REVIEW: Amazon Echo Studio - Smart Speaker with Dolby Atmos built in
Thanks to its wide availability, respectable pricing and compatibility with nearly all mainstream smart home devices and services, Amazon, and more specifically its Echo range of products, has built a substantial presence in the Irish smart speaker market. But, as we all know, these things aren’t just about convenience, they also serve an essential role when playing music around the home. Frustratingly this has long been a weakness for its Echo range, whose audio performance has been middling to fine, to say the least.
Amazon is looking to change this with the Echo Studio, which the company reckons is the smart-speaker of choice for audiophiles and those of you who really want fantastic audio on top of smart speaker functionality. Given that it costs a fraction of what you’d pay for a decent audio setup, I was curious to see if its performance matched the hype.
‘3D Audio’ Playback
The company says the improvement in sound has been achieved by using upgraded components, which lets the Echo Studio play Hi-Res, ‘Ultra HD’ and even ‘3D Audio’. You do of course first need to subscribe to Amazon Music HD (£12.99/month) to benefit from this, which at the time of writing is unavailable in Ireland unfortunately. Doubling down on its audio capabilities, Amazon has also added playback for tracks encoded with Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos. Yet again, neither are available to Irish purchasers, but should hopefully be made available soon.
We were lucky enough to be able to set up an Amazon Music Unlimited HD UK account which allowed us to test out the ‘3D Audio’ capabilities but it’s just something to be aware of if you’re looking to pick the Studio up in Ireland for the 3D audio features alone.
As you’d expect, the Echo Studio is capable of everything you’d expect from an Alexa-powered smart speaker so I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of that in this review. What I will say though is, its request-capturing capabilities, even when blaring tracks on the device, is still one of the better experiences out there and works pretty seamlessly, thanks to the array of microphones dotted around the device.
Now back to the 3D audio capabilities, to allow itself to pull of this audio trickery, the Echo Studio will blast out a series of test tones when setting up. This allows it to build an acoustic map of its environment. As well as bouncing sound off walls and ceilings, the Studio can introduce micro-delays into specific parts of an audio track. These tricks help to create an immersive soundstage, it’s claimed. The mics that are used to hear Alexa voice commands are also constantly listening to the Studio and the sounds it’s outputting, allowing it to tweak its output in your acoustic environment in real-time, which is pretty cool.
Unsurprisingly, given its ‘audiophile-pleasing’ credentials already, the Echo Studio supports most audio formats. These include AAC, FLAC, MP3, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus. Its DAC can also decode tracks with up to 24-bit resolution at 48kHz. There’s also a dual-band Wi-Fi adapter onboard (2.4 and 5GHz), plus support for Bluetooth, but curiously, aptX and aptX HD are not supported.
Design & Build Quality
Where the original Echo is slender, the Echo Studio is about the same height but is definitely much stockier. This extra space houses additional drivers and the larger subwoofer compartment. Otherwise, it sports the same design as previous Echos, including the blue ring which lights up when Alexa is listening to your voice.
The extra speakers take the form of two 50mm midrange drivers in a left-right configuration. There’s a 25mm forward-facing tweeter, plus a 50mm upward-firing mid. Bass comes via a down-firing 133mm woofer. They are driven by a Class D amplifier with a claimed peak power output of 330 watts.
All this means that when you’re using Amazon Music Unlimited HD to streamed 3D audio, the Studio can work its magic with tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos or 360 Reality Audio. The thinking behind this is that audio elements can be accurately positioned, resulting in a more convincing soundstage.
Delivering half-decent audio – let alone immersive and convincingly directional sound – is a challenge for any speaker. Doing it at this price point, from a single, smallish cabinet should be pretty much impossible. Once I got everything set up, I quickly fired up the ‘Best of 3D Music’ playlist on Amazon Music using Alexa, and the tracks, some more so than others, were staggeringly good!
Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ in 3D filled the room with little flourishes and the backing vocals were dancing off the walls and ceiling. HAIM’s ‘The Steps’ was visceral and bass-heavy but still allowed the high notes shine through and carry around the room. It really is quite the party piece while still delivering an experience that’s extremely enjoyable if you’re just looking to get the most from some of your favourite tracks.
Speaking of which, given that there are only about 1000 tracks that are available in the 3D format on the service, Amazon has included a ‘Stereo Spacial Enhancement’ toggle in the audio settings for the device so, for even simple stereo tracks, the device can try add ‘space, clarity and depth’ which Amazon recommends users enable for the ‘best audio experience.’
We did find, when using this particular feature on normal, none-3D audio encoded tracks, that the volume levels were reduced but they definitely filled a room more than when the setting was disabled.
Now, a true audiophile will say it’s technically impossible to get ‘3D Audio’ from a single device but, what Amazon has managed here from such respectably small speaker, all things considered, is quite the technical feat in its own right.
Bass was also equally as impressive, thanks to the 133mm woofer. Again, there’s only so much refinement you can expect from a single device so it will never be able to complete with a more robust sound system with standalone satellite speakers and hi-fi amp. These are great to have, if your home and bank balance can accommodate both but, for its £189/€217 price point and single footprint, The Echo Studio definitely delivers more than we really expected it to.
We mentioned at the start that Amazon Music Unlimited HD isn’t available in Ireland at the moment but other popular music services work equally as well with the device, albeit without the support for 3D/Ultra HD audio. Spotify worked flawlessly for us in our testing as well along with Apple Music and TIDAL. Speaking of which, unfortunately, you cannot listen to TIDAL’s new Dolby Atmos Music tracks directly on the Echo Studio as it has to be connected to a Fire TV device first before feeding the audio over.
The Amazon Echo Studio is a major leap in sound quality compared to its predecessors, not sounding anywhere near as pokey or enclosed. Yet for it to really shine, Amazon Music Unlimited HD is needed.
You can learn more about the Echo Studio on the official Amazon.co.uk page for the speaker.