Amazon Echo Plus review: Alexa, how much is a smart home hub really worth?

Nick Broughall 9 February 2018

Can the Echo Plus be the perfect smart home hub?

Quick Verdict
Bigger body, bigger sound and a bigger price tag, but even the integrated smart home hub functions don't justify this speaker over the standard Echo model.

The Good

  • Voice detection is top-notch
  • Thousands of skills on offer
  • Able to control smart home devices without other hubs

The Bad

  • Missing core functionality from overseas versions
  • No support for multiple voices
  • Audio quality is pretty poor
  • Smart home hub still has limited opportunity


As the premium offering in Amazon’s trio of smart speakers hitting Australia, the Echo Plus has its work cut out for itself. Not only does it need to prove its audio capabilities against the arrival of devices like the Apple HomePod, but it also touts itself as a smart home hub, leveraging the Zigbee home automation protocol.

But can the Echo Plus be that central smart device for your entire home?

Buy Amazon Echo Plus from Amazon AU

Amazon Echo Plus features a more-powerful speaker than the original Echo along with additional home-automation functionality courtesy of a built-in ZigBee smart home hub.

View details

Atheon Echo Plus

Design

Amazon and its customers must have been pretty happy with the design of the Amazon Echo because the Echo Plus is an obvious sibling. With that familiar cylindrical shape, the Echo Plus stands taller at 235mm and ever so slightly narrower with a diameter of 84mm (vs the Echo’s 88mm).

That extra bit of height allows for a slightly larger tweeter (0.8-inch vs the Echo’s 0.6-inch tweeter) and it does make a difference to the audio quality. The subwoofer is the same size though, but a mesh of holes on the bottom half of the speaker allows for a fuller audio output.

Despite the boost in sound, the Echo Plus still offers a 3.5mm audio output jack and integrated Bluetooth, so you can pump music out from a more premium set of speakers.

Unlike the Echo’s customisable fabric covers, the Echo Plus is only available in black, which makes it a little harder to fit in with multiple decors. But given the additional smart home hub functions, Amazon’s obvious goal is for a single Echo Plus to be accompanied by multiple Echos or Echo Dots around the home.

The top of the Echo Plus is the control centre of the speaker and offers two simple buttons – the privacy button that mutes the microphone and an action button for when you can’t be bothered giving the “Alexa” command.

Volume controls are also at the top of the speaker in the form of a rotating ring above the LED light ring, spinning clockwise for volume up and anti-clockwise to turn the volume down. Having the LED lights makes control of the speaker super easy, with an obvious visual feedback whenever the speaker is working.

The Echo Plus incorporates the same seven microphone array as the other Echo products and is able to pick up quiet voices from across the room well. The sensitivity of the mic is easily one of the keys to the Echo family’s success, happily detecting the activation word almost every time, and having an impressive strike rate at hearing instructions, even in the broadest Australian accent.

Amazon Echo Plus

Audio performance

As the premium model in amongst the Echo family of smart speakers, it’s natural to expect the Echo Plus will feature a premium audio experience. The extra size in the tweeter doesn’t make as much difference as you might hope, though.

One of the biggest challenges of the Amazon Echo’s audio playback was a lack of bass in the music, especially at higher volumes. Given the Plus has the same sized woofer, it’s perhaps understandable that the Plus isn’t much better on the bass front.

Crank the Echo Plus up to full volume, and the sound is tinny, with the lower frequencies struggling to match the musicians' intent. The mid-range is a bit fuller than the regular Echo, but it’s not enough to justify the purchase of a Plus over the default Echo model.

Fortunately, even Amazon’s premium speaker comes with an audio-out jack for plugging it in to better speakers, and Bluetooth for the same function, which should keep audiophiles happier. Although if this is how you plan to use the Echo Plus, the cheaper Echo Dot will perform much the same, minus the smart home hub functionality.

But for general background music, the Echo Plus is perfectly functional – it’s just not a premium audio experience.

Amazon Echo Plus

Digital Assistant Performance

The major appeal of the Echo Plus – or the whole Echo family – isn’t its audio quality, though. It’s the integration of the Alexa smart digital assistant. At the mention of the Alexa hotword, the Echo Plus springs to life, ready to do your bidding (as far as its programming allows, anyhow).

