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Amazon Echo Studio review: Biggest, best Echo sound yet

This big Amazon speaker can fill a room with music or home-theater audio, and sensitive mics mean you don't have to shout.

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Ty Pendlebury
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Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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9 min read

Amazon was the first company to popularize the smart speaker with the release of the original Alexa-based Echo five years ago. There was just one problem however: It sounded like a clock radio wedged in a length of pipe. Successive updates have tweaked both the design and, more importantly, the sound quality -- which brings us to the Echo Studio.

The Good

The Amazon Echo Studio produces a monstrous cloud of sound that works great with action movies and spacious styles of music. It offers a lot of features, including Dolby Atmos, excellent connectivity and Fire TV hookup, for a relatively affordable price. The microphones are quite sensitive.

The Bad

The sound isn't always very distinct, which makes it less suitable to showcasing 3D music or Atmos. Multiroom support lags behind Sonos and Apple AirPlay. Dolby Atmos soundtracks require a Fire TV device.

The Bottom Line

The Echo Studio is the biggest and best-sounding speaker Amazon has produced to date.

This is Amazon's best-sounding and most feature-packed speaker yet, complete with Dolby Atmos playback. It's a big speaker that sounds even bigger, thanks to its array of multiple drivers and ability to bounce sound off the walls. Yes, music lacked the distinct placement of a true stereo system but it still filled my listening room well, with more bass than any previous Echo. Movies and streaming content sounded massive for just a single speaker, even if it doesn't deliver the pinpoint accuracy of a multispeaker rig. Read about all the commands an Alexa speaker can perform here.

At this price there's another excellent option: Sonos One. It's smaller than the Echo Studio, and while both sound very good, I preferred listening to music on the One. It had a richer, more intimate sound that I found easier to listen to in the long run. The One also beats Amazon in flexibility -- with Google Assistant support in addition to Alexa, as well as Sonos' superior multiroom system.

That said, if you have a lot of Echo speakers already and want improved sonics, the Studio is a great step up: it sounds more expansive than any of the others. Despite the device's pretensions it's not "hi-fi" and not really "home theater" either. It's simply the biggest-sounding Echo speaker you can buy.

Alexa, you're bloody huge

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The Amazon Echo (2014), Echo Plus (2019), and the Echo Studio (2019)

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're used to the original water-bottle-size Echo, the sheer bulk of the Echo Studio may come as a surprise. It's larger than most smart speakers and looks a lot like the company's own Echo Sub. About two-thirds the size of the sub -- at 8.1 inches tall and 6.9 inches in diameter -- the Studio manages to look even more subwooferlike with its peek-a-boo bass port.

It's that exposed 5.25-inch bass driver which dictates the proportions of the Studio, and the remaining drivers necessitate design changes in other ways. In addition to a single forward-facing tweeter the speaker offers three 2-inch midrange speakers -- two each firing to the left and right, and one mesh-covered driver pointed directly at the roof. It's this particular driver that enables the speaker to translate (with varying degrees of success) immersive audio effects.

The Amazon Echo Studio is the first smart speaker to offer Dolby Atmos -- for music and movies -- as well as Sony's own 360 Reality Audio. While both Atmos music and 360 Reality Audio will work with just a Wi-Fi connection, the Alexa voice assistant and Amazon Music HD ($13 per month), you will need a Fire TV Cube (first or second gen), Fire TV Stick 4K, or Fire TV (third gen) for Dolby Atmos movies. To set it up you'll use the "add a Home Theater" option in the Alexa app.

The device also offers the ability to stereo pair with another Echo, as well as to add the Echo Sub. Sadly, I only had one Studio unit to test with, and the subwoofer pairing will only work after launch. I'll test those features and update the review when I get the chance. Other connections include a Micro-USB port (not currently used), a combined optical/3.5mm audio jack and Bluetooth (A2DP).

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Built for the credenza

Sarah Tew/CNET

With its unusual complement of drivers and its sheer size, placement can be an issue. It's too big for most kitchens, and it needs walls from which to bounce sound. The word "credenza" comes instantly to mind, as well as "kitchen island." You could even place the Studio on a side table if you have the room. 

No shouting required

Amazon Alexa offers compatibility with the widest number of devices -- from speakers to TVs to microwaves -- and the Echo Studio works with them all. You can ask it for the weather report or to play a song, or, if you really want to take advantage of its capabilities, to "play the best of 3D Audio playlist." 

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Echo Studio's array of seven microphones sets it apart. In my tests they were quite sensitive and worked great at picking up my voice. Even at maximum volume (90db or so, versus the Echo Plus' 80db), I found I could speak in a normal voice from a distance of 6 feet and the speaker would still hear me. That's pretty impressive.

I was less impressed with Alexa's ability to understand me. Fairly frequently I found it wouldn't correctly interpret my commands. This wasn't unique to the Echo Studio either -- I've had this issue with almost every Echo. It's much less of a problem for me with Google Home speakers I've used. My theory is that it's a combination of my Australian accent and a lack of AI smarts when compared to the current "machine learning" champ, Google. Your mileage may vary.

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The speaker arrangement of the Echo Studio, as seen in Amazon's demo unit.

James Martin/CNET

There were other miscommunications too. For instance, I couldn't get Alexa to play Tom Waits' song Rain Dogs at all -- no matter what I asked the speaker, it wanted to play the album, not the single song. Even "play the title track from Rain Dogs" resulted in Alexa's hilarious (to me) response: "to listen to Tidal link your skills in the Alexa app". In comparison, Google Assistant on the Sonos One understood the command "play the song Rain Dogs" and played it straight away.

