Amazon's newest Echo speaker sounds amazing, but expect to pay monthly to get the most out of it

Key Points
  • The Amazon Echo Studio is the best Echo speaker you can buy.
  • It really shines when playing 3D audio tracks, but you need to pay $12.99 per month to access them and there are only about 1,000 songs right now.
  • Still, it's the Echo most people should buy.
Amazon Echo Studio

The Amazon Echo Studio is the best Echo you can buy, the best Echo to date and, at $199, it undercuts similarly performing speakers from Apple and Sonos. Importantly, it might drive people to pay up for Amazon Music HD, its premium music service, since it's the best way to take advantage of the higher-quality music tracks the Echo Studio supports.

Echos have become hot sellers for Amazon, particularly during its Prime Day and holiday sales. If you already have a few Echos around the house or still haven't tried one yet, consider the Echo Studio. It sounds noticeably better than earlier models, and is a nice addition to a living room or any other area where friends and family might gather.

My favorite part is the 3D audio support, which creates a wild sound stage that makes it sound like music is coming from a wide area instead of directly at you. But to get this, you have to subscribe to Amazon Music HD, which costs $12.99 per month if you have Amazon Prime or $14.99/month if you don't.

So, in some ways, the Echo Studio serves not only as a good speaker, but as a way for Amazon to make continuing monthly revenue off of you.

Here's what you need to know.

What's good

Amazon Echo Studio
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It doesn't take an audiophile to recognize that this sounds like a good speaker for $200. It's on a par with what I get from my Sonos One and Apple's more expensive HomePod. But the Amazon Echo Studio has a trick up its sleeve that those speakers don't have: support for 3D audio tracks that are encoded with Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio.

The 3D audio is wild, but you need to pay for Amazon Music HD to get access to it and, right now, there are only about 1,000 tracks that support it. Amazon says more are coming. At my desk, facing the speaker and listening to "All Right Now" by the band Free, some of the guitars sounded like they were coming from the right or left of me, which was a pretty cool effect that I've never heard on a smart speaker before. I had my wife double check that I wasn't crazy.

Amazon Echo Studio
Todd Haselton | CNBC

An Amazon Music HD subscription gives you access to higher-quality music, too, including CD-quality "HD" tracks and even higher quality Ultra HD songs. There are millions of those but, in general, my ears weren't really good enough to hear the difference most of the time. The 3D songs were most fun, and it's kind of a shame there aren't more of them.

You can, of course, skip all of this and just play songs from Spotify, TuneIn, Sirius XM, Pandora and other streaming services, but there's a noticeable difference in quality between that and 3D audio, and I think you're going to want to at least try Amazon Music HD just to see what it's like. You can test it yourself by asking Alexa to play the "Best of 3D Music" playlist.

The Echo Studio can do everything other Echos can do, too. So you can link it to other Echos around your house to play music in multiple rooms at the same time, ask it the weather, to read you a daily news briefing, add things to your shopping list and call people. It has built-in Bluetooth if you want to stream that way, and a 3.5mm headphone jack in the back if you still want to plug in other devices, like an old iPod or stereo speakers.

Amazon Echo Studio
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It also has a built-in smart home hub so you can add various devices like smart lights and locks that you can then control through Alexa. If you already have this setup, the Echo Studio just works with what's already in your house without any extra work. And speaking of the smart home, it supports Amazon Echo Guard, which means it can listen for breaking glass or smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and alert you if it hears something. Nobody tried to break into my house during review, but I use this feature on all of my Echos when I'm gone just in case.

What's bad

Amazon Echo Studio
Todd Haselton | CNBC

It's hard to be picky about a $200 speaker that sounds this good. I think it offers really great sound for the price, but it's kind of a bummer that other services I already pay for, like Spotify, don't support the sort of music that really makes this speaker shine. If you want it to really play the best possible music, you need to pay for Amazon Music HD. So, expect to pay $12.99 a month, which is slightly more expensive than standard plans from Spotify and Apple.

It's also big and pretty heavy, larger than any other Echo on the market save for the Echo Sub, which you can pair to the Echo Studio if you want extra bass from a subwoofer. I sort of expect a large speaker for this sound quality, though, but just plan for it to take over a side table. I'd try to use two of them on my mantel with my TV, but the speaker is too wide to sit up there.

Should you buy it?

Amazon Echo Studio
Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you are in the market for an Echo just to see what the craze is all about, start with an Echo Dot, which costs $49.99, includes Alexa and will give you a taste of why people like Echos so much.

But, if you already know all about the Echos and want something that sounds really good, and don't mind that you'll have to pay monthly to really get full access to what the Echo Studio can offer, then yeah, buy this.

If you asked me, right now, "which Echo should I buy?" I'd say the Echo Studio, hands-down.

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