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February 2018

smart-speakers
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Google Home Max. The Smart Speaker You’re going to Love.

Smart speakers are beginning to hit the shelves Are they worth the buy or is this just another way for google to infiltrate your home.

With offerings by the likes of Amazon, Apple, Sonos, and Microsoft. Smart Speakers are combing your home speaker with an added voice assistant.

The $399 Price tag if Google Home Max Might be a bit of a shocker, but it does seem to be the best option for someone looking in this space. The device it self is a solid 12 pounds, is a similar size to the PLAY:5 device from Sonos.

Inside you’ll find four drivers, two 4.5-inch long-throw woofers and two 0.7-inch tweeters six Class-D amplifiers, and six far-field microphones. Outside there’s a switch to mute the microphones, a USB-C port, and a 3.5mm jack to connect the speaker to an AUX or external audio source.

The components are wrapped in a plastic shell available in two colors: “Chalk” or “Charcoal.” Or, in layman’s terms: dark grey or white. Its shell doesn’t feel high-end like speakers encased in wood, nor does it offer the aesthetic value, but Max doesn’t feel cheap, either. We’ll consider the aesthetic value a neutral; it’s not visually offensive, but it’s styling doesn’t convey the $399 price tag, either.

As for control options, there’s a touch strip on top that offers the ability to turn volume up or down by swiping right or left. Or, you can tap the center to pause or play. Tap works as intended, but the volume control swipe is finicky and not-at-all reliable. Luckily there’s a mobile app that offers fine-grain controls for everything else, including bass and treble — which I didn’t find myself adjusting all that much.

With a pricey speaker though, it’s all about sound. Google excels here. It’s not Sonos, but it’s closer than you might think. Vocals are clear, if a bit sharp at times, and low frequencies are as punchy as you’d expect in a speaker this size. The low end occasionally drifts out of control but overall performs admirably and compares favorably to most speakers in this price range.

As single enclosure, Home Max does have stereo capabilities — it has two woofers and two tweeters, remember — when positioned horizontally. When you stand it upright, sound switches to mono, allowing you to connect a second speaker for “real” stereo sound. While capable of stereo, the soundstage isn’t really there in the horizontal orientation, and I didn’t get a chance to try two units in a traditional stereo configuration.

It’s clear enough to separate individual instruments, but doesn’t really offer the opportunity to place them, mentally, on a stage in front of you. Some tracks feature excellent spacing and clear representations of the soundstage. But more often than not, they don’t. It’s really hit or miss.

Max still sounds great. But given the close proximity of the internal speakers, just inches apart, this is a problem Google is going to have to AI its way out of.

Volume-wise, it’s impressive. In a small space, Max gets far louder than I’m comfortable listening to. In larger rooms, it offers vibrant, rich, room-filling sound assuming it’s orientated in your direction; it’s not omni-directional, like Echo.

Home Max features a smart tuning mechanism called “Smart Sound” that calibrates the speaker for the size of the room it’s in. It’s a bit like Sonos’ ‘TruePlay’ but without the frenetic waving of an iOS device to calibrate the sound (TruePlay also doesn’t work with Android devices). Unlike Sonos, there’s no need to re calibrate; move it, and Max automatically adjusts the sound.

It’s unclear how beneficial this is, as there’s no option to turn the feature off. To me, it seemingly sounds the same in every room I put it in. So if that was the goal, mission accomplished.

Perhaps the biggest draw of Home Max is the always excellent Google Assistant. The six far-field microphones do an excellent job of picking up voices, even from distances of 20-ish feet or so. Even with loud music, I can typically trigger the assistant to adjust volume, skip tracks, pause, and interrupt whatever I’m listening to in order to ask a question.

My favorite feature though might be Voice Match. Once set up, Google Assistant will deliver differing commute times, calendar entries, and daily briefings depending on who’s doing the asking. It works exceptionally well at discerning who’s asking the questions and delivering the appropriate results.

On the connectivity front, Max works with any service that supports Google’s Cast protocol. Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, and others work without issue. Apple Music does not. You can, however, stream music over Bluetooth, or plug in your device using a 3.5mm jack — if yours still has one.

For the money, Home Max is easily best in class. It doesn’t sound quite as good as the Sonos One (but it’s close, real close); and it’s not as small as Apple’s HomePod; but when measuring features against price it’s still the superior option.

Options, though, are plentiful.

HomePod might be the best choice for an all Apple ecosystem. Or Audiophiles that care less about a great smart assistant and dazzling AI might favor Sonos. And those just looking to break into the smart speaker game would be over the moon with a $100 Echo.