The Amazon Echo is one of the most popular smart speakers on the market today, giving users the ability to command Alexa to browse the internet or order items from Amazon. With competition from Google and Apple, however, Amazon couldn’t rest on its laurels. Last year, the tech giant released the new-and-improved Echo and the Echo Plus, a smart-home hub that will automatically connect to your other devices. Here’s how the new models compare to the first generation in design, sound, connectivity, calling, and pricing. We should note that you can no longer buy the original Echo new, but Amazon does sell refurbished versions of the device.
Original Echo — Encased in a tall, black (or white) cylinder, the first-generation Echo is an imposing monolith. The original Echo emphasized simplicity with two buttons on top and a pinhole microphone and a ring around the edge to control the volume.
New Echo — The new Echo comes in a much smaller package (just 5.9 inches tall), and comes in different body designs. Given that our reviewer found the original to be prone to fingerprints, the additional designs are a great idea. There are six variations for the second generation Echo; three have cloth covers, while three have sleek finishes, including wood.
Echo Plus — The Echo Plus mimics the design of the original Echo, a tall (9.3 inches), cylindrical body. It comes in black, white, and silver. While the facade may be familiar, the Echo Plus has a lot of new stuff going on beneath the surface, which we’ll get to in a minute.
The original Echo might not have amazed any audiophiles, but our own Caleb Denison considered it fine for its purposes, saying that it “has a very large sound with full bass that doesn’t go overboard.” Given that many people might use their Echo to blast music, however, the sound quality ought to be more than “adequate,” and the new Echo models take things to another level with Dolby speaker technology. Both the new Echo and Echo Plus sport 2.5-inch woofers for a full bass sound.
The second-generation Echo has a 0.6-inch tweeter for clear treble, while the Echo Plus has a larger 0.8-inch tweeter, which should give it improved sound dispersion. The new Echo and Echo Plus also support multi-room audio, so you can play one track in your kitchen while someone else listens to a different track in the living room. While we think the original Echo sounds better, these speakers will be just fine for casual listening.
None of the Echo models will give you a superb music-listening experience — you will probably want a proper speaker and receiver setup for that — but they’ll probably be adequate if you want to put on some tunes while you have company over. With the Echo’s connectivity, you should be able to easily hook it up to a high-end set of speakers anyway.
Usefulness and Connectivity
Improved audio is nice, but ultimately, the point of a smart speaker is to make mundane tasks easier. The original Echo allowed users to perform a huge number of tasks hands-free, whether it be launching movies or songs with simple commands or asking Alexa to show the view from an outdoor security camera. The first-gen Echo also had great compatibility with smart-home devices such as Nest. Naturally, the Echo will work with other Amazon products, such as the new Fire TV.
The new Echo models feature the same Alexa capabilities, with more being added daily to the entire Echo lineup through firmware updates. Both the all-new Echo and Echo Plus have what Amazon calls improved “far-field voice recognition,” so their microphones can hear your commands from afar, even in noisy rooms.
In addition to being a smart speaker, the Echo Plus is also a smart-home hub, connecting to and interfacing with smart appliances directly, giving it an extra edge over the second-generation Echo. It has Zigbee built in, meaning that you can automatically connect to your compatible light bulbs and smart locks without the need for an extra smart home hub like Wink. Essentially, you’re eliminating the middle man, but you will pay more for the capability. More on that later.
The original Echo allowed users to make calls to other Echo devices or devices running the Alexa app. The new Echo models have the same calling feature, allowing users to call phone numbers in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Users can also send text messages to any device that has the Alexa app.
Users can also use the “drop-in” feature to instantly speak through any connected Echo device in their home, so if you want to remind your roommate to put their dirty plate in the dishwasher, you no longer need to pound on their door.
As far as making calls is concerned, the new models are a clear step up from the original. If you still have a landline, you can also hook that up to your Echo system via the newly announced Echo Connect, which costs $35.
Pricing and availability
Following the unveiling of the new Echo models, the first-generation Echo can be purchased on Amazon, but only as a refurbished version for $80, as Amazon is no longer making new ones. The second-generation Echo costs $100 for a cloth-covered model or $120 for a model with a finish (note: sometimes you can find it on sale for $85). The Echo Plus costs $150 and for now comes with a Philips Hue bulb to get you started with smart-home lighting.
Assuming Amazon eventually fully phases out the first-generation Echo, the choice comes down to the new Echo or the Echo Plus. If the idea of having Echoes throughout your house is appealing to you, buying a trio of second-gen Echoes is probably the most economical choice, although don’t count out the lower-priced Echo Dot ($50), which does just about everything the Echo does, but for cheaper. The biggest factor to consider is smart-home integration. If you don’t have an array of smart appliances to manage, then the Echo should suffice. For those who want to unite everything in their home through one device and who don’t already have a smart home hub, the Echo Plus is the clear choice.