus.
Putting it into simple terms, Zigbee is the wireless standard that devices like Philips Hue uses to communicate. Normally, when setting up something like Philips Hue, you'd have to connect a bridge or hub to your Wi-Fi router and use an app on your smartphone to get it all working. With the Echo Plus, you do away with two of those steps: you don't need that hub and you don't need a dedicated app either.
Simply put, the Echo Plus can directly connect to, set-up and control these Zigbee devices. The big question is whether this is an advantage or not and to answer that, we need to talk about how the Echo works with smart home devices in general - so bear with us.
Maintaining the smart home status quo
- Simple voice control of most mainstream smart home devices
One of the greatest things about all Echo devices (Dot, Echo, Plus, Show, Spot) is that they can use Alexa's skills to connect to and control a wide range of devices. So, without the Plus's additional Zigbee skills, you can control just about every mainstream smart device system already - Hue, Nest, Hive, Arlo, Ring, WeMo, ecobee, iRobot, Tile, Lifx, Logitech - the list is almost endless.
These "skills" are set-up through the Alexa app. For example, if you want to connect to your Arlo cameras, you'd open the Alexa app, enable the Arlo skill and sign into your Arlo account so that Alexa then has permission to control those cameras. It's hardly arduous and the Echo is clever enough to guide you to enable skills for many devices it will automatically detect, although those devices need to be setup and working already before you add the Echo to the mix.
These smart home devices can be grouped, so you can turn on a room of different brand devices, or can work in routines, so on a command a range of things will happen - lights off, heating down, security camera on when you go to bed for example. Alexa's cross-brand control makes this really powerful for the orchestration of your smart home.
Move to the Echo Plus and this situation is the same, only now you can plug in a new device, search for it and have the Echo Plus name it and take over control without using another app or enabling the relevant skill. We set-up a Hue lightstrip without the Hue app, without pressing the button on the hub and got control through the Echo Plus - in fact, through all other Echo devices in our house too.
The Echo Plus will take your Hue bulbs and give you voice controls for on/off, brightness and colours. You can then use the Alexa app to setup routines and group devices, but there are some limitations, for example you can't set the colours through the Alexa app or access some of the more advanced Hue features - like software updates. Indeed, the Hue app has no idea that you're running Hue products you setup through Echo Plus directly - they don't even show up in the Hue app.
What we would say is that the Alexa app needs some work. It's no longer just a controller for a speaker, it's a portal to a smart world and it's a little slow to load and move between devices. At the moment it's passable, but as Amazon's smart home ambitions grow, this app needs to evolve to keep up.
Is the Echo Plus Zigbee controller worth having?
So, while you're getting simple smart home connectivity for Zigbee devices, you're not getting the full feature set. If you're spending a lot of money on Hue bulbs, then the Echo Plus really doesn't do much for you and you'd be better off with a Hue hub and using the Hue app - even if you then add more control through the Alexa skill later.
We suspect that Amazon will start selling cheaper (perhaps Amazon Basics) smart home devices in the future designed to work with the Echo Plus, but at the moment it's easy to see how the Echo Plus is slightly confusing: if you have no experience with setting up smart home devices, it's probably all meaningless to you.
If you just fancy adding one Hue Lightstrip into your home, then you'll be fine with the Echo's controls and this is where it makes more sense. You save the expanding number of apps and hubs, just because you want to add a plug or a lightbulb to your home.
Alexa is still the star of the show
- Constantly evolving AI
- Alexa becomes an essential omnipresence
With that meanderance through smart home geekery covered, the addition of Zigbee control will probably be neither here nor there to many people, as the real appeal of the Echo comes from Alexa. In that sense, the experience is very much the same as the old Echo, the new small Echo and the Echo Dot. Talking to Alexa is the same across these devices and Alexa's skills remain the same.
Alexa is constantly evolving, not only as Amazon adds features, but as other companies want to get involved. Every week there's something new, from the distracting (you can get Alexa to meow like a cat, which the dog really enjoys) to the essential, like playing your Spotify music.
This is still a speaker that will connect to others via Bluetooth (if you wish) or via 3.5mm cable, although both the Echo Dot and the Echo offer this too. This means you can use your Echo connected to another speaker system you already have. If you're just looking to add smart voice features to your home cinema system, then the Echo Dot is probably what you want, as otherwise you're essentially paying for a speaker you're not using.
