Amazon Echo 2 and Echo Plus smart speakers reviewed

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Amazon Echo 2 and Echo Plus smart speakers reviewed
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Amazon Echo Plus review

There’s only ever been one significant issue with the Amazon Echo – sound quality. That’s probably why Amazon has released the bigger, more expensive Echo Plus.

With the help of Dolby processing and improved speaker drivers, the Echo Plus takes audio quality up a considerable notch from the original Echo or Echo 2. So, where those smaller models neglect bass and mid-bass notes to a large degree, the Echo Plus sounds warmer, richer and is actually really enjoyable to listen to music on. And there’s actually, you know, some bass.

How much bass? We played a few numbers by Milt Hinton, double bass player extraordinaire, which are packed with the sorts of tunes that sounded terrible on the original Echo. But we can happily report that it’s now actually quite listenable – at least, we haven’t switched to headphones.

We’re not suggesting the Echo Plus it’s perfect. Far from it. For some types of music – lightweight acoustic numbers and classical – it can occasionally sound a bit boomy around the mids. By and large, though, the Echo Plus is a world away from the harsher, rather thin-sounding Echo.

And as for the speaker’s improved array of seven-microphone far-field microphones, that’s something that we haven’t really noticed. The original’s microphones were so good that they barely needed improving upon anyway.

Smart home features  

The improved sound quality is enough to warrant an upgrade on its own, even at the cost of $229. But that’s not the only improvement Amazon you get with the Echo Plus – it has a couple of neat extra tricks.

The first is rather prosaic: a 3.5mm audio jack output, which allows you, at a pinch, to improve the sound further by hooking it up to your big sound system. Handy, potentially, if you wanted to use the Echo Plus to power the soundtrack to your next house party we suppose but if you’re planning on having it set up this way permanently, you might as well opt for the Echo Dot.

If you do, though, you’re going to be missing out on the Ace up the Echo Plus’ sleeve: built-in smart home connectivity. The Echo Plus is Amazon’s attempt at unifying the rather fragmented smart home market. It has a Zigbee radio chip inside and this allows the speaker to talk directly to compatible devices such as Philips Hue and Ikea Tradfri lightbulbs, bypassing the need for the dedicated hardware hubs and software that these types of product usually need to run successfully.

This isn’t intended to replace Alexa’s Skills, which do essentially the same job but are developed by the manufacturers themselves. Those remain in place and you can choose to keep using them if you want. Instead, it’s intended to simplify things by placing control within the Echo speaker itself.

We love the idea, because you’re potentially no longer locked in to a single vendor for, say, smart bulbs. Previously, to use different brands in your home, you’d need a separate hardware hubs and apps. What the Echo Plus promises is to integrate them by allowing you to control them via the Alexa app’s new Routines and Smart Home Groups feature, which lets you group various actions and devices together under single voice commands.

Brilliant! But wait, there’s a problem – isn’t there always? Although the core functionality works well, there are currently some significant compromises.

First, setup can be quite a rigmarole. Yes, you can put the speaker into discovery mode by saying “Alexa, discover my devices” and this works well, but only if you reset the devices you want to control first and put them in pairing mode – which can be a bit of pain if you have, say, have three different types of smart lightbulbs.

Second, Alexa doesn’t yet work with every product – only bulbs and plugs – and even they can have some compromises. Paired with the Echo Plus, none of our bulbs retained their colour temperature change capabilities. It wasn’t even possible to change the colour temperature of a Philips Light Strip. And, if you use geofencing to trigger smart home actions, you’ll lose those facilities, too.

Moreover, if you have any Z-Wave based products in your house, be aware that these won’t work at all with the Echo Plus since it's only directly compatible with Zigbee kit.

The good news is that Amazon has, thus far, had a pretty good record at steadily improving what Alexa and the Echo products are capable of, so the issues (aside from the lack of Z-Wave support) may well be ironed out in time. Right now, though, as a piece of smart home hub hardware, the Echo Plus is limited.

Bottom line

The Amazon Echo Plus is, quite simply, worth buying for the improved sound quality alone. It’s vastly better than the original, and although it does lag a little behind the best Bluetooth speakers at this price, it's more than adequate as a kitchen or study speaker.

Plus, of course, it does everything every other Echo speaker is capable of, including being able to act as a regular Bluetooth speaker and Spotify Connect target. All of which is nice.

If you were considering buying the Echo Plus purely for its smart home integration, however, we’d counsel you to hold fire. With limited features at the time of writing and compatibility only with plug units and bulbs, it’s a long way off yet being the smart home solution we’re all searching for.

These reviews are based on articles on the Amazon Echo 2 and the Amazon Echo Plus that originally appeared at alphr.com.

Verdict
If you can get past the creepiness of having a device listening to your every move, the $149 Amazon Echo 2 is the best-value smart speaker available. If want better sound quality, however, the bigger Amazon Echo Plus is worth the extra $80.
Overall
Specs
$149 AUD for Echo 2; $229 for Echo Plus
Amazon Echo 2: 148 x 88 x 88 mm; 2.5in woofer, 0.6in tweeter. Echo Plus: 235 x 84 x 84 mm; 2.5in woofer, 0.8in tweeter, built-in smart home hub with support for Zigbee devices. Both: 7-microphone array; dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi with support for streaming music; Bluetooth connectivity with A2DP and AVRCP support; 3.5mm line-out; Alexa app supports Android, Fire OS and iOS.
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Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing
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