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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 control of volume. Drivers With one tweeter and one woofer, the Echo Plus remains a mono speaker, despite its aim of better music playback. The driver arrangement creates an omnipolar dispersion pattern, and Amazon specifies a central location “at least 20cm from any wall” to get best performance. Round the back Next to the power adapter socket at the rear is a useful audio out minijack, so you can plug the Echo Plus into a better audio system. It can also send via Bluetooth.