Blind Bargains

Bigger Than A Bread Box, Louder Than A Boombox, The Google Home Max Is The Smart Speaker For Your Bookshelf


Over the years I've joked with J.J. about him owning Google's first attempt at a music device with his Google i/o schwag bag Nexus Q collector's item. The unit was round like a Google Home Mini,dedicated to streaming playback and a mixture of touch controls that can be assisted by a smartphone for added functionality. Yes, the Nexus Q could be seen as the distant relative that doesn't get invited to family gatherings anymore during the holidays in Mountain View. Google's third entry in the Home series of smart speakers is positioned more as a Sonos killer than an Amazon rival.

The Max can be used by itself or combined with another to form a pair just like the Sonos Play:5.
However, the Max slides in $100 cheaper per unit while offering six far-field microphones for smart room audio and more importantly for hearing your voice clearly for use with Google home services. And unlike the Max's cousins, music is at the heart of the system rather than audio taking a backseat to the Google assistant. The Play-5 and the Max both offer stereo playback from a single speaker if you don't happen to have a cool $800 to $1,000 to drop on a pair at the time of initial purchase. The advantage to having a second speaker is a wider stereo soundstage. yet that kind of defeats the purpose of either choice being a simple stereo bookshelf option at a midrange price.

Setup:

Unboxing the Max won't take very long. The unit resides in a box surrounded by an outer sleeve similar to that found with the original Google home. Once the sleeve is removed, the speaker sits atop a form-fitting cardboard dais. lifting the 12-pound bulk of the speaker may require an extra set of hands if you have any secondary physical disabilities, as the Max has some serious heft to it. Lying under the speaker is a small rubber circular pad that attaches to the Max via magnets. the pad can affix itself to the horizontal or vertical position of the speaker and it is used to minimize vibration noise. next, you will find a few little slips of paper that serve as the manual and a reminder for you to download the Google Home app for your specific mobile device and the power cord. Be aware that the power cord has a really thin plastic guard on the outlet prongs and I totally missed this little devil when first attempting to plug in my unit.

If you face the max, in its horizontal position, you will find a direct-firing speaker that would easily fit on a solid window sill or a sturdy bookshelf. Just don't set it on a mantlepiece as the reviewer at The Verge indicates this is a bad idea.
The Home Max has two of the three colors from the Home Mini line available. Charcoal and Chalk, black and white in non-marketing speak, can be chosen with Coral, (an orangish pinkish color), being exclusive to the Home mini. My Charcoal Max looks like an abandoned center speaker missing from a 5.1 home theater system actually. The front of the speaker has a rounded face with a more square design on the sides. That might sound like an odd choice for a design. However, the speaker is meant to blend into the room in either a horizontal or vertical position. Therefore, you couldn t easily have rounded sides because the speaker would not have a balanced perch without the use of a speaker stand.

The front grill contains the classic Google Home indicator lights and it has a cloth material covering the woofer and tweeter housing. A touch-sensitive strip resides at the top of the unit that responds to swipes and taps. You can raise and lower the volume from this strip. Tapping in the center of the strip will pause playback of any media. I found that I m not near the Max enough to take advantage of this feature very often as I d rather rely on the Google Assistant for any volume changes needed.

The rear of the device has a line in jack and a switch for turning off the microphones. A USB-C port can be used to charge a compatible device, however it is really there for use with a separately purchased USB-C To Ethernet adaptor for wired connection streaming. The power cord is form-fitting into the back of the unit with just a standard plug for the connection to the outlet. That means you won t have to connect a power brick into the wall as the Max contains those components within itself instead. So the Max is outlet friendly, but it might have increased the dead weight of the speaker in order to migrate the brick from the wall to the Max.

From an accessibility standpoint, the Google Home Max shares the same level of access offered by the other Google Home products. One must download the Google Home app from the Apple App Store or from Google Play. Setup is easy and spoken by Voiceover and Talkback equally. I wish, as I stated during my installation of the Google Home Mini, that the visual progress bars would be speech friendly. But that is me being nitpicky as that really doesn't impact the setup process greatly. It s a nice-to-have not a must-have. All the important items, such as setting up a Google account if you do not have one and voice training your speaker, work fine. The process is even streamlined quite a bit if you already have a Google Home on your network. The addition of a small equalizer, under the specific settings page for the Max, also reads well. more on that in a moment.

