Alexa goes audiophile: Why Amazon may finally be getting serious about audio
Sorry, Alexa: Amazon Echo speakers are at the bottom of my list for music listening. Yes, I know the company has a bajillion speakers already, but the focus so far has been on voice, not audio quality.
Maybe that’s about to change. CNBC reports the company is planning at least eight new devices including ‘a microwave oven, an amplifier, a receiver, a subwoofer, and an in-car gadget’ powered by Alexa and due by the end of the year. Only ‘some of the devices’ will also have Alexa built in, CNBC says.
Putting aside the car gadget and the microwave, improved sound quality looks to be a focus of this new line. Amazon isn’t alone in having so-so performance, because — barring the Google Home Max — Google’s own speakers have been fairly lackluster for listening to music, too.
It wasn’t until the Sonos One smart speaker that you could buy a speaker with Alexa (and eventually Google Assistant) that was actually enjoyable to listen to. Sonos has since embarked on a whole-home strategy, including the sort of devices that Amazon is rumored to be working on. But now it sounds like Amazon may want that same piece of the high-end audio smart-home pie.
Predictions about Amazon’s amp, receiver and sub
While Amazon already has an unofficial Alexa sound bar in the Polk Command Bar, it doesn’t have any ‘pure’ audio products yet. Even so, we’ve had a raft of Amazon devices of late from the Echo Buttons to the Echo Show, so how will these new devices stand out?
For example, will any of these things have a microphone onboard? To my mind, the amp and receiver make the most sense, as the subwoofer seems a little redundant.
While we’ll tackle the subwoofer shortly, two products come to mind when thinking about what an Amazon amp and receiver would be like. These are:
- Sonos Amp: Connected amplifier with HDMI in and multiroom, BYO speakers, $599
- Denon HEOS AVR: HDMI-switching receiver with audio decoding and multiroom, $599
The biggest issue with the products above, and Amazon’s biggest opportunity, is price. Echo products typically sell for a fifth of these prices, so you can expect the rumored Amazon products to be much more affordable.
What could the receiver offer? My colleague David Katzmaier really enjoyed the Fire TV Cube, a universal remote and streaming box combo. If you added more HDMI inputs, a 5.1-channel amplifier and a $299 price tag — boom! — you have the ‘Amazon Echo Receiver.’ Just add your own 5.1 speaker set and a TV and you’ve got a nice home theater system, assuming Amazon has done its homework.
Receiver companies such as Denon, Yamaha and Sony have developed their reputations over decades, but Amazon would be trying to compete with just a couple of years under its belt. Yes, the Echo is great as far as its utility is concerned, but it sounds like a clock radio. Amazon has a lot to prove to audio fans.
The amp is a little harder to pin down. I’m guessing a $150-$200 amplifier sold as an Echo that uses your own speakers! I’m surmising it would also have Bluetooth and an optical input plus a 50-watt x 2 amplifier. The ‘Echo Amp’?
While the other two products seem like standalone entities, the subwoofer feels like it would be an optional extra for the Show or (newer) Echos in order to add extra bass. I’m imagining the mini sub you get with a budget sound bar, rather than the hulking behemoth that is the Sonos Sub. ‘Echo Sub,’ then, and if it’s called something else, I’ll buy you a coffee.
How will they sell?
Amazon has the money and resources to adapt a scattergun approach with its products and see what hits. For example, I can’t imagine demand for an Alexa receiver is high, especially given that most AV receivers already interface with Alexa in some way. (Hook up an Echo in the room, and you can tell your receiver to raise and lower the volume, and so forth.) Of these three audio devices, the subwoofer probably has the most ‘legs.’
There’s another potential roadblock to Amazon appealing to a more audiophile market, and that’s one of the company’s own making. When I think ‘Amazon brand’ I think ‘AmazonBasics.’ Great cables, but not something you’d trust for components costing hundreds of dollars. (There’s already a Basics sound bar, too, but it looks like a glorified Bluetooth speaker.)
Could it be Amazon will launch some sort of hi-fi brand, maybe using its Amazon Music name? Or will it continue to use the Echo name for its speakers, and all that connotes? We’ll find out soon enough.