Google Home Max review: smart gets loud

The war for your living room is on. But I’m not talking about the one battling for your eyeballs, I’m referring to the one jockeying for your ears and your voice.

The world of smart, connected, wireless audio for your home has exploded over the past few years, thanks to companies such as Sonos and Amazon. Not to be left out, Microsoft and Google have both released their own takes on smart speakers, and Apple’s version is on the way. Most of the smart speakers so far have been low-end and inexpensive – they are great for casual music listening and accessing a virtual assistant with your voice, but they won’t replace a high-end audio system. Sonos, on the other hand, has built its brand on wireless speaker systems that provide high-quality sound.

This is the place where Google’s new $399 Home Max speaker comes in. It’s the biggest (seriously, it’s huge) and most expensive smart speaker to date, and though it has all of the same smart features as the smaller Home and Home Mini, its real pitch is sound quality. This is the smart speaker that’s supposed to replace your home stereo and give Sonos a run for its money.

Weighing in at almost 12 pounds, the Home Max dwarfs the Home, Home Mini, and anything in Amazon’s Echo lineup. It’s a serious speaker – closer in size to Sonos’ flagship Play:5 than any smart speaker before it.

It is substantial. How substantial? Well I (stupidly) put it in a somewhat precarious spot on a mantle, and it managed to slip off while playing music and fell about four feet to the stone landing below. (The speaker itself is in better shape than my fireplace, as it just has a few tears in the fabric cover, but still works perfectly fine. The fireplace, on the other hand, needs a new stone landing.) In retrospect, the mantle was not the best place to put the speaker, as it isn’t perfectly level and has just enough space to cover the base of the speaker and no more. But it goes to show that you should treat this big ass speaker like a big ass speaker, and place it accordingly. One thing that the Max is missing is any sort of mounting points for floor stands or wall mounts, which are commonly found on speakers of this class. Basically, you have to put it on a flat shelf or bookcase that has plenty of room for it, as there’s no way to affix the speaker to a surface.

Contributing to its size and weight are four drivers – two 4.5-inch long-throw woofers and two 0.7-inch tweeters – and six Class-D amplifiers. In addition, there are six far-field microphones for picking up voice commands, a switch to disable the microphones, a USB Type-C port that can be used with an Ethernet adapter for wired networking, and a 3.5mm input jack to hook up a turntable or other audio source. All of that is encased in a stiff plastic shell with internal bracing to minimize flex and distortion. The Home Max doesn’t convey the same feel or aesthetics of a wood-encased bookshelf speaker, but it’s certainly solid and doesn’t feel cheap.

The speaker is available in two colors, “Chalk” or “Charcoal”, which translate to white or black in non-marketing speak. Neither color is particularly striking and it’s not possible to customize the fabric grill on the front of the device. The Home Max echoes the design cues of Google’s other speakers, with rounded corners and soft lines, but at this size and price, it looks a bit blah to me. While a Home Mini can easily hide away in a corner, never to be seen, the Home Max is much harder to disguise. It’s an inoffensive design, but for something this substantial I wish it had a little more character.

One nice touch included with the Home Max is a rubber pad that sits under the speaker to help isolate its vibrations from whatever surface you put it on. The pad attaches to the Home Max via magnets and works whether you have the speaker in horizontal or vertical orientation. (The pad is not enough to make up for ill-advised placement, as my experience above shows. It’s just designed to minimize vibrations and rattling.)

In horizontal mode, the Max provides stereo sound, but if you turn it to vertical, it will switch to a mono output. An internal orientation sensor handles this switch automatically, and it will even tell you if the speaker is placed upside down. Two Home Max speakers can be paired in a stereo configuration, as well, and both horizontal and vertical orientations work in this mode.

The only control on the speaker itself is a touch strip on top (or the right side when vertical) that’s used to adjust the volume and pause playback. The volume control is rather finicky and not intuitive – a single swipe across it does not adjust the volume from 0 to 100 and you have to swipe multiple times to do so. Fortunately, you can control the volume with voice commands or your mobile device instead.

So how does the Home Max sound? In short, it sounds very good, and outperforms any other smart speaker I’ve tested. It gets loud enough to be the main source of music for a party, but does not distort at even the highest volumes. The Max doesn’t have the same floor-rattling bass as a subwoofer or standing speaker, but it does have bass that you can hear and sometimes feel, depending on the song being played.

The Max is not a reference speaker and it’s not designed to reproduce a flat sound. It colors the sound with its own character, giving most music an EQ curve that boosts both the highs and the lows, while slightly deprioritizing the mids. It’s not so aggressive that bass becomes flabby or highs are too sharp, and it results in a pleasing, interesting sound that most people will enjoy listening to. In my tests, the Max sounded good for all kinds of music, from soft acoustic ballads, to driving speed metal, to thumping hip hop tracks. It even sounds good for podcasts and other vocal dominant tracks.