Playback

Google spent a lot of time trying to find a material that looks attractive and allows for great sound. The Max does exhibit the fashion sense, and quality, you would expect for the price of admission. Outer portions of the max have a slick and solid quality to them with a gentle draw into the cloth-covered grill. I found the cloth nice to the touch and I generally had no real issues with density or feel. The cloth cover cannot be removed, unlike the bases for the original Google Home, so you won't be doing any "on-the-fly decor modifications. I was enamored with the inclusion of the external pad for use with the Max as such items are usually sold as an accessory for home audio enthusiasts. You won t see it once the Max is placed on top of the brighter-colored pad due to the size of the speaker itself . There aren t any indents or markers to indicate where to best place this thing. Nevertheless, I had fun moving it about and experimenting in various places within my test room to see what configuration worked best for each playback location. Playing audio without the pad is not advisable as it really does counter cabinet noise. There isn't a way to mount the speaker and trying to do so would require some heavy duty brackets or stands. Plus, you would have to find a solution that would accommodate the external pad.

For all the max s weight, the unit has a good balance to it and it will fit easily on a kitchen table, an outside deck or a stout entertainment center. The speaker does well at low volumes, but even so, it might just be way too much for a bedroom or small living room setting. I also found that placement worked better in a larger open room for music playback. A long rectangular room is where the unit ended up as I found the direct line of sound worked best out of all the rooms in our house. My personal preference was to leave the Max in a free-standing horizontal position atop a wide window sill facing longways down the rectangular room.

The max is definitely loud, I mean really loud for an office, a bedroom or family room. A carpeted room is where I placed the unit in order to best showcase the audio from various sources. What I noticed about the sound field is that it is very distinct and you can identify a specific sweet spot after a while. With that said, I'm not sure I would want to place the max in a room with several highly reflective surface areas if I were leaning towards greater stereo enjoyment. Larger kitchens and cavernous living rooms with high vaulted ceilings might pose some problems with the max's Smart Sound sensors. Not to mention that hearing any stereo effects might be an audio challenge for some listeners. Arguably with those types of rooms you might be opting for power over stereo performance. And it that is the case, there are much cheaper options out there than the max. You could always move the speaker around your home, however the dead weight of the max may prove to be too cumbersome for some.

I mentioned Smart Sound a moment ago. The max analyzes your room and then it will adjust the output of the speaker according to what it determines is best for your surroundings. There isn't any way to directly turn this off or modify the way the Max goes about this sound shaping, although you do have the ability to control two sliders within the Google Home app, one for base and the other for treble. That's it. Finding and adjusting them immediately, from their pretty bland default settings of 50% for each, is strongly encouraged after you find the ideal spot for the smart speaker. My carpeted test room seemed to work well with base at 75 and a treble level of 58 for most of the music played during my initial time after the unit s setup.

Wireless streaming of Rock, jazz and classical tracks sounded pure with little coloring of the tracks being played. The problem arises, and this is key, when the source audio is less than pristine. A source s quality can really impact the max's sound. The higher the bit rate of a recording, the less I was distracted by any audio annoyances. In other words, 64k streams just sound awful and it isn't the Max's fault. The unit was designed to pump out good sound and putting low fi recordings into it is kind of an unintended insult. Raising the volume levels, which the max can do by voice control or by swiping the touch strip, can only make bad audio sound worse. So it is a good thing that the max comes with a 12 month Google Play subscription with first activation of the service. Play Music is my default provider and the max works as seamless with Play as my other Google products. In fact, I'd say that the max has a newer processor on board as most interactions seemed faster in response times from voice command to execution when jumping from multiple Chromecast-enabled services like Tune In or YouTube. Likewise, search responses from the assistant appear to return quicker as well. This speed boost isn't drastic though and I only notice it because I can directly compare it to my Home mini and my original launch edition Google Home.

Ambient music sounded great at volume level 2, and techno fills a room pretty well at volume level 6. At the equalizer settings mentioned above, kick drums have some significant kick to them on rock tracks at level 8. Beyond that and you may find the neighbors might begin to judge your musical tastes. I did note that level 8 kept me from hearing outside noise. And if someone uses the new intercom-like Broadcast feature, when you least expect it, the break in the jam session can be heard at that same level. The max still responded to voice commands at level 8 without me having to yell at the thing, which impressed me to no end. I had to repeat my command every now and then, but no more than the amount of times I would have to do so with my ChromeCast Audio with a Bose bookshelf system sitting near my first generation Google Home unit at similar volumes and the same music tracks in the same test room.

