In recent years Amazon has carved itself a not insignificant slice of the home entertainment market. From its Spotify-rivalling Music Unlimited and Netflix-competing Prime Video services to its Fire TV video streamers, Fire tablets and Echo smart speakers, there’s an Amazon device for almost every occasion. And the company is showing no signs of slowing down…
The latest dump of Amazon Echo devices, revealed last September, means there’s now a complete family of multi-room products, with the Echo Link Amp, Echo Link and Echo Input in particular seeing the company take aim at Bluesound, Bose and Sonos.
Amazon’s USP? Its Alexa smart voice assistant. The retail giant has led the way when it comes to all things voice control, helping us all become accustomed to talking our tech, whether that be to change the volume, dim the lights or order a pizza. Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant may dominate the smartphone landscape, but Alexa leads the way in the home.
The proof: the Echo Dot – the smallest and cheapest Alexa device in the existing line-up – has reportedly become the best-selling smart speaker ever. It was among Amazon’s most-sold items in its Black Friday and Prime Day sales, too.
Amazon has licensed Alexa to other hardware brands (including Sonos) since the voice assistant’s inception in 2014, helping the Alexa ecosystem grow to over 20,000 Alexa-compatible devices from more than 3,500 brands. That includes excellent products such as the Sonos One, Sonos Beam and Ultimate Ears Megablast speakers. If chipset manufacturer Qualcomm carries through its intentions, we could soon see more Alexa-powered wireless headphones hit the market too.
In the last few years, Amazon’s Echo range has comprised a handful of speakers (the Echo Dot, Echo 2, Echo Plus, Echo Show and Echo Spot) – all of which have, as of summer 2017, been able to work in a multi-room capacity. Group two or more speakers together and you can play music on them simultaneously.
But as of late last year, Amazon now has an Echo range that’s not only doubled in size but has also become a serious multi-room solution.
So how does the Amazon Echo multi-room range compare to existing alternatives? How does it work? And which products are compatible?
Amazon Echo multi-room: how does it work?
As it stands, if you have two or more Amazon Echo speakers, you can ‘group’ them together to play music simultaneously across multiple speakers. For example, grouping three bedroom speakers together and naming the group ‘upstairs’ will allow you to simply ask Alexa to, “play Pink Floyd upstairs”.
To create speaker groups, you have to first register the Echo products to the same Amazon account, connect them to the same network, and then select and name groups within the ‘Multi-room Music’ section of the Alexa app.
Every Echo speaker (including the Echo Sub) supports the multi-room feature, although third-party Alexa devices currently do not. Amazon recently announced it has given the tools to developers to make this happen, so it could arrive on Alexa-powered speakers from the likes of Bose and Sonos soon.
But where it gets really interesting (for us) is the launch of the new Echo multi-room hi-fi products, namely the Echo Amp amplifier and Echo Link receiver. These allow Amazon to compete squarely with Sonos and Bluesound (though we can’t help thinking Amazon is missing a soundbar to rival the Sonos Beam and Bluesound Pulse.
As well as hardware, there are still some omissions in the Echo multi-room functionality. Multi-room isn’t possible when music is playing over Bluetooth, and non-music content such as timers, alarms and e-books aren’t supported either.
So let’s have a closer look at each member of the entire Amazon multi-room family…
The Amazon Echo products
The smallest and most affordable Echo speaker is now in its third generation. The latest version boasts a larger driver – it’s now 1.6in, up from 1.1in – and is driven by more power for, supposedly, a 70 per cent increase in maximum volume. It’s also been gifted a faux leather finish, as well as a new mic array for better voice detection. The best news? It’s the same price as the original Echo Dot. And the new version sounds better and goes louder than the old one, making it a solid five-star product.
You might want your smart speaker to have a screen, of course – which is where the Echo Spot comes in. The Spot is a small, round speaker that looks like a clock, with the same built-in voice assistant and functionality of the Echo Dot. The 480×480 pixel touchscreen gives visual feedback to all your Alexa commands (for information ‘at a glance’, according to Amazon) and a camera for video-chatting. Essentially it’s a mini Echo Show.
MORE: Amazon Echo Spot review
Speaking of which, the Echo Show expands upon the Spot with a larger touchscreen and introduces a unique feature: video and voice calling so you can call people with an Echo or who have downloaded the Alexa app.
The latest Echo Show has been ‘completely redesigned’ from the original with dual side-firing 2in Neodymium drivers and a passive bass radiator promising improved sound quality. There’s also Dolby processing, a larger (10in) display, Firefox and Amazon’s Silk browser, and an eight-mic array.
