Amazon Echo Plus review: Alexa has never sounded this good
I’ve been using an Echo on and off for the past year and I have to say I’m completely sold on Amazon’s vision of the voice-driven future. The ability to switch radio stations, play music, call other Echo speakers, set timers and alarms and get the answers to general questions – all without the need to pick up a device or sit down at a keyboard is incredibly freeing.
The Echo was and still is a revelation to me; in fact, I’ve only ever really had one major issue with it. Sound quality. And that’s why I’m seriously considering replacing it with the new Amazon Echo Plus.
With the help of Dolby processing and “improved” speaker drivers, the Echo Plus takes audio quality up a considerable notch from the first Echo. So, where the previous model neglected bass and mid-bass notes almost entirely, the new one sounds warmer, richer and is actually enjoyable to listen to music on. And there’s actually, you know, some bass.
How much bass? Well, you should know that, as I write these very words I’m enjoying a few numbers by Milt Hinton, double bass player extraordinaire, which are packed with the sorts of tunes that sounded terrible on the original Echo. I can happily report that I’ve not yet given up and switched to headphones. It’s that good.
I’m not suggesting the Echo Plus it’s perfect. Far from it. For some types of music – lightweight acoustic numbers and classical – it can occasionally sound a bit boomy around the mids. By and large, though, the Echo Plus is a world away from the harsh, rather thin-sounding Echo. And that’s something I very much approve of.
And as for the speaker’s improved array of seven-microphone far-field microphones, that’s something that I have to say I haven’t noticed. The original’s microphones were so good that they barely needed improving upon anyway, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.[gallery:2]
Amazon Echo Plus review: Smart home features
In fact, for me, the improved sound quality is enough to warrant an upgrade on its own, even at the cost of £140, and it sounds an awful lot better than the smaller Amazon Echo 2. But that’s not the only improvement Amazon you get with the Echo Plus. Although it looks identical to its predecessor, the Echo Plus does have a couple of neat extra tricks.
The first is rather prosaic: a 3.5mm audio jack output, which allows you, at a pinch, to improve the sound further by hooking it up to your big sound system. Handy, potentially, if you wanted to use the Echo Plus to power the soundtrack to your next house party I suppose but if you’re planning on having it set up this way permanently, you might as well opt for the £50 Echo Dot.
If you do, though, you’re going to be missing out on the Ace up the Plus’ sleeve: built-in smart home connectivity. Now, I’ll admit this is a somewhat vague statement, so let me elaborate on exactly what this means.[gallery:1]
Basically, the Echo Plus is Amazon’s attempt at unifying the rather fragmented Smart Home market. It has a Zigbee radio chip inside and this allows the speaker to talk directly to compatible devices such as Philips Hue and Ikea Tradfri lightbulbs, bypassing the need for the dedicated hardware hubs and software that these types of product usually need to run successfully.
This isn’t intended to replace Alexa’s Skills, which do essentially the same job but are developed by the manufacturers themselves. Those remain in place and you can choose to keep using them if you want. Instead, it’s intended to simplify things by placing control within the Echo speaker itself.
I love the idea, not least because it seems almost tailor-made for my particular circumstances. I have three different types of smart bulb (Ikea, Hive and Osram) installed in various places across my house, the relics of past reviews and most of the time I can’t be bothered using them as smart bulbs at all. The fact that each requires a separate hardware hub and app means I just can’t be bothered to keep track of it all.
What the Echo Plus promises is to revive those smart bulbs and bring them all together in one place, and will allow you to control them via the Alexa app’s new Routines and Smart Home Groups feature, which lets you group various actions and devices together under single voice commands.[gallery:5]
Brilliant! But wait, there’s trouble (isn’t there always?): although the core functionality works well there are currently a whole bunch of major compromises.
First, setup is not as simple as Amazon seemed to suggest at its launch event. Yes, you can put the speaker into discovery mode by saying “Alexa, discover my devices” and this works well, but only if you reset the devices you want to control first and put them in pairing mode.
In my case, that’s three different types of lightbulb and two different reset mechanisms, which is a bit of a pain, but I’m willing to suffer a little inconvenience now for a payoff at a later point.
But here comes the next problem. Because Alexa doesn’t yet work with every product (only bulbs and plugs) there may be some parts of your setup it renders entirely redundant; Ikea’s switches and motion sensors, for instance, which I use in parallel with the app on my phone to control the living room lights.[gallery:3]
Even if that doesn’t bother you, you’ll lose out on other features, too. Paired with the Echo Plus, none of my bulbs retained their colour temperature change capabilities. It wasn’t even possible to change the colour temperature of the Philips Light Strip Amazon sent in the reviewer’s package. And, if you use geofencing to trigger smart home actions, you’ll lose those facilities, too.
Moreover, if you have any Z-Wave based products in your house, be aware that these won’t work at all with the Echo Plus since it’s only directly compatible with Zigbee kit.
The good news is that Amazon has, thus far, had a pretty good record at steadily improving what Alexa and the Echo products are capable of, so the issues (aside from the lack of Z-Wave support) may well be ironed out in time. Right now, though, as a piece of smart home hub hardware, the Echo Plus is limited.
Amazon Echo Plus review: Verdict
In this review, I laid my cards on the table pretty early and I stand by that stance. The Amazon Echo Plus is worth buying for the improved sound quality alone. It’s vastly better than the original, and although it does lag a little behind the best Bluetooth speakers at this price, it’s more than adequate as a kitchen or study speaker; it’s also worth bearing in mind that Amazon is bundling every speaker with a free Philips Hue bulb
Plus, of course, it does everything every other Echo speaker is capable of, including being able to act as a regular Bluetooth speaker and Spotify Connect target. All of which is nice.
If you were considering buying the Echo Plus purely for its smart home integration, however, I counsel you to hold fire. With limited features at the time of writing and compatibility only with plug units and bulbs, it’s a long way off yet being the smart home solution we’re all searching for.