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 17 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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