Even though there are so many smart speakers available to buy nowadays, Amazon was the first brand to bring them into our living rooms. And despite the fact both Apple and Google are quickly playing catch up, the tech giant still sells more smart home gadgets than its competitors. At least for now.
Amazon has recently been acquiring a number of smart home start-ups, particularly Ring, the popular video doorbell. It doesn't take an expert to figure out that if you want to back the winner of the war for the smart home, Amazon is the most solid bet.
Amazon first launched the Echo and the Dot, but fast-forward to the present day and there are so many Amazon Echo smart speakers to choose from, it's hard to know which one to pick.
As you might expect, the Amazon Echo Plus is the high-end choice and you should consider buying one if great sound quality is a priority for you, but you don't want or need the display on offer with the more recently released Echo Show or Echo Spot.
The sound quality of the Amazon Echo Plus is better than its predecessors for a number of reasons, mainly that it’s louder and bassier than the regular Echo, which is particularly useful if playing music from your smart speaker is just as important to you as shouting commands at Alexa.
Although it’s much better sound-wise than the original Echo and the Dot, it’s not as good as the Sonos One. So bear that in mind if you want the best of the best from your audio experience.
But like Amazon’s other Echo gadgets, its price is competitive, which makes it a solid contender in the sound stakes. Right now it costs $149.99 (£139.99) with a Philips Hue bulb included to kick-start your smart home future.
[Update: There are constantly rumors circulating about new Alexa features, but Amazon has recently updated its Alexa products with a beta feature called CanFulfillIntentRequest. This will mean that if you forget the triggers for specific Skills, Alexa will still (hopefully) be able to understand what you were hoping to do.]
The Amazon Echo Plus looks almost identical to the original Echo, released in 2015. It's a big industrial metal cylinder. But a small footprint lets it fit almost anywhere in your kitchen or living room.
It is 235mm tall and 84mm wide, if you want to get the tape measure out to plan where to put the speaker. The Echo Plus is available in black and white, just like the Echo. But the most interesting improvement design-wise is the addition of the warm silver shade we've been reviewing.
A dotted speaker grille wraps around its sides, reaching half-way up the speaker. The upper part is brushed aluminium, and the Echo Plus is capped off with a color-changing light ring around its upper edge. This is used to show everything from volume level to listening modes and connectivity issues.
The Echo Plus's smaller brother, the Echo, looks a little more neutral, thanks to its squatter shape and fabric outer. This speaker looks more like a techy gadget.
You'll control the Echo Plus with your voice for the most part, but two hardware buttons sit on the Echo Plus's top. One mutes the mic, the other activates Alexa without using the trigger “Alexa” command. A rotating ring on the top also lets you alter volume, another feature carried forward from previous Echoes.
The Echo Plus needs to be as good at hearing sound as playing it. It has seven far-field mics dottes around its top plate. It can hear your voice from several meters away, even if there's ambient noise in the room. The mic array is very effective, making this smart speaker even better at understanding you than the Sonos One.
The top part of the Echo Plus is dedicated to listening, but the column below is all about sound. It houses a 2.5-inch woofer and an 0.8-inch tweeter, and there's Bluetooth to let you connect another speaker if you need even more power.
There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack output port on the rear, a feature previously exclusive to the Echo Dot. Note that this isn’t a portable speaker, and will need a constant power supply and Wi-Fi connection in order to work effectively.
After a simple set-up process that links your Echo Plus to your Alexa phone app and home Wi-Fi connection, you’re ready to start slinging voice commands at the smart speaker.
The basics, like playing songs from Amazon Music or asking general knowledge questions, are baked into Alexa. You can add to its abilities too with "Skills".
There are already more than 30,000 of them to try. You add them to your Echo Plus in the Alexa app, and each adds to the commands the speaker will understand. The idea is that you can have a conversation with the speaker, with the device acting like a little audio butler to serve your every whim. You can check out our pick of the best Alexa Skills in our comprehensive rundown, and some fun Alexa Easter Eggs to try out too.
Alexa can play songs from Amazon’s own audio services or third-party streaming options like Spotify or TuneIn Radio. You can ask Alexa to control the temperature of a linked thermostat, or brightness of connected lighting. Ask Alexa a question and the female-voiced digital assistant will attempt (with a satisfyingly high success rate) to find and relay an answer from the internet, usually from Wikipedia. The uses are many and varied, from booking a taxi through Uber to ordering a pizza, or setting a wake up alarm.
When an Echo Plus (or any Echo, for that matter) is able to correctly identify your request and act upon it, it’s a magical feeling, a little slice of that Jetsons future in your home. You’ll never get tired of turning off the lights with a voice command alone. And the mic array performance is admirably sensitive, identifying voices from a distance, even over ambient noise that it may be generating loudly itself.
However, it still needs some work contextualising some natural language patterns that it can’t identify, and the magic fades when it misunderstands or mishears your commands. Whether that’s Alexa struggling to find a musical artist that you know is available through your streaming service of choice, or (as happened with us) having Alexa mistakenly order a pricey Nintendo Switch, its errors are all the more frustrating by virtue of the fact it so often works perfectly.
This is where Google has the upper hand, as its Assistant tends to understand commands Alexa doesn't.
Amazon Alexa improvements arrive all the time, though.
First up is Routines, which let you create custom phrases to trigger or schedule a number of actions that occur at once. For instance, you could create an “Alexa, I’m home” command, which could then turn on your heating and lights and rattle off your to-do list. They’ll only become more powerful as more third-party Skills become compatible with the feature, making for a versatile new addition.
