Google Home Max hands-on: Boom goes the smart speaker
We got a chance to listen to Google's beefy new high-end speaker. Here are our first impressions.
When I first heard the Google Home Max in action, I actually rocked back in my seat. One thing's for sure: Google's new premium smart speaker produces powerful sound. To be fair, we were in a pretty small room in the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, and we had the volume turned up. Still, after a brief demo, I came away mostly impressed.
A speaker to take on Sonos
The Google Home Max better sound good. On sale starting Monday for a lofty $399, the Max's sound quality will need to at least keep up with that of high-end speaker brands such as Sonos and Bose to be worth that kind of money. You can now buy the Max via Google's website as well as via Best Buy and Verizon. The Home Max won't be available internationally until 2018, but the US price converts to roughly £300 and AU$530.
The Max comes with Google Assistant, the digital helper built into the original Google Home. Google Assistant is very useful. With a simple voice command, you can control your smart home , play music , stream stuff on your TV, check your calendar, search the web and more. Google regularly expands its capabilities, but you can get all of those same features with the original $130 Google Home or the fun-sized $50 Google Home Mini if you don't care about sound quality.
First announced in October, the Max is specced to appeal to audiophiles:
- Six onboard microphones for far-field voice control
- Two 4.5-inch (114 mm) high-excursion dual voice-coil woofers
- Two 0.7-inch (18 mm) custom tweeters
- Inputs: USB-C, 3.5 mm auxiliary, Bluetooth
- Acoustically transparent fabric in two colors: chalk and charcoal
- Silicone base
It also features smart sound, which means it self-adjusts the bass and treble based on its position in the room. Walls tend to amplify bass, so if it's in a corner, the Max's microphones will pick up on that, and subtly adjust the levels to rebalance the music.
A few other things stood out when we saw the Max in action during our demo. When the speaker is placed horizontally, it uses its left and right side to act as a stereo speaker. Turn the Max on its side, and it switches to mono sound.
You can, of course, group the Max with any other Chromecast-equipped speaker to stream a song in sync throughout your home's various speakers. Better yet, you can pair two Max speakers to create stereo sound. If you want to play music from your phone, you only need to pair it with one of the speakers in the duo, and you can control the volume of both speakers simultaneously.
The Max is designed to help you tailor your sound to your tastes and your space. Depending on where you put the Max, an ambient light sensor will even help it determine the brightness of the LEDs. They help confirm when the speaker is listening to you, and we had a little trouble seeing them from a distance on the Home Mini, so this could be a handy extra touch.
Turned up to the Max
We'll need to test it further in a controlled environment before we issue a verdict on the Max's sound quality, but in our brief demo, it sounded great playing rock. We heard both a stereo pair and a single unit in action, and I could feel the bass pounding as the music blasted. Even at high volumes, I didn't notice any distortion in uptempo pieces.
Strangely, I did notice a little hissing during the quiet parts of a slower piano melody with the volume turned up. That could easily have been the recording, but it's something we'll look for further when we're examining it for our full review.
Google Assistant on the Max hasn't changed, and the team assured me that the extra volume of the speaker won't hurt its ability to hear you. I'll attest that with the Max playing music at full volume, it still heard me say, "OK, Google, stop." Perhaps understandably, I couldn't get a command through over a blasting stereo pair.
Fortunately, you can control the Max with a phone app and, to an extent, with touch controls along the top. You can tap to play or pause, and scroll your finger along the top to adjust the volume. After a few minutes of tinkering with the touch controls, I found the sensitivity a little lacking. Especially when I slid my finger for the volume, the Max wouldn't always respond as I intended.
Again, we'll test this further, but if the Max does indeed have decreased sensitivity, it could be an intentional precaution after the "phantom touch" issue with the Google Home Mini. In October, a bug caused a privacy issue in which the Mini was activating and recording more often than intended.
The team told me that the Max was built with entirely different hardware, but they also noted that it tested for any phantom touch-like issues when it put the Max through quality assurance testing.
Google's shown it can make a good smart speaker. Within a few months of its launch, Google Home became a viable alternative to the Amazon Echo . To be successful and worth the $399 price tag, the Home Max will also need to sound incredible -- to even the most ardent audiophile.
If it can't, the $199 Sonos One, which includes both Alexa and Google Assistant, might remain our favorite smart speaker for the most discerning ears. Apple will also enter the premium smart speaker game with the upcoming $349 HomePod that will use Siri for voice commands. Google, then, has its work cut out for it to make a $399 smart speaker sound like a good investment.