The Amazon Echo Plus is like a car that’s just had its MOT done.
Sure, it’s technically better than before. The tyres have more grip, both rear lights now work and the gearstick doesn’t wobble around. But you certainly don’t feel like you’ve got a new motor.
In the Echo Plus’ case, it sounds a fair bit better than either the 1st- or 2nd-gen Echo, it has enhanced smart home skills which make it a bit easier to use and it costs less than the original Echo did.
All of which is great. But whether any of those advantages are worth the extra cash you'll pay for it is a different matter.
Confused by what’s available in Echo-land? Here’s your quick guide:
Amazon Echo Plus (£139.99)
The best sound quality, plus a built-in smart home hub which makes it easier to connect connected kit. Looks like a tube of Pringles.
Improved sound quality over the 1st-gen model (Amazon says), plus a new, more compact design and variety of finishes. Much cheaper than before, too.
You’ll need to hook it up to another speaker if you want top-notch music, but it otherwise does everything the 2nd-gen Echo does. Unchanged for a year now.
An Echo with a 7in screen for video calls and displaying info. Sound quality not its strong point.
Like an Echo Show but smaller and cheaper, with a 2.5in screen. Not really designed for music. Out in the US in December but not yet available elsewhere.
Weird little camera thing that takes photos of you and tells you if what you’re wearing is on-trend. Only available in the US, by invitation.
DESIGN AND BUILD: DEJA-VU TIME
You’ll find me returning to one particular theme throughout this review - namely that the Echo Plus improves on the original Echo without always going far enough. And its design is one such example of that.
Externally it looks almost identical to the original first-gen Echo. The dimensions are the same, it has the same plastic build with speaker-grille-holes covering its lower half and it has the same volume/notifications ring round the top. There are no stylistic changes here, save that in now comes in silver as well as black and white.
There’s nothing wrong with the design as such, but the new 2nd-gen Echo, which is available for £50 less than the Plus, has been visually overhauled, getting an array of different colours and finishes. Given that the Plus is the more expensive model, it’s frustrating that you don’t get the same variety here.
The lack of visual flair here also leaves it lagging behind the Google Home, Apple HomePod and Sonos One on this front. Two years is a long time in gadget-land, and that industrial cylinder look just no longer cuts it.
Functionally, it is slightly improved over the 1st-gen Echo. As with the 2nd-gen and the Dot, it has a 3.5mm audio-out socket, meaning you can plug it into external speakers if the Plus’ audio quality isn’t hot enough for you. On top there’s a mic button (which you might well use sometimes) and an action button (which you almost certainly won’t).
Internally, it’s a different matter: the Plus has a new speaker set-up consisting of a 2.5in woofer and 0.8in tweeter. It also now has seven microphones, arranged such that the Echo will more easily here you from across the room or when there’s background noise.
SMART HOME SKILLS: JOB HALF-DONE
The Echo Plus’ main selling point is its enhanced smart ability. Whereas previous Echo devices have hooked up to your existing connected lights, security cams and whatnot, the Plus has its own dedicated smart home hub, meaning it can control them all itself.
In theory, this means that you could buy a Philips Hue lightbulb, for instance, and connect it the Echo Plus - rather than having to buy Philips’ own Hue hub for another £50. It could also mean you avoid the need for a bunch of different hubs fighting for space around your router.
In practice, it’s only partially successful, at least so far.
The problem is that the Echo Plus’ internal hub works only with devices using the ZigBee standard, and not rivals such as Z-Wave. This covers some smart home products, but by no means all; there’s a list available here, but it basically involves Hue lights, Hive and Samsung SmartThings plugs and not a lot else.
You can of course connect almost every other smart home device up as you would have done before, but you’re probably still going to need a hub for each one.
If you have hooked up a device directly to the Plus, you'll now be able to use the Alexa app to control it. Only the level of control you get is in some cases nowhere near what you'd get via the device's actual app. The Hue app, for instance, will let you choose any one of thousands of colour tones, whereas via the Alexa app that's just not possible.
What you're left is, once more, the feeling that it's a nice idea which just hasn't been properly executed yet. In time the Plus may well offer significant advantages over the 2nd-gen Echo and Dot, but right now they're marginal unless you're literally starting out in the smart home world and want to just dip your toe in the water with one bulb and a plug.
SOUND QUALITY: THE BEST-SOUNDING ECHO YET
The original Echo is apparently the biggest-selling Bluetooth speaker ever - and given that there are about 16 billion different Bluetooth speakers available these days, that's no small achievement. Shame it didn't sound better, then.
Fortunately the Plus offers a big improvement. Frankly, I wasn't expecting too much from it: it has much the same internals as the 2nd-gen Echo, and that barely sounds better than the first-gen model. But in use I've been really impressed by it.