Theater (and music) in the surround

The Amazon Echo Studio aims to deliver both surround music and surround home theater, but they're different animals. Surround music such as 360 Reality Audio or Atmos Music are designed to engulf you with instruments set in a very clear soundstage. You should be able to distinctly hear and place that cowbell hovering behind your left shoulder, for example. On the other hand most home theater surround effects are intended to be vague because If you're turning around to track the sound, you're no longer looking at the screen.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

In short, the Amazon Echo Studio's sound is more akin to a movie theater than a mastering studio -- surround effects are big but lack distinct placement. Whether I was listening to 3D music or watching a Dolby Atmos-encoded movie on Netflix there were no discrete sound effects flying around -- it's more a bubble of sound. The effect is definitely impressive, but it's not quite the high-end experience Amazon, Sony and Dolby would have you believe. To be fair, I don't expect perfect surround sound from a $200 single speaker

The Amazon Echo Studio uses its own microphones to calibrate the sound -- and does so every few seconds, apparently -- and I'm going to pin any inconsistencies in sound-staging I heard on that calibration process.

For instance, when I first listened to Yulunga (Spirit Dance) by Dead Can Dance (Alexa command: "Yah-loonga") I found it hard to tell where the discrete left and right shakers were located. Were they above the speaker? If I looked down and they seemed to be left and right, sort of, but that changed when I looked up. On second listen a couple of days later, it then played in left/right stereo with each of the walls 6 feet from each speaker becoming a shaker egg. In both cases however Lisa Gerard's voice sounded big -- huge even -- it was not constrained by the cabinet and truly filled the room.

I also listened to Amazon's "best of 3D music" playlist but wasn't all that impressed. Everything sounded "big" but there was no "vocals in the back of the room" effect. The speaker can do wide and it can do tall, but not much else. For instance, Rey's theme and the solo violin was about 20 feet wide and the supporting string section seemed to be hiding everywhere the soloist wasn't. It was like sitting in the back of the hall rather than among the instrumentalists.   

The speaker's bass response is better when bass is one of the only instruments. The Studio made a decent approximation of Life by Beta Band's bassline -- every note was clean and of relatively similar levels. But when the soundtrack or music fills up with more instruments, the bass drops out a little.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

With the Atmos version of Mad Max: Fury Road streaming on a Fire TV Cube, it once again demonstrated that the speaker can sound huge. It sounded better in our compact AV room that it did when I first heard it demonstrated at the larger Dolby Soho space. If you have a small room, it will have a better surrounding effect.

In one of the opening scenes, as the leader of the outlaws Immortan Joe addresses the gathered poor below, his voice bounces off the canyons around him, and the Studio pinged all the walls of the AV room at once. It truly sounded like I was in a desert canyon along with thousands of others -- it was Burning Man with rocks. 

Stereo effects sounded relatively good as well but the steering could be a little funky at times. For example, in the opening scene when Max Rockatansky's charger drives from the middle to the left of screen, for example, the sound actually swapped from side to side briefly, and when I closed my eyes I couldn't pick out the car's location. The bass growl from the engine was more of a hint than a roar, something a subwoofer definitely would have improved.

Next I put the speaker up against the Echo Plus, and if the Studio only has the approximation of deep bass, then the Plus has none at all. The Plus is fine for background listening, but the Studio is big and loud and fun. Like that college friend you catch up with every now and then. It's simply more enjoyable.

My final comparison was between the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo Studio. At first glance it's tough to say which one sounded better -- as they sound quite different. The Sonos One has a very contained sound with punchy bass, but none of the expansiveness of the Studio. In turn everything on the Studio is writ large, and everything is exciting all the time, though it seldom translates to harshness.

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The Echo Studio towers over the Sonos One (left) and the Apple HomePod.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I listened to number of different tunes on both speakers and found myself enjoying the sound of the Sonos One more. It may not be as detailed as the Studio but it has a rock and roll soul, and a singer-songwriter's heart. Vocals are front and center and bass is in the pocket. While the Echo emphasized the fact that Vampire Weekend's Hold Me Now was recorded on a cassette recorder in a garden the song didn't sound unpleasant on the One, simply less detailed.  

The One has never been a revealing speaker, it's a laid back performer that knows most-of-all how to rock, and with Jack White's Sixteen Saltines, it proved it. The opening riff split the air in two and the bass line tumbled in and provided a cushiony bed to contrast with White's frantic wails. By comparison, the Studio took this song recorded in a warehouse and put it in another warehouse. This is something the aptly-named Echo does: it makes everything so stupendously big that the effect can be making the song break a little. The Studio doesn't have the One's chill.

Should you buy it?

In the weeks leading up to the release of the Studio both Dolby and Sony were pushing their surround formats hard, hoping the speaker could do for 3D music what PlayStation 2 did for DVD. I'm skeptical about their chances, to say the least, as people have always preferred stereo music to surround and the Echo Studio is unlikely to change that. 

Forget the Atmos and 3D audio stuff, then. It's the Echo Studio's ability to sound crazy big, without evident distortion, that will win it fans looking for a smarter stereo or TV speaker replacement. It's not something suited to audiophile-like critical listening, but if you simply want the best-sounding and most adaptable Echo, then the Studio is for you.

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8.4

Amazon Echo Studio

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 9Sound quality 7