Amazon Echo Plus Review
Opening the door to the Smart Home
What is the Amazon Echo Plus?You must have seen the adverts for Amazon’s Echo products. You know, the ones where you can summon a taxi, play, pause and select your music, ask what the time is, turn on the lights, find your lost phone or just ask a general information question? It looks pretty nifty, right, and that’s potentially just the start of things for Alexa, the voice assistant and cloud based technology, that’s at the heart of the Echo range of products.
In essence, the Amazon Echo (2), Echo Dot, Echo Show and Echo Plus are wireless speakers with Alexa built-in and the Show and Echo Plus offering a little something extra on top. The Show, as the name suggests, adds a screen to the mix while the Echo Plus, more cryptically, incorporates extra Smart Home functionality. Specifically, the Echo Plus feature a built in Zigbee transmitter and receiver, allowing it to set up and control various smart home products using the same smart home standard without the need for an added bridge, or hub. The other main standard, Z-Wave, isn’t supported however, although that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use Alexa ‘Skills’ to control them, just that they will require a bridge/hub for setup. The Echo Plus also has a little extra audio power than the Echo 2 and far more than the Echo Dot
UK pricing for the Amazon Echo Plus is set at £139.99, although Amazon had it at £109.99 during ‘Black Friday Week’ so, who knows, they might just discount it again soon. The all-new Echo, aka the Amazon Echo 2, is priced at £99.99 (£79.99 Black Friday), the Echo Dot will set you back £49.99 (£39.99 Black Friday) and the Echo Show is £199.99. At the time of writing, and a seemingly persistent incentive to go with the Show is the fact you’ll get a £100 discount if you buy a pair, which will be of particular interest to those wanting to take advantage of the free video calling features. We’re making such extensive mention of all the other Echo products because the core functionalities are identical, in most respects, so the majority of what we say for the Echo Plus will hold true across the range. So, on with the show... or rather the Echo Plus.
Design & SetupIf you’ve seen the original Echo, you’ll be instantly familiar with the Echo Plus as its dimensions are identical at 235 x 84mm (Height x Diameter as it’s cylindrical). You can choose an Echo Plus in silver, white or black. We had the black one for review which would be our slight preference as it blends-in better than the others would but they all look nice and the build quality is sturdy. The Echo plus features a hard, plastic shell that is perforated on the lower portion to allow sound to travel from the drivers, while the top section is smooth and has a volume dial at the very top that also conceals a light ring which illuminates in various colours, depending on the activity. There are two buttons on the top surface; one that activates and deactivates the microphone and another, which is called the Action button, that replaces the need to activate Alexa with your voice with your finger instead. Right at the very bottom is a 3.5mm Aux audio output and the connection for the power supply.
Setting up all the Echo range of speakers should be fairly straightforward. You plug them in to the mains, wait for the light ring to change from Blue to Orange and then, provided you’ve downloaded the Alexa app to your mobile device, you can go about connecting it to your network and linking it to your Amazon account. It is advised that you place the Echo Plus at least twenty centimetres from the nearest wall for optimal performance. Once you’re done with all the setup procedures, you’re ready to begin enabling skills to see what you can do with your new best friend. A good place to start is the 'Things to Try' card in the Alexa app.
Audio SkillsWe’ve had the original Echo (and two Echo Dots) in the house for quite some time now, so they have gone beyond novelty status and are now only used where there are benefits in doing so over more conventional methods. The following is a list of the skills we’ve extensively tried and how we think they performed.
TuneIn Radio/PodcastTuneIn is definitely our most used Alexa Skill, not least because we listen to lots of radio broadcasts, as well as a selection of podcasts, but we wouldn’t use it via the Echo Plus if it weren’t any good. You can open radio stations and podcasts by name and the integration with UK Services seems very good indeed. In general, using Alexa as an audio playback intermediary is one of the best use cases for us at it’s all hands-free, while the issuing of commands such as volume up or mute is also a boon.
AudibleSince Audible is an Amazon company, you would expect the Alexa skill to be well polished, and so it is. There are a few ways you can get Alexa to read a book from this monthly subscription service although saying, ‘Alexa read xyz from Audible’ seems the most natural to us. It’s also a piece of cake to pause, resume and zip about in chapters, minutes or seconds. For those that have yet to give Audible a spin, you can even get Alexa to dish out a free 30-day trial – you could also then ask her to set a reminder for 29 days hence so you don’t end up subscribing by ‘accident’.
