It may have popularized the concept of the voice-activated smart speaker, but the mostly-excellent Amazon Echo line has faced one consistent criticism – that its audio capabilities are merely average. The Amazon Echo Studio aims to change all that.
With competition from Sonos and Apple in the higher-end of the smart speaker space, the Echo Studio looks to swing the balance back in Amazon’s favor when it comes to audio quality, aiming to make it one of the best smart speakers of 2019.
Boasting ambitious audio credentials that include support for 3D audio mixes and Dolby Atmos home cinema soundtracks – at a price the competition will struggle to compete with – the Amazon Echo Studio comes tantalizingly close to achieving those goals.
While the effectiveness of 3D audio is likely going to divide opinion, especially that of purists raised on stereo mixes of their favorite tracks, the Amazon Echo Studio is one of the most powerful speakers you’ll find for under $200 / £200. And that’s before considering all its voice-activated Alexa smart capabilities.
Will the Amazon Echo Studio manage to win over audiophiles where other Echo speakers have failed? Read on to find out in our full Amazon Echo Studio review.
It’s not long now until Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when we can expect plenty of the Echo range to be discounted. Keep an eye on our Amazon Black Friday guide in the run-up to sale season so you don’t miss out on a bargain.
Price and availability
The Amazon Echo Studio is available now, priced at $199.99 / £189.99 / AU$329, ready for a November 7, 2019 shipping date.
While the price of the Amazon Echo Studio makes it the most expensive of the Echo speakers aside from the screen-packing Echo Show devices, it’s a far more palatable price than when the comparable Apple HomePod launched at $349.
You’re getting not only a robust and tech-filled speaker, but also a smart hub controller. The Echo Studio doubles up as a ZigBee hub, meaning it’ll connect to 1,000s of smart home products, right out of the box, without much fuss. Add on top of that the noble attempt to bring 3D audio into the mix, and the growing strength of the Alexa voice assistant, and it’s a great value proposition.
Just a few short years back this sort of feature set would have been unfathomably expensive. That it’s under $200 now is remarkable.
Design and features
We’ve become used to Amazon Echo speakers looking pretty similar, especially the standard Echo and the Echo Plus. While the Echo Studio continues that same design language, being cylindrical in shape and covered with a fabric mesh, it’s considerably larger than any Echo that’s gone before it – like someone’s zapped a standard Echo with a gamma ray and made it grow to at least twice the size, Hulk-style. It’s roughly eight inches high by seven inches wide.
It’s a big unit then, and it offers output to match. The Echo Studio pumps out 330 watts at peak, via two two-inch side-mounted mid-range speakers, a two-inch upward firing midrange speaker, a 1-inch front-facing tweeter, and a 5.25-inch downward-firing sealed woofer. Volume buttons sit on the top, along with a mic mute and Alexa-wake button, with the signature blue-light ring also present. You’ll also notice two cut-aways inside the Echo Studio enclosure, allowing air to flow freely to help it pump out bass at high volume.
Its size means you’re going to have to think about where you’re going to place the Echo Studio – it won’t fit quite so discreetly onto a shelf as other Echos have.
And there’s another thing to consider here too – its directional sound capabilities. As a result, you’re going to need to keep a bit of space around the Echo Studio in order to take advantage of that directional sound.
Tapping into the new Amazon Music HD service, the Echo Studio will have access at launch to a growing library of “hundreds” of songs mixed in ‘3D’, while also upmixing stereo tracks by default to a Dolby Atmos mix.
The directional audio system, now a mainstay of quality home theater setups, uses object-based soundtracks to put sounds above and around the listener. It’s increasingly being used in music studios too, with the likes of Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group offering tracks in the format. Sony has its own format, Sony 360, which is also being supported by the Echo Studio.
To pull this off, the Echo Studio is bouncing sound around the surfaces of your room, introducing micro-delays to certain parts of a track to make them appear to come from all around you. The mics on the Echo Studio are constantly listening to its output, adapting the sound mix for your environment and the output needed for each track.