The second notable new feature is the ability to place calls through an Echo. This has been available in the US for a little while, but has reached other territories, including the UK too. The Alexa app scans your contacts book for email addresses associated with an Echo device that has enabled calling, and then you simply ask Alexa to place a call. It’s a quick and easy way to get in contact with a pal. Note that all these new features will be coming to other Echo devices, too, and aren’t exclusive to the Plus.
Amazon has also recently rolled out a new beta feature called CanFulfillIntentRequest, which will let the developers of Skills tell Amazon the kind of questions their tool can answer. What this means is that if a user makes a vague request, the new feature will scan all of the Skills in its database to find the one most likely to respond appropriately. So there’s no more confusion if you forget the triggers to specific Skills! Hurrah!
And there are plenty, plenty more on the cards soon. One update that's really got us excited is the ability for Alexa to more naturally understand what we're blabbing on about. Starting soon, you won’t have to constantly say Alexa’s name to get her attention during a conversation - Alexa will just keep listening and responding until you’re finished asking questions.
Alexa Brain’s head, Ruhi Sarikaya, says these improvements will roll out to US, UK and Germany first, but refrained to give an exact date as to when we could expect the update to hit. Watch this space.
The Amazon Echo Plus is the most well-equipped smart speaker that the company has so far put out, at least in the audio stakes. With an improved driver array, and some digital processing tinkering now supplied by Dolby, the 360-degree omnidirectional audio output is notably more impressive than its predecessors. It’s a room filling sound at high volume levels, with little of the top-level distortion that affected earlier Echoes.
However, it’s still not quite a replacement for a high end audio system. Bass response, while improved, is still weak compared to the likes of Sonos (which now also offers Alexa support), or premium dedicated speaker sets. There’s plenty of detail in the top-end electro beeps of Fischerspooner’s Emerge, for instance, but that thumping bassline doesn’t kick home quite like it could. But every delicate pluck and slide of Nick Drake’s guitar on River Man is well represented, and his voice cuts through with a natural warmth.
It’s a good sounding speaker, then, but not necessarily worth an upgrade from an original Echo, and certainly not a replacement for an audiophile’s gear. You can easily hook the Echo Plus up to another speaker over a Bluetooth connection or via the 3.5mm audio jack. But with the pocket-money priced Echo Dot letting you do the same, and offering all the same smart functionality of the Plus (minus the ability to act as a smart home hub), you’d have to question in that case if it’d be more economical to just get the smaller option and connect that to a better sound system.
Now, as we’ve discussed, Amazon’s Echo line up is no stranger to smart home control. Since the first Echo was released, you’ve been able to ask Alexa to control everything from thermostat settings to smart locks and more with a voice command alone. But where previous Echoes achieved this by interfacing with a product’s own smart home hub or bridge, the Plus itself also has ZigBee wireless protocol smarts built in. Devices that work with the standard can interact with the Echo Plus speaker directly, bypassing the need for a standalone hub unit.
Philips Hue lights use Zigbee, which is why Amazon bundles the Echo Plus with a bulb.
It’s an efficient system – there’s no need to lose a plug socket to multiple smart device hubs. Other smart devices that support Zigbee include Samsung SmartThings, IKEA's smart lights, Osram Lightify and Honeywell's smart thermostat.
That said, ZigBee is just one of many smart home standards. And a lot of smart gear simply uses Echo Plus's standard Wi-Fi communication rather than Zigbee.
We noticed some interesting issues when trying to hook up Philips Hue connected light bulbs to the Amazon Echo Plus too. The Alexa app has a process that searches for Internet of Things devices in your house when activated, but it simply couldn’t find the Hue bulbs around our house, even when factory resetting the bulbs. And yet, when issuing a voice command to trigger the same device-searching action, the Echo Plus found them without any issues.
Once connected, the Philips Hue bulbs worked with voice commands without a hitch, switching off, changing color and dimming with just a wobble of the larynx. But it’s not quite the same experience as using Hue bulbs removed from Amazon’s smart ecosystem.
The Philips Hue bulbs are usually paired with the company’s own Philips Hue Bridge, which lets you access the bulbs across your network and through apps. However, whether it’s a lack of Hue app updates or support from Amazon which is to blame, the Hue app currently cannot interact with the bulbs without the Bridge present, which undermines the Plus’s ‘one hub to rule them all’ selling point. So in the case of the Hue bulbs, that means you lose granular control over the shade of each bulb.
Hue is only one device set from a broad smart ecosystem, but one of the most popular and widely used. However, Alexa can also control thousands of devices that don't use Zigbee too. After all, other Echo units don't have Zigbee hardware inside.
Right now Alexa also has the widest support for smart home devices, beating Google Home. Before buying it's a good idea to see whether the smart gadgets you daydream about support Alexa. You'll usually see it described as "works with Alexa" if it does.
Like other smart home systems, Amazon Alexa is a work in progress. However, it’s easy to recommend the Amazon Echo Plus. It’s a convenient one-stop solution for both audio, smart assistant functions and Internet of Things controls, with Alexa still going strong as the most feature-rich voice assistant.
But the strength of the Echo range, especially at the lower price tiers, still makes these top-of-the-line models a harder sell. The Echo Dot has comparable smarts for a fraction of the price, it just doesn't sound as good. Likewise, the built-in smart hub is a great addition, but isn’t yet feature-complete, meaning committed smart home users may not want to make the jump just yet.
In short, if you’re looking to enter the world of the connected home, the Echo Plus is a great place to start. Just be aware that more economical options may, for the time being at least, suit your needs just as well.