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Google Home Max review: Harder, better, stronger sound comes to Google Home

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The Good The Google Home Max builds the convenience of Google Assistant into a plus-size speaker that can fill a room with excellent sound. The microphones respond well, even when you're blasting music.

The Bad The sound can be a little too revealing, and guitar lines in particular can sound a little too piercing for comfort. If you mainly want background music, you should spend half as much on the Sonos One.

The Bottom Line Although too expensive for mass appeal, the Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker yet.

7.8 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Sound quality 8

The Google Home Max is not the first smart speaker to aim for better audio quality, but it sounds better than any of the ones I've heard. And at twice the price of my favorite, the Sonos One ($199 at Amazon), I'd expect nothing less.

Like the cheaper Google Home ($129 at Walmart) or Home Mini ($49 at Google Store), the Max builds in Google Assistant, the search giant's voice-operated digital concierge. Just say "OK Google" out loud and stuff happens -- and the Max is great at listening, even when it's playing loud. Still, if you just want background music, or you think the Home or Amazon Echo ($60 at Amazon) sound "fine," the Max isn't for you. This is a speaker designed from the ground up for people who demand bigger sound.

The Max's real competition includes high-end "dumb" single speakers like the Sonos Play:5 and Bose SoundTouch 30. In my comparison listening tests, Google's big speaker beat the Bose handily and matched the Sonos in many areas, with a powerful, spacious sound that fills a room well for a single speaker. I still prefer the Sonos by a nose overall, since it sounded less edgy with some styles of music, but both are excellent for this type of speaker and earned the same rating for sound quality.

Editors' note, October 2nd, 2018: This review was originally published in December 2017 and fully updated on August 17, 2018. Stay tuned for potential updates to Google Home's product line at its October 9th press event in NY

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From left to right: the $499 Sonos Play:5, the $349 Bose SoundTouch 20 and the $399 Google Home Max

Sarah Tew/CNET

Card-carrying audiophiles will skip a speaker like the Max and invest in a real stereo system, which will deliver better dynamics and overall quality. Yes, you can pair two Max speakers, but the price is steep and in our tests, it didn't perform well as a pair. Two Sonos One speakers, meanwhile, pair very well, cost the same a single Max, and next year Sonos will add Google Assistant too (it has Alexa built in now). If I had to choose straight-up between a single Max and a pair of Sonos Ones in stereo mode, I'd take the Sonos speakers for their improved soundstage.

By itself the Google Home Max is an excellent speaker, especially if you're already invested in Google's system and want it to anchor a multiroom setup, perhaps with a Home or two, a Chromecast Audio-connected device or something like a JBL Playlist ($150 at Walmart). But a Sonos One (or two) is a better choice for most people who want improved smart-speaker sound.

The Google Home Max is available in the US for $399, while the UK and Australia are due for 2018. No pricing has been announced yet, but we expect a list price around £399 and AU$599. 

Dressed for business, built for partying

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Chris Monroe/CNET

In keeping with the minimalist aesthetic of products such as the Google Home Mini and Daydream View ($41 at Amazon), the Google Home Max demonstrates that twill is the new piano black. The whole front of the speaker is covered in a gray (chalk or charcoal) cloth while the back is a smooth, matte plastic.

Surprise: the Max is big. It dwarfs the Google Home, and is roughly the same size as the Sonos Play:5 at 13 inches wide by 7.5 inches high and 6 inches deep. It tips the scales at a hefty 11.7 pounds, which you'll notice if you tip it vertically to form a stereo pair. I love the magnetic silicone base, which keeps the speaker stable in either horizontal or vertical orientation.

Other features include:

  • Six onboard microphones for far-field voice control
  • Two 4.5-inch (114mm) high-excursion dual voice-coil woofers
  • Two 0.7-inch (18mm) custom tweeters
  • USB-C input
  • 3.5mm auxiliary input
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Chris Monroe/CNET

The top of the speaker incorporates slick touch controls. Swipe left or right for volume, tap to pause or play. It seems that Google has dialed the sensitivity of the touch controls down after high-profile problems with the Home Mini. I had mixed results with adjusting volume, although play/pause seemed to work fine.

Yes, the Max supports Bluetooth and the company's own Chromecast built-in, but the reason this product stands out is for its built-in voice assistant. As far as functionality is concerned, this is essentially the same as the Google Home; it just sounds better. Apart from the ability to pair two Max's in stereo almost everything else is identical -- there is no added smart home functionality like the new Amazon Echo Plus offers, for example. You can talk to the speaker, control your lights, play music from Spotify or one of dozens of other things you use a Google Home for.

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