Amazon Echo Plus (second-generation) review: Amazon's fanciest speaker is still a tough sell

Smart speakers and voice assistants are everywhere these days. We’re practically drowning in all the devices announced by major manufacturers in recent months. Products on nearly every aisle of your local home improvement store are adding compatibility with Wi-Fi, Alexa, Google Assistant or even Siri (though changes are slim there).

Amazon is moving full steam ahead when it comes to new Echo devices. At its surprise event in September, the company released a slew of smart home products ranging from wall clocks to microwaves and lots in between. Amazon also introduced the premium Echo Plus (£100 at B&H Photo-Video), its most powerful Echo speaker.

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The new Echo Plus (left) got quite the makeover from its first generation (right).

Chris Monroe/CNET

The £150 Echo Plus has useful features including a built-in temperature sensor and smart home hub, but there are still better sounding speakers out there.

Unless you really want the Zigbee hub built into your smart speaker, your better bet is the Sonos One for sound quality or the Amazon Echo for the same smarts at a better price.

The Echo family tree

There are three versions of the Amazon Echo speaker: the £50 Echo Dot (£40 at Amazon), the £100 Echo and the £150 Echo Plus. The Dot is now in its third generation and the Echo and Echo Plus in their second. Each new generation of these devices brings improved design, sound quality and features.

We just reviewed the newest Echo Dot this week at the CNET Smart Home and it’s the best-sounding Dot yet. Is the same true for the Echo Plus? In short, yes.

New look

The Echo Plus got a big redesign in its second generation, an absolute necessity to keep up aesthetically with the other smart speakers on the shelves.

The original Echo Plus came out in 2017 with a hard, plastic shell and a tall silhouette. The new Echo Plus ditched that lankiness for a shorter, more compact look. It also added the fabric covering we’ve become accustomed to in new Amazon, Google and Apple smart home products.

The volume control ring on the top has gone too. Instead you get volume, muting and assistant controls from four buttons on the top of the device. Original Echo users complained about that change, but the move makes more sense now that nearly every Echo device is controlled this way.

Smart home hub

One key selling point of the Echo Plus — and the thing that sets it apart from other Echo smart speakers — is the built-in smart home hub.

It’s a Zigbee radio that connects with smart light bulbs, locks, plugs and anything else running that same protocol. That means you won’t need a hub like SmartThings or Wink to add Zigbee devices to your larger smart home scheme. It can even partly replace a Philips Hue hub.

I say “partly” because the Plus only offers only basic bulb controls, not the full Hue experience. All that control lives within the Echo Plus. This isn’t a new feature and the Echo Show (£150 at Walmart) also has a built-in Zigbee hub, but it is something that gives the Echo Plus an edge over a regular Echo or Echo Dot, or a Google Home (£129 at Walmart) device.

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With Wi-FI Simple Setup, it’s easier than ever to connect smart home devices to Alexa.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Having a built-in hub doesn’t eliminate your need for other modules and bridges though.

Several popular smart home manufacturers including August, Philips Hue and Lutron still require a bridge plugged into your router or a module plugged into a power outlet for the full experience. Still, one less accessory is a point in the “pro” column. Amazon’s new Wi-Fi Simple Setup makes adding devices to that hub more seamless than ever.

Granted, it wasn’t terribly difficult before, but there were often apps to open and codes to enter. Now, simply plug in your smart home device and say, “Alexa, discover my devices”. The Echo Plus does all the setup in the background using the information it knows about your home Wi-Fi and your Alexa account.

I tested this out Wi-Fi Simple Setup at the CNET Smart Home by asking Alexa to discover a new Philips Hue smart bulb.

She replied, “I found fifth light, and you can control it by saying, ‘turn on fifth light.'”

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