Amazon Echo Studio review: At last, Alexa talks to the audiophiles

For this price, the Studio should have Sonos scared

Amazon Echo Studio
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Amazon has spent years telling us how great its smart speakers sound for listening to music, but it can finally stop pretending.

The Echo Studio is Amazon’s first true attempt at offering a smart speaker that can go head to head with the HomePod and the Sonos speakers of the world.

And at just $199 it's going right up against the Sonos One, one of the best Alexa-loaded smart speakers on the market right now. It's available at a price that could entice people to have two Echo Studios working in tandem – and perhaps hook them up to the Echo Sub for an added bass kick.

Read this: The best Alexa speakers

The Studio also take advantage of Amazon Music’s high-definition tier which includes a (limited) range of 3D audio tracks. In fact, it’s 3D audio that Amazon hopes will make the Studio stand out from the crowd – and it’s a big crowd.

The Studio sounds great, but where does it sit in the arena of smart speakers, and is 3D audio worth it? Here’s our full verdict.

First listen: Amazon Echo Studio takes Alexa high-end at last

Amazon Echo Studio: Design and setup

Clear some space – the Echo Studio is going to need a lot of it. At just over 8 inches in height and nearly 7 inches wide, this smart speaker is large and in charge.

The Studio has a cylindrical design, but as those dimensions tell you it’s much more rotund than Amazon’s “regular” Echo speakers. It looks like a HomePod that pounded one too many protein shakes.

That’s not to say it’s ugly, but it’s also not much of a looker. Side by side with other smart speakers, it is certainly one of the biggest, towering over the HomePod and the Sonos One.

However, the Studio only comes in black, whereas most of Amazon’s other Echo speakers have multiple options.

More important is what you can’t see: three 5cm midrange speakers, a 25mm forward-firing tweeter, a 5cm upward-firing midrange speaker (which helps with that 3D audio), and a downward-firing 5.25-inch bass driver.

First look: Amazon Echo Studio takes Alexa high-end at last

But this is an Alexa speaker too, of course, complete with the trademark green-blue Alexa ring on top that lights up when the assistant is listening. There are also four buttons along the roof of the Studio: two volume buttons, a mic-mute button, and a button to wake Alexa.

To set up the Studio, you simply follow the usual process in the Amazon Alexa app: find it, name it, allocate it to a room. It really is very quick and easy (so long as you already have an account and have the app running); we had our Studio knocking out the hits in a couple of minutes.

First listen: Amazon Echo Studio takes Alexa high-end at last

Amazon Echo Studio: Features

For the most part, the Echo Studio is just a regular Echo that’s been massively beefed up in the acoustics department. That means you can call on Alexa for all your usual queries and commands, and it means integration with all of your smart home devices too. This being a first-party speaker, it also guarantees to get all the new features before other third-party speakers.

There are two ‘levels’ to the Studio experience. The first is stereo sound, for which you can use many streaming services including Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal and more.

You can control these services on the Studio using your phone or have Alexa control the playback with voice controls.

If you’re familiar with using Alexa as a DJ, you’ll know that you can select a default service in the app, so selecting Spotify means you can simply say, “Alexa, play Grizzly Bear” rather than specifying, “Alexa, play Grizzly Bear on Spotify.”

And if you’re not using a compatible music service, you can connect to the Echo Studio via Bluetooth too.

The second level to the Studio listening experience is Amazon Music HD, which is locked inside the Amazon Music app and costs $12.99 a month to access. Within this, you’ll get high-res and 3D audio, and this is where the Studio really tries to carve out its own unique space.

First listen: Amazon Echo Studio takes Alexa high-end at last

The other unique feature of the Studio is the built in Zigbee hub, which otherwise only features on the Echo Show and Echo Plus. This allows you to connect supported Zigbee devices direct to the Studio, as opposed to via a bridge/hub of their own – Philips Hue lights, for example, can be directly controlled by the Studio.

The Echo Studio can also perform as Dolby Atmos speaker for your TV, but only with Fire TV devices (this is Amazon’s world you’re living in, after all). You can also hook up two Echo Studio speakers with an Echo Sub for the fully-loaded home theater setup.

Blasting Dolby Atmos content through it sounds truly wonderful, but there’s sadly just not enough of it out there right now. We’d hoped that would change with the Apple TV app rolling out to Amazon Fire TV devices, but annoyingly the app doesn’t support Dolby Atmos. That’s a bummer because Apple has long had the best selection of Atmos content.

