Google Home Max Review: The McMansion of Smart Speakers

Posted on December 21, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Cloud, iOS, Mobile, Music + Videos, Smart Home with 19 Comments

Google Home Max Review: The McMansion of Smart Speakers

Google Home Max is a gigantic smart speaker that offers a Sonos-like experience. Unfortunately it does so at Sonos-like prices. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you may know, I have been looking for something that works like Sonos but is not Sonos. That is, I really like the sound quality of Sonos—we still own three Sonos Play:1 speakers—but I’m not a big fan of the premium pricing or, worse, the compatibility issues. Sonos is not compatible with Apple AirPlay, Google Chromecast, or even Bluetooth, and there’s not even a line-in except on the most expensive speaker model (which costs $499 for a single speaker).

What this means in practical terms is that you get locked in to the Sonos ecosystem. You have to use the lousy Sonos mobile app to access most of the compatible services though a select few apps, like Spotify, can play to the Sonos speakers directly. Worse, some services just aren’t compatible, most notably Audible, which I use every day.

For these reasons, we’re phasing out Sonos in our home and using Chromecast instead. And we have tons of Chromecast-compatible devices now, a Chromecast Ultra on our 4K TV, two Chromecast Audio dongles (both attached to power speaker pairs, in my home office and the sun room), a Sonos Play:1-like Riva Arena speaker in the master bathroom (which is good, but not Sonos quality), and two Google Home appliances among them. So Google Home Max seemed like it may be a good fit.

It certainly meets my compatibility needs: As its name suggests, Google Home Max is just a really big Google Home. So in addition to the built-in Google Assistant features that I’ll get to in a moment, it works like any Chromecast. You can play to the device, wirelessly, from any Chromecast compatible app on Android, iOS, or Chrome. It can work in multi-room groups or as part of a whole-house solution, too. This means you can play to multiple speakers around your home at once.

It also provides a line-in port and Bluetooth for devices that do not have Chromecast compatibility. And like Sonos, it can be paired with a second speaker (in this case, another Google Home Max) for better stereo sound in a single room, though I did not test this.

Even as a standalone speaker, Google Home Max delivers deep, rich sound at very loud levels. But in side-by-side tests, I found that the inexpensive bookshelf speakers I use with Chromecast Audio sound even better and get even louder. This is true across different kinds of content—music, plus audiobooks and podcasts—and since they are a pair, the stereo is better. Those speakers only cost $99, and even if you toss in the $35 price of a Chromecast Audio, the total is a far cry from the $399 price tag on Google Home Max.

Google Home Max is also humongous, and it won’t fit well in many places as a result. You can place it horizontally or vertically, though you only get stereo sound in the horizontal position. Google provides a sticky rubber mat to place under the speaker in each position, presumably to isolate vibrations. But it detaches too easily when you adjust the speaker’s position or location, and it collects dust and animal hair.

The invisible touch controls are simple enough once you learn them, and Google is smart enough to supply a sticker-based explanation. Just tap the top to play or pause. Or slide your finger across its length to adjust the volume. Aside from that, the only button is an visible on/off switch for the Google Assistant’s microphone.

The rubber mat, the power cord, and the back panel where you will find a USB-C port, line-in, and the power cord plug are a curious green-gray color. I don’t understand why they’re not just white or gray, and I find the color to be vaguely off, like when white electronics yellow over time.

As a gigantic Google Home, Google Home Max is the best Google Assistant appliance yet. The assistant’s voice is clear and loud, and sounds better than on other devices. And Google Home Max does a great job of hearing you when you speak to it, even if the music is cranking and you are 6 or 10 feet away. In fact, trying to fake it out became a bit of a game at once point. It works really well.

Sadly, I had tons of reliability issues with Google Home Max, and that may be the final nail in the coffin on the buy/don’t buy matrix. It would drop playback randomly, not connect correctly, and one time I had to set it up again as if it were a new device because it wouldn’t show up in the list of available speakers. Chromecast isn’t as reliable as Sonos overall, I’d say, but this was my worst experience yet.

