From Premium Speakers to Privacy, Amazon Has a Plan to Make Alexa Sound Even Better

Amazon Echo speakers have been described in different ways over the years—useful, pleasing, affordable—but premium-sounding? Cue the record-scratch.

The e-commerce giant hopes to change that tune on Nov. 7, when the newest Alexa-compatible speaker, the Echo Studio, arrives. An 8.1-inch tall, 6.9-inch long cylindrical speaker capable of piping out audio with crisp highs, solid mid-range and booming bass, the Echo Studio could be enough to impress the audio elite, not to mention rattle the walls of a one-bedroom apartment. And getting to this point, nearly five years after Amazon launched the first Echo speaker, was part of Amazon’s longer-term plan all along, says Miriam Daniel, Amazon vice president of Echo and Alexa devices.

“Premium audio shouldn’t just be for the elite few who can spend hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases, to have that sort of an immersive experience,” says Daniel.

That may be, but it’s yet unclear how the Echo Studio will sell against rivals like Apple’s HomePod and the Sonos One. It certainly will help that Amazon has priced its high-end model at $199—a pricing philosophy the company has stuck to since it began selling the first Kindle e-reader in 2007. As Amazon has said time and again, the company is less about making a money on its hardware and more about growing the number of people who use its Amazon services. (Historically, Amazon has leaned on its other business units, like Amazon Web Services, to generate profits.)

That’s why Amazon’s recent product announcement was memorable. Sure, there were updates, such as Echo Studio, the Echo Show 8, and the Echo Dot with clock. But the wide eyes were on Amazon’s more ambitious devices: the Bose-backed, noise-reducing Echo Buds, a pair of Alexa-integrated eyeglasses dubbed Echo Frames, and the wacky Echo Loop, a ring that summons Alexa with the tap of a button. However they do on the market, these devices will speak loudly and clearly to Amazon’s grander ambitions of extending its reach into every home, every car and onto everybody.  

“When you set about thinking about what form factors might make sense, we found that it’s not always one form factor for everyone,” Daniel says, talking about Wednesday’s wide-ranging announcement.

People want Alexa everywhere, she says, whether they’re in the car, walking outside, on public transit, walking their dog, or going to work. And when they’re in those spaces, they might want to ask Alexa to remind themselves to put the trash out or pick up their clothes from the dry cleaners.

Since Alexa launched in 2014, Amazon and its partners have sold over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices, including wireless speakers, smart locks, thermostats, even aroma diffusers and toilets. Likewise, the Seattle tech giant has been aggressive in expanding what Alexa can do, doubling the number of “skills,” or tasks, the voice assistant can perform year-over-year to 100,000 this September. Among its newest skills: speaking and understanding Hindi, India’s most popular language, and helping Alexa users donate to their U.S. presidential candidate of choice.  

But as Alexa’s popularity has risen, so have privacy concerns, ignited by the Cambridge Analytical scandal in March 2018, in which it was first revealed that 87 million Facebook users had their personal data collected by voting profiling firm Cambridge Analytica without their consent. Amazon, meanwhile, has been criticized in the past for keeping voice recordings and text transcripts of Alexa user requests for machine-learning purposes.

On Wednesday, privacy played a key role once again, with senior vice president of Amazon devices Dave Limp emphasizing that privacy was “absolutely foundational” to everything Amazon does in software, hardware and services. Its new Echo Show 8, for instance, includes a built-in shutter to cover the video camera—a feature carried over from its predecessor, the Echo Show 5. Likewise, the also company announced “auto delete,” a feature that automatically deletes video records after three or 18 months.

“Privacy has not been an afterthought just because there’s an incident here or somebody writes a blog somewhere,” says Daniel. “We tried to imagine as best as we could all the policies, tenants, and controls that we should put in place when we first launched. But we’ve also learned over the last four years, and tightened things up.”

And Amazon is by no means done, Daniel adds. “We’ll continue to be on the lookout for how to be more transparent, how to give more control to the customers, and how to make the customers feel like they can trust the solutions we bring to them.”

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