(Pocket-lint) - The Amazon Echo Plus first appeared in 2017, wearing the same tall plastic housing of the original Echo, but delivering bigger audio.
Fast-forward to 2018 and there's the second-gen Echo Plus, which is now shorter, wider, and wrapped in material. It's much more contemporary, making a few essential tweaks to Amazon's leading Echo device.
Amazon Echo or Echo Plus?
Before we dive into the review, it's worth taking some time to outline the differences between these two models. The second-gen regular Echo was announced in 2017 and continues to be the affordable Echo. It's great value for money at £90 or $100, while the Echo Plus offers you a little more for its £140 or $150 asking price.
Which is the better sounding? That's easy: it's the Echo Plus. In addition you're getting a Zigbee controller which might appeal to those building a smart home (we'll talk about this more later, but essentially it means you can directly control devices without the need for hubs in your home or additional Alexa Skills) and the Echo Plus also contains a temperature sensor.
We have a full breakdown on all the Echo devices and how they compare, but before you shoot for the cheaper Echo, read on to find out why the Echo Plus is a better offering.
Refreshed design makes it more contemporary
- Colours: charcoal, heather grey, sandstone
- All button controls, no dial
- 148 x 99mm, 780g
The new Echo Plus' design matches the latest Echo Dot, the second-gen Echo and the Echo Sub. It might be seen as a move to follow Google Home, but the Plus looks a little more contemporary compared to the plastic shells of the original Echos (unlike the Echo, these can't be changed - you have to commit to the charcoal, heather grey or sandstone colours).
The Plus' build is generally much better than the older devices too: there's a rubberised base to prevent slippage and the top is much more solid than before. There's no rotational collar, so you no longer have the physical ring to turn to change the volume, leaving you with buttons to poke instead. That's a bit of a shame, but at the same time, our first-gen devices are feeling a little loose around the top, so we suspect the aim was to remove a potential point of failure.
The top is a little busier with those four buttons - volume up/down, Alexa mute, Alexa button - interspersed with seven mic holes. But, generally speaking, the design change is for the better and with a lower centre of gravity, the Plus is more stable.
Boosted sound performance
- Dolby tuning
- 3.0-inch woofer, 0.8-inch tweeter
- 360-degree sound
- Stereo pairing
When Amazon announced the new Echo devices, it was clear that sound performance was one of the things it wanted to address. Fittingly, the new Echo Plus has a 3.0-inch woofer and 0.8-inch tweeter within its core, delivering 360-degree sound.
The change here is that the old Echo Plus had a 2.5-inch woofer, so as a standalone speaker there's more punch to this new Plus, further aided by the chamber these speakers sit in. Side-by-side, the new Echo Plus sounds better than the previous Echo Plus, putting it in a very good place.
We've been critical of some Echo devices in the past, particularly the second-gen Echo, because it's on the limit of what we want in terms of sound quality. This new Echo Plus, however, is a better proposition, closer to some of the third-party Alexa speakers we've seen since.
There's better bass, giving it a richer and more rounded sound. This sound does get a little strained at higher volumes and in that sense it's not quite as strong a performer as the Apple HomePod in isolation - but it is almost a third of the price and that's not to be scoffed at.
Interestingly, Amazon's solution to keeping all types of customer happy is to offer the Echo Sub, a £119 subwoofer that exclusively works with your Echo (not the first-gen models, we hasten to add). We've tested this with the Echo Plus and it's a wonderful result, so if music is a primary focus for you then it's well worth investing in - and it'll still bundled together for less than the price of a HomePod.
The other play to music is that the Echo Plus (and second-gen Echo) now supports stereo pairing, which is a lot more exciting for music fans. Single point (mono) music is convenient and tidy, but two speakers in true stereo is so much better.
The downside is that you have to create pairs between the same model of Echo, but stereo pairing on the Echo Plus makes for a great result - it really makes the music come to life, spreading it for greater room-filling performance. Paired with the Sub in a 2.1 system and you've got a great setup.
As before, your Echo can be included in a multiroom group with other Alexa devices and this is all easy to control through the Alexa app.
The Echo Plus offers Bluetooth and a 3.5mm physical connection and they can work both ways, i.e., to broadcast or receive. This will mean you can connect your Echo Plus to other devices like a bigger sound system, or plug devices into your Echo to use its speaker (like an old iPod) - although you'll need to use the Alexa app to define how this will work.
Using this system you could, at a push, connect your TV to your Echo setup to boost your TV audio, if you really wanted to.
The mics on the top of the Echo Plus do a good job of hearing what you are saying. When there's loud music playing this gets a little more difficult and, of course, if lots of people are talking at the same time then it can fail to respond. Accepting that those two parameters are a weakness of all voice-control systems, we've found that Alexa responds as and when we'd expect - from close, far or when shouting from another room.
