If you're after the best Echo, the Amazon Echo Plus (opens in new tab) is it. You get the usual Alexa excellence, added to a decent speaker and a Zigbee smart home hub – all within the original Echo design at 235mm tall (complete with volume wheel that the cheaper Echo doesn't have).
For us, it's a better option than the basic Echo for your main home Echo, though you may choose to have other standard Echos or (the rather impressive awesome) Echo Dots (opens in new tab) throughout the rest of your home as well.
The Amazon Echo Plus is available in black, white and silver – that latter one is the one shown here. With Amazon Prime Day fast approaching, there's no better time to add to your smart speaker collection or start one from scratch.
As we said in our original Amazon Echo review, Alexa feels like part of the family. But as with Google Home, the frustration of Echo comes from the gap between what I feel like it ought to be able to do, and the reality.
Amazon Echo Plus features
The seven-mic Echo Plus features a 2.5-inch woofer and an 0.8-inch tweeter, with Bluetooth built in so you can connect up devices that way too. It can also be used with Spotify Connect, which is handy, although as always the default music service on board is Amazon's own.
Of course, Echo Plus wants you to use your voice to control it, but there are two hardware buttons on top – one for muting the mic, and another for activating Alexa without your voice. And, as we mentioned, you can twist the top to change the volume. Like the new Echo but unlike the original Echo, there's also an aux output to connect to a bigger sound system, but you'd usually do this with just an Echo Dot rather than paying for a speaker and then not using it.
Where Echo has improved since version one is in terms of its feature set, which has grown continuously thanks to diligent support from Amazon and a growing arsenal of third-party apps (or 'Skills') that let you do everything from ordering an Uber to receiving hypnotherapy. And there's also the significant price drop, too.
Setup and fine control – such as configuring your user account, telling Echo where you live and pairing Echos together – is all done through the Alexa app for iOS and Android. This was a bit ropey to begin with, but has markedly improved.
Wi-Fi and a very short setup is all it needs to be functional, although you should make sure you subsequently pair your Amazon, Spotify and Google accounts, and choose your favourite news sources and sports team as well.
Indeed, the Google Calendar integration is excellent and truly it is better than the implementation on Google Home, which is a bit weird isn't it?
Using Alexa with Amazon Echo Plus
Just about everything you do with Echo is via voice. You ask Alexa things; she replies. You order Alexa to do things, thus: "Alexa, set a timer for 15 minutes/play Adele/ask the Guardian for today's headlines". She agrees verbally to do so, then gets on with it. If you have Amazon Music, then asking for music works seamlessly. If you have Spotify, you need to say "on Spotify" after every music request. Anything else? Just Bluetooth it, mate.
If you ever used Siri or, even better, a voice-controlled car/satnav interface? If you have, and approach Echo thinking it's like that – "Well, this probably won't even hear me, and it's going to be hugely frustrating" – you'll be impressed at just how good it is at hearing and responding to you.
If, however, you think it's going to be like an AI from a sci-fi movie who you can just talk to like a human, and who will anticipate your needs, you are going to be sorely disappointed.
Where Echo does continuously improve is in terms of its feature set, which has grown continuously thanks to diligent support from Amazon and a growing arsenal of third-party apps or 'Skills' that let you do everything from ordering an Uber to receiving hypnotherapy.
However, you can buy an Echo and barely concern yourself with its apps and AI and futuristic cleverness. It's also a brilliant music and radio delivery device (although not a particularly amazing speaker) and by far the world's best kitchen timer.
Amazon Echo Plus performance and smart home hub
Specifically, we're talking here about audio performance. While the Echo Plus sound is better than the standard new Echo, it's still not a replacement for a high end audio system and it's still lacking compared to, say, the £199 Sonos One (opens in new tab). which also has Alexa. It's not worth upgrading from the early Echo for the sound. The bass is distinctly average although the midrange is very clear.
The old Echo got quite distorted when at max volume, and the good news is that this has been significantly improved in this new and improved edition.
The Echo Plus does have some exciting new functionality – whereas previous Echoes worked with a product's own smart home hub, the Plus has ZigBee built in, removing the need for any separate hubs. The Plus, then, is the ultimate go-between device and, since the setup is also through the Alexa app, things are made really simple.
The only drawback is that the device isn't able to work with other ecosystems such as Apple HomeKit, so it is limited in terms of that: some products, but not all of them, will work with multiple ecosystems. You do need to ensure your devices are Zigbee compliant to work with Echo Plus. Amazon needs to do more here to make things transparent, as do device manufacturers themselves.
We used a couple of Philips Hue bulbs with the device and this worked without any major issue – though we did have to refresh when searching for the first time. You may get a Philips Hue product bundled with the Echo Plus depending on when you buy it.
As we said with the standard Amazon Echo, a future version of this device will be able to run your home. Weather about to get bad? It will know and adjust your home's temperature accordingly without you having to ever set up a rule or spend ages configuring it.
With any Echo device, you are, in effect, inviting a Trojan horse for Amazon's shops and media stores into your home, to listen to you, and then sell you more stuff. Of the big players, only Apple has pointedly said that it doesn't want its personal assistant to collect personal information about you for other purposes.
At the moment, Echo Plus is a fantastic kitchen timer that's also a proficient music player and a way receiving, in audio form, real-time info – news, weather, sport, shopping, traffic – that you would normally get via your mobile, laptop or TV. Echo Plus adds to this with smart home, er, smarts that may or may not be useful depending on what devices you have.
We still think that if you have an existing, quality, audio system in your kitchen or living room that you should plump for the cheaper Echo Dot. No need for the smart home stuff? Then we still reckon you should buy this over the standard Echo. We like the design a lot more, the volume control wheel is useful and it sound better too. It really is a Plus.
Liked this? Check our out How to pick the right smart speaker for your home