AMA­ZON Echo Plus

Ama­zon’s Alex­aen­abled speak­ers were first to mar­ket in the US, but launched only re­cently here, be­hind Google. We lis­ten to the best-sound­ing of its smart speaker range, the Echo Plus.

Sound+Image - - Contents - Adam Turner

Ama­zon’s best-sound­ing smart speaker, with a few smart home tricks up its sleeve, the Echo Plus is look­ing to win Ama­zon Mu­sic Un­lim­ited a place in Aussie homes.

Ama­zon’s Echo and its Alexa voice as­sis­tant be­came avail­able in the US back in 2015. Plenty of Echos found their way here to Aus­tralia un­of­fi­cially, but it’s only with the re­cent launch of Ama­zon Aus­tralia that we now have proper re­tail and sup­port for three Ama­zon smart speak­ers in Aus­tralia: the small $79 Echo Dot, the stan­dard $149 Echo, and this tall $229 Echo Plus.

While all share the same 8cm-di­am­e­ter foot­print, each gets pro­gres­sively taller, and de­liv­ers bet­ter sound. So the small and tinny Echo Dot makes for a cringe­wor­thy mu­sic player, while the Echo might cut it for back­ground mu­sic if you’re not crit­i­cal about sound qual­ity. If you tend to treat your ears with more re­spect, then it’s cer­tainly worth step­ping up to the ex­tra bass, brighter high-end and im­proved clar­ity of the Plus.

Smart fea­tures

While Ama­zon is the smart speaker pi­o­neer in the US, it’s a chal­lenger brand in Aus­tralia, launched within only weeks of Ap­ple’s Siri-pow­ered HomePod. So Google Home speak­ers have a six-month head start in Aus­tralia, with Google As­sis­tant also lead­ing the pack in terms of com­pre­hend­ing nat­u­ral lan­guage com­mands.

With Ama­zon’s as­sis­tant there’s no ‘Hey’ or ‘OK’ re­quired; you sim­ply start your re­quests with “Alexa” to grab her at­ten­tion. As with the other smart speak­ers, it’s pos­si­ble to dis­able the mi­cro­phone for those times you want some ex­tra pri­vacy.

Alexa is on par with Google Home when it comes to ba­sic ad­min tasks like ask­ing trivia ques­tions, cre­at­ing notes, check­ing the weather fore­cast, set­ting alarms and adding things to your shop­ping list. But un­like Google As­sis­tant, Alexa can’t yet recog­nise dif­fer­ent voices (and so dif­fer­ent ac­counts) in Aus­tralia, so you don’t get per­son­alised an­swers to ques­tions like “What’s on my cal­en­dar to­day?”

Google As­sis­tant and Alexa are also rac­ing to em­brace third-party ser­vices. The list is grow­ing but Alexa al­ready lets Aus­tralians check their bank bal­ances, flight de­tails, en­ergy bills and phone ac­counts as well

as or­der pizza and call for an Uber. But frus­trat­ingly we’re still wait­ing for Aus­tralian Alexa to pick up many of the skills she’s al­ready mas­tered in the US. Per­haps the big­gest omis­sion is that Aus­tralians can’t yet use Alexa to place shop­ping or­ders di­rectly with Ama­zon, which is a cor­ner­stone fea­ture in the US. This may come when Aus­tralians can sign up for an Ama­zon Prime pri­or­ity ship­ping sub­scrip­tion.

Smart home

Apart from sound qual­ity, the Echo Plus’ ad­van­tage over the smaller Echo speak­ers — along with the ri­vals from Google and Ap­ple — is that it fea­tures built-in sup­port for the Zig­bee low-pow­ered wire­less pro­to­col. This al­lows the Echo Plus to talk di­rectly to Zig­bee-en­abled de­vices like Philips Hue light bulbs. While this is handy, it’s not ex­actly a killer fea­ture con­sid­er­ing that you can al­ways buy the stand­alone Philips Hue Zig­bee hub and then con­trol your lights from any smart speaker.

Un­for­tu­nately Alexa is once again drag­ging her heels in Aus­tralia. For ex­am­ple, we’re still wait­ing for Ama­zon to en­able con­trol of some smart home gear, in­clud­ing Sonos speak­ers. At that point you’ll be able to tell any Alexa speaker in your home to play mu­sic through any Sonos speaker — not just the Alexa-en­abled Sonos One. (Speak­ing of wait­ing, Aussies are, as we write, still wait­ing for Sonos to en­able Alexa/Google As­sis­tant on the Sonos One.)

