Until recently, the speaker war has been fought on smarts; Google’s Home speakers and Amazon’s Echos have continued to one-up each other in a proliferation of tricks and skills, but as it become increasingly apparent that most of us are primarily using them for music, both were losing the battle that really mattered.
Now the tide is starting to change, and the Google Home Max is trying to bring the sound to match the smarts. It follows behind the Sonos One, a superb-sounding smart speaker that’s powered by Alexa (Google Assistant support comes later this year), and just ahead of Apple’s horse in this race, the HomePod.
All three of these speakers put more emphasis on sound quality, so how does Google fare with the Home Max? And at $399, does it justify being the most expensive of the bunch? We’ve been living with it to find out.
Google Home Max: Design and features
Do I think the Google Home Max looks great? Not really; the Sonos One, which currently sits on my bedside table, has a nicer design to my eyes. But the Max isn’t ugly. It’s just… unexciting. The Max was built on the same design language as the Home and Home Mini, with grey and white (or black if you’d prefer), fabric wrapped around the face and rounded edges. It’s also very big, living up to its name as the biggest smart speaker around right now.
And goddamn is it heavy, too. The Max weighs 12 pounds, so think long and carefully about where you want to put it, because this isn’t something you a) want to move around a lot or b) want falling off anything. If it came to that, my money would be on the Max surviving, not the floor.
The speaker can also be propped up vertically if you prefer. In the box you’ll get a small rubber base that the speaker attaches with a magnet. Simply flip it on its side, put it back on said base, and it will keep it nice and sturdy. I was a little hesitant to “go vertical”, but I’ve now had it upright in the kitchen for a couple of days and so far it’s withstood a few light knocks without toppling over. I feel like I’m tempting fate, but we’ll see. So far, so good.
Whereas I’ve had no problem putting other smart speakers where I’ve felt they’d perform best, the Home Max requires a bit more strategic thinking. On the plus side, it has no problem filling a room with sound (more on that in a moment); on the other, its size means it can’t so easily be slotted onto a bookshelf or on the edge of a TV stand.
Though everything can be done with voice or your smartphone, the speaker does have volume and playback controls on top. Volume works with a strip that you swipe across (or up and down if you have it stood vertically) but I've found it's not sensitive enough and a bit tricky to use. I tend to use my phone instead, or sometimes ask Google Assistant to raise or lower the volume.
Google Home Max: About that sound
Inside the Home Max are two 4.5-inch woofers and two 0-.7-inch tweeters, and altogether it produces a hell of a sound: deep, bassy and clean. This thing can get really loud. I couldn’t even take it to the max volume for fear of deafening someone in the next state over. While the standard Google Home can also pump up the volume pretty high, the Max doesn’t suffer from distortion like its siblings when things get louder. Compared to other members of the Google and Amazon families, the competition isn't even close.
This is a smart speaker for people who want excellent sound, but this isn't to say it'll please the audiophiles too. There are certainly better music sound systems out there, but they either cost more or lack a smart assistant. One thing I really want to make a point of is that the Max has both a 3.5mm jack and Bluetooth support, and I am here for it. I love my Sonos One, but it lacks both of these things, so I'm completely constrained to the integrated services. Maybe I'm an unusual case, but there are some podcasts I can only stream from YouTube, and I like that I can do that on Google Home. It also means there's a way to play music from unsupported services - like say Apple Music.
Right now the Home Max supports Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube Music and Pandora. I’m a Spotify user, and I like that I can set that to my default player in the app, so rather than having to say, “Play St. Vincent on Spotify” I can just say “Play St. Vincent” and it will stream from my chosen service automatically.
If you’re an Apple Music or Tidal user, sadly the Home Max doesn’t yet support these two directly, though you can use Tidal via a Chromecast streaming dongle. Don’t bet on Apple Music coming to the platform any time soon, especially with the HomePod about to roll out.
For this review I’ve been testing the Home Max against the Sonos One and it’s a really close fight - until you really crank up that volume. The Max delivers more power at the higher volumes, however I do find that the sound to be in more of a tunnel than the Sonos One, which manages to sound as “full” no matter how I place it. With the Max, it’s more directional, something I notice when I’m not directly in its firing line.
Google Home Max also has something that Google calls Smart Sound, which reads the acoustics of the room and balances the sound to make it sound as good as possible. This isn't something you can tinker with, so it's hard to know how much it's changing as I move the Max around, but it means users can only toy with the treble and bass. Furthermore, if you have the space and money, you can get a couple of Max speakers and configure a stereo setup that should sound even better - or alternatively you can pair it with other Google Homes or speakers that are Cast-enabled.
While pretty sensitive for the most part, I do also find that the Home occasionally misses my commands when playing music at a high volume. This is usually either resolved by repeating myself a little louder or getting slightly closer to the speaker. But the hit rate is high enough for it to not be a big problem.
Google Home Max: Smart home and Assistant
As I said at the start, Google has been beefing up Assistant considerably to make it a more useful member of the household, and that means the Max arrives a lot more capable than the first Home did. All of the same things you can get Google Home and Home Mini to do, Max will do too.
Android users will also get a bit more out of Max than iPhone owners. That's simply because Assistant is native to Android, so those users will get better integration including some neat handoff features that will send info to your phone home screen. I'm back on iPhone at the moment, and I do miss how my Pixel and Home intertwined so well through the Assistant. You'll need to download the Google Assistant app as well as the Google Home app to get the most out of the Max with iOS. But if you already have a Google account then the Max will still be able access all of your info in the (very simple) setup.
Alexa still has the upper hand with third-party support, but Google is getting there and supports a handful of smart home devices including Nest thermostats and Philips Hue lightbulbs. The consensus on The Ambient team is that Alexa is better to live with right now. I do however think Google has the smarter assistant, and on Max it can perform all manner of tasks on command including setting reminders, adding events to your calendar and even making voice calls. In sum, Home Max is smarter, but can't connect to quite as many things as Alexa can.
- Rich, powerful sound
- Google Assistant outsmarts Alexa
- Bluetooth support
- Expensive (double if you want stereo)
- Alexa wins on smart home control
- Design is a bit meh