Get a pair of Echo Studio speakers and you can make a stereo pair for immersive TV audio mixes. Just set them up in the Alexa app as left and right channels respectively, and you open up a 5.1.4 channel home cinema array. Amazon says Fire TV devices will wirelessly hook up for Dolby Atmos mixes through this process, but you’ll also be able to get your TV hooked up over a mini optical input (though this method looses access to the premium Atmos mixes).
It’s worth noting that the Echo Studio acts as a smart home hub too. With ZigBee support built in, all the most popular smart home devices will pair seamlessly with the Echo Studio and into the Alexa ecosystem. Essentially then, this is a replacement for the Echo Plus, Amazon’s previous smartest and ‘best-sounding’ speaker.
As for the rest of the feature set, if an Echo speaker can do it, the Studio can. Set timers, reminders and alarms; control smart home devices; play back music; get facts and trivia, all by asking questions with your voice. That such functionality has become second nature to users, and now almost an expectation of other rival speakers, is a testament to just how ground-breaking the Echo line was in the first place.
Here, you’ll be happy to hear that even with the Echo Studio’s increased volume output, the onboard far-field mics do surprisingly well to pick up your commands even over the din of its own loud music output.
Getting directional audio to work and be immersive is difficult. Doing it from a single speaker source is even more challenging.
It’s not without its faults, but we were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the Echo Studio’s sonic performance. It’s a powerful speaker, absolutely booming with bass force and overall volume, and easily the best-sounding Echo speaker to date.
A commitment to more robust drivers, and having strived to capture the attentions of a more discerning ear, Amazon has a speaker that easily stands alongside higher-end smart speaker set ups. Finally, Amazon has a speaker that can truly rock a party.
But the 3D audio part of the equation? That’s a mixed bag.
3D audio, comprised of a “growing library” of specially-mixed tracks (said to number in the thousands) is a feature exclusive to Echo Studio users who sign up for the company’s new Amazon Music HD streaming service. As the name suggests, it offers Hi-Res Audio versions of the majority of its catalogue, alongside the 3D audio mixes – something that rivals like Spotify currently can’t compete with. Note that in 2020 Tidal will also be offering 3D audio tracks through the Echo Studio.
So, if you request a song on the Echo Studio, and happen to be an Amazon Music HD subscriber, Alexa will pull in a version of the track in the following order of preference, where available: 3D audio > Hi-resolution > standard resolution. And, if you’re on the fence about giving the service a go, a ‘Best of 3D Music’ taster playlist is available to all to listen to, offering about 20 tracks.
[A side note: the Amazon Music app, surprisingly, seemed to struggle to connect and beam songs to the Echo Studio, where third-party apps like Spotify did not. It made for a real pain trying to line up a playlist of 3D tracks].
We’ve listened to the Echo Studio in various situations, spaces and locations since its announcement, from fleeting early listens at Amazon’s HQ in Seattle to a press event in London, to this extended review period at home. And each time we’ve come to the same conclusion – for some songs, a 3D mix is breathtaking, but with others, it just sounds confused.
When we first approached the Echo Studio at Amazon’s press briefing in Seattle, we were treated to 3D audio mixes of Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ and Gregory Porter’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Both showed an interesting challenge the Echo Studio faces – the mix of the song will be incredibly important to the audio performance of 360 tracks.
‘Rocket Man’ sounded great, but its sense of space was a bit muted. But when Porter’s ‘Mona Lisa’ kicked into gear, it was spine-tingling. As its orchestration swelled, the sense of space was welcomingly overwhelming – it felt as if we were listening to the song in an actual concert hall, with a superb sense of depth and height.
Similarly, ‘Rey’s Theme’ from Star Wars, as performed by Anne-Sophie Mutter, showed what’s possible with a great 3D mix. The soundstage feels gigantic, with defined separation between all elements of the orchestration, and a sense of being wrapped in the sound coming from the speaker. Kool and The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ similarly impressed – lead vocals sit in the fore, backing vocals seem to be coming from higher in the room, piano notes in the background, a little cocoon of scratchy funk guitar all around. It’s energetic in a whole new way.
But then you jump to something a bit crunchier, like The Killers ‘When You Were Young’, and it feels a bit messy again. Bass can boom and overpower, guitars noodle aimlessly and uncomfortably in and out of focus. For the record, this is a track we’re big fans of, and know very well – it’s almost a criticism of knowing what we’d want to hear from a 3D mix, and not having had that delivered, and how jarring that can feel.
