This little hi-fi speaker is a real sonic miracle, but ahead of its time
The new Amazon Echo Studio, despite its compact size and low price to provide a 3D sound experience as in the recording studio. But there are many indications that the time has not yet come for this device.
Smart speakers are mainly used to play music on command. In terms of sound quality, however, users of an Amazon Echo always had to make compromises. The speakers never approached the quality of a hi-fi stereo system. The new Amazon Echo Studio should close this gap. With five built-in speakers, automatic room adjustment, Dolby Atmos support and 3D sound, the new Alexa device is set to play in the hearts of music lovers at a price of just over 200 francs.
Amazon is also promoting the Echo Studio as a low-cost alternative to Dolby Surround 5.1 or 7.1 home theater systems. Two of the speakers can be combined in the Alexa app to a stereo pair and pair with the TV. The easiest way is with a Fire TV device that connects wirelessly to the Echo Studio.
However, in the test with the new Fire TV Cube, the speakers had heavy dropouts. Partly the sound track was not played, sometimes only fragments could be heard. Not an isolated case: At a presentation in Berlin Amazon employees had to struggle with exactly the same problem. The sound error can indeed be fixed with a trick by the user briefly set the audio track to "stereo" and then switch back to "Dolby Digital". Nevertheless, there is obviously a hardware error, the solution will certainly take some time to complete.
For Amazon, this is quite embarrassing: Shortly after the first reviews were published, the group was forced to postpone the delivery date for the Echo Studio from 7 November to 27 December. With that, Amazon misses the hi-fi loudspeaker so important Christmas business. Anyone who has already firmly planned and pre-ordered the Echo Studio as a gift now has reason to get angry.
Unbeatable in the price
Everything was right at first glance: The Amazon Echo Studio is an amazingly compact device – for a hi-fi system. The diameter of the approximately 20 centimeters high column is about 17 centimeters. In the living room the right place still has to be found. The hi-fi speaker needs a nearby power outlet and enough clearance from the wall for the sound to unfold.
Under the fabric hood conceal three large mid-range speakers, which are aligned to the left, right and up. A smaller tweeter radiates forward, while the bass woofer points down. Underneath is a slot, the so-called bass opening, through which the vibrating air can be distributed in the room.
On the top are the volume control knobs, a mute switch for the microphone, and the typical illuminated ring that signals Alexa activity. Because, of course, dominated the Echo Studio all smart Alexa features.
Amazon offers the Echo Studio for 200 euros (220 francs). This means that the hi-fi loudspeaker for market entry is already much cheaper than comparable rival products such as the Apple HomePod or the Google Home Max.
Contents for the sound miracle have yet to be created – and they cost extra
In order to fully enjoy the sound miracle, however, users have to pay more for the content. Finally, the recording quality should be right and the playback device with its sophisticated sound technology justice. In the case of a smart speaker, this means: A new music streaming service must come from.
The new premium service Amazon Music Unlimited HD was set up especially for this purpose. Amazon Prime Music offers similar to other streaming services only standard quality. For high-definition sound, ie HD sound, users have to pay extra. For prime customers, the premium service costs 12.99 euros per month. Amazon customers without Prime membership pay 14.99 euros. Anyone who already uses Amazon Music Unlimited can book an upgrade to HD for five euros per month.
But promises Amazon lossless audio playback with an average bit rate of 850 kbps. This roughly corresponds to the playback quality of CD. The streaming standard is a maximum of 320 kbps, because the original files are reduced (compressed) to allow fast data transfer, for example via mobile phone.
Room-filling 3D sound is still available in just a few songs
Amazon's music library currently comprises about 50 million songs in HD quality. Some of them are even available in Ultra HD (3'730 kbps).
Once again, this is enhanced by songs with 3D sound, of which there are only a few thousand in Amazon's music library. Under 3D songs Amazon understands pieces of music that were mixed specifically for playback in Dolby Atmos or Sony's 360 ° reality standard. Both formats are supported by the Echo Studio. The problem: The content has yet to be created. In principle, every song has to be re-recorded. This is of course expensive and expensive.
But only the special 3D mix creates a spatial depth on the Echo Studio, as is known, for example, from the cinema or from concerts. This creates the impression that certain sounds, voices or instruments seem to come from a different direction and stand out more clearly from each other.
Normally, this requires several speakers. The Echo Studio wants to do it all by itself. The Amazon loudspeaker uses its environment: walls and ceilings serve as reflectors. The reverberation is captured by the microphones to continuously optimize the sound and adapt it to the environment.
Pop sounds better than rock at Echo Studio
Conveniently, Amazon has collected all available songs in 3D quality in a playlist. So the user just has to say "Alexa, play Best of 3D Music" to convince oneself of the quality. Noticeable: In current pop songs, the effect is much stronger than rock classics. That may be because they offer other technical manipulation possibilities thanks to the concise synthesizer sounds than old studio recordings from the vinyl age.
Even classical music lovers will not get their money's worth at the Echo Studio: there simply are not any current recordings – a void that will probably only fill up when orchestras go to the studio at Amazon's invitation. A possible solution is the 3.5mm jack on the back, which can also be connected to a turntable or MP3 player.
In the age of MP3 and streaming services, users have become accustomed to hearing compressed music and accepting quality losses. Amazon tries to reverse this trend and is paradoxically ahead of its time. Because owning an Echo Studio is more or less like an 8K TV: In case of any case, such a device is quite nice. But there is still a lack of content that can be enjoyed in all its glory.
However, 220 francs are not too much to ask for an investment in the future. And even compared to the current speakers of the competition that is still very cheap. Once Amazon fixes the technical issues, users can look forward to a compact all-rounder for watching TV and listening to music.
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