Over the years, we at Home Theater Review had quite a bit to say about Amazon's Echo line of smart speakers, as well as the Alexa digital voice assistant built therein. We've covered these devices from the perspective of their impact on the custom installation industry. We've discussed them in terms of convenience and privacy concerns. Hell, we've even covered them from the point-of-view of a germophobe, and I made a video covering the basics of smart home control using an Echo paired with a Control4 automation system.
The thing is, though, while many of us here at Home Theater Review employ Echo devices to feed our hi-fi systems, we've never really discussed the speakers themselves from the standpoint of sound quality. And there's a good reason for that: They have traditionally sounded like crap. Great DACs, mind you. Great hardware overall. Just lackluster speaker design and pretty pitiful drivers. Which is why I've never used Echo devices on their own for music listening. My daily news brief and a game of Jeopardy, followed by the weather forecast? Sure. A Sly & the Family Stone dance party, though? Nuh uh. For that, I've always hardwired them to a preamp or integrated amp or connected them via Bluetooth to various beefier wireless speakers in and around the house.
That changed when I received an Echo Studio ($199) as part of my research for an article for another publication. Due to the functionality of this wacky little speaker (as well as the nature of that article), I had no choice but to audition the Studio on its own. And after five minutes of listening, I was so smitten by this weird little contraption that I shelled out 200 of my own hard-earned dollars for a second Echo Studio so I could stereo-pair them.
But before we follow that road much farther, let's back up and talk about what the Echo Studio is, because it's quite unlike any wireless speaker released by any other manufacturer to date. The short story is: it's a stout little teapot of a thing with Dolby Atmos capabilities.
A slightly longer explanation is that it's an 8.1-inch tall cylinder with a 6.9-inch diameter packing five drivers in total: two 2-inch (51mm) midrange drivers facing left and right; one forward-facing, 1-inch (25mm) tweeter; a down-firing 5.25-inch (133mm) woofer with two capsule-shaped bass apertures facing forward and backward near the bottom of the cabinet; and a 2-inch (51 mm) midrange driver that fires upward, straight toward the ceiling.
It's the latter, of course, that most contributes to the room-filling immersive sound with both stereo and Dolby Atmos-encoded music. An Echo Studio (or two) can also be paired with newer Amazon Fire TV products to deliver Atmos soundtracks from movies and TV shows.
Amazon doesn't disclose the pedigree of the DAC chip used in the Echo Studio, but does list it as a being 24-bit capable. The DAC feeds into an amplifier with 330 watts peak output, with bandwidth rated at 100 kHz. Supported audio formats include FLAC, MP3, AAC, Ogg Opus, Ogg Vorbis, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Atmos, and Sony 360 Reality Audio/MPEG-H. Supported streaming music services include Amazon Music, Amazon Music HD, Apple Music, Deezer, iHeartRadio, Pandora, SiriusXM, Spotify, Tidal, and TuneIn.
The Echo Studio also includes a built-in Zigbee hub for smart home devices, and although I could find fault with the fact that it doesn't support the far more common Z-Wave standard, that's really outside the scope of this review. We'll primarily be looking at the Studio as a voice-controlled speaker.
In addition to dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, 2.4 and 5 GHz) and Bluetooth (version unspecified), the Amazon Echo Studio's only audio connectivity comes from a 3.5mm mini-optical Toslink input right next to its power receptacle on the bottom of the unit's backside. The mini-Toslink may be handy if you want to use the Studio as a soundbar but don't have an Amazon Fire device, or if you want to use it for all your connected AV devices by way of your TV's optical output. This connection only supports up to 5.1-channel audio, though.
The only listed Bluetooth protocols are A2DP for audio compression (no AAC or aptX), and AVRCP for voice control of connected devices.
Setup of the Studio is, for the most part, identical to the configuration process for any Echo device. The Alexa app walks you through account setup and Wi-Fi connectivity in a guided process that takes just a few minutes. The one major difference in terms of initial setup is that once the speaker is connected to your network, it plays a series of test tones that Amazon says analyzes the acoustics of your room and adjusts audio filters for optimal sound quality. After the initial setup, the Echo Studio constantly self-monitors itself, listening to its own playback to continuously adjust these filters without forcing you to re-run the initial setup. The only way to force the test tones to play again is to reset the device and start the process from scratch.