The heart of a smart home
- Wide compatibility
- Zigbee controller
- Lots of Alexa skills
While the Echo Plus is offering a lot more aesthetically and sonically than the standard Echo, its core position is as a smart speaker, where Alexa battles it out against Google Assistant for mastery of the connected future. We'll give a nod to Apple's HomeKit here, but one of the great things about Alexa and the Echo is that it's platform agnostic and easily accessible.
The new Echo Plus doesn't hugely change this position, but does add a new sensor to its hardware array - a thermometer. It's potentially a really useful feature, depending on your home setup. It will allow the Echo to report temperatures and you can setup routines around that, for example, to turn on a plug connected to a heater or a fan depending on temperature change - great if you have a garden office or a room not connected to central heating.
The other piece of hardware that the Echo Plus offers is a Zigbee controller. This is potentially a little more complicated, but it will allow the Echo Plus to setup and directly control smart home devices that run on the Zigbee protocol without the need for that respective manufacturer's app or hub.
For example, if you have a Philips Hue bulb, you normally have to connect the hub to your router, install the Hue app, connect your phone to the hub (and setup a user profile), then you have to turn on the bulb, search for it in the app and then you get control. With a Zigbee controller in the Echo Plus, all you'd have to do is turn on the bulb and tell Alexa to search for new devices. This sounds great, but it's not the complete picture of a smart home.
As you'll probably already know, Alexa offers lots of "skills". These are a little like apps, allowing Alexa to talk other platforms. To cut a long story short, Philips Hue has a skill, so if you want to integrate Hue control, you can do so without the Zigbee controller anyway.
See, we said it was complicated.
So why would you want to use the Alexa skill and a more complex setup approach? Because Philips Hue, through its own controller app, offers more functions - and this is where we get to the point.
The Zigbee controller gives you a shortcut into building a system where the Echo Plus is the native controller - but in many cases it can act as a third-party controller anyway. Whether you use it or not depends on what you have setup already, what you want it to do and how much you like playing with smart home device networks.
In terms of devices that you can control (either via Zigbee or through skills), Alexa pretty much leads the way. Google is a close rival and offers a lot of parity, but "works with Alexa" has a lot of impetus and Amazon has made it really easy to find and buy these devices through its website.
It's still all about Alexa
- Excellent natural language recognition
- Expanding feature set
- So easy to use for everyone
Whether your interest is in smart home or not, the Echo Plus still has a lot to offer. As we've mentioned, music is boosted and being able to ask for what you want - be that radio stations or from the vast libraries of Spotify of Amazon Music (subscriptions required) - there's plenty of music at your disposal.
Beyond music, Alexa is a constant source of entertainment. It's an AI assistant that's learning all the time, not only able to tell you useful information like the weather or the time, currency exchange or set cooking timers, but it can also give you facts and information.
We also know it's learning, because we previously asked Alexa what a dangling participle was and it didn't know, and now it does.
If pitched head-to-head with other systems, we'd say that Google Assistant is probably a little smarter. Google's work on contextual knowledge seems to make a difference and often Google Assistant can arrive at answers that Alexa won't get to, but there's still a personality difference in these AI systems - and talking to Alexa feels more natural than talking to Google.
We've had the Echo in various guises in a family home for some time now and Alexa has become indispensable: it's hands-free music, it's timers for all the family, an intercom system, and no end of entertainment. There are interactive games, all running through voice, on top of all that smart home control - it's so much more than just a speaker.
But it's not all seamless. As the (ahem) echosystem grows, there are cracks appearing. When opening the Alexa app, for example, the temperature is initially reported in Fahrenheit rather than Celcuis, even when you've selected metric in the settings. Then there's the somewhat crude way that Alexa can respond to commands: you'll ask to play something different, the music will dim while you make the request, then blast out again for a second before the new music is started. So there's definitely room for polish and as Alexa grows.
The Amazon Echo Plus is an easy smart speaker to recommend. Now part of an enhanced system with the option for stereo pairing and the Echo Sub, it really can be the heart of a music system.
As a standalone device it's smart, good-looking and more affordable than most of its rivals; it's an unmatched smart home controller and domestic AI companion. Alexa continues to grow and plenty of new brands and devices want to find a way to be involved with what the Echo is doing.
There are many rivals to the Echo, but the Echo Plus feels like the smart speaker that's leading the way.
Originally published October 2018
Alternatives to consider
Bringing together Sonos' own platform with access to both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, the Sonos One is a great alternative for those wanting to build a bigger entertainment system. It's more expensive and it doesn't have a Zigbee controller, so it's a slightly different proposition - but being able to choose the smart AI system it will work with adds appeal.
Amazon Echo Show
The Echo Show offers an alternative to the Echo Plus. It adds a big display to proceedings, giving a visual angle to Alexa, while also keeping all the same smart home skills - and that Zigbee controller. Having a display means you can play video, have lyrics for songs and touch controls, rather than just voice.