Amazon’s $ 149.99 Echo Plus looks a lot like its original smart speaker, the Echo, but there’s a new trick under its silvery surface: a Zigbee hub to connect your smart home devices. At its best, that lets you mix and match smart lighting providers and control them all with your voice for less than the cost of a competing smart speaker and a standalone hub like the Wink Hub 2. But Amazon’s device support and app control don’t quite measure up to what smart home device manufacturers offer in their own hubs or apps just yet. For this reason, the $ 99 Amazon Echo is our Editors’ Choice.
Same Look, Same Easy Echo Setup
When I say the Echo Plus looks like the old Echo, I mean it. As a 9.3-by-3.3-by-3.3-inch cylinder (HWD), it’s quite hard to tell them apart at first glance. It comes in black, white, or silver plastic, with the same arrangement of controls at the top: a mic mute button, an action button, and a twistable volume ring. The ring glows blue when Alexa is listening to you. The silver color choice is new this time around.
There is one change around back: a 3.5mm out jack, like you get on the new Echo and the Echo Dot. This is so you can use the Echo Plus to control an external, more powerful speaker. I see its purpose on the less expensive Echos, but once you get to the $ 150 level, the product should really stand alone. That said, it’s nice to have and underscores how Amazon’s ecosystem is more open than Apple’s or Google’s, with more ability to plug into other devices, and with more skills from a wider variety of third parties (I’ll get into that in a bit).
Setting up this Echo is like any other. You load the Alexa app on your smartphone and walk through the process of connecting to Wi-Fi. If you’ve had trouble with an earlier Echo’s Wi-Fi range, the Plus uses a newer chipset with 802.11ac. It holds a stronger Wi-Fi signal at the edge of coverage range than any of the other new or old Echo devices.
The Plus uses Amazon’s excellent Alexa voice assistant, just like the Echo does. For more on exactly what Alexa is capable of, read our Amazon Echo review.
Bringing the Bass
To assess its power as a straight-up audio speaker, we compared the Echo Plus with the old Echo and the new, $ 99 Echo. Our panel of three listeners was split. The Echo Plus delivers a bit more bass than either of the other speakers do. How you feel about that depends in part on whether you’re used to listening to higher-quality speakers; if you’re accustomed to something like the Sonos One, for instance, you won’t be impressed with the sound quality from any of the Echos. And the additional bass makes for less definition in voices and instruments. Voices have more physical space around them on the smaller Echo, and the guitar bit at the beginning of Yes’ “Roundabout” has more metallic clarity.
This comes pretty much down to a matter of taste. I have older ears, and I prefer the Echo Plus. Younger listeners may prefer the sharp clarity of the smaller Echo. By a vote of 2:1, we’re going with the smaller Echo as our institutional preference.
That said, the Echo Plus is a bit better than the Echo at recognizing spoken commands with music playing at 80 percent. Like all the full-sized Echo devices we’ve tested, it has a 30- to 40-foot range for recognizing commands, and will play well with other Echo devices as part of a multi-room audio system.
Your Next Home Automation Hub?
The built-in Zigbee hub is easy to use, but the Alexa app lacks functions you may want for smart home device management. I connected Philips Hue and Osram smart bulbs, and a Samsung smart plug, and was able to immediately discover them by voice. I could then set up mixed groups of bulbs in the Alexa app and control them with Alexa. Amazon, of course, handily delivers an online shopping page showing all of the compatible smart home gadgets you can buy. The system works best with lights, plugs, locks, and switches.
The Echo Plus doesn’t work with Z-Wave products, such as Schlage smart locks. Samsung SmartThings and Wink hubs support both Zigbee and Z-Wave. If you rely on Wi-Fi-based, hubless smart home devices, meanwhile, you don’t need a hub in the first place. Lifx lights and Ring doorbells both work well with Alexa, but the hub here is pointless—they’d work just as well with an Echo Dot as with the Plus.
The Alexa app falls short of the capabilities of dedicated manufacturer apps, and if you want to use the special manufacturer apps, you need the manufacturer’s hub. For instance, you can control the brightness but not the color of Philips bulbs in the Alexa app, and you can create groups of bulbs, turn them on and off, but not alter their brightness as a group (you can do those things by voice, just not in the app).
Alexa is primarily a voice assistant, and I get the feeling that Amazon wants to focus on that functionality over the Alexa app. But a complicated smart home needs a really good app, for instance to show the status of sensors or to control lights and alarms from far away. Amazon isn’t quite there yet.
Amazon’s focus on voice is clear with one of the best new features, Routines, which let you set an arbitrary voice trigger to create a sequence of actions. For instance, I can say “Alexa, go to bed,” and it will turn off the lights. Right now, the actions you can put into Routines are pretty limited, but I think they’re going to grow. Playing music and setting alarms would be high on my list.
Plus-Size Your Echo?
Amazon is absolutely bringing hardware value here. A Philips Hue Bridge costs $ 60. A Samsung hub is $ 80. Wink charges $ 100. Amazon is essentially charging a $ 50 premium for its hub functionality over the standard Echo. But the other systems may be protecting themselves by keeping some of their best features in their own software.
Amazon iterates its software and cloud services quickly, and it’s likely that in six months, the Alexa app will be far more flexible and capable when it comes to smart home control. That said, we have to review how the Echo Plus is working right now, and especially if you have multicolored lights, an array of sensors, or anything Z-Wave, it isn’t up to snuff.
If the Amazon Echo Plus was the only Echo, we’d have no problem recommending it. I mean, come on. It costs less than the previous Echo, and has a built-in smart home hub and better Wi-Fi. Slam dunk, right?
Not quite, because there are so many Echo devices. Right now, we’re recommending the $ 99 Echo (and a separate smart home hub, if you need one) over the Echo Plus for most people. The $ 49 Echo Dot, meanwhile, is a good way to test the smart speaker waters if you’re just getting started. The cute little Echo Spot ($ 129) makes a great bedside alarm clock thanks to its touch screen. And the versatile Fire TV Cube brings voice assistance (and a whole lot more) to your home entertainment setup.
All this isn’t to say the Echo Plus isn’t a good choice if you’re simply curious about smart home automation. Even if you buy it and decide not to go all-in on the smart home angle, you still have a very capable smart speaker that comes at a reasonable price.