SpotifySince Amazon allows just about anyone to create Alexa skills, there’s nothing to stop its direct competition having nicely honed examples. That said, it’s only been until relatively recently that they have let a third party app become the default for music. You’ll need to delve in the Settings>Accounts>Music & Media page of your Alexa app and link the account but it works mostly great once done. With more than 40 million songs in the catalogue, there are bound to be occasions when searches go wrong so it pays to be as specific as possible if you’re looking for something that’s not very current and/or not especially ‘mainstream’. Alexa will also play your Playlists, Genres, Decades etc. For more popular artists, you can even ask for all their songs to be played.
Amazon Music (Unlimited)Amazon Music (lite) comes ‘free’ with a Prime subscription but it’s very limited, while the Unlimited service is £7.99 monthly to Prime members and £9.99 for Prime non-believers. Unlimited provides a similar sized catalogue of songs as Spotify, although we don’t find the user experience as good, especially in terms recommendations and playlists. It is very slickly integrated with Alexa, however, which does balance the equation out. While music is playing, you don’t even need to say ‘Alexa’ to issue commands and there are extras like ‘Add this song’ when using Amazon Unlimited.
Multi-room MusicFor the time being at least, the Multi-room Music option is also exclusive to Amazon’s subscription service but Spotify support is promised soon. You can use Tune-in without a subscription and multi-room radio turned out to be a surprisingly useful feature. Synchronisation is perfect – or as far as we could discern - with all speakers perfectly time-matched so there’s no unseemly audio lag or echo effect. When multi-room arrives with more Skills, it will make for an easy and cheap, Sonos-like system. There is also a Sonos skill, by the way, but we were not in a position to test that out.
Audio QualityThere are noticeable improvements in audio quality when comparing the Echo Plus to the first-gen Echo. The new and improved noise cancelling capabilities of the Echo Plus were particularly notable while listening to, and requesting, music. Our resident, first-gen Echo really struggles when the music is up loud but the Echo Plus does far better. It only goes so far, however, so if you’ve a decent set of speakers hooked up, Alexa may not be able to hear clearly. The newly enhanced audio capabilities and speaker set-up also pays dividends with a more focussed and clear presentation together with a more ‘360-degree’ sound. We wouldn’t want to use it for our primary speaker but it’s fine for background, speech-based and casual listening. Fortunately, it’s easy to pair your Echo via Bluetooth and there’s a 3.5mm audio jack on the base for physical connections.
Video SkillsUnderstandably, there are fewer video based skills than there are audio on Alexa but with the release of the Echo Show and the general feeling, in the AV world, that an Alexa Skill is becoming a must-have they are on the up, numbers wise, although the quality might not be so high.
Sony Android TVSony is the first of the big TV manufacturers to add Alexa voice commands and it's baked directly in the firmware of some of its 2017 Android based TVs. You can switch them on, change channels – including by name, and alter volume, in addition to input selection and playback control of streamed and recorded content. You can’t yet use Alexa to launch or control apps, e.g. Netflix, and we sense Google would rather you use its own voice assistant for that.
Fire TVIf we were living in the USA, we would be able to tell you how the Echo Plus and, stablemate, Fire TV get on but Echo voice commands aren’t yet possible on a UK Fire TV; obviously you can still use Alexa with the voice remote but it would be nice if Amazon UK could bring us region parity soon. In addition to the usual (see above) TV-style commands, American Alexa can initiate searches on Movies, TV Shows and Actors as well as launch Apps and integrate with the live TV features of FireOS 6 – sounds great, doesn’t it?
RokuThe Quick Remote for Alexa Skill and app sounded a pretty promising combination, offering a similar suite of commands as that of the Fire TV Skill. Unfortunately, in practice, we were unable to get Alexa to control our Roku Streaming Stick Plus, although the app did recognise it on the network. It could well be that this is another US only deal or that it just doesn’t work with Roku’s newest device but, either way, it’s one we’ll have to wait on.
PLEXTrying to get the PLEX skill working reliably in our setup is up there as one of the most frustrating experiences we've had during our years of reviewing a variety of devices. We would have prefered had it not worked at all but the approximate 50/50 success rate was just about enough for us to keep trying. When it does work, it’s great, and you can perform a number of cool actions, including the ability to launch a movie (by name) in one room, pause it and then resume it in another room, or even location, all with your voice! When it doesn’t work, Alexa will report that she’s done something but nothing will happen. There are many variables here, including what devices you are using for Server and Client, and what firmware they are running for that matter, so experiences could vary here but from where we’re sat, there’s work to be done.
