Google Home Max review: Capable but costly
The Google Home Max lives up to its name in many ways. As anyone who has ever been seduced by zero-calorie caffeine hit of a Pepsi Max should know that the word “max” at the end of a product is more a guarantee of brand budget than quality. All the same, in the Google Home Max’s case, both are true: this is, on balance, the best smart speaker you can buy today, eclipsing both Amazon’s best Echo and Apple’s HomePod.
That quality means that Google felt fit to slap a £399 price tag on it – and without even throwing in the free YouTube Red subscription that American buyers got. To put that into perspective, the same money would buy you a HomePod with £81 change, or four and a half Amazon Echos. You could even buy eight Echo Dots in black and white, and play a very limited game of Draughts with them if you really wanted.
The point is this is pricey, so does it justify the outlay? It does not. It’s good, but not that good.
Google Home Max review: Design
While the Google Home and Home Mini did their best to hide in plain sight, the Home Max is very hard to miss. It looks like the kind of bulky stereo speaker you’d find attached to a Hi-Fi at any point in the last 30 years – albeit with a couple of modern tweaks. There is no clunky volume dial or easily losable remote, for example: just slide your finger along the top, and the volume will follow, illustrated by coloured lights under the fabric which also respond to voice. Similarly, a tap will play and pause music, if you don’t want to use your voice.
I say ‘the top’, but that’s not quite as simple a description as it sounds. When I say the top, I mean the long edge, but Google lets you place the speaker lengthways or standing upright depending on your space requirements or aesthetic preference. Whichever way you stand it, Google provides a magnetic rubber pad in the box which sticks to the base and offers your surfaces a little preference against vibrations. Given the trouble Apple got into with the HomePod leaving marks on wood, this was probably a sensible move, although it’d undoubtedly fiddly if you’re prone to moving your speaker around the room.
The good news is that you probably won’t be doing that too often. This isn’t designed to be portable – there’s no battery, and it’s not waterproof so it would be purely ornamental in the park. It is, however, clearly solid and well made. Give it a tap, and it sounds tight and resonance-free, and pick it up and you’ll find it a weighty 5.3kg – about the same as an average adult, male cat – albeit less prone to moulting.
Hidden away from view are a variety of connections: a figure-of-eight mains port, the 3.5mm headphone jack missing on the Google Home Mini (though designed for input rather than output) and a USB Type-C socket. Confusingly, the latter of these is not intended as an audio source, but for an Ethernet adapter for those having WiFi problems. Despite the high price, Google hasn’t seen fit to include one in the box, so you’ll have to source one on your own.
Google Home Max: Performance
Before getting to the sound quality, it’s worth saying a few words about Google Assistant, because for my money it’s head and shoulders above rival offerings from Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. I have found it not only better at understanding phrases, but actually being able to deal with them when asked. Case in point, when I was testing Google Home and an Amazon Echo last year, I asked: “How many hairs are on a cat?” Google’s answer was “On the website catsinfo.com they say there are approximately 60,000 hairs per square inch on the back of a cat, and approximately 100,000 per square inch on its underside.” Alexa’s answer was considerably more dopey, yet more certain: “A cat has 60,000 hairs.”
That’s only one example, but it’s quite revealing. Both virtual assistants consulted the same source by the looks of it, but Alexa didn’t understand context enough to realise that this answer wasn’t just wrong, but completely off.
So the Google Home Max is smart. Good. That, as the name ‘smart speaker’ suggests, is a pretty important quality. But how about the second half – how is it as a speaker?
Loud. Very loud. In fact, Google boasts that the Max version is some 20 times louder than the original Home speaker. Most people won’t need this kind of volume, but for those that do, you can rest assured that the speaker can handle a house party without distorting the sound quality.
So it can project well, but is it projecting the right tones? Broadly, yes. Behind the grille is a pair of 4.5in high-excursion woofers backed by a pair of tweeters. They offer lovely deep bass and a rich low-mid range. It sounds great – until it gets to the higher frequencies. Live tracks, for example, feel like they lack a little atmosphere.
It’s also not as hot as the HomePod when projecting a wide range, offering quite a narrow field of sound no matter whether you have it lying flat or stood upright. Yes, that can be fixed by adding a second Google Home Max for full surround sound, but that assumes you view “buying another one” as a viable solution to a minor flaw. Most people wouldn’t when you’re already looking at a £399 outlay for one.
Google Home Max: Verdict
That approach has drawbacks – it still blows my mind that Google didn’t think to include a 3.5mm headphone jack on the Mini, meaning that it can’t improve on the Max in every way – but it’s still possibly a better answer than this.
The Google Home Max is the best all-round smart speaker package you can buy thanks to its sound quality and smarts. But all that really proves is that the race for a top-end smart speaker worth the big bucks is still wide open.