Amazon Echo Studio review: Not quite the best smart speaker, but a fantastic value

If you have a house full of Amazon Echos, and you’re looking for a smart speaker that delivers higher fidelity, the $200 Amazon Echo Studio is a no brainer. It would be a fantastic speaker for the money even if it didn’t have a digital assistant (Alexa) and a smart home hub (Zigbee) onboard.

But what if you don’t have a house full of Amazon Echos? If you’re in the market for a high-fidelity smart speaker, and you’ve already settled on the Google Home ecosystem, stick with it and buy the Google Home Max. Yes, it’s more expensive, but its slightly superior audio performance justifies the price bump.

But this review is about the Echo Studio, so let’s discuss its attributes. The feature that sets the Echo Studio apart from not only most smart speakers but most powered speakers in general (soundbars excepted) is its support for 3D audio. Amazon achieves this in two ways: First, through the speaker’s hardware design (more on that in a bit); and second, by way of its support for the object-based audio formats Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio.

This review is part of TechHive’s coverage of the best smart speakers, where you’ll find reviews of competing products, plus a buyer’s guide to the features you should consider when shopping.

amazon echo studio unboxing Michael Brown / IDG

Amazon delivers the Echo Studio with the trappings of a high-end device, including this cloth pouch that you’ll encounter on unboxing.

But before you jump on the 3D bandwagon, be aware that the only way to hear 3D audio with the Echo Studio today is with a subscription to Amazon Music HD, which costs $14.99 per month ($12.99 per month for Amazon Prime members). You’ll also want to know that the number of tracks encoded in either 3D format is limited. Amazon says it has “more than 50 million songs in High Definition (HD),” but it doesn’t disclose how many tracks are encoded in 3D.

I can tell you that you’ll find few entire albums encoded this way—apart from some recent releases from major artists. The record labels have picked hit singles for remastering, but they’ve left lesser-known tracks untouched. That’s fine for most people—who can’t name a Red Rider hit other than “Lunatic Fringe,” for example—but no band’s hardcore fans will be satisfied with what’s available. Most of the albums I sampled had a mix of 3D and stereo tracks. If you’re not a fan of Amazon Music, the Echo Studio is also compatible with Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Pandora, SiriusXM, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn. But it bears repeating that 3D music is not available on any of those services at this time.

If you prefer streaming music you own (that you’ve purchased and downloaded, or ripped from CD and stored on a local server, for example), the Echo Studio can also handle all the more conventional audio codecs you’d expect, including AAC, FLAC, MP3, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, as well as the less common Opus and Vorbis. Amazon outfitted the Echo Studio with an onboard DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that can decode tracks with up to 24-bit resolution at sampling rates as high as 48kHz. The speaker has a dual-band Wi-Fi adapter onboard (2.4- and 5GHz), and it also supports Bluetooth—but not the aptX or aptX HD codecs that deliver higher fidelity via that wireless connection.

amazon echo studio controls Michael Brown / IDG

The Amazon Echo Studio has basic controls on a ring encircling its top (left to right): Mic mute, volume down, volume up, and pause.

Echo Studio specifications

The Echo Studio is outfitted with three 2.0-inch mid-range drivers (one firing left, one firing right, and one firing straight up) and a 1.0-inch tweeter that fires straight at the listener. A 5.25-inch down-firing woofer handles the lower frequencies, and is mounted directly above a slotted bass aperture (the cabinet is otherwise sealed—the aperture is not a bass reflex port). These speakers are driven by Class D amplifiers delivering combined peak power of 330 watts. Amazon says the Echo Studio delivers an impressive frequency range of 30Hz to 24kHz (no tolerance given).

The unusual driver configuration is designed to bounce sound off your room’s walls and ceiling so that you’re enveloped in sound, as opposed to having the music wash over you in waves. But your room’s configuration will, of course, play a significant role in the speaker’s ability to pull off this trick. If you have a wall on one side of the speaker, but not the other, or if you have a cathedral ceiling, the effect won’t be as compelling. I evaluated the speaker in my 250-square-foot home theater, which has excellent acoustics, and I found the effect enjoyable. When I moved the speaker into my larger kitchen, where the right and left walls are 20 feet apart (versus 12 feet apart in my home theater), the 3D effect was much less impressive.