Echo Show 5
The Echo Show 5 is the latest in a long and fast-moving line of Amazon products intended to get us all invested in its virtual assistant, Alexa. And rather than replace the existing Show, it comes in as a smaller, more affordable version.
It’s a little bigger than an iPhone on its side, mounted on a wedge and with a 5.5in screen (compared to the Show’s 10.1in display) and a single 4-watt speaker (as opposed to the Echo Show’s two 10-watt drivers).
In our five-star review, we concluded: “If you want to get into the world of the digital assistant with both audio and video, this is as a good a starting point as we’ve come across.”
The Echo 2 is the sequel to the original Echo, which kicked off Amazon’s smart range in 2014. A stubbier and surprisingly cheaper version of the Echo, the Echo 2 features a 3.5mm line output as well as Bluetooth and wi-fi streaming. Its key upgrades are said to include better processing of your wake word, and improved noise cancellation.
MORE: Amazon Echo 2 review
The most feature-laden of Amazon’s array of smart-speakers, the Echo Plus carves its niche in the Echo range by having a built-in smart home hub too. In the same way your router connects your smartphones and tablets, this hub directly links devices like smart-lightbulbs or thermostats to the internet using a specialised mesh network, negating the need for a bridge set-up or third-party hub.
It also integrates a temperature sensor so you can trigger routines based on how hot or cold your room is. Amazon has made some of its cloud-based controls local to the Echo Plus, meaning lights can be controlled even when your internet is down.
The 2nd-gen Echo Plus is not only one of the most intelligent audio products on the market, it’s also, to its credit, less a smart speaker, more a speaker with smarts. Sound-wise, this is as good as we could hope for from a smart speaker at this price. And that’s why we recently gave it a five-star review.
Perhaps the most interesting product in Amazon’s avalanche of new announcements is the Echo Input, the first Echo device without a speaker. So how does it make a sound? Well, it doesn’t. Instead, the 12.5cm-tall Echo Input simply connects to an existing speaker via a 3.5mm jack or Bluetooth to gift it voice functionality. So when a ‘dumb’ speaker is connected to an Echo Input it can be added to a multi-room music group. Think of it as an Alexa-flavoured Chromecast Audio, then.
It’s “a great way to bring Alexa voice control to your existing speakers”.
MORE: Amazon Echo Input review
Furthering the Echo family’s sonic capability, the new 100-watt Echo Sub can be wirelessly paired with one Echo speaker for a 1.1 configuration, or with two of the same Echo speakers for a 2.1 set-up, aiming (and succeeding) to bring more grunt to a stereo pair through its down-firing 6in woofer. It adds considerable sonic authority to your Amazon speakers, putting a decent amount of power behind it, and is priced pretty reasonably.
MORE: Amazon Echo Sub review
Echo Link Amp and Echo Link
This is where the range’s hi-fi ambitions currently peak. The Echo Link Amp is a 60-watt streaming stereo amplifier with both digital and analogue connectivity, designed to let users connect their own speakers, and control music selection, volume and multi-room playback through Alexa via an Echo or the app.
The just-add-speakers streamer is sadly a swing and a miss, though, with an uncompetitive performance that makes it hard to recommend.
The Echo Link, meanwhile, is the receiver version – no amplifier – designed to connect to an amplifier, receiver or pair of active speakers for similar control via the Alexa ecosystem. This, we haven’t seen.
The obvious one: Sonos. As an entire ecosystem, Sonos is hard to fault – if you don’t mind sacrificing hi-res audio, of course. Sensibly priced, beginner-friendly and with an appealing, expand-as-you-go ethos, it’s a multi-room solution to be reckoned with. It’s all-inclusive approach ensures access to a huge number of music services, with voice platforms set to follow in a similar way: Alexa integration is already on board some speakers, Siri is supported, while Google Assistant is coming in 2019.
Bluesound Generation 2
The first genuine threat to Sonos was Bluesound, whose key hook of support for high-resolution audio made it our preferred multi-room system for years (as multiple Awards trophies will attest). Its wide range of products, which includes wireless speakers, streamers, amplifiers and a soundbar, plus detailed and punchy sound made this premium system a worthy investment. An increasingly competitive landscape means this won’t be the choice for everyone but if you value hi-res audio support and of course great sound, it’s the way to go.
Audio Pro’s Addon wireless speakers earned the Swedish manufacturer four What Hi-Fi? Awards in 2018 and, having embraced multi-room, the company is a serious force to be reckoned with. The appeal is pretty simple: great sound, super-affordable prices. The app isn’t as slick as some rivals, nor is the feature or product support as wide, but for a fine multi-room sound on a budget, you can’t go wrong. A real rival for any Amazon Echo system.
MORE: Audio Pro system review