We reported earlier this week on the main rumours about Amazon’s products-launch event scheduled for Wednesday: Alexa-enabled earphones and a higher-quality (in an audio sense) Echo smart speaker. Both devices were unveiled yesterday as predicted, but just like its Autumn reveal last year, Amazon managed to spring plenty of surprises too.
The high-end Echo is the Echo Studio, which Amazon says is “our best-sounding Echo ever, with five directional speakers for immersive sound, room adaptation technology, and a built-in smart home hub”. Its $199 price is $100 less than Apple’s HomePod. But Amazon announced eight other new Echo products too yesterday, including an update to the basic Echo upgrading its audio quality; an Echo Dot with a proper LED clock; and a new version of the Echo Show smart display, now with an eight-inch screen.
That’s four, plus the anticipated earphones: the Echo Buds, which can play music via Alexa, and which cost $129 (again, the obvious comparison is an Apple product, the AirPods, which cost $159 in the US). There was also the Echo Flex, a small smart speaker that sits in a plug socket; the Echo Frames, a pair of Alexa-enabled smart spectacles that cost $179.99; the Echo Loop, a smart ring that lets you whisper at your finger to interact with Alexa; and the Echo Glow, a ‘multi-colour smart lamp’ that seems to be aimed at children’s bedrooms. And we haven’t even mentioned the Amazon Smart Oven yet. Well, now we have…
The grand strategy here has been evident for some time: ubiquitous Alexa across the home, from speakers and TVs to plugs, clocks and ovens, through to smartphones (via the Alexa app) and now also Alexa getting all up in your ears and eyes via the buds and specs. Music is part of this, of course: the Echo Studio will be the ideal showcase for the new Amazon Music HD streaming tier, complete with (this was announced yesterday) 3D audio from all three major labels, via the 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos technologies. But Alexa ubiquity is the bigger picture, even as Amazon accepts – see its announcement this week of a Voice Interoperability Initiative – that often, Alexa will be working alongside rival voice assistants on various devices.
It may be sounding different too. This was another curveball announcement yesterday: Amazon’s neural text-to-speech technology can now mimic celebrities. Later this year, you’ll be able to spend $0.99 to have a virtual Samuel L. Jackson be the voice of Alexa on your devices, with other celebs to follow in 2020. 99 cents is an intro price, but the regular cost will be $4.99 – interesting from the point of view of any artist managers wondering what the rev-share might be like for musicians chosen by Amazon to take part in the new feature.
We’ve written about this area before, from John Legend providing a (time-limited) ‘cameo’ for Google Assistant in April 2019, to the technology of Australian startup Replica, a Techstars Music alumnus which is aiming to help artists and other public figures “license their own voices at scale ”. A reminder that in this new world of voice technology and virtual assistants, making money from the actual music will, for some artists at least, sit alongside making money from lending their voices to chatty ovens – ‘kitchen sync’ as we’re calling this from now on – rings, spectacles and all manner of other devices.