Living with Alexa over the past year, we've seen the Echo move from fun to essential, becoming a core part of the kitchen and completely changing the way we interact with devices around the house. We rarely use smartphone apps for lighting or heating control, because Alexa is setup and able to do that on command.
As a kitchen assistant, Alexa is also brilliant. Setting multiple cooking timers means you stay in control of what you have in the oven, you can ask for weights and measures conversations on the fly, while also managing your playlist. Never once do you have to wash your greasy hands to unlock your phone and type in those sort of requests.
When you also consider that Alexa will give you calling to other Alexa users (harvested from your contacts) or between Echo devices in your house like an intercom and there's a full feature set on offer here.
Is any of this unique to the Echo Plus? No, it isn't: the Echo Dot does just as much, but the Echo Plus gives you easier smart home set-up (with limitations) and music that's perfectly good enough for everyday listening, which the second-gen Echo doesn't really.
A few software oddities with the Echo Plus
When we reviewed the second-gen Echo, there were a number of things that didn't seem quite right. We've found the Echo Plus to be better on the whole, but we still find the experience slightly different to the original Alexa on Echo interaction.
For the Echo Plus we've had a problem stopping music playing. We'd ask Alexa to turn off and it doesn't happen. Sometimes we can fix this problem by switching to a different source and telling it to turn off, sometimes we've had to turn it off at the wall - essentially rebooting it. We can't tell if this is an isolated case and we've told Amazon all about it, so we'll update if we hear anything.
The second thing that's slightly odd about the Echo Plus is that the volume balance seems to have changed on timers and alarms, so they're now not as loud as they used to be. We've also found that the volume level doesn't dip when you're using the 3.5mm output, whereas it does on the Dot - so if you do happen to be connected to another speaker, then you can't always hear what Alexa is saying.
With the second-gen Echo and the Echo Plus both being cheaper than the original Echo, Amazon is making the Echo universe more appealing to your wallet. The fact that you get more from the Plus than you did from the original Echo, for less money, is difficult to argue with, so we're happy to recommend the Echo Plus.
It feels like there might be some software oddities, like our inability to stop music playing on occasion which never happened on the original. With this being a new device, we're sure they will get ironed out with time - something we'll be watching closely, because this disparity between the smooth old experience and a rocky new experience suggest to us that something isn't quite (yet) right.
While Alexa continues to be better connected and provide greater scope for controlling the smart home, we don't immediately believe that the average customer will be savvy with Zigbee or really understand what Amazon is trying to achieve here. It works for ad hoc additions, but it's not going to replace all your smart home hubs and apps.
If you're looking to get Alexa into your home and want a standalone device, we'd recommend the Echo Plus over the second-gen Echo any day of the week. We think a couple of software tweaks could make this a smoother experience, but on the whole, the Echo Plus offers the essential Alexa experience we love.
Alternatives to consider
Sonos added smart connectivity to its speakers and came up with the Sonos One. It is, basically, a Sonos Play:1 under the skin, but with the added benefit of Alexa voice control. That means that this speaker works both within the Sonos system, as well as standalone as an Alexa speaker. Sonos sound quality and substantial design means it trumps the Echo and Echo Plus, but it's also twice the price. Some Alexa features aren't as smart: Spotify integration isn't all there yet and there's no Alexa calling offered. The Sonos One is really for those who want to put sound quality first.
Google Home sits on the only really rival platform to Alexa - Google Assistant. Slightly cheaper than the Echo Plus (but more costly than the Echo), it offers customisable bottom covers for customisation and Google Assistant is in many ways smarter than Alexa - it certainly is when it comes to returning search results. There's a lot of support for additional devices too, with lots of parity between the services offered. It works with Chromecast too.
Amazon Echo (second-gen)
The second-gen Echo is smaller and cheaper than the Echo Plus, with the option for changeable covers to help you match it to your room. It has all the smart features that the Echo Plus offers, but it doesn't have the Zigbee controller for direct and easy set-up of devices, if that matters to you. It also doesn't sound anyway near as good as the Echo Plus, which might make you think twice about it. It's cheap, but it's not the best Alexa experience.