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Amazon Echo Studio review: finally, an Echo that sounds great

The Studio is a great-sounding smart speaker that has some silly gimmicks you can thankfully ignore

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For the first time in four years of reviewing Echo speakers, I can finally say that there is an Amazon Echo that actually sounds good for listening to music — which is the main thing people do with their smart speakers. The new Echo Studio is not only the best-sounding Echo speaker ever made, it is perhaps the best-sounding smart speaker I’ve tested, regardless of brand, manufacturer, or even price. On top of that, the $199.99 Echo Studio is also a surprisingly competent home theater speaker when paired with one of Amazon’s Fire TV devices.

But the Echo Studio is not content with just being the best-sounding smart speaker or providing a better sound than speakers that cost considerably more. It’s also trying to drive support for an entirely new format of audio, and that’s where its ambitions get ahead of its capabilities, at least for now. When I first got a demo of the Echo Studio in Amazon’s offices earlier this year, I walked away very impressed and under the impression that its 3D music capabilities were something of note. After testing the Studio for a week in my home and comparing it against a variety of other similar smart speakers, I’m less bullish on 3D audio than I thought I’d be and I don’t think most people should buy the Studio for its 3D music capabilities.

Those criticisms wither away when I listen to standard stereo music on the Studio, though. You don’t need gimmicky 3D audio when you have a speaker that sounds this good and only costs $200.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Echo Studio is how much speaker you get for $200. Inside the roughly eight-inch tall by seven-inch diameter fabric-covered cylinder are no fewer than five drivers, including a 5.25-inch downward-firing woofer; three two-inch midrange speakers that fire left, right, and out of the top; and a one-inch forward-facing tweeter. All of that is powered by a 330-watt amp with a 24-bit DAC. There’s also a bass port for the woofer that gives the Studio a face-like appearance when you look at it.

Thanks to all of those drivers, the Studio is the most advanced Echo speaker Amazon has ever released. It’s also the biggest Echo speaker Amazon sells (not counting the Echo Sub, which isn’t a standalone smart speaker). It takes up more space than the Echo, Apple’s HomePod, the Sonos One, or even the Sonos Move. That makes the Studio tough to put in places like on a kitchen counter or a nightstand in your bedroom — it’s really designed to be in a larger space like a living room. I found space for it on the entertainment console near my TV, but you might have to do some planning in your home to figure out where to put this thing, as you’re not going to want to hide it on a bookshelf.

The Echo Studio has the same light ring that glows blue whenever Alexa is listening; same four buttons for volume, muting, and other controls; and same seven always-listening mics for hearing your voice commands as the standard Echo — this is basically the same Echo smart speaker you’re already familiar with, just in a larger shell with better speakers. The Studio even has a Zigbee hub built into it that lets you directly connect smart home devices to it, just like the Echo Plus and Echo Show. You can use the Studio for all the things you might ask Alexa for on any other Echo, including weather, smart home controls, grocery lists, random facts, Audible books, and more.

The Studio is larger than the Sonos One or Apple HomePod.
The Studio is larger than the Sonos One or Apple HomePod.

The Studio also uses those onboard mics to continually tune its sound for the room its placed in, just like Apple’s HomePod, Google’s Home Max, or the Sonos Move.

You can choose from a variety of streaming music services to play on the Studio, including Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Pandora, SiriusXM, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. The Studio will play stereo music from any of those sources, either through their smartphone apps or by voice commands to Alexa.

But to access all the Studio’s audio features, you need to use Amazon’s $12.99 per month Music HD service with it, which includes support for high-res tracks and its new 3D music format. (Amazon says that Tidal HiFi will also support 3D music starting next year.) 3D music is a brand-new way to mix music that provides a more spatial experience than a standard stereo mix. It’s not unlike how Dolby Atmos provides a more spatial surround sound experience for movies — in fact, one of the two 3D music codecs is called Dolby Atmos Music (the other is Sony’s 360 Reality Audio). The Echo Studio is the first speaker to support this new format, in either Dolby or Sony’s forms.

Tracks that have been mixed in 3D music are intended to fill the room differently than a standard stereo song. There’s supposed to be a feeling that you’re being surrounded by music, and thanks to the ability for producers to put sounds and effects in different physical locations, it should sound like certain instruments are behind you. 

The familiar Alexa light ring, and buttons for volume and mute are present on the Studio.
The familiar Alexa light ring, and buttons for volume and mute are present on the Studio.

In reality, the effect is less impressive and honestly a little weird to get used to. Amazon says you should be able to close your eyes and feel like the music is coming from all around, as opposed to a specific location where the speaker is placed, but in my experience my ears were never fooled — it always sounded like the music was coming from the direction of where the Echo Studio was. 3D tracks tend to have a bit more presence and a larger soundstage than standard stereo songs, but they also can sound more “processed” and less natural.