Of course, only a fraction of songs are mixed this way, and where a native 3D audio track isn’t available, the Studio is also capable of doing a little bit of post-mixing wizardry to add height to stereo mixes.
At present, this seems to be on by default, with no means to switch it off in the Alexa app – though we’ve seen it done on test apps behind closed doors at Amazon. [Update: now the device has officially ‘launched’ there’s an option to turn off the upmixing by going into Device Settings > Echo Studio > Audio Settings and then flipping the toggle. Be ready for a jump in volume when you do.]
But from our brief listening session at Amazon HQ, we’re pleased to report that regular stereo tracks sound great too. Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name was wonderfully punchy on the low end, with a clear vocal cutting through and a good sense of separation from the top-end instruments.
TV audio performance
Perhaps one of the biggest draws to the Echo Studio over the rest of the Amazon Echo range is its ability to easily, wirelessly pair with an Amazon Fire TV device to bring cinematic audio to your TV show or movie viewing sessions.
If you’ve one of the more recent Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K models, or the Amazon Fire TV Cube, you can pair the Amazon Echo Studio to your TV streamer with just a few taps from the devices pane of the Amazon Alexa app.
If you’re upgrading from the simple speakers built into your TV, or a lowly stereo soundbar, it’s a fantastic and simple upgrade to make. You’ll get a cracking, resonant bass response, excellent volume and far more depth than a comparably-priced soundbar can offer.
With purpose-tuned Dolby Atmos soundtracks, the Echo Studio really shines. What’s great is that it’s not reserved for just Amazon’s Prime Video movies too – Netflix content and other apps delivering Atmos soundtracks will work just fine. So whether you’re being immersed in the sci-fi gun battles of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, or the steampunk cities of Amazon’s Carnival Row, the Echo Studio has you covered. We were surprised at just how well the single speaker unit was able to envelope us in – when at its best – what felt like being in a bubble of sound at the heart of the onscreen action.
As ever with virtualized surround sound, we’re not of the mind set to consider it more impactful than having discrete physical speaker channels above and behind you, hooked up to a home theater receiver. But that’s a huge expense, and not practical for all living room arrangements, making the powerful Echo Studio an impressive value option.
Some things to note – the Echo Studio is a tall-ish speaker, and so won’t sit comfortably under a TV unless that screen is mounted above it. It’ll obscure the view of a screen if it’s sat directly in front of it. As a result, you’re going to want to likely place it on some sort of stand or cabinet to the side of your TV, as placing it within an AV rack will stifle its potential for directional audio. But in doing so, you’re going to put those great sonics off center, which can be distracting. In other words, consider your AV placement well before use.
Alternatively, as pictured above, you can create a stereo pair with two Echo Studios, placing them either side of your TV and creating that standard central sweet-spot between them.
However, we’ve yet to get hold of a second Echo Studio to test this configuration, and didn’t get to spend enough time with a pair during an Amazon press event to give them a fair assessment. We’ll update this review with our thoughts on that set up as soon as we can – but it’s looking promising so far.
In the Echo Studio, Amazon has made its best speaker yet. It’s ambitious, flexible, serves multiple purposes and comes at a low price point that only a company with the scale of Amazon could competitively achieve.
It’s a bombastic speaker, packed full of not just smart home and assistant tech, but smart audio considerations too. At its best, its 3D audio effects breathe new life into your favorite songs, while even at its worst it remains a ferociously capable smart speaker. And that’s before considering its deserving place alongside your TV, too.
The audiophile community is an eternally picky one, and again the Echo Studio is unlikely to fully win them over. Inconsistencies in the quality of the 3D audio mixes will make that feature, for the time being at least, a party trick rather than a go-to draw.
But at this price point, it’s fair to say that Amazon isn’t just courting audiophile ears – it wants everyone’s ears, and is looking to romance them with a tantalizing balance between audio quality and affordability. If you’ve yet to nab an Amazon Echo speaker, the Amazon Echo Studio is the one to buy.