Bass is the most obvious difference between the two, with the Plus capable of a decent thump while the 2nd-gen Echo puts out more of a wet slap. There's also a much rounder sound to the Plus - possibly the result of its taller design, but whatever's causing it you can hear it whether you're listening to Father John Misty or Vince Staples.
Listen to it next to the Sonos One and it's a different story: suddenly the Plus sounds a little weedy and one-dimensional in comparison. But then again, the Sonos costs £60 more.
Overall, the Plus is comfortably the best-sounding Echo speaker yet and will be easily good enough to keep most people happy as a second speaker for a kitchen or bedroom.
ALEXA SKILLS: SMART AND SMARTER
As always, Alexa's capable of delighting and frustrating you within the space of a few minutes. Now three years old, she's learnt a huge number of new tricks recently and is far less likely to get tripped up by your odd phrasing. But then sometimes you'll ask her a simple question and she'll give you that slightly sarky "Sorry, I don't know that one" reply, as if really it's your fault for expecting too much of her.
She's definitely getting better, though, and once you've learnt how to speak to her - clearly and without too much hesitation - she'll sort most things out for you. The Echo Plus' new mic set-up helps, too - Alexa could hear me across a room, when music was playing, without me needing to shout.
Of her new tricks, multi-room music is a potentially neat addition, albeit one that's come to all Echo devices via the Alexa app, rather than just the Plus. It's alright, but nowhere near Sonos levels - partly because you can't use it with Spotify yet, and partly because it's just not as full-featured.
What you can do with it is group two or more speakers together, then ask Alexa to play music on that group - for instance "Alexa, play Martha downstairs". But you can't then add in another speaker as you can on Sonos if you decide you then want to listen upstairs too. It's just not smart enough.
You can also group smart home devices - making it easy to turn on a light and plug at the same time, for instance, either via the app or by asking Alexa. Routines, meanwhile, are a bit like IFTTT recipes. Alright, a lot like them - you create a sequence of smart home events you can trigger with a word or two, for instance you could say "Alexa, good morning" and have Alexa turn on the lights and heating, then give you the weather forecast, tell you how traffic is and read you the news headlines. It works really well and is super-simple to set-up.
Messaging is another recent addition - you can use your Echo to call another Echo owner and speak to them hands-free. The call quality's not great - it's all a bit echo-y, pardon the pun - but it's quick and easy to add a friend to your list, and there's something deliciously decadent about being too lazy even to pull your phone out of your pocket.
The drop-in mode is probably less useful: it lets you listen in on your home when you're not there, via the Echo. You can even let your Echo-owing mates drop in, but you probably don't want to do that unless you're absolutely certain that you never say anything rude about them.
And of course you get all of the other standard Echo skills here: ordering pizza, adding calendar appointments, setting alarms and, increasingly, playing games and quizzes.
A year ago there were barely any true rivals to the Echo, but now Google's Home is a properly smart cookie, the Sonos One has Alexa built in, Apple's HomePod is coming soon and Amazon's own line-up has got way bigger and more complicated.
The Plus' main rival is still the Home. The Amazon device definitely wins on sound quality, but Google's pretty much caught up on the smart home front, outside of the fact that the Plus has that built-in hub. On the other hand, Home works with Chromecast and the Google Assistant is still a bit smarter than Alexa when it comes to answering questions. Then again the Echo is much better when it comes to shopping, particularly when it comes to shopping on Amazon (surprise, surprise).
Which would we buy? Right now it's still the Echo Plus, but it is a close-run thing.
The Sonos One is well worth a look if you're either really into music or already have one or two Sonos speakers. The Alexa integration isn't yet perfect, and you can't ask it to play songs from Spotify (that's coming later this year, hopefully), but it definitely sounds better than the Plus.
And then there's the other Echo devices. The 2nd-gen Echo sounds good enough to do duty in a kitchen or bathroom, and is £50 cheaper than the Plus. But the Echo Dot remains our favourite Amazon speaker. It costs just £50 and does pretty much everything the Plus does. No, it can't play music very well on its own, but hook it up to an existing system and it's fine. And if music is a big deal you should go for the Sonos One anyway...
Amazon Echo Plus Verdict
Is it possible for a gadget to be both truly wonderful and a little underwhelming? Yes it is - and the Amazon Echo Plus is proof.
This is a supremely smart speaker which could easily run your whole home, and is also the best-sounding Echo device ever. What’s more, it actually costs less than the inferior model it replaces.
Despite all that, though, it left me with the nagging feeling that I didn’t really need it in my life. If it were the first Echo it would be revolutionary, but as it is it’s merely a bit 'meh'. That £50 premium over the 2nd-gen Echo is just about justified by the better sound quality and smart home skills, but the £90 difference over the Echo Dot is far harder to deal with. Equally, the sound quality is nowhere near impressive enough to tempt music obsessives away from the Sonos One.
All of which leaves the Plus sitting a little uncomfortably on its own in the middle. It's a really good all-rounder, but most people will be happier spending a lot less or a bit more.