Until now, the word order in the term ‘smart speaker’ neatly indicated Amazon’s priorities when approaching its Echo products. While its speakers have been sonically acceptable, the focus appears to have been on features before the performance. As a result, they’ve not troubled the class-leading wireless speakers at a similar price.
But, while it is still one of the most intelligent audio products on the market, this 2nd-gen Echo Plus breaks that mold: less a smart speaker, more a speaker with smarts.
Beneath its cotton jacket – available in rather staid color flourishes of Charcoal, Heather Grey and Sandstone – there is an 8cm neodymium woofer and a 2cm tweeter emitting sound through 360 degrees.
Just under 10cm in width and standing almost 15cm tall, the Echo Plus’s cylindrical body does not quite offer room-filling sound, but certainly has the presence and power to make itself heard.
At what we assume to be the rear of the Echo Plus there are power and 3.5mm aux inputs, while on its crown is the ‘action’ button, a mic on/off switch and basic volume control. For most, those buttons will be largely redundant; why buy an Alexa-controlled smart speaker if you aren’t going to talk to it?
You’ll need the relevant app to set it up with your Amazon account, third-party streaming services, and any other compatible smart-home devices, but after that, you can effectively forget about having to manually dial anything in again.
As well as it being able to read you the weather forecast, football scores, and whatnot, the new Echo Plus has a built-in Zigbee smart home hub to control any compatible light bulbs, plugs, and in-wall switches, and accommodates a built-in temperature sensor so you can be more accurate with your adjustments.
Those are the kind of smart features that have previously made it difficult to find a straight competitor for Amazon’s Echo products. But, while we’ve only ever focussed on their sonic capabilities in the past, with the new Echo Plus those become a boon rather than primary consideration; this is simply a good-sounding speaker in its own right.
The set-up is done via Amazon’s Alexa app – where you can also pair the Echo Plus with other products for stereo or multi-room configurations – which is as straightforward as you’d expect from a company now so experienced with this kind of technology.
We ask Alexa to play Ryuichi Sakamoto’s async album via Spotify. Expertly navigating our pronunciation, the speaker delivers the opening piano phrases of data, whetting our appetite for what is a surprisingly accomplished performance.
Previous Echo products have appeared overly forward, brash in comparison with this now more sophisticated, insightful presentation. There are textures here – hisses, warbles, and sweeps – that the Echo Plus seems to enjoy exploring, organizing them neatly across a soundstage with greater depth and dimension.
The album’s second track, disintegration, is rhythmically idiosyncratic if not disorderly, and serves as an early showcase of the Echo Plus’s impressive timing. Hearing it next to the current incarnation of Amazon’s basic Echo speaker, the latter is not incapable but perhaps suffers from a marginal lack of concentration.
The Plus, by contrast, is diligent in tracking those off-set rhythms, offering subtle emphasis to those that ask and delivering that same level of detail to each note.
AMAZON ECHO PLUS (2018) TECH SPECS
Audio 7.5cm woofer, 2cm tweeter
Dimensions (HWD) 148 x 99 x 99mm
Let’s not get carried away: this is still a £140 wireless speaker, far from ready to take over from your main hi-fi system, but we’re now talking in terms of the best performances you can get for this kind of money – not just the best you can hope for with this kind of functionality.
It gets the basics right, any subsequent improvement further up the food chain being a bonus rather than something the Echo Plus is lacking. That’s down to a competitive dynamic performance as well.
Offer it a vocal-led performance such as The Twilight Sad’s I/m Not Here [Missing Face], and not only is the Echo Plus unperturbed by the denser arrangement but it is able to inject sufficient life and emotion into James Graham’s voice. It captures the essence of the track more than delivering instrumental strands as raw information.
Those coveting deeper bass and stereo performance can pair it with another Echo Plus and the new Echo Sub for the reasonable sum of £400, but as a singular unit, this is as good as we could hope for from a smart speaker at this price.
If your use of smart features is to be limited, there are other speakers offering Alexa control on a more modest scale that you should consider, such as the Sonos One. But the Echo Plus is the first Amazon product we can safely say should be on your shortlist regardless of its features, only because its sonic performance makes it worthy in isolation.
- Sound 6
- Features 6
- Build 6