Amazon has had a long and strange trip from its humble beginnings as a bookseller to where the company is today. Products like the new 2018 Echo Plus give us an idea where the company is headed: the one-stop shop for everything, including "casual" smart home products. It's a place where you can stretch your dollar and get good products that are easy to install and setup without being a tech genius or needing a 100-page manual. Think Sharper Image without the air of pretentiousness or outrageous prices.
2018's Echo Plus shows us that not only is this particular segment of the market wide open — Amazon is only competing with itself here when it comes to value — but that it's possible to build really nice products that look great, are easy to use, and actually outperform expectations. The new Echo Plus is the pinnacle of that triad and it's a product that offers something for everyone. This is one of the few times I can say that a "plus" moniker is not only well-deserved but worth the price bump, too.
- Improved audio
- Temperature sensor
- Volume buttons
- Easy set up
- Stereo pairing and multi-room features
- Price vs. Sonos or Google Home Max
- Mute button has a strange icon
- Audio lacks depth in mid tones
- Light animations aren't as visible as the previous model.
Amazon Echo Plus (2018) What I like
There are two reasons anyone would buy an Amazon Echo, and the Echo Plus does both better than the rest of the Echo family. It's actually a good wireless speaker and it makes for an excellent smart home control center and hub.
My first impression of the sound this little cylinder could make was "wow."
I can honestly say the sound of the improved Echo Plus blew me away when I first heard it. Not because it has the best sound of any product of its type, but because it delivers better audio than anything in its price range. You probably know someone who has speakers and amps and a rats nest of wires behind their AV center. I am that guy and have enough equipment here that cost enough money that I'm embarrassed to admit I spent it. The Echo Plus doesn't sound as good as my stereo, but it cost a few thousand dollars less and for the money, it sounds a lot better than I would have ever expected.
Does it sound as good as a Sonos product or a Google Home Max or Homepod? No. Does it cost as much as any of those? No, and by a healthy amount. It's a product that is almost as good as its pricey competition, and the best value in wireless home audio. That's a bold statement, but I'm a bold fellow and the Echo Plus is a bold wireless speaker. Bold speakers sound best when they are used together, which is why the new Stereo Pairing and multi-room audio features make the Echo Plus worth looking at when you buy your next wireless speaker no matter how much of an audio snob you might be. You just might be surprised like I was.
The Echo Plus isn't just a wireless speaker though. It's also a voice-activated assistant and control center for all sorts of other smart home products and can act as a smart hub on its own. In this space, there is some fierce competition from Google, Apple (sort of), Samsung, and Amazon's other Echo products. In many areas, the Echo Plus beats that competition.
When it comes to knowing the minor details of your life, Google Assistant has no rival because of how information about you is saved and used. Apple's Siri and HomeKit place emphasis on security and privacy, which limits some usefulness and product choice. Bixby Home is too new to make any judgments. For everything else; controlling your lights or your garage door opener or smart blinds and all the other mishmash of smart products from hundreds of manufacturers, the Echo Plus and Alexa has the competition handily beaten.
It's very likely that the next smart product you buy will just work with Alexa as soon as you power it up. This is because of the popularity of Alexa, Amazon's partnership with companies looking for a partner, and the software team's wonderful new way of making it work. If you order any Echo model using your own Amazon account, it arrives ready to go; just plug it in and install the Alexa app on your phone to type in your Wi-Fi password. If you order any of the thousands of products that work natively with Alexa, simply power them up and wait or tell Alexa to scan for new hardware and it too will be ready to go.
Alexa's software is leaps and bounds above the competition when it comes to easy setup.
If by chance you order a smart product that doesn't work natively with Alexa, just download the correct skill through the app and a few button taps later it too will be ready to go. The Echo Plus is a full-featured smart hub using the industry-standard Zigbee communication protocol, can transmit and control through "regular" Wi-Fi, and even has its own internal temperature sensor to one day act as a remote sensor for a smart thermostat or weather station. These are all things the average user doesn't need or want to know, and the important part is that it all just works and is easy. Alexa has that part down pat.
