Amazon's new Echo Plus needs to succeed on a number of fronts in order to match up with its competition. On one hand, it has to compete with good quality speakers in an around its price range and on the other hand, it has to be a step up from the lower tier Echo models and competitive with other smart home devices. Does it manage to exceed all these expectations? Simply put: No. But the Amazon Echo Plus does manage to put up a good fight.
The device utilizes a seven microphone array with 360° omnidirectional sound, as well as Bass Reflex, and the sound is slightly better and has more bass than the regular Amazon Echo. The 360-degree audio works well in a variety of scenarios, be it at a noisy party or as background noise while playing video games. On the music front, The Echo Plus supports Amazon Music as well as Spotify and listening to music is a real treat on the device. With Alexa, you can ask for certain songs or for a more general musical task like playing the top songs of the day or playing a hip-hop playlist. Setup is also easy as all you have to do is download the Amazon Music and Spotify apps to your smartphone, respectively, and you're all set. As expected, iTunes support isn't available via voice command but you can get Alexa to connect to your phone via Bluetooth and play your iTunes library that way. It's not as intuitive as using Spotify or Amazon Music, but it does the job nonetheless.
Overall, the Echo Plus is a solid speaker and has a slick manual sound slider that lights up to show you the devices volume level. On top of the slider is an LED light ring that lights up blue when it's listening to your voice, glows yellow when you have a new message and goes red when you mute the microphone.
As for price, the Echo Plus costs around $200 CDN which is $70 more than the standard Echo model. In many ways, the Echo Plus is very similar to the standard Echo, but what sets it apart from its cheaper cousin is its smart home capabilities. The Echo Plus can directly control Philips Hue lights, which are a very popular brand of smart light, without the need for a conduit. The Echo Plus also comes with a Phillips Hue light included, which you can use right away. It's as simple as saying "Alexa, discover devices" and she will scan and connect to any and all compatible devices. Echo Plus can connect to many ZigBee and Wi-Fi-based products, which make smart home setup a breeze.
You can also set routines to certain keywords in order to have Alexa perform multiple actions at the same time. Let's say that you have your Echo Plus connected to your room's lightbulbs and you really like to listen to some Simple Plan to get your morning off to a great start. You can program the Echo Plus so that when you say 'Morning' it will turn on your lights and play a song by Simple Plan. Depending on what smart devices you have access to, such as smart locks or TV integration, you may want to make more complicated routines, but in essence, that's how the feature works.
As for the voice command the Amazon Echo Plus uses Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant. When Alexa works she truly is a wonder and I was genuinely surprised at how well she picked up my voice, even when I was standing across the room and talking quietly. The Echo Plus utilizes stellar noise-cancelling audio pickup technology that hones in on your voice, even while other noises are going on. The only time where I had a real issue having the Echo Plus hear me was when I had my music on full blast, which is understandable as I could barely hear myself in that situation.
It's also important to note that Alexa has a very vast, but basic, grasp of the English language. She manages to answer short questions exceptionally well and she can easily tell you who won the Stanely Cup in any given year and what the best pizza places in close proximity to you are. The issues arise when you ask her mid- to long-form questions, or use more casual language. You really have to phrase things in a particular way for her to understand you, and it is at times awkward.
However, my frustrations with Alexa's knowledge base went away after I started utilizing the skills. You can download skills straight off of the Alexa app and they feature a wide range of topics and functionalities for Alexa to learn. Some of the categories include Food and Drink, Games, Trivia and Accessories, Health and Fitness, Music and Audio, as well as many others, which opens the door for a wide range of learning. As for the skills they include CBC News, Sportsnet, The National Post, The Weather Network, TD Bank and hundreds of others. My favourite skills have easily been the various radio ones. I was able to download skills that let me play an old-time radio broadcast from 1955 that featured some great music, as well as live-feeds of a variety of current day radio station. It's a nice addition and one of the features that make the Echo Plus truly feel like an all in one device.
There are also news briefings from organizations like CBC and ESPN that have you ask Alexa, "What's my briefing" and then provide you with the organizations latest update. The issue is that there is no way to choose which briefing plays, and in the CBC and ESPN case they both have the same prompt. This is sometimes frustrating but easily solved by enabling only the skills you really want. There are also a wide array of ambient sounds available such as waterfalls and swirling leaves to help you rest and relax, although my favourite part of the Echo Plus's Alexa support is how easy it is to set an alarm from the comfort of your bed. It's a small touch but a wonderful one and is a part of the charm of the device. Also, the Echo Plus' skills will only get more robust as time goes on and new companies are added on, and it very much is a growing ecosystem.
Overall, The Amazon Echo Plus does most of what it sets out to do as it provides an introductory smart hub, good speakers and a largely successful home assistant in Alexa. It is, however, a bit pricey, and aside from its smart home integration features isn't a significant step up from the lower tier Echo.
That's being said, the Echo Plus is a sleek looking device and its speakers and sound bar are fantastic. It may not be for everyone, but The Amazon Echo Plus is a solid piece of tech and a good buy for anyone interested in turning their home into a smart home.
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