KODIThere is an Alexa Skill for KODI but it requires an awful lot of work on your behalf to get it going. You’ll need to open your own Amazon developers account, run a server that likely requires financial outlay and generally go through quite a multi-layered procedure that is not for those that aren’t tech savvy and/or not short of time. If that hasn’t put you off, go to Google for instructions but we’ll just wait for KODI 18 and Android TV interaction, thank you.
Smart Home featuresLike many, we’re just beginning to dip our toes in to the whole Smart Home idea. In fact, we bought a Philips Hue bulb (at the time of writing, purchasers of the Echo Plus get a free Hue bulb) specially to accompany the review sample. Without the Echo Plus in residence, we would need a Philips Hue bridge to access any of the nifty colour changing/dimming features but the built in Zigbee functionality of the Echo Plus gives you direct access to the Hue light just by saying ‘Alexa, discover my devices.’ It’s not without limitations, you still need the Bridge if you want to use any ‘Scenes’ or go really in-depth with the Hue features and functions. For many, though, being able to group together some lights, simply to dim and switch on or off will be enough and controlling light - merely with your voice - is a minor deity-like feeling that will probably never get old.
Amazon recently added Alexa calling and messaging, allowing you to freely connect to other Echo owners in your contacts. As yet, we don’t have friends with Echoes but having two of them in the house allowed us to try out the Drop-in feature on our home network. The voice quality was excellent and communicating between an upstairs and downstairs room was seamless but we’d have to reserve judgement on how it performs outside the home. The Echo Show would be our preferred tool for this, especially if you want to use one to keep tabs on an elderly relative where the display and camera would come in to its own.
Almost simultaneous to the Alexa integration with Sony Android TVs, UK owners also got Logitech Harmony remote compatibility. By the looks of it, Logitech’s effort looks to be the most complete smart home entertainment Skill, to date, with deeper control of devices than any other we know of. You can initiate Harmony ‘activities,’ that can include multiple device operation, select channels by name (provided you’ve set them as favourites in the Logitech software). You can also start up your games console, launch Netflix (on Roku), change volume and power on or off multiple devices so it’s really starting to shape up as a totally hands-free experience.
- Alexa is super easy to use
- Ever growing number of skills
- Smart Home integration shows real promise
- Noise cancelling much improved so mic more receptive
- Easy to pair with Bluetooth speakers
- Well priced
- No Z-Wave built-in
- Audio quality still not as good as some other speakers in the price range
- Video app based skills lacking compared to audio
Amazon Echo Plus Review
Should I buy one?The Amazon Echo range, along with voice assistant Alexa, is probably doing more for the idea of launching the Smart Home concept to the masses than any other set of products and the Echo Plus is at the vanguard of that. The Echo Plus is externally identical to the outgoing Echo but packs in better speakers and built-in support for Zigbee, one of the two major Smart Home standards. You can use Alexa to order your taxi or takeaway, dim your lights and set reminders, call other Echo owners for free, play your favourite music, books or radio and even switch on your TV and launch Netflix.
However the fact that the Echo Plus doesn’t have Z-Wave – the other of the two major Smart Home standards – built-in is a disappointment and makes it something of a half-baked total smart home solution. You’ll also find that some smart devices aren’t as well integrated with the Alexa app as they are their own but it’s early days and you can still achieve plenty just by saying a few words. Probably the best move Amazon made was to make Alexa open source, meaning anyone can develop a skill, and it’s starting to bear fruit in the AV world with more and more manufacturers and app developers releasing Alexa skills.
We wouldn’t really want to use the Echo Plus as our primary speaker but it’s great for a kitchen or bedroom. The Dolby tuning and toned-up speaker array does provide a room filling sound that radiates well. Of course, you could always hook the Echo up with a pair of Bluetooth speakers or your Hi-Fi system, using a cable, if you needed to up the quality. Probably the most welcome improvement, for us, is in the noise cancelling capabilities of the Echo Plus meaning Alexa can hear you, even with the music up loud.
The Amazon Echo 2, Echo Plus and Dot are inching their way to becoming must-have devices for AV enthusiasts and Alexa just goes from strength to strength. The Echo Plus is still some way from becoming the universal smart home hub it might become someday but it’s already a great gadget that we have no hesitation in recommending.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £139.99
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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