Review: Google Home Max arrives in Canada

by W. Andrew Powell
Google Home Max

Google Home Max arrived in Canada today, and I’ve been testing it for nearly a week now, and it’s hard to find many complaints with a speaker that absolutely hits all the right notes (pun intended), and delivers bass that is awe-inspiring, especially if you’re used to audio from most small speakers, computers, laptops, or televisions.

On the outside, the Google Home Max looks serene, with soft lines, and a rounded surface that helpfully hides just how big the speaker is, but the premium smart speaker absolutely fills a room with clear, delicious audio. The range is jaw-droppingly dynamic, and made me want to re-listen to some of my favorite songs all over again so I could hear what they sounded like on the premium speaker.

The Basics
Google Home Max debuts in Canada for $499 and in two colours: chalk and charcoal. You can buy it online from Google Store or from Best Buy Canada.

The speaker is simply designed, and and you can position it horizontally or vertically, depending on your preference. On the front, it has four lights that display when it’s active, and it features a touch-sensitive strip on the top, or side, depending on which way you have it positioned, to turn volume up or down, or play or pause. On the back, there’s a mic switch, to disable the microphone, power line in, a 3.5 mm audio jack, and a USB-C port.

Behind the scenes, the Home Max has Wi-Fi built in, and can also connect to devices over Bluetooth. The smart speaker also supports both Android and iOS devices.

Inside the speaker, the Max has two impressive sounding 4.5-inch woofers, and two 0.7-inch tweeters that deliver clean, dynamic audio, all housed within a case that won’t distort the music, and doesn’t shake, even when it’s turned up to the top. Yes, we tried at Google Canada’s head office in Toronto, and it was amazing how well it performed on a track with lots of bass, modulation, and distortion.

Google Home Max setup
Setting up the Google Home Max was very simple. You plug it in, orient it upright or sideways on a soft, magnetic disc that sits under the speaker, and then open the Google Home app on your device.

From there, you connect it to your preferred Wi-Fi network, and follow a few steps to setup your preferences, including which music service you want to use, and if you want to teach the device your voice so it can access your personal Google Assistant.

If you’re new to Google Home, you can also pair other smart devices to the speaker, set the device location name, and set the Google Home Max to be able to make phone calls, or change what news services you want to hear.

Using the Google Home Max
Whether you’re new to smart speakers, or a seasoned professional, the Google Home Max is very easy to get used to. Say, “Hey Google, play that song about gin and juice” and Google Max plays Snoop Dogg’s “Gin And Juice”. Or tell the Max to turn the volume up, or up 10%, or up to 7, and the volume goes up.

You can make phone calls, ask for the weather, find out facts, answer trivia questions (“Hey Google, I’m feeling lucky”), or ask for a Star Wars joke.

If you’ve paired other devices, just tell Google what you want to turn on or off, and it does it. In terms of speaking simply, I’ve tried a number of phrases, including variations on how you might ask Google the same thing, and generally it understood everything I wanted.

You can also ask Google to skip songs, jump ahead in the same song, or play something else entirely, and the Assistant is really good at finding what you want to play. You do need to give the Assistant something to go on, but when I asked her to play “that song about Cuba” she rightly guessed that I meant “Havana” by Camila Cabello. You can even try and feed it a lyric to see if it can find the right song, which works fairly well if you know any of the song.

I also tried calling my father on the Max, and the connection was really clear. To make a call you just tell Google Assistant who to call in your Google contacts, or provide a business name or phone number. My only complain with calls is that the speaker doesn’t do a lot to enhance the call audio, so it can be a little hard to hear some people, depending on how clearly they speak into their phone, how far away they are from the microphone, and how good the connection is, but generally the Google Home Max performed very well in calls.

On the simpler side of things, I’ve started using my Google Assistant to keep track of my family’s shopping list. By default, even apparently if you didn’t know you had one, Google has a shopping list feature and the Google Assistant easily adds items to the list. Just say “Hey Google, add soap to my shopping list” and you’re all set.

Also, if you love the Home Max so much that you need two, you can set up a stereo pair with two of the smart speakers for right and left channels.

Google Home Max charcoal
The Smart Features
The smartest features of the Home Max are thanks to Google’s AI, and the Google Assistant.

For one thing, you don’t need to tune the Google Home Max. Google’s built-in AI and microphones help the speaker tune itself to match your space–a feature they call Smart Sound. I moved it around my house the other day, placing it near walls, and between objects, and it always seemed to figure out how to fill the space with clear audio, with bass that was always perfect. You can adjust bass and treble at least, but I didn’t find it necessary.

If you use Google as much as I do, it’s also a big plus to have access to your own Google Calendar and reminders on the Home Max. Just ask Google to tell you about your day, and the Assistant will tell you your schedule. Or, if you need directions, you can ask the Home Max to send directions to your phone.

The Max’s microphones also work well, even reasonably so when the room may be loud or when you’re playing music. I was able to say commands from across the room, or nearby rooms if I spoke clearly and aimed my voice at the doorway.

You can also ask Max to play music from Spotify, Google Play, TuneIn, YouTube, or any music app that’s on your phone or tablet.

Or, you can simply plug the speaker in to another device using the AUX port, and Google will play that audio when there’s a signal. I would have enjoyed a little more control over how it deals with AUX audio, since I plugged the device into my older TV, but it works very well if you want a little more power for your record player, or anything that has an audio out. You’ll just need to have your own cable for that of course.

Google Home Max - Back
While the Google Home Max is a pricey speaker, it’s also absolutely one of the best large, premium speakers available in Canada today. The speaker does take up a fair bit of space, because it’s so big, which may be a concern to some, but if you want a powerful speaker, it really does it all.

The smart features are exceedingly clever and easy-to-use, and I would say the Google Assistant outperforms Amazon’s Alexa in many ways, particularly for understanding questions or requests for music. I also found it easier to pair the Home Max to other devices (although I had some issues trying to connect to my WeMo devices, but I believe that may be an issue with WeMo).

If you’re in the market for a smart speaker, and you want the best audio, there are few that can compete with the Google Home Max.

Google Home Max in Charcoal at Google Canada
Google Home Max in Charcoal at Google Canada
Google Home Max decor at Google Canada's office
Google Home Max decor at Google Canada's office

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