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Amazon Echo Plus (second generation) review: Amazon's fanciest speaker is still a tough sell

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Chris Monroe/CNET

When I tried this same setup with the Amazon Smart Plug ($25 at Amazon), she answered, "I found second plug, and you can control it by saying, 'turn on second plug.'"

The naming here comes not from the brand or device model name, but from how many of those devices I already have in my home. That makes it a bit vague, and I would've liked to hear her call the devices by their names: "Philips Hue bulb" or "Amazon Smart Plug."

Renaming devices through voice commands is part of Amazon's frustration-free setup initiative. It wasn't live yet when I tested, but Amazon told me it will be in the coming weeks. Once it is, you'll be able to say something like, "rename light one to bedroom light" or "change the name of light one to bedroom light." Until then, you'll still need to change the device name in the Alexa app. 

New features

The Echo Plus also comes with a built-in temperature sensor. That's a great addition and one I wish every smart speaker out there had. It's especially useful for creating routines. You can set one up to trigger based on the temperature sensed by the speaker itself.

I tested this out at the CNET Smart Home by creating a routine that turned on a Philips Hue smart bulb and played a song any time the temperature dropped below 70 degrees. But there are much more practical applications: You could create a routine that will close smart blinds or turn on a smart fan when the room gets too warm.  

Among the Amazon upgrades slated for Echo devices is Local Voice Control. This feature allows speakers with smart home hubs (the Echo Show and Echo Plus) to compress smart home controls and give you access to your smart home devices during a Wi-Fi failure. That's great for essential things like lights and plugs. That feature isn't live yet, but Amazon told me it will be available later this year. 

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The Echo Plus has a built-in temperature sensor for creating routines triggered by the temperature in the room. 

Screenshot by Molly Price/CNET

Sound upgrades

Like the new Echo Show and third-gen Echo Dot, the new Echo Plus got a sound quality upgrade along with its physical redesign. The smart speaker now comes with new Dolby speakers boasting 360-degree audio with clearer vocals and deeper bass.

Listening to the old and new Echo Pluses side by side, I heard a definite difference between the two generations. At volume level 5, the sound from the second-gen model is much louder, clearer and the bass much stronger. You can still use your voice to adjust equalizer settings by saying something like, "Alexa, set the bass to 5." The new Echo Plus offers fuller sound despite being half the size. It's more relaxed and delivers a better bass response.

Omnidirectional speakers such as the Amazon Echo Plus and the Samsung R1 often have a veiled sound. They're not as crisp as traditional designs with a dedicated tweeter. While the more expensive Apple HomePod ($299 at Walmart) manages to avoid this issue, the $150 Echo Plus just can't compete on sound quality with its $200 rival the Sonos One.

My Lighthouse by Villagers sounded "fine" with the Echo Plus, if a bit nasal. But switching over to the Sonos One showed how much I was missing out on: Conor O'Brien's voice blossomed with a real sense of space and better separation of the instruments.

Should you buy it?

You can probably do better. When it comes to audio, the second-gen Echo Plus is much improved over the original, but it still doesn't sound as good as the Sonos One. The regular Echo isn't far behind the Plus in terms of audio quality, and unless you're specifically looking for a smart speaker with an Alexa-enabled hub built in, it's hard to find a hands-down reason to make this purchase. 

The Echo Plus feels like it's trying to fill a specific role in the smart-speaker market, one I'm not sure is necessary. Yes, the Echo Plus looks better, sounds better and does more than it did before. And yes, Amazon made all those improvements without upping the price. But I'd spend the same $150 on three Echo Dots, $100 on an Echo or $200 on the Sonos One all before buying the Echo Plus. 

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