Stream­ing mu­sic

Ama­zon’s Echo speak­ers can stream mu­sic from iHeartRa­dio, TuneIn, Spo­tify (Premium) and Ama­zon Mu­sic Un­lim­ited. You can also con­nect via Blue­tooth to stream from a mo­bile de­vice.

Ama­zon of­fers a three-month trial of its new sub­scrip­tion mu­sic ser­vice, af­ter which you can pay only $4.99 per month if you just want to lis­ten via a sin­gle Echo speaker. The $11.99 per month In­di­vid­ual plan works with mul­ti­ple de­vices, but only one at a time, or you can step up to the six-user $17.99 p/m Fam­ily plan.

Ama­zon Mu­sic Un­lim­ited stacks up well against ri­vals like Ap­ple Mu­sic and Google Play Mu­sic — but if you’re us­ing one of those you’ll likely want to buy a match­ing smart speaker, or else de­fect to Ama­zon’s mu­sic ser­vice.

Alexa’s lack of multi-voice sup­port in Aus­tralia means that, as with Ap­ple’s HomePod, all re­quests for mu­sic are treated as if they were made by the pri­mary ac­count holder, which can ob­vi­ously make a mess of your mu­sic rec­om­men­da­tions in busy house­holds.

Sound qual­ity

If you’ve heard any of the cheaper Ama­zon or Google speak­ers then you’ll be pleas­antly sur­prised by the Echo Plus.

It of­fers a richer sound, with rea­son­able bass com­pared to the cheaper speak­ers yet still a bit flat com­pared to its more ex­pen­sive ri­vals – es­pe­cially when you crank up the vol­ume. It’s louder than the cheaper speak­ers, go­ing up to around 90 per­cent vol­ume be­fore it starts to dis­tort whereas the cheaper Echo speak­ers strug­gle with clar­ity once you get past 75 per­cent.

The Echo Plus is enough to fill a mid-sized room with mu­sic when you’re en­ter­tain­ing guests, although it loses its shine along­side the premium speak­ers – with its sound stage and stereo sepa­ra­tion fall­ing a lit­tle short of the HomePod and Sonos One.

Of course if you’ve got $229 to spend on the Echo Plus then it’s not that much of a stretch to spend $299 on the Sonos One, or per­haps one of the other premium speaker brands which have jumped on the Alexa band­wagon. Step­ping up to the Sonos One is cer­tainly worth it in terms of sound qual­ity. If you’re hang­ing off every note then you’ll def­i­nitely ap­pre­ci­ate the im­prove­ment over the Echo Plus, es­pe­cially when it comes to the low-end.

Keep in mind we’re also wait­ing for the US$399 Google Home Max to ar­rive in Oz, which may sneak ahead of even the HomePod on sound qual­ity.

All of Ama­zon’s Echo speak­ers have a fi­nal hid­den fea­ture which gives them an ad­van­tage over Google and Ama­zon — the abil­ity to con­nect an ex­ter­nal speaker via a 3.5mm line-out or Blue­tooth. This might seem re­dun­dant on the Echo Plus, but it means that the cheaper Echo speak­ers can be a cost-ef­fec­tive way to give your ex­ist­ing sound sys­tem a smart over­haul. To do this in the Google ecosys­tem you’d need to in­vest in a sep­a­rate Chrome­cast Au­dio stream­ing adap­tor, or an Air­Play-en­abled Air­port Ex­press in the Ap­ple world, in ad­di­tion to the de­vice that al­lows voice in­put.

Con­clu­sion

So what’s the ver­dict? If you’re keen on talk­ing to Alexa and lis­ten­ing to mu­sic while stick­ing with a sin­gle-speaker so­lu­tion, and you’re not too de­mand­ing when it comes to sound qual­ity, then Ama­zon’s Echo Plus is a good op­tion, es­pe­cially if you’d take ad­van­tage of built-in Zig­bee.

Of course you need to weigh this up against the grow­ing range of third­party Alexa-en­abled speak­ers like the Sonos One (though not yet en­abled, as we write), along­side the op­tion of giv­ing your ex­ist­ing sound sys­tem a smart makeover via a sim­ple Echo Dot. You might also be tempted by Google As­sis­tant, which at least for now of­fers a more well-rounded Aus­tralian ecosys­tem than Ama­zon, es­pe­cially with the strong ad­vance of Chrome­cast in­side ever-more brands of third­party hi-fi.

Top con­trols One but­ton turns the mi­cro­phone o†, should you re­quire ex­tra pri­vacy. The other is an ‘Ac­tion’ but­ton which can turn on the Echo Plus and turn o† alarms. Vol­ume ring The ring be­low the top sur­face and ‘light ring’ can be used for easy...

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