“Amazon's Echo Plus blasts down the barrier to smart-home entry with the smartest home hub yet”
- Built-in smart home hub eliminates the need for a bridge
- Seamless pairing with Zigbee compatible devices
- Three color choices (black, white, and silver) available
- Multi-room audio feature is handy
- Sound quality of speaker isn’t as rich as we’d hoped it would be
- Doesn’t allow connection to devices on different household accounts
Unless you’ve been living in an off-the-grid underground bunker waiting for a zombie apocalypse (in which case buy one of these cars), you’ve heard of the Amazon Echo and Alexa, the smart home assistant that can do just about anything except tie your shoes.
Building on the success of 2015’s original Echo, the Echo Plus is a speaker and smart home hub combined with Alexa’s skills and capabilities. Putting a hub into an Echo device makes sense because Alexa can already control your home, but until it now needed outside help from a bridge like the Wink to do so. It was only a matter of time until Amazon eliminated that middleman.
The Echo Plus was announced in Sept 2017, and we quickly got our hands on one, eager to test out the embedded smart home hub. Almost a year later, we’re taking a fresh look at the device to see which new Alexa capabilities have been added and to revisit the speaker’s sound quality. With the second generation Echo Plus now available, you can still buy this device on Amazon’s website, for $99, but probably not for long. Amazon released a second-generation Echo Plus in October 2018, which is smaller in height and features better sound. If you’re looking for information on the new model, take a look at our review of the second generation Echo Plus.
Out of the box
The first thing you’ll notice about the first generation Echo Plus is that it’s tall, slim, and obviously designed to be a piece of hardware rather than a piece of decor like the smaller regular Echo. Not surprising considering this is a smart home hub in addition to a speaker — it needs to be bigger to fit the extra hardware inside. The device looks exactly like the original Echo both in height and width. At 9.3 inches high, you might have trouble hiding this behind a flower arrangement.
In the box you’ll find the speaker, along with a removable power adapter and the promised Philips Hue lightbulb to get you started on integrating your Zigbee-compatible smart home devices with the hub.
The device is available in black, white, or silver. We received a brushed-silver device for testing, which was sleek-looking. The speaker has a slightly different texture than the original Echo, which had a serious fingerprint smudge problem. It doesn’t appear that there will be such a problem with the Echo Plus.
We opened our Amazon Alexa app and waited for the magic to happen.
Like the old Echo, there are seven embedded microphones, a volume dial around the rim, and the signature blue LEDs ringing the upper edge. The speaker has two buttons on top: one for action and one to mute Alexa’s ever-listening ear (essentially turning off the device).
On the bottom back of the speaker there’s a power port and a 3.5 mm audio output jack, which means that you can connect the Echo Plus to a much larger speaker or audio system.
We screwed our Philips Hue lightbulb into a lamp and set up a light strip in our media room, plugged in the Echo Plus, opened our Amazon Alexa app, and waited for the magic to happen.
Smart hub set-up is a snap
Amazon promises an easy time connecting to your smart home devices, claiming that all you have to say is, “Alexa, discover my devices” – that is, assuming they’re compatible with Zigbee. We took them up on that claim and after a few hiccups (we had to disconnect and reconnect to our Wi-Fi a couple of times before the Echo Plus would register) we were off to the races.
After a minute of thinking, Alexa found the Philips Hue Light strip we set up behind our Vizio TV as well as the Philips Hue light bulb. When we clicked on each in the app, we were able to control the brightness directly from there without verbally instructing Alexa, and edit the names Alexa assigned each device, which was “light 1,” “light 2” and so forth. For example, we renamed “light 1” to “TV light strip.”
We had to connect to our new Fire TV in a different way. For that, we went to “Music, Video, & Books” in our settings, where we were given a list of devices and apps from which to choose. We needed to have both our Fire TV and the Echo Plus registered under the same account in order to connect our devices. This meant that we had to restore to factory settings on our Fire TV in order to get the accounts to sync up. After doing that, we were able to (mostly) control our Fire TV hands-free, depending on what we asked for. Alexa did fine with movies, playing “Ocean’s 12” via Amazon Prime free movies when we told her to, but she struggled a bit with TV shows. When we told Alexa to play “Transparent” on Fire TV, it automatically began playing the pilot episode. But when we asked Alexa to play episode two of the show, it played us the pilot episode again.
Alexa’s helpfulness falters outside of the Amazon universe. For now, Alexa can’t launch a movie or TV show through Netflix or other streaming video services. She can, however, get your Spotify playlist going.
Fun with Alexa
Thanks to some updates, Alexa’s skills and capabilities have improved. The Routines feature allows you to bundle devices and then customize what you say to Alexa in order to operate all the items together. For example, you can set up your Echo Plus to automatically give you a morning flash briefing, turn on your smart coffee machine, and turn on the lights, all when you say, “Alexa, good morning.”