Amazon Echo Plus (2018) What I don't like
The list here isn't long, but there are some areas that I feel need a bit of attention when it's time to make the next generation. They may seem a little nitpicky, but it's my job to nitpick so you're aren't surprised by any flubs.
The microphone array of all the newer Alexa products I've tried (2017's Echo Plus, Echo Mini and the "standard" Echo as well as a Toshiba FireOS television with voice input) has been fantastic. Initially, the early Alexa products had trouble with my accent sometimes or just couldn't hear me unless the room was quiet. That has changed and I can say, "Alexa turn on the kitchen lights" downstairs in my office and hear several Echos and a television sitting upstairs answer me. However, the new design of the Echo Plus and it's admittedly attractive tweed fabric covering (my wife and I love the Heather Grey model) make the light ring more difficult to see. I want that visual feedback so I know Alexa is listening.
A microphone symbol provides information. Ǿ is a symbol more at home on a Hobbit's ring.
I love that there are tactile buttons for volume control rather than a spinning ring at the top, but I don't like the choice Amazon made for the button to mute the microphones. We have an Echo Plus in the bedroom and there are times when my wife and I want to make sure the microphone array is muted so nothing is inadvertently recorded. The first time that was necessary, I had to look online to be 100 percent sure that the button with the ø (is that a naught symbol or a Norse rune?) was the button we were looking for. The old icon with the crossed off microphone was fine and made it obvious.
While the sound the Echo Plus can produce is much better than I would have ever expected from a product of this caliber, it's not perfect. The Echo Plus does a fine job handling the high tones, even at volume levels edging towards the extreme. It can also provide strong thumping bass, though I feel the crossover needs a bit of adjustment even with an Echo Sub in the mix. Where it struggles is in the middle of the sound spectrum, where vocals and instrumental solos reside. The quality isn't necessarily bad but it doesn't match the higher quality produced by the ends of the soundstage. Again I will remind everyone who would notice this problem to look at the price tag and other features of the Echo Plus before they make any judgment. Remember, I'm here to nitpick.
Two Sonos Ones and a Sonos Sub sound better than the Echo equivalent but also costs $750 more.
Google and Amazon, please stop fighting. Or at least don't let your silly feud extend to your Nest and Ring sub-brands because that only hurts your customers. I have both Nest and Ring equipment here and seeing them work excellent with their respective parent brands while requiring a third party like IFTTT to replicate those features across both is spiteful. A Jeff Bezos v. Sundar Pichai cage match would be a much better option.
Finally, and this may be the epitome of a niche, Amazon's voice match could use some work. If you have a parrot who is able to mimic you well enough, it can get Alexa to do all sorts of things. The thrill of having Alexa turn on lights is too much for my parrot to ignore, and if you have a feathered friend of your own you'll understand. Google is able to prevent this from happening and I'd love to see Amazon do the same.
Amazon Echo Plus (2018) Should you buy it?
If you're looking for a great wireless speaker and don't want to pay Sonos prices, you'll want to check out an Echo Plus. Or a pair of them with an Echo Sub, which lists for just $329 for the set. You'll be getting 75% of the quality for $750 less than a pair of Sonos Ones and a Sonos Sub. With the new Stereo Pairing and multi-room features, it's worth a look for sure. Amazon will take them back for a full refund if you don't like what you hear.
If you want a smart home experience without any work or head scratching, the Echo Plus is where you need to start. Almost everything you can buy is Alexa-enabled, and the way Alexa Skills can be built plus the smart community of users means almost anything is possible. For the most part, what you buy will just work exactly the way you imagined it would because manufacturers work hard to make their products work with Alexa.
If you're looking for a more personal assistant type of device, I'd steer you towards a Google product instead. A Google Home (or Home Mini or Home Max) is capable of the same smart home features, though sometimes there is a little more work involved getting them working, and can provide a rich media experience as well. And because of all the things Google knows about you, things like daily agendas or video calling is just better with a Google Home.
In short, the Echo Plus is $150, or about $50 more than the standard Echo. The massive boost in audio quality and stand-alone smart hub features you get are worth the extra cash. The Echo Plus is the Echo to buy in 2018.
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