In a dual-speaker stereo configuration, the Max is even louder and more impressive, and it gets far louder than I can comfortably listen to. Google recommends placing the speakers about ten feet apart for the best stereo separation, so this is definitely not the ideal set up for a small room or apartment. But if you have the space, two Max speakers are better than one.

With the Google Home app, the Max can also be grouped together with other Cast-enabled speakers for multi-room and whole home audio. You can also adjust the bass and treble response to your preferences from within the app.

Though the Max can impress on its own, it doesn’t fare well in direct comparisons. In side-by-side tests with Sonos’ very similar Play:5, the Max is not as clear or crisp sounding and doesn’t have the same bass response. It’s almost as if the Max has a softening filter over the sound, which takes away some of the clarity and punch. The Play:5 does cost $100 more and doesn’t have any integrated smart speaker features (you need an Echo device somewhere in your home if you want to control a Play:5 with your voice), but there’s no denying that it is the better sounding speaker. My feeling is that if you never compare the Max to another high-end speaker, you’ll be thrilled, but if you do, you might be unimpressed with the Max’s sound.

In addition to its integrated smart assistant, another trick the Max has over the Play:5 is the ability to automatically tune itself to the room it’s placed in and the music being currently played using its on-board microphones (Google calls this “Smart Sound”). It’s hard to say how much this feature affects the sound quality, since it is always running and there’s no way to turn “off” the enhancements. Sonos offers a similar feature (called “TruePlay”), but it requires waving an iOS device around the room to set it up and doesn’t work with Android devices at all. Google’s solution is completely automatic and transparent – you just plug the speaker in, turn it on, and start listening to music and it will tune itself accordingly. Should you move the speaker from one place in the room to another, it will again retune itself. Sonos requires reconfiguring the audio tuning each time you move a speaker to a different spot of the room and in my experience there is a noticeable difference between a tuned Sonos speaker and an untuned one.

For audio sources, the Max is a standard Cast speaker, so any service that supports Google’s Cast protocol will work with it. That includes Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, and many others, but not Apple Music. It’s also possible to stream music to the speaker over Bluetooth or plug in a turntable or iPod to it through the 3.5mm jack on the back.

Given its large size and ability to be paired in a stereo configuration, you might be inclined to use the Max in place of a soundbar or surround sound system for your TV. As it stands right now, the product isn’t designed well for it. To make it work, your TV needs an analog audio output and the ability to set a sync delay, and even then you might have issues getting both speakers in a stereo configuration to work properly. There’s a possibility that Google could add better support for TV audio to the Max in the future (much like how it added Bluetooth streaming to the original Google Home months after its release), but as it stands right now, the Max is best suited for music, not theater audio.

Since the Max is a smart speaker, it has Google Assistant built into it, just like the Home and Home Mini. The six far-field microphones can pick up voice commands from across a room and let you request music, skip tracks, adjust volume, control smart home gadgets, ask questions, and all of the other stuff that the Assistant can do. The Max is good at hearing my voice while it’s playing music, but at higher volumes, I have to almost shout at the speaker before it will respond. That’s not entirely surprising (and its ability to hear me is even worse when two Max speakers are playing in stereo), but it can make simple volume adjustments and track changes difficult to do with your voice.

One note: when two Max speakers are paired in stereo, only the left speaker will respond to voice commands. Both speakers are utilized for music playback, but responses will only come from the left side of the setup.

The mantle turned out to not be the best place to put the Home Max speakers, which are larger and heavier than any other smart speaker.

Overall, the Home Max is a great sounding, fully integrated smart speaker if volume and audio quality are your priority. It’s too expensive, too big, and too loud to fit in most rooms, so it’s best suited for a living room or larger space. It’s the best option for subscribers of Google Play Music or YouTube Music, neither of which are supported by Amazon’s Alexa platform.

However, if sound quality is your ultimate priority and you’re not married to Google’s music services, you’ll probably be happier with a Sonos Play:5. It’s more expensive and doesn’t have the integrated smarts, but the Sonos app supports more audio sources and just sounds better than the Home Max. The Sonos integration with Alexa through an Echo device also offers voice control for Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music, and others.

And of course, we’re still waiting for Apple to release its delayed HomePod, which is promised to have incredible sound quality and similar audio tuning capabilities to the Home Max. But the HomePod will likely only support Apple Music natively, and will rely on AirPlay and other, less convenient methods to play music from other services.

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