Both male and Female Google Assistant voices sound fantastic. General audio playback will duck down by default to allow you to hear the assistant s responses to various voice inquiries. All the other previous Google Home functionality is the same as other devices in the line. The major difference here is that everything just sounds a whole lot better than the audio that comes out of an original Home or the mini.

I should mention though that my very first impression of the Max was not positive, moments after I unboxed the device. I found that the Smart Sound functionality takes a little bit of time to adjust to your room. unplugging it and moving it about probably did not do the max any favors too because I was having to let the speaker recalibrate every time I did a power cycle. Letting the unit self-adjust, and modifying those limited equalizer sliders, is what helped me to warm up to the max s approach to audio.

Then, as mentioned above, I experienced my own ripped music collection that I have uploaded to my Google Play Music library. The lower the sample rate of my ripped music, the more I found that I needed to skip the track being played. Early MP3s I had from 10 years ago at 128k really exhibited compression artifacts and I found myself moving back to more modern music services as a result. I also noticed that the sound separation between channels became a bit more squeezed depending on the encoding. Again, this isn't the max's fault per se, although it is worth mentioning if you have plans to use the line in to stream music from an old iPod or low end turntable.

Conversely, the more I placed distance between me and the max, the more I tended to find a wider stereo field on music like symphonic movie scores and the recently released Beatles remasters. I imagine that a second max would really increase the depth of field. Except,, at that point I would really have to consider a good pair of Bose bookshelf style speakers and a true audio receiver if music playback mattered more than an all-in-one system with the Google Assistant. Choosing this path would defeat the smaller footprint of the max, or in this case max plural, with a price point pretty much on even footing with either example if we consider a low end stereo only system with few inputs and a pair of musically endowed stereo speakers.
And here is where I wrestled most with defining the max and its place within my own Home ecosystem. prior to the max, my office audio setup consisted of a Chromecast Audio paired with an older Bose all in one SoundDock stereo system. I used my original Google Home first generation to add voice control to this setup. The max combines all of that into one big 12-pound box. So for me, and the fact that I live in the Google universe no matter what device I use, this works out great and lets me retire my former audio setup. Having said that, I'd still want a more traditional method of listening to music critically, as the current limitations and control of audio playback with the Max at launch is not ideal for that purpose. Also, either by design or by the restrictions of the tweeters and woofers within the max, audio tends to fire high tones at the top of the listening area with bass emanating more from the center surface section of the device when it is in the horizontal position. Because of this, you may find yourself wanting to move the speaker above or below your head in order to gain a higher or lower diffused sound. This issue becomes even more complicated if you decide to leave the Max in a corner or within a thin bookshelf due to the straight lines of audio that the smart speaker can project. That is a whole lot of caveats I know, and it is a whole lot of my audio snobbery showing, but if you aren't looking for a reference ready playback device, just one that pumps out a hell of a lot of whatever you throw at it for the party room, the max will meet those demands easily

Conclusions

Google Home Max does excel at being a loud and powerful speaker with a built-in Google Assistant, and if I judge it by that mark, the Max is the best sounding first-party smart speaker on the market at the time of this writing. Max offers superior sound to the Google Home Mini and the original air freshener-looking Google Home by leaps and bounds. However, if you are coming at this decision with no foot in either the Amazon or Google camps... $400 might not be the way to dive into the deep end of the voice assistant pool. Taking on a Google home Mini, or amazon Dot, might be a better option for an initial venture for new users of either service until they feel more comfortable making a larger investment.

Existing Google Home users should consider a max if they are seeking better audio for various media playback. You can easily add the Max into the stable of Google Homes on your WiFi network. Multi-room audio, the new Broadcast feature and the room extension of the ability to ask your assistant questions are all benefits of having more than one Google Home available. The Max really is the option if you find yourself wishing that your Home and Home Mini sounded better, or a whole lot louder at any rate.

Where to Buy

The Google Home Max is available now from the Google Store for $399.

Review Note:

This device was obtained through a Twitter promotion from the @madebygoogle account. This promotion gave away this unit and the only money spent was the price of shipping.

Category: Articles
Displaying 1 comment.
realman Monday, 15-Jan-2018 1:02 PM ET:

Thanks for writing a very thoughtful and helpful review. This was great! I don't think I'll get it, but you gave me all the info I coujld want or need to make an informed decision!


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Joe Steinkamp is no stranger to the world of technology, having been a user of video magnification and blindness related electronic devices since 1979. Joe has worked in radio, retail management and Vocational Rehabilitation for blind and low vision individuals in Texas. He has been writing about the A.T. Industry for10 years and podcasting about it for nearly 5 years.


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