Hopefully, Google will pad out its smart speaker lineup with more speaker sizes: Sonos offers three at different sizes and price points, and Google Home Max only lines up against the biggest and most expensive. Maybe we’ll have more choices, and better sound quality, in a coming second generation.

On that note, my advice is to skip the Google Home Max and go the Chromecast Audio/bookshelf speaker route, adding a Google Home or Google Home Mini if you need the assistant too. Yes, it’s a bit messier, with more cables and wires, but it’s also much cheaper and sounds better too. Ultimately, Google Home Max just doesn’t live up to quality of its Sonos inspiration.

 

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Comments (19)

19 responses to “Google Home Max Review: The McMansion of Smart Speakers”

  1. ruusterc

    Ya i gotta say after owning a songs play one I’m actually quite interested in this speaker or the apple homepod because the sonos speaker is a let down there’s no line in there’s no chrome cast or airplay airplay is coming but there taking too long I’m very disappointed I find my self using my google home and my echo as a speaker more then I do my sonos

  2. flipside

    If your UK based and want to do a chomecast audio/bookshelf speaker combo I can reccommed the Tibo Plus 2 speakers as not only are they active but have a built in USB port and have an option for Auto on when a source start playing


    https://www.richersounds.com/tibo-plus-2.html

  3. Emmanuel Rannaud

    Chromecast Audio/bookshelf speaker is most cost effective solution unless your life revolves around AI assistant, which I would argue the extreme majority of users don't care.


  4. RonH

    I have a pair of BOSE 151SE speakers.

    Anyone know if they would work with Google Chromecast Audio?

  5. Vladimir Carli

    In reply to louiem3:

    I invested so much in multiple sonos speakers and I’m often having second thoughts about it. Reading your message was refreshing :-) The only real thing missing with them is integration with the google assistant. I love playing music with voice controls and that still doesn’t work, unless on play 5s with Chromecast. Let’s hope it comes soon. I really hope that you are right and sonos will continue to get supported for years.

    V.

  6. Stooks

    The MacDaddy of information collecting. Coupled with your Google Pixel and your Google WiFi Router they have bled you dry.


    You have sold your soul to Google. Good luck with that.


    I would ONLY trust Apple, once they Home Pod rolls out or simply bluetooth from a phone to a Sonos. Microsoft is a NON player in this game and Amazon is getting to be as bad as Google.

  7. martinp17

    I'm very happy with my Riva Arena which also has linein and BT, but I can't broadcast such input across multiple speakers. Can Google Max do that?

  8. Str8rydder

    Paul, perhaps you should look at the LIBRATONE ZIPP, made by a Danish company, that's if you haven't already. It appears to address many of the issues you raised. Disclaimer: I have only one LIbratone ZIPP so what I write about multispeaker setup is based on what Libratone promises and what I have read online.


    Firstly, the sound is good! It’s cylindrical and gives 360 degree sound. In my humble opinion, it is better than most other wireless/Bluetooth speakers. It’s not on the same level as my ‘traditional’ speaker’ set up, (Onkyo AV Receiver, Mordaunt Short speakers and a Dali Ikon Center Speaker). Would be tough for any current wireless speaker to beat that.


    Connectivity: BT; Wireless; AirPlay 2, DNLA; 3.5mm Line in; USB Flash Drive; USB (iOS only – like an iOS dock). It will even charge any phone. When I switch from Wireless to USB play the switch is nearly seamless. I have not experienced any reliability issues; so far, so good.The major miss here is Chromecast, but if you connect your Chromecast directly to the ZIPP (3.5mm Line in) you have a (less than ideal) solution.


    Controls: The ‘coin’ at the top of the ZIPP makes it really easy to control many things like play, pause, skip forward/backward, and much more. The App (iOS and Android) is very easy to use and you can modify things like Voicing (equalizer settings).


    Audio/Streaming Sources (Many): Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Internet Radio, Audile.com, etc. Basically, in almost all cases, if an app can play the sound then you can play it through/to the ZIPP. Some of these are directly through the ZIPP. Also, to stream music to the ZIPP you don’t need to do it through the Libratone app.


