It’s been seven months since Google first unveiled its premium Home Max smart speaker during an October 2017 keynote, much to the interest of tech enthusiasts in the audience.
The product announcement was the latest in a growing market for smart speakers which has an emphasis on high-quality and louder capabilities. Apple Inc. had just announced its HomePod four months earlier, meanwhile other smart speaker competitors such as Sonos and Amazon.com Inc. were doubling down on higher quality audio models.
After releasing Google Home Max in the U.S. back in December, the company has now made the product available in Canada on Wednesday for $499 and in two colours — Chalk and Charcoal. While the new smart speaker is bigger and better than its smaller siblings, not everyone may find the $320 jump in price worth it just yet.
Quality and features
Google Home Max has two large 4.5-inch woofers and two 0.7-inch tweeters, giving a total size of 13.2 x 7.4 x 6 inches. Compare this to the 5.6 x 3.8 inches of Google Home or 3.9 x 1.7 inches of the Home Mini and it’s obvious that the Home Max is rather massive.
A bigger size does seem to mean a bigger sound though. After testing the Google Home Max in a large room filled with objects and being impressed with the results, we tested it more thoroughly in a smaller one-bedroom condo where it sounded equally as good (sorry, neighbours).
“It’s a premium speaker and the hardware is built for premium sound,” said Raunaq Shah, a senior product manager at Google, during an interview. “On the woofers, the level of excursion (22mm) is actually very large for a speaker of this size. That really allows to give the listener a wide range of bass and clarity.”
Compared to its smaller siblings, the Home Max has a wider range of sound thanks to those woofers and tweeters. Bass and kickdrums pack a punch, plus you can hear the detail in things such as acoustic guitars, orchestras and vocalists. Everything sounds nice and crisp, as you’d hope from a speaker with a $499 price tag.
The quality and crispness largely stays intact as you turn up the volume, however as you get closer to the maximum levels some detail can be lost if you’re too close to the speaker. The audio’s crispness seems to hold together tighter if you correlate an increase in volume with your distance from the speaker.
Features wise, the Google Home Max has a lot of the same as the Home and Home Mini. Google Assistant is obviously built in and a main attraction, plus there is hands-free calling, music streaming, Chromecast casting and it can connect through both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Unique to the Home Max is an auxiliary port to plug in other devices, such as a vinyl record player.
Home Max also uniquely has what Google calls Smart Sound, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically tune the smart speaker to the room and its furniture, walls or people. If you move the speaker around or to a different room completely, Smart Sound will automatically adapt for the best audio quality.
“If you’re getting that kind of bass response you’re normally going to create a lot of distortion if it is placed close to a wall, especially for a speaker the size of Home Max, and that can actually double or triple the amount of bass response to create a muddy sound,” Shah said.
“The machine learning algorithms we put into play here use device’s microphone and speaker to model the acoustics of the home to measure the distance between rooms and apply the corrective influence… You don’t have to think about where you have to place it or which room to place it.”
Based on the week of testing our review unit, Smart Sound seems to work well whether the product is propped up against a wall or near lots of objects.
The Home Max also comes with a rubber-like magnetic base that can be stuck to its bottom or side for both vertical and horizontal standing. This base means the unit won’t damage wooden surfaces due to vibrations while playing music as some of the competitors seem to do, according to various tech blogs.
“No one is thinking about whether I have to place this speaker on a particular type of wood or shelf, people just place their speaker where there is space,” Shah said. “We don’t want people to go off and re-do their house to have awesome sound.”
The Home Max’s polycarbonate and sealed enclosure will also prevent as much vibration from the frame as possible and give a “true representation” of the music behind it, Shah added.
Finally, another feature unique to Home Max in the Home family at the moment is the ability to pair two of them for stereo sound — including left and right channel separation. This is different from the usual multi-room pairing other Google Home or Chromecast devices already have which just play the same thing at the same time.
Google announced its first Home smart speaker in May 2016, about a year and a half after Amazon’s Echo had its initial limited release in the U.S. While the idea of regular smart speakers have been around for years now, it wasn’t until last year that the idea of a premium, higher-priced smart speaker really started gaining momentum.
Because of its emphasis on high quality audio, the Google Home Max’s most direct competitors are often considered Apple’s HomePod and Sonos’ One or Play:5.
Apple’s HomePod still isn’t available in Canada yet, which means Google has beat a competitor to the country with a smart speaker product again. Google has been aggressive with its Home strategy in Canada after coming north of the border in June 2017, prior to Amazon’s Echo in November. Google Assistant is still the only smart speaker assistant available in French.
The HomePod had an initial delay in the U.S. and still doesn’t have a Canadian launch date, so for this review there could be no direct comparison. However, tech blogs in the U.S. have often positioned the Home Max and HomePod with similar sound.
Meanwhile, Sonos has been available in Canada for some time and its One smart speaker even has Amazon’s Alexa built in. It is smaller and cheaper at just $249, but sounds surprisingly crisp when compared to others in the price range.
The Home Max definitely sounds more clear and full than the Sonos One if you only have one of each, but that should be expected for the price. If you purchase a second Sonos One, bringing the total up to the Home Max’s price tag, you can pair them for stereo sound like with Google Home Max and the lines are more blurred. Two independent Sonos One smart speakers acting with left and right audio channels make for a compelling argument at the same price as a Home Max.
If you’re just looking at just the one smart speaker comparison though then the Google Home Max takes the prize — at least until we re-evaluate once Apple’s HomePod comes to the country.
Ultimately, choosing the right smart speaker for you comes down to your budget and smart assistant preference. Other inexpensive Google Home models are still solid and have a persuasive price, meanwhile those wanting Alexa as an assistant may side with the Sonos One due to its sound quality (it will also be getting Google Assistant later on).
That said, it’s hard to argue that the Google Home Max sounds fantastic once you give it a listen. The audio is rich and crisp thanks to its larger woofers and tweeters, clearly giving it a wider range of sound compared to other standalone smart speakers in Canada at the moment. Music enthusiasts in particular will enjoy the Home Max, as it fills the room with great sound.
Is the Home Max worth the $320 price increase over its regular Home sibling for some people? No, probably not. The Home Max is clearly geared towards those who want a premium, high-quality speaker with a smart assistant built right into it. Otherwise, the more inexpensive alternatives will likely suffice for those who just want to get their feet wet in the space.