Hi-Fi Echoes

Amazon’s Echo Studio sets a new price for high-fidelity audio

In September 2019, Amazon announced its new Echo Studio smart speaker, marking a new level of audio quality for the company and introducing what the company calls “UHD audio”. Amazon claims this provides better-than-CD sound quality; it also enables 3D audio for music and streamed video. But one of the most intriguing details of the announcement was the price of the Echo Studio: £189.99 in the UK.

The arrival of high-resolution and 3D audio in such a low-cost device, coupled with the growing catalogue of supporting content, is an exciting competitive move that positions Amazon’s devices and streaming services strongly for the next few years.

The Echo Studio was due to ship in the UK in the first week of November 2019, but sadly, it’s now on extended delivery and won’t be available until after Christmas. So, although I heard a brief demonstration at an Amazon event, I’ve not been able to try the speaker at home on familiar content.

The Echo Studio is like a larger and chunkier Echo. It’s first and foremost a smart speaker, but with several big differences from the original Echo. One of them is the sound quality, where Amazon aimed to match that of the Sonos Play:5 in a lower cost package. The new speaker promises “UHD audio”, supporting 24-bit encoding, and Amazon has worked with music studios to tune the audio appropriately. It offers a growing catalogue of high-resolution music in Amazon Prime Music and supports other music services including Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify and TuneIn.

Another big difference is 3D audio. The Echo Studio speaker contains five drive units firing forward, sideways, upward and downward. When you set it up, it calibrates itself to the room, enabling it then to create a 3D sound stage for appropriately encoded audio streams like Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. It can’t do this with regular stereo encoding, although it offers an upscaling mode that creates a synthetic version.

More than that, Amazon uses its own synchronization protocol, running over Wi-Fi from a compatible Fire TV device, to allow the use of up to two Echo Studios and an optional Echo subwoofer as a 2.1 system. Like this, the Echo Studios create a virtual central channel as well as surround sound, making the effect more immersive. This synchronization is technically very challenging, and there’s no option to add more Echo Studios to build out the set-up further.

From the limited demonstration I heard, the Echo Studio boasts exceptional audio quality, although audiophile reviewers have formed mixed conclusions in their tests. Audio is a personal experience. The 3D sound stage is real and changes the experience somewhat: with music, the instruments are clearly positioned in space separate from each other; with video, planes appear to fly overhead, and rain falls on the floor in front of you.

Most people who care about audio quality already have a good audio set-up for music and video through surround sound systems. Many who have invested in audio devices in recent years have opted for Sonos or similar systems. Good-quality audio devices are expensive and last a long time, so unless a new audio system really brings something new, it’s pretty hard for it to convince a meaningful number of existing owners to make the switch.

The hot new technology in audio is 3D sound. So far, this has been slow to arrive in the market because the systems are expensive and there’s limited content available to stream, so customers don’t have a strong reason to upgrade.

The Echo Studio, with accompanying services, has the potential to change that. It was designed primarily as a music device. Today there are “a few hundred” songs available in 3D audio in Amazon Prime Music, but the company says it’s working back through the catalogue as fast as possible to upgrade others, where the original recording permits.

Competitively it’s an interesting move too, as neither Sonos nor Spotify, for example, has made announcements about higher-quality music playback, although Apple launched its Apple Digital Masters service in August 2019. If the Echo Studio sells well, Sonos and Spotify could feel pressure to move more quickly.

For me, the Echo Studio is at least as interesting as a TV speaker, because most new movies and TV series on Amazon Prime TV and Netflix are encoded with Dolby Atmos and some other content uses Sony 360 Reality Audio, so the catalogue is growing with contemporary material. The Fire TV supports the leading streaming services including Curzon, Netflix, HBO, Disney and YouTube. In addition, some versions of the Fire TV allow a set-top box to be connected, meaning that content streamed through the cable service gets the same treatment.

Where the Echo Studio is less successful is in its support of live TV coming from a TV aerial, rather than streamed from the Fire TV or set-top box. You can use an optical cable to connect the TV audio output to the Echo Studio, but the speaker doesn’t automatically switch between optical input and wireless audio from the Fire TV when you switch between live TV and streaming. Also, if you’re using two Echo Studios, they’re not synchronized with optical input audio, and the live TV sound only comes from the speaker with the optical cable connected.

This is less of a problem in the US, where cable TV is the norm, or for millennials, many of whom only watch streamed content. But it means that the experience for other UK viewers won’t be quite as good if they want to watch, say, The Great British Bake Off live and then stream a movie on Netflix. They will either have to physically unplug their optical cable to prevent clashes, or listen to the show through the TV’s regular (usually crappy) speakers. Live TV delivered through the antenna is still a big deal in many countries, so viewers won’t be happy with a two-tier audio experience on the same TV. Amazon will need to address this limitation if it wants to address a large market.

But this shouldn’t detract from the fact that the Echo Studio is a fascinating and disruptive device that could have a large competitive impact. I expect Amazon to make significant progress with software updates and later versions of the device.