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Google Home Max Review: Want Some Bass With Those Smarts?

Google’s new $399 Google Home Max speaker, which started to ship earlier this week, is the company’s first real foray into the world of home audio. With the Max, Google is aiming for the living room. Or perhaps the den, next to that turntable that you’ve been meaning to hook up again.

Reviewing a product like the Google Home Max is no easy feat, especially because it wants to be both a smart speaker and a home audio product for music lovers. I had a chance to play with a review unit of the device for a few days this week, and test both. Here are my first impressions.

The Max’s look and feel

First things first: The Google Home Max is definitely max-sized, measuring roughly 13 by 7.5 by 6 inches, and weighing close to 12 lbs. It packs two tweeters and two woofers for stereo sound, and comes with a total of six built-in microphones: two pairs of two on the encasing, and two hidden behind the cloth mesh grille.

I’ve been told by Google that much like the original Google Home, the Max also uses just two mics at a time for voice control, but all six for what the company calls smart sound (more on that below). And apparently, there’s a lot of mic switching going on, based on the orientation of the speaker.

Speaking of which: The Google Home Max can be placed either horizontally or upright, with the latter automatically prompting a switch to mono sound. Changing the orientation also switches the status LEDs, which are hidden behind the cloth mesh grille, and the function of the touch pad, which can be used to control the volume as well as tap to play/pause.

The Google Home Max ships in white and black, or chalk and charcoal, as Google likes to call it. The design is definitely minimal and pleasing, especially as Google omitted any obvious branding, save for a small G logo on the back. The Max will blend in — until you turn it up, that is.

A lot of tech for a speaker

This speaker is a full-featured member of the Google Home family. As such, you can not only use it to query the Google Assistant, and ask it for weather, news, or traffic, but to add things to your shopping list. It can also help with translations, tell bedtime stories to your kids, or get the whole family moving for a game of freeze dance.

In addition to those assistant smarts, Google Home speakers also seamlessly integrate with Chromecast or Chromecast Audio devices as well as other devices using Google’s Cast technology. This means that you can tell your Google Home Max to watch a YouTube video on TV, provided you have the right device connected to the screen.

To be fair, all of this can also be done with a $49 Google Home Mini. However, the Max does have a bit of extra tech built in that you won’t find anywhere else — at least until competitors come out with similar functionality.

Google has added what it called smart sound to the speaker, and is using the device’s integrated microphones to monitor the acoustics of the room in real-time while it plays music. This is meant to help it automatically adjusts to each room’s acoustic qualities. I’ve been told by Google that this process happens in just two or three seconds, and there is no way to turn smart sound off — which means that you can’t really demo smart sound as a party trick.

After some instructions from the Google Home team, I was able to catch the Max in the act as it was adjusting to me moving it from the middle of the room to a tight corner — and it definitely does make a difference. But what’s more important, I did schlep the speaker into many different rooms of my house, including a small half-bathroom that has the acoustic qualities of a large shoe box. The Max sounded pretty great everywhere, which I took as another sign that smart sound is working.

So how does it sound like?

Speaking of which: I do have to preface the following by saying that I’m not, by any means, an audiophile. I haven’t even owned a proper stereo system for more than a decade, and have instead made use of a variety of cobbled-together solutions, mostly involving relatively inexpensive active speakers. And most of the time, when I really want to listen to music, I go for my Sennheiser headphones.

That being said, the Google Home Max sounded great to my ears. Mid- and high-range frequencies sound clear and not too sharp, but it helps to turn the volume up a bit to really open up the whole spectrum. The device’s strength is definitely its booming bass, which packs a real punch, but comes without any notable distortion even at high volumes. And you really crank it up quite a bit.

Much like connected speaker pioneer Sonos, Google isn’t sharing any specs on the loudness of the Max. The company did say that the device is 20 times more powerful than the original Google Home. I didn’t have 20 Google Homes at hand to test that, but I can confirm that it can get very, very loud. Chances are, you will barely ever play music at 100%, and even 75% should be enough to throw a good-sized party. But even when fully cranked up, there is very little distortion.

Thankfully, the speaker can also differentiate between music and assistance. This means that you can listen to music really loud, only to have Google respond in an appropriate volume if you ask for the weather in-between tracks.

Obviously, a single speaker can’t match true stereo from two well-placed separate speakers, but the Max did do a pretty good job at reproducing painting a full stereo soundstage. And if you really wanted to, and had the money to spare, you could always buy two, and pair them up together for full stereo sound.

What Google could do better

There’s one thing that’s notable about the Google assistant on the Google Home Max: It doesn’t necessarily sound all that much better than on a regular Google Home. The same is true for playback of news and talk radio. With streams often optimized for lower-quality speakers without a lot of bass, the Home Max sometimes feels a little overqualified for these kinds of services. Hopefully, we’ll see more HD audio streams of radio programs coming online as smart home listening moves from cheap devices to better-sounding speakers.

One other notable feature about the Google Home Max is the line-in port that makes it possible to hook up external audio sources, including turntables, tape decks, and other sources of audio nostalgia. There is some rudimentary voice control for line-in sources — you can mute them or change their volume — and anyone owning two Google Home max speakers can also listen to those vinyl records in true stereo.

However, the device can’t yet send music to other Chromecast-equipped speakers around the house for whole-home audio. That’s a feature that’s available on the Sonos Play:5, and it’s sorely missing from the Max. Google told me that it plans to add the ability to cast line-in audio to multi-room groups later in 2018.

Finally, I found the Google Assistant to be not the best DJ. Asking it for a genre, or more popular fare, works great. But veer into the more obscure, and Google confidently keeps playing the wrong thing. That’s funny, but only for the first few times. Luckily, the Max also functions as a Chromecast receiver, so you can just select the music yourself on your phone and then play it on the speaker.

Should you buy it?

The good news is that a lot of these shortcomings are software-based. This means that the Google Home Max will only get better over time. And even at launch, it’s already a very nice speaker, albeit one with a significant price tag.

Whether the device is worth $399 of your money really depends on how much you will use Google’s assistant. And even if you do like being able to control music with your voice, there are other solutions available. For instance, it’s possible to buy great-sounding speakers for less, add a Google Home Mini for voice input and a Chromecast Audio to stream music.

But if you are in the market for a great-sounding all-in-one, then the Google Home Max is a solid choice. And as companies like Apple are preparing to launch their own  smart speakers for music lovers, the Max is definitely the one to beat.

Update: 12/18: This post was updated with more information on the Google Home Max uses its built-in microphones for smart sound.

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