In the battle of the digital assistants, Alexa is at the front of the pack. With the Australian launch, Alexa managed to gain an Australian accent, Australian knowledge and an Australian sense of humour.

Ask Alexa for an Australian joke, and you might get “What did the gold miner say about the movie? They panned it”. Ask for facts about Australian locations like Melbourne’s Crown Casino and you might be told that it was constructed in 1997. Ask Alexa for a cricket sledge, and she’ll sledge the crap out of you (“I’ve seen better batters in a fish and chip shop”).

Alexa’s voice detection is generally solid. It can struggle from time to time – the first time I asked it “how old is Crown Casino?”, it heard “How old is Krampus?”, whatever that is. But on the whole, the microphone array can pick up a command from across the room in a normal voice. I did find I’d need to speak a bit louder if the music volume was up high, but that’s to be expected.

Where Alexa disappoints is in the features that aren’t available in Australia yet, despite being available overseas. You can’t set up multiple voice profiles, for a start, meaning that you have to share everything as a family, including your calendars and commands. If you set up the calling and messaging function from your Echo speakers, you’re sharing that too, which is a potential nightmare if your flatmate enjoys pranks.

For some reason, you can’t set a music alarm to wake you up gently, despite that being readily available overseas. Shopping from Amazon – one of the key differentiators of the Echo speakers – is nowhere to be found despite Amazon.com.au’s official launch late 2017.

While Amazon has launched the Echo family with over 10,000 skills, there are still many obvious options that haven’t been unlocked for Australian users, including Sonos' skill and the Control 4 home automation skill. I have no doubt these will arrive over time, but for the early adopter, their absence is a clear frustration.

Smart Home control performance

The real reason you would consider the Echo Plus speaker is the fact that it can act as a dedicated Smart Home hub, controlling accessories using the Zigbee protocol without the need for intermediary hubs.

To help demonstrate this, Amazon sells a version of the Echo Plus with a bundled Philips Hue light globe. And in this arena, the Echo Plus does well. Pairing to a new globe is as simple as asking the Plus to search for new devices, and 45 seconds later, the Hue globe was paired and controllable by simple commands, customisable through the Alexa app.

Pairing in this way is incredibly easy, but you do lose a little bit of granular control you have when you partner the Hue globes to the Hue Bridge rather than the Echo Plus. And if you have set up a Hue Bridge previously, it won’t detect any new Hue globes connected via the Echo speaker.

The other challenge facing the Echo Plus’ dreams of smart home domination is the relative shortage of compatible devices. If you take a quick glance at Amazon’s own page of compatible Zigbee devices, you get a list of Hue light globe options.

That’s not a deal breaker, but it also makes the decision to opt for the more expensive speaker on the prospect of future device compatibility a little bit harder to swallow.

Verdict

It’s taken Amazon way too long to launch its Echo lineup of speakers in Australia, and now that they’re here, it’s easy to see why the world took to them so quickly. An intelligent digital assistant with great voice recognition, a strong ecosystem of skills and an ever-improving platform, all at an affordable price, make the Echos very attractive.

But the Echo Plus, as the premium offering in the lineup, should stand head and shoulders above the standard Echo. The truth is that it does not. Audio performance is still far from premium, with a little bit more detail in the mid to high end, but a weak bass performance like its smaller siblings.

Not only that, but the smart home hub functionality is somewhat limited, and easily managed by third-party devices and skills even without the Zigbee hub function. This could evolve over time, but the benefit for a user today does not outweigh the cost.

If you have your eye on an Echo speaker for the home, then the Echo Plus doesn’t justify the $80 premium. The features that matter – sound quality, the impressive microphone array and Alexa itself – are all essentially the same on the cheaper Echo.
Amazon Echo Plus

Pricing and availability

The Amazon Echo Plus is available now from Amazon and leading Australian retailers for an RRP of $229.

Buy Amazon Echo Plus from Amazon AU

Amazon Echo Plus features a more-powerful speaker than the original Echo along with additional home-automation functionality courtesy of a built-in ZigBee smart home hub.

View details

Amazon Echo Plus specs

Size
235mm x 84mm x 84mm
Weight
954g
Speaker
2.5" woofer + 0.8" tweeter
Wi-Fi
Dual-band, dual-antenna 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac @ 2.4GHz/5GHz
Microphone
7-microphone array

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