Amazon Echo Studio Smart Speaker Review
Does the reality match the hype? Pat Pilcher sounds out this small smartspeaker…
Echo Studio Smart Speaker
Thanks to its wide availability, keen price and compatibility with smart home gear, Amazon has built a substantial presence in the Australasian smart speaker market. Yet such things aren’t just about convenience, they also serve an essential role playing music. Frustratingly this has long been a weakness for its Echo range, whose audio performance has been middling, to say the least.
Amazon says this has changed with the Echo Studio, which the company reckons is the smart-speaker of choice for audiophiles, no less. 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. At AU$329, it faces stiff competition.
The company says the improvement in sound has been achieved by the use of upgraded componentry, which lets the Echo Studio play hi-res audio. You do of course first need to subscribe to Amazon Music HD to benefit from this, which at the time of writing is unavailable in Australasia. Doubling down on its sonic capabilities, Amazon has also added playback for audio encoded with Sony’s 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos. Yet again, neither are available to Australasian purchasers, as they’re still US exclusives. Sigh…
Pulling off this 3D audio trickery involves the Studio first blurting 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 also listen to the Studio, allowing it to tweak its output in your acoustic environment in real-time.
The Studio supports most audio formats. These include AAC, FLAC, MP3, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus. Its DAC can 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.
Where the original Echo is slender, the Studio is about the same height but has a larger circumference. This extra space houses additional drivers. It otherwise 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 Amazon makes streamed 3D audio available in our part of the world, 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 mission impossible. I duly fired up Holst’s Planet Suite via Amazon Music, and the soundstage felt expansive – with strings sat off to the right, brass and woodwind on the left and percussion to the rear. Although this isn’t recognisably ‘3D audio’ to any audiophile, for a single small speaker, it proved surprisingly good.
Bass was also impressive, all things considered. Pitch Black’s Third Light showed a tight and controlled bottom end, with a balanced midband and a treble performance that was in no way shrill. All the way up and down the frequency range, there were no noticeable holes. All told then, Amazon’s Echo Studio sounds great – just not audiophile great. Its sound is balanced but of course, lacks the refinement and subtlety of a pair of Martin Logans and a serious hi-fi amplifier. That’s no big surprise – the Studio costs AU$329, which is roughly what many audiophiles pay for a budget interconnect…
This product brings about a major leap in sound quality compared to its predecessors, not sounding anywhere near as pokey. Yet for it to really shine, Amazon Music HD is needed. If you want all the smart-speaker goodies such as smart home voice control, reminders, timers and so on, then the Studio is an excellent choice – but its best is yet to come.
For more information, visit Amazon Echo.
Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Stuff as well as Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.