For now, the only items you can add to Routines are news, smart home devices, traffic, and weather.
We found that setting up the new Routines feature was quick and painless. In the app, we selected “Routines” from the menu and hit the + on the top ride side to add a new routine. When prompted to add a cue, we typed in “movie night,” and then added the actions we wanted to associate with this directive. We then clicked on “add action” and added each corresponding device we wanted to respond. We added our lamps and led power strip behind the TV, indicating that we wanted the lamps off and the power strip on.
When we said, “Alexa, movie night,” she complied by turning off our lamps and turning on our light strip. Viola! It should be noted that we could not add the Fire TV to the Routine, which would make things even more seamless. For now, the only items you can add to Routines are news, smart home devices, traffic, and weather.
Another Alexa feature is the voice recognition platform. Not to be outdone by Google Assistant’s Voice Match, Amazon Alexa can recognize individual voices and answer accordingly. We added this feature to our new Echo device at home when it become available a couple weeks ago, but were eager to see how well things went with the Echo Plus.
We set up two users on the device, and tried to trick Alexa by asking her questions, like “Alexa, what does my morning commute look like?” and “Alexa, what is my favorite color?” Each time, Alexa knew who was talking and gave us the correct answers. We’ll have to continue our testing to see if Alexa gets tripped up with similar-sounding voices.
If you’re looking for other ideas on what you can do with Alexa, click on the “skills” or “things to try” in your settings on the app, where there’s plenty of tips on everything from controlling the color of your smart lights to how to order Starbucks to go. At last count, there were more than 25,000 skills, with more being added each day. Now, you can create your own skills and customize them, for, say dad jokes.
Since the Echo Plus is essentially a reworked version of the original Echo, we expected sound quality to at least stay the same, if not improve. Unfortunately, an A/B comparison between the new Echo Plus and the original Echo initially revealed that the sound quality has taken a slight turn for the worse. However, a firmware update pushed out shortly after this review showed that the device’s sound has again improved.
To be clear, the new Echo Plus isn’t a bad sounding speaker. We’re just disappointed that it exhibits a little less bass, slightly less refined treble, and a brittle upper midrange when compared to the original Echo. Frankly, we wish Amazon had just left well enough alone. With all of that said, we don’t think the difference in sound quality is so significant that one would be able to tell much of a difference without doing an A/B comparison themselves. The Amazon Echo Plus still sounds OK, and if one wants better sound quality, the speaker can now be connected to a better speaker or a full-on home audio system thanks to the addition of a 3.5mm analog audio output jack on the back. There’s also the option of going for the outstanding Sonos One if the built-in smart home hub found in the Echo Plus is not a necessity.
As for sound functionality, like other Echo devices, Amazon Alexa can play music from several sources, including Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and more. You can also listen to audiobooks from Audible, as well as podcasts and radio stations. You’ll have to enable the apps you want through the Alexa app.
We do appreciate the multi-room audio feature, which allows you to connect speakers together in groups and then play or stream music in a synchronized fashion. This is perfect for gatherings where you want to keep the party going both inside and outside by playing the same music on different speakers. In our testing, we connected our new Echo and Echo Plus to a group that we dubbed “media room,” and said, “Alexa play Trombone Shorty in the media room.” Both devices kicked on at the same time, making the sound of the music richer. You could do this with the Echo Plus and another Echo device as we did or any Alexa-compatible smart speaker – Amazon brand or not – placed in any location.
A one-year limited warranty and service included. An optional 1-year, 2-year, and 3-year extended warranty is available for United States customers for an additional cost.
The Echo Plus is an all-in-one device that bridges your smart home products to the home assistant Alexa. We wish the speaker boasted better sound quality, but the Echo Plus is designed for a more streamlined smart home system and not to blow your buddies’ socks off with bass.
Is there a better alternative?
Because this is the first device that features both a smart-home hub and home assistant, there’s not really anything else like it on the market right now. If you don’t need the smart home hub capabilities, the Amazon Echo or the Google Home are both great options. For sound quality snobs, the Sonos One fits the bill perfectly.
How long will it last?
With several Echo devices currently available and Amazon Alexa leading the smart home assistant market, the hardware will continue to be supported by software updates. Amazon has introduced a second generation of this device, which means that while you will still be able to use Alexa voice technology with this speaker, you might not have support if that device breaks.
Should you buy it?
Do buy it if you’re in the market for both an Alexa-enabled home assistant speaker and a smart home hub at the same time, and you get a good deal on this soon-to-be-discontinued model. Otherwise, take a look at the second generation Echo Plus. If you just need a home assistant device and not great sound, the cheaper all-new Echo, Echo Dot, or Google Home are better choices. If you’re looking for stellar sound from your speaker, go for the pricier but high-quality Alexa-enabled Sonos One.
Updated in October 2018 to add information about Alexa capabilities, sound quality of the speaker, and the second-generation Echo Plus.
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