Songs mixed in the 3D music format can also just sound… different than the standard stereo tracks you’re used to hearing. Did you know there’s a whole orchestra of strings in Cam’ron’s 2002 hit “Oh Boy”? Well, there isn’t if you are listening to the stereo version of the song, but for some reason the 3D version has them. It goes without saying that it completely changes the character of the song. When asked about the discrepancy, an Amazon spokesperson said “artists may choose to use the same sounds and objects comprising the stereo version or they may add new ones when they’re mixing in 3D.” But if you ask me, Han shot first and “Oh Boy” doesn’t have strings.

Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” fares better with the multiple layers available in the 3D mix, as does “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye — both sound more immersive and enveloping than the stereo versions, while staying true to what the originals sounded like.

But because songs must be specifically mixed to support 3D music, there are very few available to listen to right now. Amazon Music HD has a “Best of 3D music” playlist that has a mere 20 songs across a variety of genres (but no metal or punk tracks, to my dismay) and the company was only able to give me a list of another 26 3D music songs to test on the Studio that aren’t in the playlist. 

Amazon says that there are currently “thousands” of 3D music tracks available and more are being added all the time, but actually finding them to listen to is almost impossible outside of Amazon’s recommended playlists. There are no full albums that I was able to find, and landing on a 3D music track largely consists of asking Alexa to play a song and then looking in the Amazon Music app on my phone to see if it has the special badge that indicates it’s playing in 3D on the Studio. It’s a mostly unsuccessful crapshoot.

That means that most of the time you’ll be listening to stereo music on the Studio. Fortunately, it sounds excellent playing stereo tracks, with a loud, full output, clear highs, and decent bass response. By default, the Studio will apply a “Stereo Spatial Enhancement” to stereo tracks using Atmos technology to give them some of the 3D music feel, but it mostly just sounds echo-y, like the song has been slathered with way too much reverb. Turning that off in the Alexa app increases the volume of stereo tracks and improves the quality of them significantly.

Some might find the Studio’s sound to be too “clinical,” as it lacks some of the warmth of other speakers. I’d have liked to have even more powerful bass from it, like Sonos’ speakers. But overall there really is not much to complain about with its sound. You can increase the bass response with an Echo Sub, but I’d be surprised if anyone really bothers to do that.

If you don’t care about 3D music (which at this point, you probably shouldn’t) then using other music services on the Echo Studio is fine, as Spotify sounded just as good as Amazon Music HD in my tests.

Compared to the similarly sized Sonos Move, the Studio is louder and better at filling the room with sound, but the Move has a stronger attack and tighter bass response (that’s not too surprising, as Sonos speakers tend to punch above their weight when it comes to bass response). Next to Apple’s HomePod, the Studio is louder, clearer, and just overall better-sounding. As I observed in my Sonos Move review, the HomePod sounds like it has a filter over it masking its clarity and output when compared to either the Sonos or the Studio.

To really challenge the Studio, I had to move up to the Sonos Play:5, which has much better bass and a more realistic stereo separation than the Studio. Everything just sounds better on the Play:5 compared to the Studio. But the Play:5 isn’t a smart speaker and costs $500. There really isn’t anything I’ve tested that can compete with the Studio at or even for a couple of hundred dollars more than its price point.

The Echo Studio further separates itself from the rest of the smart speaker competition with its ability to work as a Dolby Atmos home theater speaker when paired with a compatible Fire TV device (first or second-gen Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick 4K, or third-gen Fire TV, but no TVs with Fire TV software built in). It’s the first truly wireless Dolby Atmos speaker, and it provides a much better sound experience than you can get with your TV’s speakers or a comparably priced soundbar. It even gives the much larger and more expensive Dolby Atmos soundbar and sub I own a run for its money.

You can use two Studio speakers and an Echo Sub in a home theater setup. But even with just the one speaker and no sub attached, Atmos movies and TV shows sound excellent through the Studio, with noticeable spatial effects and much more presence than what you get from the built-in speakers on your TV. The Studio’s 3D effects are much more appreciated and effective here than while listening to music.

But there are limitations: your TV will revert to its own speakers whenever you’re watching something that isn’t on the Fire TV, and there isn’t exactly a ton of Atmos content available on the Fire TV outside of Jack Ryan and whatever Netflix has. Still, it’s a painless setup (just link the Fire TV and Echo Studio in the Alexa smartphone app and you’re done) to get much better sound than your TV’s speakers for both standard and Atmos content. Apple’s HomePod has similar capabilities with the Apple TV, but it doesn’t support Atmos mixes and is underwhelming compared to the Studio.

Ever since the original Echo came out and people have been using Alexa and other voice assistants for playing music far more than any other task, we’ve been wanting an Echo speaker that actually sounds great. The Studio is finally that Echo speaker — it sounds excellent, is a fully capable smart speaker, can also work as a home theater speaker, and costs less than you’d expect.

The Studio isn’t the speaker of the future, it’s merely an excellent smart speaker for today, and that’s more than enough to recommend it.

Photography by Dan Seifert / The Verge

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