The previous Echo Plus was marked by its tall, industrial design and visible speaker grilles. Visually it now has a lot more in common with the standard Amazon Echo, featuring an attractive mesh fabric mesh that will probably look more at home in, well, your home.
In keeping with most of the Echo range, the physical volume dial has also been replaced with a number of buttons on the top face of the speaker: two to control volume, one to mute, and an ‘action button’ to call Alexa to attention.
Around the rim is an LED ring that flashes blue when Alexa speaks or hears your wake word, and tracks 30 volume levels when going louder or quieter. At the rear, you’ll find the usual power port and 3.5mm AUX port for linking to an external speaker or headphones, too.
The Amazon Echo Plus is also now considerably shorter, and slightly fatter, with dimensions of 148 x 99 x 99mm compared to the previous 235 x 84 x 84 mm. At 780g (down from just under a kilogram), however, it’s also shed a decent few pounds.
In terms of colours, it apes the Echo Dot’s Charcoal, Heather Gray or Sandstone options.
There are other small cosmetic changes: the Amazon logo has moved from the main body to the underside of the speaker, while the ‘mute’ button has ditched its microphone symbol for a less evocative crossed circle. The upper and bottom rims also curve into the body of the speaker, rather than having a sharp drop.
Overall, the new Amazon Echo Plus gives the impression of something warmer and friendlier than before – unsurprising given how wary some consumers still are about having an always-on listening device in their home.
But it does now look uncannily similar to a standard Amazon Echo. The sheer number of devices in the Echo range has always been to Amazon’s strength – the minuscule Echo Dot, the portable Echo Tap, the screen-based Echo Show, to name but a few – allowing users to tailor their Echo purchase to their particular needs.
But as that range expands, the separation between the standard Echo and Echo Plus looks more and more blurred.
If you’re buying an Amazon Echo smart speaker of any kind, it’s likely because of Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa smart assistant, increasingly present in all sorts of smart home devices from speakers and amps to a microwave and Alexa wall clock. Seriously.
Featuring seven distinct microphones for picking up your various whims and voice commands, the Amazon Echo Plus (2018) is predictably adept at picking out voices from noisy environments, and has the same smart capability to play music and podcasts, connect to other smart home devices, and tell you about the day’s weather, traffic, news, and various trivia.
That’s not to mention the Alexa ‘Skills’ system, which allows you to specifically download more enhanced features and capabilities for your specific needs (don’t worry, they’re free).
One of the great strengths of the Alexa ecosystem is that all Alexa-enabled devices benefit from the continual improvement of its software, so anyone still using the last-generation Echo Plus will get the same Alexa experience as someone using the new model. So if you’re thinking of buying this year’s iteration, it’ll be more down to factors like design, audio, and smart hub connectivity.
A new audio feature unique to the Echo Plus is the ability to make a ‘stereo pair’ of two Echo Plus speakers, creating more immersive audio than the mono nature of the standard setup. Another new entry on the Echo line, the Echo Sub, can also be tied in to boost the bass performance.
There’s potential for a real step up on the system’s audio performance – even it won’t mean much to the person buying just a single Echo Plus speaker. You’d have to be truly invested in the Echo line to opt for this sort of set up rather than, say, a dedicated high-end stereo system paired with an Echo Dot.
A truly smart addition comes in the form of a temperature sensor built into the speaker, which monitors the room temperature in the Alexa smartphone app or can be found out by asking Alexa verbally. This is useful as a standalone feature, but also if you opt for a wider setup of smart home devices, like connecting to a smart thermostat to turn up the heating if things get chilly.
The main draw for the Amazon Echo Plus has always been in its improved audio credentials over the rest of the Echo range.
That argument, however, has got progressively weaker in the face of premium Alexa-enabled hi-fi systems, like the Sonos One – and even the newly-announced Echo Link and Echo Link Amp.
Still, the Echo Plus retains its omnidirectional Dolby Audio and 0.8-inch tweeter, with a slightly larger 3.0-inch neodymium (fancy magnet) subwoofer. There’s definitely more of a kick to the bass, even if the downward-firing woofer can feel a bit tacked on, with the lack of a mid-range speaker making the gap between the high and low frequencies a bit too apparent.
It’s not quite premium audio, but still achieves a pretty convincing impression of a full, warm-bodied sound. For casual day-to-day use, it’s perfectly capable of capturing the airy vocals of Ariana Grande’s No Tears Left To Cry, or bringing out the clash of orchestral string instruments and pumping bass in Hot Chip’s I Feel Better.
You won’t hear much of a difference to Alexa’s own monotone. When listening to the radio or podcasts, though, the boosted audio gives a rounded, natural sound to voices.
On grounds of sound quality alone, the Amazon Echo Plus really seems worth the small jump in price from the standard Echo – that is, if you’re not an audiophile committed to buying something more high-end.
Meanwhile, the AUX port and Alexa’s multi-room functionality mean you can always connect to other external speakers if the mood strikes you – but more on this in the next section.
We’ve talked a lot about how the Amazon Echo Plus functions as a standalone speaker – but what about how it connects to the rest of your smart home?
A big selling point of the previous Echo Plus was ZigBee: a smart home interface that could connect the speaker to a range of other smart home devices that wouldn’t otherwise be able to communicate with an Echo device.
Cue smart switches, cameras, thermostats and bulbs suddenly under the dominion of your central Echo Plus speaker, to be commanded with ease over the Alexa app or by standard voice control. A Philips Hue White Bulb is even bundled in with your Echo Plus for free!
Alexa’s hold on the market, however, has meant that manufacturers are increasingly choosing to simply build Alexa functionality directly into their products, meaning that any Echo device can connect to them, regardless of whether they come with ZigBee or not.
Be that as it may, ZigBee still allows you to connect to certain devices you might not be able to otherwise, and Alexa generally does a fantastic job of controlling various systems and devices all in one place – all of which can be individually named for easy voice commands through the Echo Plus.