GOOGLE HOME MAX
Google mounts a more serious challenge to established multiroom systems with its largest smart speaker yet, the Home Max.
While talkative smart assistants can be handy around the house, smart speakers have always been underwhelming in terms of sound quality. The standard Google Home is enough to make an audiophile frown, as are Amazon’s Echo and Echo Plus. Meanwhile the sound from a tiny Home Mini or Echo Dot will turn that frown into a wince. Of those we’ve tested in Sound+Image, only Apple’s HomePod could hold its head high when it comes to decent smart speaker sound quality — and that’s a Siri-based speaker, so has a specifically defined audience of Apple users. The best performing Google speakers we’ve heard have been Panasonic’s SC-GA10, and JBL’s Link 10.
So we have been waiting for the more substantial Google Home Max to land on Australian shores.
Imitation, flattery etc
In terms of sound quality Google’s $549 Home Max puts Apple’s $499 HomePod to shame. In fact the hefty Google speaker’s nearest rival in terms of sound quality might be considered to be Sonos’ flagship standalone speaker, the $749 Play:5.
It’s fair to say the Home Max leans heavily towards the Play:5’s design, sporting almost identical dimensions, and similarly able to be used either horizontally or vertically, and to form a pair, should you bring two of them together.
Yet under the bonnet, the Home Max only packs two woofers and tweeters. Sonos bumps this up to three of each, no doubt contributing to the Play:5’s higher price tag.
At this point you’d expect the Play:5 to thump this upstart crow, but the Home Max is likely to sound identical to the average listener, a remarkable engineering feat considering that the highly enjoyable Home Max contains fewer speakers and is $200 cheaper.
Even those with golden ears will struggle to pick a clear favourite, as both are a joy to listen to, regardless of your taste in music. The Home Max delivers a rich, fullbodied sound with a clarity that does justice to nuanced music, from classic strings to sweet double-bass lines. When it’s time to switch from Miles Davis to Macy Gray, the Home Max packs enough low-end to rock the house without getting murky.
On a first listen, the Home Max is actually a little more pleasing to the ear than the Play:5. Listen closely and Google’s speaker has a fraction more oomph at the high and low ends, though you could argue Sonos is more faithful to the source in relative terms.
Cranking the volume does offers the Play: 5 a chance to show its quality. It’ll head up a little louder than the Home Max without distorting significantly at full volume even when the bass is thumping. Meanwhile you’ll want to curb the Home Max’s volume to 95% to keep the distortion in check. Yet we thought the Home Max offers a slightly wider soundstage, which is impressive considering Google’s speaker is a tad narrower.
One notable difference is that the Home Max automatically calibrates itself to the acoustics of the room, which is handy if you regularly move the speaker. Meanwhile Sonos still expects you to do a rain dance with your smartphone to get a feel for the room’s
acoustics. Sonos’ people point out that their TruePlay calibration means the music is calibrated from the listener’s perspective rather than the speaker’s perspective, though as noted last issue in our Editor’s review of the Sonos Beam, that doesn’t necessarily mean it improves the sound quality.
Make the link
In any case, sound quality may not be the deciding factor when you’re choosing a smart speaker — there are many separate abilities as well as complete ecosystems to consider.
Both the Home Max and Play:5 can sit sideways or upright, with the ability to link two speakers as a stereo pair. We didn’t have a second Home Max at hand to test this, although there have been reports that this is the Home Max’s Achilles’ Heel. And it does point to one of the Home Max’s weaknesses; you’re at the mercy of the quality of your home Wi-Fi network. The Sonos speakers can, if need be, create their own private 5GHz mesh network, reducing the likelihood of interference and network traffic jams while also helping the speakers stay in perfect sync when playing the same song throughout the house.
We tested the Home Max on a Google Wi-Fi mesh network (see our mesh networks article this issue) with three base stations spread around the house. The Home Max features 802.11ac Wi-Fi at 2.4 and 5GHz, yet we caught it relying on the 2.4GHz band to talk to the Google Wi-Fi base station upstairs, rather than using the 5GHz band (which is less prone to interference) to talk to the Google Wi-Fi base station sitting 10 feet away. You don’t have this issue with a dedicated Sonos mesh.
This issue also means the Google ecosystem struggles to play multi-room audio in absolute perfect sync. You’re unlikely to notice it, unless you go looking for it, but stand in a doorway with a Home in one room and a Home Max in the other and you’ll hear the slightest tell-tale echo.
The Home Max also lacks an Ethernet port at the back, though there’s a USB-C port which can take an Ethernet adaptor so you can hard-wire the speaker to your home network. There’s also an auxiliary input for connecting other music players though, unlike with Sonos and rival systems like HEOS and MusicCast, the auxiliary source only plays through that attached speaker and you can’t send the audio to other rooms.
The Home Max brings the talkative Google Assistant to life, offering identical smart features to Google’s cheaper speakers. The speaker is a Chromecast streaming audio point, plus it can act as a Bluetooth speaker.
Meanwhile the Play:5 doesn’t support a built-in smart assistant. So far Sonos only offers Amazon’s Alexa built into the Play One, though we gather this is also set to support Google Voice Assistant by the end of the year. For now, you can boss around the Play:5 using a cheap Amazon Echo Dot, plus the Play:5 supports AirPlay 2 so it talks to Apple’s Siri.
Google fans who have been waiting for a decent-sounding smart speaker, rather than relying on Google Assistant support from third-party speaker makers, won’t be disappointed with the Google Home Max.
The sound quality is high for the price, indeed it’s possibly overkill for a kitchen or bedroom. Even in a large space you need to weigh it up against a more affordable Sonos One stereo pair. The standard Google Home just doesn’t cut it when it comes to sound quality and it’s shame Google doesn’t offer the equivalent of a One or Play:3 alongside the Play:5-esque Home Max.
If you just care about music and you’re not sold on voice control (or the always-listening aspect of smart speakers in general), the Sonos ecosystem (some of which supports Alexa, but not yet Google) still looks more attractive. It offers a wider range of speakers and price points, supports more music services and can rely on that private 5GHz mesh network for quality control. And with hi-fi manufacturers of renown rapidly adding voice operation to their own multiroom systems, those seeking the best sound will soon have a far wider range of rivals to consider.
But one thing we’ve noticed with other brands doing Google speakers — in terms of voice activation, none of them works quite so well as Google’s own units. So for a smart assistant with excellent sound, the Google Home Max is the one those new rivals will need to beat. Adam Turner
Google Home Max smart speaker
▼ An exploded image of the Google Home Max showing the straightforward but effective two-channel configuration.
We include this image mainly because it’s the first time we recall ever seeing a ‘wireless’ speaker pictured with its mains cable showing! We congratulate Google’s photography department.