Tech Guide

The Amazon Echo Plus is the best Echo, and a perfect start to making your home smart

The Echo Plus looks great around the house
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Key Points
  • The Echo Plus is the best Echo you can buy.
  • It will be particularly compelling if you're just starting a smart home.
  • The Echo Plus costs $149, a $50 premium over the regular Echo.

If you're in the market for an Amazon Echo, and think you might want to start controlling your lights and other gadgets by voice, you should buy the Amazon Echo Plus.

Unlike other Amazon Echo products, the Echo Plus has technology built in that allows it to serve as the center of your smart home. It can automatically detect and control all sorts of so-called smart gadgets, like light bulbs, outlets and even the lock on your front door.

It's priced at $149, which means you're paying a $50 premium over the regular Echo. That's worth it if you have any interest in starting a smart home. If not, you probably don't need an Echo Plus.

Let me explain.

Why should I care about the Echo Plus?

The Echo Plus sounds better than the original, too
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Amazon recently unveiled several new Echo products. The Echo Plus is the most high end of the bunch, with the best speakers and most smarts of any Echo product to date.

It looks like the original — tall and round like a half-used roll of paper towels — and operates similarly. The smart voice assistant, Alexa, is there to answer your queries — "Alexa, how old was Abe Lincoln when he died?" — but can also be used to set reminders, buy goods from Amazon and more.

The Echo Plus is about the size of a half-used roll of paper towels
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It also has a smart hub built in, giving you a way to control connected smart devices that adhere to a set of common standards known as Zigbee. That means you can skip buying other stand-alone smart hubs from companies like Logitech, Samsung and Philips. Instead, you can just get to buying individual lights, locks and more.

Is it complicated to use?

The Echo Plus looks premium, and almost identical to the original
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It's super easy to use.

Amazon knows its target audience and knows that its customers don't want to be fiddling with a bunch of wires and gadgets to get a smart home up and running. That's why it was wise to hide all of that stuff inside the smart speaker.

All you need to do is plug in a new light bulb — I used a Philips Hue light strip provided by Amazon for my tests — and then ask Amazon to "discover smart devices." After about 45 seconds, Alexa will confirm it has found new smart gadgets. In my case, it found what it automatically named "first light."

You can rename the light (or lock or outlet) anything you like using the Alexa app on your iPhone or Android phone. If you already have a Philips Hue Hub, you'll need to tap the button on that so that it also recognizes the new Hue light (if you want to control that bulb with Siri or the Hue app, that is).

How does it sound?

The speakers are pretty good on the Echo Plus
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It sounds great for the price.

I turned on some Fats Domino (R.I.P.) and played it on the new Echo, Echo Plus and original Echo. Compared with the original Echo, which launched at $179, the Echo Plus has much better bass response and sounds a lot more full. It also sounds better than the standard Echo which costs $99 but doesn't include the built-in smart home hub.

That said, the Echo Plus is not as good as some more expensive speakers, like the $199 Sonos One, which now has Alexa built in.

In order: The Echo, the Echo Plus and the original Echo
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You can add several Echo speakers into a single room or spread them around the house for multiroom audio. I really like this functionality with Sonos speakers, especially when I have the same song playing in every downstairs room of my house. Again, the quality of Amazon's speakers isn't as good as Sonos, but it delivers a similar effect.

Should you buy one?

Controls are similar to the original Echo. Twist the top to adjust the volume.
Todd Haselton | CNBC

That depends on what you want.

You should buy one if you're interested in controlling certain parts of your home with your voice. Until now, Amazon was really only playing in the smart home space by allowing you to control your gadgets with the Echo. You still needed to buy a smart hub of sorts to get started. Now you can just buy an Echo, some smart light bulbs and get going.

If you don't care about that, or you prefer using a hub like the Apple TV with the Home app on your iPhone, then you don't need the Amazon Echo Plus. The regular Echo will be just fine, or you can consider other products including the Google Home or the upcoming Apple HomePod.