Amazon is aiming to major on sound quality despite an ultra-low price with its new Echo and Echo Plus speakers.
Amazon’s continued effort to put Alexa everywhere is continuing apace with the launch of a host of new Echo devices.
There’s an all-new, more compact Amazon Echo, an Echo Plus with upgraded smart home functionality and an Echo Spot bedside speaker complete with video calling (due in the UK in 2018). The Echo Show, already on sale in the US, is also on the way to the UK.
The Echo and Echo Plus aim to major on sound quality, with Amazon claiming improved audio quality from upgraded speaker drivers.
With multi-room functionality baked-in, and a new cheaper entry-point of just £89.99/$117, Amazon is pitching its Echo speakers as the most affordable multi-room audio system on the market.
Echo vs Echo Plus: what’s the difference?
The most obvious change is the design. While the Echo Plus retains the exact same dimensions as the original Echo (235 x 84 x 84mm), the all-new Echo is more compact (148.5 x 88 x 88mm), and closer in design to the Google Home.
It’s not just the dimensions that have shrunk, the prices have been lowered, too. The new Echo is just £89.99/$117, while the Echo Plus is £139.99/$182.
How does the Echo Plus aim to justify that price? Well, it features a “built-in smart home hub”, which aims to make connecting to compatible devices that much easier.
Just say, “Alexa, discover my devices”, and the Echo Plus will connect to compatible lights, plugs and other devices.
No longer is your speaker just a smart voice speaker – it now has the potential to be a hub for a powerful, multi-room Alexa system.
Both new speakers claim upgraded sound thanks to new drivers. The Echo Plus also boasts “Dolby audio processing”.
There’s still one tweeter and one driver in each speaker. Both sport a 2.5in woofer (though we’re told it’s not the same one), but while the new Echo has a 0.6in tweeter, the Echo Plus has a 0.8in tweeter. Interestingly, the original Echo had a 2.5in woofer and a 2in tweeter. Nevertheless, Amazon claims the new speakers will deliver “immersive sound”, with “better bass, better treble”.
The new Echo has a choice of six new finishes: charcoal fabric, sandstone fabric, heather grey fabric, oak finish, walnut and silver. The Echo Plus has a new silver finish alongside black and grey.
Both new speakers feature Wi-Fi and Bluetooth streaming, and each also has a 3.5mm line output for connecting to legacy devices. Previously only the small Echo Dot, which continues, had an audio output.
Amazon’s “second generation far-field technology” promises to upgrade the Alexa experience, with better processing of your wake word and improved noise cancellation, which should make it better at hearing your commands in noisy rooms.
Also new is Alexa Routines. Much like old universal remotes, it will allow you to program and control multiple devices with a single command. “Alexa, good morning” could signal your smart lights to come on, blinds to open and even your kettle to boil. Compatible brands include Philips Hue, TP Link and Wemo.
You can now also call people using Alexa, provided they have an Alexa device. Alexa calling and messaging promises to let you drop in and out of other people’s devices, which sounds both impressive and slightly creepy.
While we were impressed by what the original Echo could do, the sound quality was only so-so, lacking a little detail and definition compared to similarly-priced – albeit, less well-featured – wireless speakers.
Will these new speakers change that? Perhaps. With no sign of the older Echo at the launch event, nor any wireless rivals, it’s impossible to properly benchmark the sound, but we did get a brief demonstration of how they sound in isolation.
And it certainly seems like Amazon has made improvements.
The new speakers seem to make a better stab at delivering deep bass than the original Echo, with a Diana Krall playlist delivering a more dynamic sound from the new Echo than we might have expected.
Like its predecessor, the new speakers do a good job of avoiding any treble harshness, though we didn’t get a chance to really crank the volume, and vocals sounded natural and relatively detailed.
With the new Echo costing just £89.99/$117, it’s perhaps no surprise that we still don’t think it would beat something like a Sonos Play:1 when it comes to pure sound quality.
The Echo Plus at £139.99/$182 should be a closer fight, however – though from our brief experience we’re not sure how much of a step-up in sound quality you can expect compared to the cheaper Echo.
One Amazon representative did say the Echo Plus, in their mind, sounds “a little bit better” (and it will go louder), but we’ll reserve judgement until we get more time to really listen to it properly.
Amazon clearly wants to offer an Alexa device for everyone. And with these new devices, it’s getting that much closer to doing so.
At a more affordable price, the new Echo will spell trouble for the myriad voice assistant speakers on the market, while the ability of the Echo Plus to connect instantly and easily to a huge range of compatible smart devices could also give it an edge for those wanting to build a truly smart home.
But will they spell danger for other players in the multi-room market who are aiming to major on sound? If you really want something close to hi-fi sound, we’re not so sure – though we’ll hold fire on a final judgement until we’ve spent some real time with the products.
Either way, the smart home is only getting smarter, with Amazon, and Alexa, positioning itself front and centre of a rapidly expanding range of products.