It’s been 50 years since one of the The Beatles‘ most popular albums, Abbey Road, was released. To help celebrate, Apple Records (no, not that Apple) is releasing the recording today in Dolby Atmos surround — first on disc and later via streaming. And where will you be able to listen to this reimagining of one of the world’s greatest records? On an Amazon Echo, of course. Just ask Alexa.
Amazon’s Echo Studio will be the first voice-enabled smart speaker that enables users to listen in immersive formats Dolby Atmos and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. The $199 Studio, coming on Nov. 7, is now the flagship speaker in Amazon’s Echo line, and it sets itself apart from competitors such as the Sonos One ($198 at Amazon), Google Home Max ($299 at Walmart) and Apple HomePod ($299 at Walmart) with a number of new features. The biggest of these is Atmos support.
At launch, Echo Studio owners will be able to stream Dolby Atmos music content via the Amazon Music HD service, which starts at $13 per month. In addition, users will also be able to hook it up to select TVs and listen to Atmos movie soundtracks, too. Whether those extras will matter to music fans, however, is an open question. Here’s what we know so far.
What is Dolby Atmos?
Immersive surround format Dolby Atmos has been with us for five years and has become synonymous with “height effects in movies,” along with competitive format DTS:X. Though Dolby’s format has been bound to Blu-ray for most of that time, it is now also available on many streaming services and devices as well. Physical media be damned!
Now Atmos is appearing in more and more devices, including soundbars, smart TVs and even phones like the Galaxy S10 and OnePlus 7 Pro. The Echo Studio is the first musical speaker to support the format.
A “naked” view of the Echo Studio’s drivers including a ceiling-firing woofer
How can the Echo Studio do surround?
While it’s just a single speaker, Amazon built in better surround chops, on paper at least, than Sonos, Apple and Google. In addition to its left and right woofers and single tweeter, the Studio includes a ceiling-firing woofer designed to bounce effects back at you. Crucially, the speaker also performs an autocalibration routine which should help it adapt to your space and boost height effects.
Other Echo Studio features include the speaker’s ability to pair in stereo and, in what is arguably more useful when it comes to Dolby Atmos, pair with a Fire TV device for an AV-ready system. You could even add an Echo Sub ($130 at Amazon) to make it a proper $500 soundbar replacement. Of course, other smart speakers also offer stereo pairing capability.
The Echo Studio is announced at the Amazon event
At Amazon’s jam-packed event this week the company showed off the Echo Studio and touted its ability to play 3D audio effects. While I haven’t heard the speaker, my colleague Ry Crist remarked afterwards that the demo was “loud,” and Ben Fox Rubin went further, saying, “I listened to Rocket Man in a room, and the guitar shot right over my head.” I’m looking forward to testing it myself.
What music will be available in Atmos?
Beyond that, Dolby claims says its partnership with Universal Music Group will deliver “thousands of new songs, current hits and legendary tracks… and feature a wide range of genres including hip-hop, pop, rock, country, jazz and classical music,” and that it’s working with other labels and artists as well to expand the catalog. Is surround music a thing?
There is certainly plenty of hyperbole surrounding music (ahem) in immersive formats — for instance Dolby’s bombastic press release said “Music just changed forever,” echoing Neil Young’s own comments on Amazon’s Music HD service, which was announced last week.
Surround music is not a new thing. For instance, Dolby Atmos debuted in 2014 with an version of Enrique Iglesias’ Bailando, and there have been Atmos releases in dribs and drabs since, including the last three remixed-and-remastered Beatles albums and REM’s Automatic For the People.
Like Abbey Road, the original quadraphonic sound appeared on reel-to-reel tape in 1969. But quadraphonic never took off, and it wasn’t until the ’90s that surround-sound speakers in the home became commonplace. Surround-sound music got a restart in the early 2000s with the release of DVD-Audio, SACD and even DTS Music Discs. As we know, this attempt at a quadraphonic reboot was not too successful.
Fast-forward many years, and I was fortunate enough to attend a listening party for the remixed Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band with a monumental system, Elvis Costello and 100 of my closest audiophile strangers. I’ve never liked the album as much as I do Abbey Road, but even so, listening was a very emotional experience. Which format did producer Giles Martin play it in? No, it wasn’t Dolby Atmos, and it wasn’t vinyl either, but straight, hi-res stereo. As audiophiles like to say about surround music: “You only have two ears.”
Love is all you need
Dolby Atmos-based music is unlikely to change the world, and that’s partly because the number of stereo albums will always dwarf those produced for Atmos. That said, I think the Amazon Echo Studio’s integration with Fire TV is more likely to shift the needle for Atmos in general. I think many people could find a smart Dolby Atmos TV system that costs $400 attractive. The Vizio SB36512-F6 Atmos soundbar costs about the same and sounds excellent, but it doesn’t have Alexa.
In typical Amazon fashion, the Amazon Echo Studio offers a host of intriguing capabilities for an aggressive price. If the speaker can manage to sound as good or better than the Sonos One, my current Editors’ Choice smart speaker, that’s reason enough to buy it right there. Hearing Ringo’s ride cymbal emanating from the heavens is just an added bonus.