    Multispeaker and Stereo Speaker Setup: Yes, you can get your two-speaker stereo setup. Libratone says you can pair up to 16 speakers using SoundSpaces, with up to 6 speakers per group.


    Personal Assistants: All I can say is that Libratone is playing catch up here and not yet integrated with Siri, Alexa, or Google. If you’re an Alexa fan or user then its integration is happening, and at the moment you should be able to use the ZIPP with the Echo, at least from December 14th 2017. Libratone says ‘full integration’ is coming in 2018 for already released speakers like the ZIPP. I guess newer Libratone speakers will have fuller integration built in from day one. Personally, I’m, content this way as I worry about the privacy issues with the always-on assistants. Maybe I’ll change my mind someday, but till then…..


    Some other small touches: speakerphone with noise isolating microphone so you can use it for calls; 10hrs stated battery life, which in my experience is about right. And it looks good. I have the Victory Red one, but you can get them in many different colors like Deep Lagoon, Sangria, Nordic Black, etc, and change the cover for a small price ($29).


    I also used Sonos in the past, really liked it but gone away from it due to many of the issues already mentioned in some of the comments.

  9. ozaz

    I've also recently been trying out chromecast devices to decide whether or not to stick with Sonos. I've decided to stick with Sonos. Key factors for me:


    1. I like that with Sonos I can play different music on different speakers around the home from a single music service (e.g. Google Play Music). I can't seem to do this using Chromecast. Or am I missing something?


    2. In my experience, the reliability of Sonos has been rock solid. This has not been my experience with Chromecast. This may be down to imperfect wifi conditions in my home which may go away if I invest in a new router, but the fact that Sonos can function immaculately in such an environment is impressive. This is likely due to its dedicated mesh wifi network.


    3. Sonos will soon support both Alexa and Google Assistant meaning I won't have to decide on whether to go down the Google or Amazon hardware route.


    Limitations of Sonos like higher price and absence of a couple of audio services I'd ideally like to have (one of which is Audible) are not deal breakers for me given the above benefits. I also personally consider their model of having a central controller app to be a plus. 

    • RichB

      I dodge all of these issues and queries with a few Echo Dots and some decent speakers around the home. Alexa is happy to handle multiroom streaming (I avoided Spotify when Groove went belly-up and went for Amazon Music on the grounds that it ain't going anywhere whereas Spotify bleeds money and will go broke eventually), the sound is as good as the speakers (which are good and MUCH cheaper than Sonos).


      Want different songs in different rooms? No problem. Also want to manage the lights, power switches, curtains while you're about it? No problem. And separate speakers are hard to lock-in.



  10. Paul Thurrott

    In reply to louiem3:

    This is great feedback, and appreciated.


    I was aware that Audible was coming back eventually. That doesn't help today, of course.


    But there is a phenomenon I've certainly experienced in the past with other tech products where you want this thing, but it's too expensive or whatever. And you spend a lot of time and money trying to duplicate what you want with something else. Something that is not the thing you really want.


    That said, Chromecast really does work well and it much less expensive than Sonos and can sound as good or better depending on the speakers you choose. I feel like this is great solution for a lot of people.


    Anyway. Thanks!

  11. Michael Rivers

    You can't beat a pair of speakers, even inexpensive ones. One box with speakers can't get very good stereo separation given the laws of physics.

  12. wolters

    Hey Paul. Great review. I have the Max myself and I have to say the sound quality is quite good and I've not had the connection issues that you've encountered. It has been rock solid since day one. Glad it has capped off my migration from Echo to Google home.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to wolters:

      I feel like there are hundreds of ways to get from point A to point B here. Google Home Max is one, for sure. But a Google Home Mini + a Chromecast and some speakers is another way. Which you choose depends on your needs/wants, your home/apartment, how much you want to spend, etc.

  13. cornholio

    thanks for the review and the heads up on sound vs your bookshelf speaker solution. I was still considering one of these (even though the free year GPM is not available for current subscribers), but I think I'll save the cash and check out the Edifiers.

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