Truth be told, if this "Automatic room adaptation" has any real impact on the tonal balance of the speaker, I haven't been able to pick up on it any of the times I've moved the Echo Studio from one location to another. It could be that what it's listening for is the delay caused by bouncing the sound from its side- and up-firing drivers off the walls and ceiling, but I'm not 100-percent certain about that, and Amazon ain't telling.
Other setup functions found in the Alexa app include the expected smart home configuration, as well as the installation of other skills (like my beloved Jeopardy J!6). You'll also need to use the app if you want to create a stereo pair of identical Echo speakers or if you want to create a home theater setup with the Amazon Fire TV. In that case, you will need to tell the app which speaker is the left and which is the right.
One key setup feature of the Studio you won't find when digging around the settings of other Echo speakers is something called "Stereo Spatial Enhancement," which you can think of as an immersive-audio upmixer for stereo music. This adds a pronounced height-speaker effect to streams that aren't encoded for such, and we'll dig into its effects a bit more in the next section.
As you might expect, one other difference between the setup of the Studio and other Echo devices is that positioning has a much greater impact on the performance of this one. Generally speaking, it's best to avoid corner placement (although if you only have one Echo Studio and corner placement is the best you can do, make sure to angle it diagonally out from the corner so that neither of its side-firing drivers is aimed directly at a wall. And since there aren't drivers facing in every direction, placement in the middle of the room (on a coffee table, for example) doesn't make as much sense with the Studio as it does with the Echo and Dot.
My preferred height placement for the speaker really depended upon the task for which I was using it. For general room-filling music-listening, either from a single Echo Studio or a bonded pair, I really found that what worked best for me was placement a foot or so above ear level. This results in a somewhat stronger height-channel effect, and in the end this is how I left my Studio pair, since my wife and I have discovered that we really love the effect of one cabinet placed on either side of the room when we're listening to the Thunderstorm Sounds of Nature album that plays as part of our "Good Night" automation routine and lulls us to sleep.
Flanked by the two speakers as we're drifting into slumberland, the aural effect is very nearly akin to having a full-fledged Dolby Atmos system cranking out thunderstorm sounds in the room. The audio is as enveloping as it is immersive, and in this configuration, each of the speakers is rather difficult to locate by ear alone. Or, I should say, it's much more difficult than a similar setup including only one Echo Studio speaker, which still delivers quite a room-filling bubble of thunderstorm audio -- but one that obviously leans hard to one side of the room.
Of course, you're not here to hear about thunderstorm sounds, are you? Fortunately, all of the above can be said about music, as well. Listening to a pair of Echo Studios positioned at around 90 degrees left and right about a foot above ear level, delivers a music listening experience quite unlike anything I've ever heard from any other wireless music speaker.
And just as a quick aside here, I should note that all of these observations are based on Software Version 4128034692. I mention that only because Amazon occasionally makes tweaks to the sonic performance of the Echo Studio, with the last major sonic tweak coming in Version 3389727620. Before this update, users reported very poor sound quality with "Stereo Spatial Enhancement" engaged. Since I can only speak to the latest version and its performance, I'm not certain how much difference it made, but allegedly it was substantial.
At any rate, listening to Pink Floyd's "Money" from Dark Side of the Moon (Spotify Premium, Very High Quality) with "Stereo Spatial Enhancement" turned on and the speakers to my left and right isn't quite like listening to the 5.1 or quad mix from the Immersion box set with Atmos upmixing engaged. But it's still a hell of a lot of fun. The interplay between the cash registers used as percussion in the intro results in a really neat effect as they bounce back and forth between the left and right channels through a pair of Echo Studios. The effect puts you inside the song rather than creating distinct soundstages in front of and behind you. Is it exactly the experience that James Guthrie (or Alan Parsons, for that matter) intended? No. Do I think they would both dig it? I do.
Native Dolby Atmos music sounded even better, with stronger and more deliberate height effects and a more open sound overall. With Post Malone's "Circles" (Amazon Music HD, Dolby Atmos), for example, you can hear a good deal of direct sound for the vocals, but the processed decay and echo for those vocals comes through with a reverberant and diffuse room-filling sound that seems to come from everywhere at once. The same is also true of the strummed acoustic guitar. And the thing is, none of this has the quality of processed sound that you hear from a lot of soundbars attempting to do surround sound. Instead, it's natural, organic, and simply a delightful experience overall.
