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

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The removable rubber mat

Chris Monroe/CNET

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.  

How does it perform?

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.

Should you buy it?

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.

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