smart speaker

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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.

Lis­ten up

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.

Get Smart

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.

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