I should probably stop and mention here that I did not mate the Studio (or Studios) with the Echo Sub. It was available as a $129.99 add-on purchase when I bought my second Studio(not sure if it would have shipped immediate with my purchase, as the main listing for the Sub includes an in-stock date of two months from now), but I'm quite satisfied with the bass output of the Studio by itself. And I'm doubly happy with the bass output of two of them paired.
Low frequencies don't really start rolling off until around 40Hz; I'd peg the -3dB point at around 35 or 36Hz and the -6dB point at 'round about 33Hz or so. Not shabby at all for a speaker this small.
According to Amazon's specs, low frequency response of the Echo Sub is rated at 30Hz (-6dB), so it will dig a little deeper than the Studio, despite not being significantly larger at 8 inches tall with an 8.3-inch diameter. At any rate, it's certainly something to consider if you intend to use a Studio or two to set up an all-Amazon home theater setup for your Fire TV.
In that case, of course, you're going to want to set it (or them) up a little differently. When pairing my Studios with my Fire TV Stick 4K (freshly pulled out of its prison in my top dresser drawer purely for the purposes of this review, since I normally can't abide using the thing), I moved the speakers to the front of the room, flanking my TV, and found that I preferred them at ear level.
Running through a handful of Dolby Atmos demos from Amazon Prime Video (Carnival Row and Jack Ryan, primarily), I frankly found the listening experience surprisingly good. I could hear sound effects -- not necessarily behind me but definitely to my sides -- as well as overhead. And again, the effect didn't come with that overly processed quality that bothers me with most faux-surround soundbars. Bottom line, if I didn't already have a full-fledged surround sound speaker setup in my bedroom (and assuming I could stand to use the Fire TV Stick for my daily streaming needs, which I can't -- Roku or GTFO), I would opt for a pair of Studios long before I would consider adding a soundbar to this room. The only real downside is that dialogue clarity isn't as good as it would be with the best 3.1 or even 5.1 soundbar systems, given the lack of a dedicated center channel.
One thing I noticed is that I didn't get as much out of the "Stereo Spatial Enhancement" processing when listening to stereo music when the pair of speakers were placed at the front of the room. Native Dolby Atmos streams still sounded great, but stereo music upmixed for immersive sound didn't spark the same joy as when the speakers were located toward the sides of the room and closer to my ears.
Turning off "Stereo Spatial Enhancement" does change the sound of the speakers quite a bit, too, at least for stereo material (even with it off, Atmos-encoded material sounds the same). The biggest difference is that with the setting turned off, you get a few decibels' worth of boost in overall output, as well as the perception of more energy between roughly 100 and 500 Hz. Needless to say, the sound also becomes much more direct and much less affected by speaker placement when "Stereo Spatial Enhancement" is disengaged.
It's also worth mentioning that no matter where the speakers were placed and regardless of whether "Stereo Spatial Enhancement" was turned on or off, I found the Echo Studio's responsiveness to voice commands downright incredible, especially compared to the first-generation Echo devices I've owned for years now. Even with Pink Floyd or Post Malone or Jack Ryan cranked to the high heavens, I barely had to raise my voice above a mutter for Alexa to hear me calling her name.
While I absolutely adore the sound of the Amazon Echo Studio -- especially in pairs -- and while I contend that it's the best all-around smart speaker you can buy at the moment, that isn't to say that it's what you'd call a high-fidelity audiophile speaker. Yes, bass is surprisingly strong for such a small speaker, but it isn't as precise and refined as the bottom end you'd get from something like the Sonos One (although, of course, the One doesn't dig nearly as deep).
What's more, the midrange and low midrange frequencies (from, say, 2000Hz down to 250Hz or so) are a bit uneven. Overall midrange is pretty well balanced with the highs and lows. But within the midrange itself, I'm not hearing the same smoothness I get from my Sonos Ones.
What's more, while the Sonos One delivers respectably flat high-frequency performance all the way out to where my middle-aged ears start to give up (around 16.2kHz these days), I can hear the Echo Studio start to roll off at around 10kHz. None of these issues are dealbreakers for me, obviously, but if you're super picky about fidelity even for your background music, this might not be the smart speaker for you.
