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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, I'd expect nothing less.
Like the cheaper Google Home or Home Mini, 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 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.
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.
Read more: Which Google Home speaker should you buy?
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. 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.
In keeping with the minimalist aesthetic of products such as the Google Home Mini and Daydream View, 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:
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.
The Max's response to voice commands was excellent, and it did a better job deciphering my Australian accent than the Sonos One with Alexa. I found I could say "Hey Google" in a normal voice from 6 feet away and the speaker would hear it most of the time.
Everything else that the Max does in some way related to sound quality, and this includes the Smart Sound feature. Smart Sound is a self-calibration routine using the onboard microphones, which lets the speaker adjust the sound automatically according to its position in the room. No more waving your cell phone randomly around the room for five minutes as with Sonos Trueplay.
Despite the use of Digital Signal Processing, all-in-one box speakers are a series of compromises when it comes to sound quality. To its credit, the Google Home Max does a better job of hiding its faults than others. Like any speaker, it needs a little adjustment for peak performance -- I added a smidge more bass and avoided max volume -- but it is one of the few models that performs well with most genres. Compared to the Sonos Play:5, which is a great dance/rock speaker, the Google Home Max had a less boxy, more atmospheric sound.
No other track I tried illustrated this better than "Yulunga (Spirit Dance)" by Dead Can Dance. With this track spinning from Spotify, the Google speaker exhibited a huge sound that extended beyond the boundaries of the cabinet. All of the elements -- the singer's voice, the left-right panned shaker eggs, the various drums -- are treated equally, and none of them jut out awkwardly.
Compared to Play:5 there was less bass energy overall, but the Max's bass was relatively tight. While the Google was able to capture the majesty of this song, it was the Sonos that found its drama. The Sonos featured lots of low-frequency effects that the Google speaker failed to catch.
Next up was the rock track "The Bar is Low" by Pissed Jeans. It started well and I had a boogie by myself, alone -- so, so alone -- but when it got to the chorus the Google ran out of puff, sounding a little top heavy. Even so I liked it better than the Sonos Play:5, which didn't sound quite as fun with this energetic track.
While I like the Sonos for dance music in general, I actually prefered the Google speaker on Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." Though the Sonos had better low-end punch, Pharrell cold sound a little chesty compared to the more open-sounding Google.
Despite the self-tuning capabilities of the Google speaker, I found that I needed to tweak it a little, especially when sitting on table in free space. For most material, adjusting the Max's bass by +3db in the Google Home app's settings helped propel rock and dance songs and reduce the brightness a tad.
The biggest issue with the Max's sound was its potentially piercing midrange. Unfortunately I couldn't adjust it out; turning treble down all the way didn't help much. If you like Dick Dale or bluegrass violin solos, maybe you should consider a different speaker.
Compared to the more-expensive Bose SoundTouch 30, the Max blew it away. Both speakers have a similarly energetic sound profile, but the Bose just can't match the Max's volume levels without distorting, even at only two-thirds of maximum. The Google speaker did sound a little scratchy at 100 per cent, so I backed it off to 90 per cent for most playback, which was still plenty loud for our 11-by-20-foot listening room.
Finally I tested the Max's ability to play in stereo, paired with a second Max. Unfortunately it's a little wobbly here: the stereo focus drops in and out and the sound doesn't acquire the expected depth that buying another $400 speaker should warrant. A pair of Sonos One speakers, meanwhile, sound great in stereo. Of course Sonos has a big wireless audio head-start on Google, so maybe the Max's stereo performance can be improved with software updates.
Is the Google Home Max the speaker that will tempt audiophiles away from their two-channel systems? In a word, no. This is a single-box speaker, and subject to all the compromises that type of form factor introduces. If you prioritize performance and are trying to decide between a pair of Maxes and a stereo system, the choice is easy -- get a stereo system.
For example, a pair of Q Acoustics 3020s, a Yamaha R-S202 and a Google Chromecast Audio will kick the butt of this system in terms of both dynamics and sound stage. Throw in a Google Home Mini for voice control and you're golden.
But let's say you don't want to bother with separates and value the clean look of a single speaker. If you're mostly doing background listening, my advice is to save the money and get a single Sonos One at half the price of the Max -- or even a Google Home or Mini, if you're on a tighter budget.
For bigger spenders, Google's big speaker is right up there with the Sonos Play:5 in terms of sound quality, and it's now the leading speaker we'd recommend at this price if you want a Chomecast-based multiroom system.