First look: Amazon Echo Studio takes Alexa high-end at last

Amazon Echo Studio: 3D audio and sound quality

So how does this all sound? There's no doubt that this is the best sounding Echo by a country mile – but your $199 doesn't quite unseat Sonos yet.

The Echo Studio offers a spacious sound, but isn't world beating at low or high ends. It won't wow you with bass, but your music will sound superb, and you'll likely pick out details you've not heard before, thanks in no small part to the boosted quality of Amazon Music HD.

So, it's time to talk 3D audio, one of the major features Amazon is hanging the Studio on.

The format is supposed to product a more spatial quality that envelops you in the music, giving you the sense that instruments are positioned around the room. Amazon uses both Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio codecs in the tracks to make this happen.

However, the number of 3D audio tracks right now is very low – around 1,000 by Amazon’s count. Handily, Amazon has collated many of them into playlists inside the app, which only subscribers to the HD tier will see.

But the more pertinent question here is, does the 3D actually work? Yes, but not as noticeably as we thought it would; it really seems to depend on the song and the way in which it's been mixed for 3D.

Elton John’s Rocket Man in 3D was barely better to our ear, but Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds had a more obvious boost over its stereo version. Same with Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, which produced a more "surrounding" sound.

When it works, the separation does give the song a wider sense of scale, but a few tracks we tested actually felt strangely overproduced in their 3D mix. In sum: it really depends on the song.

Echo Studio
Echo Studio

Is 3D audio a reason to buy the Echo Studio? We don’t think so, at least not yet, but that may change once there are more tracks supporting the format.

Don’t expect it to happen overnight, although Tidal is expected to roll out 3D audio on its HiFi service next year. Amazon also told us that it's also working with Warner, Sony and Universal to grow its own collection.

First listen: Amazon Echo Studio takes Alexa high-end at last

All that said, we still think there are plenty of good reasons to buy the Studio. If you’re willing to pay for Amazon Music, you’ll get access to lossless quality.

Studio still supports CD-quality lossless 16-bit 44.1kHz audio or in "Ultra HD" 24-bit with sample rates up to 192kHz.Both of these sound better than your average MP3s, like the ones you'll find on Spotify.

The Studio also adapts acoustically to its surroundings. The seven microphones on top, while ears for Alexa, also let the Studio analyze how sound is bouncing around the room and tune itself to sound better.

It's the same feature found in the HomePod and Sonos One, and means you don't have to worry too much about where you're placing it (although we'd recommend a nice open spot if possible).

Speaking of which, we tested the Studio against the HomePod, Sonos One, Sonos Play:5 and Sonos Move. In terms of audio quality alone, it's punching above Apple's speaker and to most people's ears on par with the Sonos One.

However, the Play:5 still beats the Studio in overall balance. The Studio’s biggest flaw is its bass response, which can be overwhelming in some mixes, and overall feels less tight than on Sonos speakers.

So they key question for most people will be whether to opt for the Studio over a Sonos. If Alexa is already embedded into your home, then you should give Studio serious consideration, as it's a far better smart speaker.

However, the $200 Studio also costs $100 less than the HomePod and $300 less than the Play:5.

For Amazon's rivals, that price should be a much bigger concern than 3D audio, and makes this smart speaker all the more convincing.

Echo Studio
The Studio is an impressive attempt to woo audiophiles, with a price tag that makes the Studio a serious threat to Sonos, the HomePod and other rivals Combined with Amazon Music's new HD music subscription tier, Amazon isn't only matching its high-end music rivals, but punching above some of them. Throw in that Zigbee radio and Alexa, and you've got the most impressive Echo speaker yet.
  • Powerful sound
  • Works as a Dolby Atmos TV speaker
  • Hi-res audio
  • Not many 3D tracks right now
  • Really needs Amazon Music HD
  • Bass could be tighter

The latest Echo / Alexa devices reviewed

Amazon Echo (2019) review
Amazon's Echo Dot with Clock review
Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019) review
Amazon Echo Show 5 review
Amazon Echo Sub review
Amazon Echo Wall Clock review
Amazon Echo Input review
Amazon Smart Plug review
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review
Amazon Echo Show review
Amazon Echo Dot (3rd generation) review
Amazon Flex review
Amazon Echo Plus review

TAGGED    amazon alexa    smart speakers

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