In terms of functionality, I'm a bit bummed out by the lack of Qobuz support on the Echo platform. I'm also a little disappointed by the fact that you can't use Bluetooth audio to play music to a stereo pair of Echo Studios. The only way they act as a true stereo pair is if you use the optical input, start your music with a verbal command, or cast to the speakers via Wi-Fi (with Spotify Connect, for example). Or, of course, feed them audio from your Fire TV.
Perhaps the biggest downer is the fact that the Echo Studio won't play Dolby Atmos audio directly from Tidal, a streaming service it supports. Or, I should say, it won't play Atmos audio from Tidal on its own. To get Atmos from Tidal to work, you have to connect your Echo Studios to a Fire TV and use that media player's Tidal app. To put it bluntly, that's stupid.
One last subjective grump is that the Echo Studio only comes in one drab color: Charcoal. I'd love to see the speaker offered with the Heather Gray, Plum, and Sandstone fabrics available on the Echo Dot.
Be sure to scroll back up and read the beginning of the Downsides section for some comparisons between the sonic performance of the Echo Studio and Sonos One (also $199). If you're just looking for the TL;DR, the Sonos One has more refined bass, although it doesn't dig nearly as deep, and its midrange is smoother. The Sonos One also plays surprisingly flat out to the limits of my auditory acuity (~16.2kHz), while the Echo Studio starts rolling off around 10kHz.
The Sonos One, of course, doesn't support Dolby Atmos audio (although the $799 Sonos Arc does). But it can be stereo paired and can be used as surround speakers for the Arc. Add a Sonos Sub, and you've got a complete wireless Atmos sound system with a legitimate front soundstage and center channel.
If you're not interested in Atmos and not interested in Sonos, I might recommend the bog-standard $99 Amazon Echo (3rd Gen). It comes in your choice of Charcoal, Heather Gray, Twilight Blue, and Sandstone fabric coverings and, just like the Echo Studio, can be paired as a standalone stereo system or as a sound system for the Fire TV.
The Echo's bass driver in only 3 inches in diameter, so it doesn't play nearly as deep as that of the Studio -- you really don't get a lot of useable energy below 75Hz or so. So, if you're considering a pair of Echoes for stereo music listening or to augment your video streaming, you might consider adding the Echo Sub ($129), assuming you can get your hands on one. As of this writing (September 10, 2020), Amazon lists the Sub as being out of stock until November 14).
For that matter, the third-generation Echo seems to be out of stock right now pretty much everywhere. That may be due to COVID-related manufacturing delays, or it could be a signal that Amazon has a fourth-gen unit on the way sooner rather than later. I'll be bummed if it's the latter, since I just replaced all of my first-generation Echoes with new third-gen units in rooms where I don't listen to much music (like the kitchen, where I mainly use Alexa for reminders, timers, recipes, and my morning game of Jeopardy J!6).
Update (September 24, 2020): My latter suspicion turned out to be true. Amazon has just announced a new fourth-generation Echo, with a radical new spherical design and Zigbee functionality borrowed from the Echo Plus. Pricing remains at $99, and the new fourth-gen unit will begin shipping on October 22, 2020.
If you're more of an Apple fan (and again, assuming you don't want Atmos capabilities), there is, of course, the Apple HomePod ($299.99). I don't have a lot of experience with the HomePod, but in my limited listening sessions I've found its mids and high frequencies to be somewhat clearer than those of the Echo Studio, although not commensurate with the price delta. Although it's not the focus of this review, I also find the HomePod's smart speaker functionality to be subpar, especially when compared with the Echo lineup.
If you compare the Amazon Echo Studio to a component Dolby Atmos sound system with a high-quality AV receiver and a few thousand bucks' worth of speakers, of course the Studio is going to come up short. That said, I've spent the past few months strenuously testing all of the major wireless speakers currently available on the market, and the Studio is the only one that so thoroughly won my heart I spent my own money to buy a second one.
In fact, I'm seriously on the verge of buying another pair for my home office. Again, in terms of pure sound quality, the Echo Studios don't hold their own against my dedicated two-channel music system in that room. But you know what? I find myself using the Studios more. And I find myself having more fun with them.
Whether you need one Echo Studio or a pair of them to get the most out of this strange 3D speaker largely depends on the size of your room, where you plan to place it (or them), and whether you care about complete immersion from your background music. But whether you opt for one or two or a houseful of them, the ease of use, quick access to content, simplicity of setup, room-filling sound, and digital voice assistant functionality more than make up for any minor deficiencies in fidelity, at least in my book.